No one was killed in the Christmas Day terrorist attack aboard Delta/Northwest Flight 253. But that doesn't mean the al-Qaida operation failed.
On the contrary, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab beat a multibillion-dollar security system. He successfully brought explosives aboard a passenger jet bound for the United States. He even got himself a seat strategically located above a fuel tank. And he brought a new round of global publicity to the cause of anti-American jihadism.
Millions of Americans heard about what happened and were terrorized – and that, after all, is the point of terrorism.
Now, American taxpayers will spend millions of dollars for his trial, for government hearings, investigations and reviews and, most likely, for new airline security equipment and procedures. Traveling is likely to become more inconvenient than ever – hard as that may be to imagine. And does anyone really believe we are safe from the next Abdulmutallab and the one after that?
Perhaps it's time for some fresh thinking about the threat we face and how we can best respond to it.
Start with this: Right now, airport security personnel spend most of their time and energy searching for weapons – not just bombs and guns but Swiss Army knives, nail clippers, tubes of toothpaste and bottles of shampoo. What should they spend more time looking for instead? Terrorists.
It would require extraordinarily intrusive screening to spot the kind of "underwear bomb" that Abdulmutallab was wearing. But it should have been simple to recognize that he was a high-risk individual who, at the least, required more scrutiny than the average Midwestern grandmother or Dutch businessman.
After all, Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker, warned U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria that his son was under the influence of Islamic extremists. That American authorities failed to put this information to good use is shocking. Either the system is broken or those running it are incompetent.
In addition, it's been reported that Abdulmutallab paid cash for his ticket and checked no luggage. How could such stereotypical terrorist behavior not set off alarms?
Abdulmutallab fit the profile of a modern terrorist in other ways, too. For example, he is young, male and Muslim and he spent August to early December in Yemen, an al-Qaida hotbed.
I know: To many people, "profile" is a dirty word. But there is a vast difference between racial profiling – suspecting someone of wrongdoing based on the color of his skin – and identifying the characteristics and behaviors that, experience reveals, terrorists tend to have in common.
If FBI agents are looking for a serial killer, they will examine the data and come up with a profile: In the past, have most serial killers been men? Are they usually loners? Do they live in cities, suburbs or rural areas? Sure, there can be exceptions, but that doesn't make knowing the rules less useful.
The fact is al-Qaida is not an equal opportunity employer. It doesn't recruit Catholics, Jews or Hindus as suicide bombers. The reasons ought to be fairly obvious. The truth is while very few Muslims are terrorists, a very high percentage of terrorists in recent years have been Muslims who have embraced a radical reading of Islam and enlisted in organizations that are waging war against America and the West.
If we won't learn from the Christmas Day attack, we must expect other lessons later. Chances are the cost will be higher than they were in the Battle of Flight 253.