Inside the mind of the Shoe Bomber

9/11 was so alarming because it suggested that we were fighting the terrorist equivalent of the Special Forces. The enemy was sophisticated enough to coordinate the hi-jacking of 4 planes and take them over using only box-cutters. One man shattered that fearsome image: Richard Reid. His bungled attempt to detonate his shoes on a trans-Atlantic ...

607385_Reid_15.jpg
607385_Reid_15.jpg
Richard C. Reid, suspected of attempting to set off explosives hidden in his shoes on a Paris to Miami American Airlines flight 22 December, 2001, is shown in a 24 December 2001 handout photo from the Plymouth County Jail, in Plymouth, Massachusetts. US authorities filed charges of intimidation against Reid, 28, who faces up to 20 years in prison for both that charge and a previous one of interfering with a flight crew, prosecutor James Lang said. US Magistrate Judith Dein ordered Reid held without bail during a brief court hearing and ordered a court-appointed attorney assigned to his case. dpa

9/11 was so alarming because it suggested that we were fighting the terrorist equivalent of the Special Forces. The enemy was sophisticated enough to coordinate the hi-jacking of 4 planes and take them over using only box-cutters.

One man shattered that fearsome image: Richard Reid. His bungled attempt to detonate his shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2001 was reassuring evidence that al Qaeda terrorists were not all super-trained fighters. Indeed, there was something almost comic about the fact that Reid didn't realize he probably had a better chance of lighting his shoes on fire unmolested if he went to the bathroom to do it.  

If Reid's ineptness was reassuring, his nationality was not. Reid was British, which raises the question of what makes a British citizen aspire to nothing more than blowing himself up. A lawyer, who met with Reid in prison, attempts to shed some light on this in the Guardian today.

9/11 was so alarming because it suggested that we were fighting the terrorist equivalent of the Special Forces. The enemy was sophisticated enough to coordinate the hi-jacking of 4 planes and take them over using only box-cutters.

One man shattered that fearsome image: Richard Reid. His bungled attempt to detonate his shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight in December 2001 was reassuring evidence that al Qaeda terrorists were not all super-trained fighters. Indeed, there was something almost comic about the fact that Reid didn’t realize he probably had a better chance of lighting his shoes on fire unmolested if he went to the bathroom to do it.  

If Reid’s ineptness was reassuring, his nationality was not. Reid was British, which raises the question of what makes a British citizen aspire to nothing more than blowing himself up. A lawyer, who met with Reid in prison, attempts to shed some light on this in the Guardian today.

Reid was born to two non-Muslim parents and converted to Islam after a spell in a young offenders institute. His movement to fundamentalist Islam was catalyzed by extremist preachers in London:

Attending those mosques did not make Reid a jihadi, he claims, but it helped him along the way. He said he was already heading in that direction through his own reading, experience and thinking about the world around him. But the sermons of Hamza and others gave him a greater understanding of how to interpret his faith in a way that supported the use of violence. It also reinforced his view about the scale of US aggression and that the intent of Washington’s actions was to oppress Muslims around the world.”

The last sentence seems to be critical because once you have a prism through which to view the world, everything can be fitted into place. For example, as Oliver Kamm points out, Osama bin Laden views the granting of independence to East Timor as proof of a Western war on Islam.

So, the crucial priority must be to prevent minds being poisoned by this sort of guff. This will require a realization on our part that words have meaning. We need to accept that when Ahmadinejad talks about wiping Israel off the map or extremist preachers in London ordering Muslims to “confront [British foreign policy] by all means whether verbally, financially, politically or militarily”, they mean what they say. It is time to shed this left-wing orientalism which always attempts to rationalize these statements away.

James Forsyth is assistant editor at Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.