- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

First the government said underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was not a terrorist. Now bureaucrats say he is. Abdulmutallab’s shifting status says a lot about the politics of terrorism in the Obama administration.

It’s been almost a year since Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with a bomb hidden in his crotch. The administration’s initial reaction - as with other major acts of terror such as the Fort Hood massacre - was to minimize the threat. President Obama referred to Abdulmutallab as an “isolated extremist,” and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said there was “no indication” the attack was “part of anything larger.” When Abdulmutallab was initially arraigned in court last December, he was charged with two criminal counts related to putting a bomb on an aircraft. A grand jury indictment in January added four more counts, including attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempted murder, but there was no charge of terrorism.

There was nothing mysterious about Abdulmutallab’s means or motives that would have made it difficult to recognize his attack as an act of terrorism. He was very open about his radical Islamic beliefs, and he brought a bomb on board an aircraft with the intention of destroying it. If that’s not terrorism, nothing is.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration chose to avoid bringing terror charges - until now. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors added two charges, including conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism transcending national boundaries. Since this charge could as easily have been brought a year earlier, it is reasonable to ask what caused the change.

One important development is the Transportation Security Administration’s new crotch-inspection policy, which was a response to Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack. The controversial groping has been justified as a necessary bulwark against future terror attacks. It would be difficult for the government to sustain this line of argument if it didn’t brand the pioneer of underwear-bombing as a terrorist himself.

Abdulmutallab’s ties to foreign terror groups were known soon after the attack - and in some quarters beforehand - especially his links to al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki. After the original charges were filed against Abdulmutallab, al-Awlaki was deemed threatening enough to be placed on a targeted killing list personally authorized by Mr. Obama. This “contract” is controversial since al-Awlaki is an American citizen, and a lawsuit brought by his father and the American Civil Liberties Union over the order was dismissed by a federal district judge on Dec. 8. Bringing a terrorism charge against Abdulmutallab, whom al-Awlaki described as one of his “students,” helps reinforce the case that the al Qaeda leader is too dangerous to be left alive.

A third factor is the Justice Department’s poor performance in prosecuting Ahmed Ghailani, who was charged with 285 counts related to al Qaeda’s 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania but found guilty on only one count last month. This prosecutorial incompetence has called into question the Obama team’s centerpiece policy of bringing terrorists to trial in U.S. courts. The Justice Department needs to demonstrate it can decisively win such a trial, and since Abdulmutallab has officially been promoted to the ranks of the terrorists, he may provide the legitimizing victory the administration needs.

It would have been better if the government had acknowledged from the beginning that Abdulmutallab was a Muslim radical bent on suicide terrorism, and it’s likely the administration will still downplay or wholly ignore his jihadist motives, as it has with one of al-Awlaki’s other students, Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. At least the Obama administration finally has decided to admit a person who tried to commit an act of mass murder against innocents to make a political point is a terrorist. That’s progress, of a sort.