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Editorial

Airline security and the real world

Adopting an irrational air safety policy based on fear could hand Al Qaeda another success.

January 06, 2010

The ultimate objective of terrorism is to sow fear. In that sense, the Christmas Day plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight succeeded, even though the bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab carried in his underwear failed to explode. The near-miss understandably revived American anxieties, which then were whipped into a frenzy by President Obama's opponents. The challenge now, as the administration seeks to address the lapses that allowed Abdulmutallab to board the plane, is to do so without handing Al Qaeda another opportunity to portray the U.S. as an enemy of Islam.

Clearly the U.S. government has made strides in security since the 9/11 attacks, which is why would-be bombers have been unable to launch another large-scale attack, and why they must now resort to hiding explosives in their shoes or underwear. But Al Qaeda is adaptable; the more secure airports become, the more likely the organization and its allies will turn to subways or buses, as they have done in Europe. That is why the Obama administration must respond with flexibility and creativity of its own, and not get bogged down in reacting to the tactics of the most recent attack.

Obama is right to focus on failures of the intelligence system. U.S. officials had heard that an attack against the United States was being plotted in Yemen, possibly by a Nigerian. Abdulmutallab's father had reported his son's radicalization to U.S. officials in Nigeria, including details about his son's trips to Yemen. Abdulmutallab had even been denied a British visa renewal. Yet when he paid cash for his ticket and checked no luggage, he was nevertheless allowed to board. As Obama noted, the intelligence was in hand, but agencies failed to "connect the dots."

Obama is wrong, however, to mandate intensive screening of all passengers carrying passports from or traveling through 14 so-called countries of interest, such as Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid, after all, carried a British passport, and "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla is American. Nigeria wouldn't even have been "of interest" before Christmas, and Egypt, which has produced many violent extremists, still isn't on the list.

While it's true that most of those targeting the U.S. and Europe have been young men from Muslim countries, the vast majority of people from these countries are not violent, religious extremists. Therefore, many terrorism experts contend that such mass screening would be of marginal benefit. The risk, meanwhile, is that in treating entire nations as potential suspects, we will drive away like-minded business partners and political allies -- and hand Al Qaeda another success.

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