Examining the Psyche of the Christmas Bomber

Inspecting Abdulmutallab's online trail, commentators search for clues about future would-be terrorists

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In the wake of the terror attempt on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, pundits and politicians are searching for lessons. From debating air security policies to finger-pointing over released Guantanamo detainees' involvement in the plot, the question is simple: how did this happen, and how can it be prevented in the future? Now, as commentators peruse the biographical details of the aspiring terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, finding new material for psychoanalysis in his alleged online writings, they are beginning to announce their conclusions.

  • 'A Pathetic and Weak-Willed Manchild,' declares Spencer Ackerman, calling Abdulmutallab "the Little Lord Fauntelroy of attempted murder." But Ackerman also recognizes the need to do more than "just sneer": noting the "pro-social" recruiting method of Al-Qaeda to "prey on outcasts and invest their lives with meaning," he identifies "the challenge [as being] to figure out how to break the recruiting message that al-Qaeda sends to such youth so they can find their identities through homicidal impulses." Still, he says, "if sniveling failures like Abdulmutallab is who al-Qaeda is whittled down to attracting, then that bodes well for us."
  • 'Startlingly Banal,' announces Gawker's Azaria Jagger, looking at the postings of Farouk1986, thought to be the online personsa of Abdulmutallab. "He obsessed about the college admissions and wanted to go to Stanford, Berkeley, or CalTech--only to have his dream of an American education shattered in a most American way," by performing poorly on the SAT. Jagger, however, finds the picture strangely unsettling:
The Post's report is captivating particularly for what it lacks: an account of how this thoughtful, grade-conscious boy shown in a "sharp-looking pink polo-shirt" on his Facebook profile became the sort of man who would shove liquid explosives down the front of his pants and try to blow up an airplane hovering over a major American metropolis--or if we can fairly delineate the two at all. I wonder if the more terrifying prospect would actually be if the two are one and the same, and the face of terrorism is not just the impoverished, desperate, and unfathomably bewildered--but also the privileged, comfortable, and uncomfortably relatable.
  • Driven by God, Not Poverty  Calling the aspiring bomber "bourgeois" rather than "banal," the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan offers the following takeaway: "It sure isn't poverty that forces these loons to do what they do. It's religion."
  • A Product of Britain  Michael Goldfarb of the Global Post thinks Abdulmutallab, like previous Muslim terrorists on U.S. soil, is partly a product of his semi-British background: "The failed bomber comes from a well-to-do Anglophile family who sent him to the British International School in Togo, a kind of Eton for the children of West Africa's upper classes. From there he moved on to University College London, one of Britain's and the world's elite institutions of higher education." Goldfarb points to "the appeal of radical Islam at British universities," which are "not as apolitical as their American counterparts." Likening jihad to the "immature romanticism of revolution" also seen in "Greenpeace-style direct action against oil companies," he notes that at University College London, Abdulmutallab would have had ample opportunity to hear the "feelings of resentment that many young British Muslims already felt." The conclusion? "Abdulmutallab is not likely to be the last wannabe Jihadist to pass through London."
  • Think Worldly Taking Abdulmutallab's background together with that of 9/11 plotters and London and Madrid metro bombers, New York Daily News' Michael Sheehan comes to a sobering conclusion: "We're still defining the enemy incorrectly. Conventional wisdom is wrong. The typical operative who conducts a strategic attack in the West is not an impoverished insurgent fighter. He is college-educated, worldly and a long-term resident of the United States or Western Europe."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.