The Yemen cargo plot: no laughing matter

There’s a joke I’ve seen on Twitter along the lines of “buying printer cartridges will never be the same again” and you know what the joke-maker means.

After the “underpants” bomb attempt on Christmas Day last year, there’s a bizarrely prosaic nature to the Yemen bomb plots. Underwear and office equipment, not the “heroic” hardware of your typical “martyrdom” video (ie images of Hamas fighters with huge rocket-propelled grenade launchers).

But the threat is real and the carnage that “unconventional” bombers can wreak is obviously enormous (after all, the 9/11 bombers used only knives not sophisticated equipment).

However, we’ve been here before. After the failed Detroit bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s arrest last December there was a surge in concern about Yemen. It was the “new home” of al-Qa’ida. Now we’re hearing it’s the “new Afghanistan”.

In January I was saying on this blog platform that we needed to be careful not to stoke up an over-reaction, both in Yemen and further afield. That’s still my position. Yes, we’ve got to interdict the plots and catch the plotters (and this one looks to have been foiled through intelligence and tip-offs).

Fine. But what we musn’t do is pile excessive pressure on the Yemeni authorities. In fact, the inconvenient truth about Yemen is that it’s citing “national security” concerns as a pretext to pretty much throw human rights out of the widow. Opponents have been locked up, tortured, and tried before unfair courts. Villages the government considers to be al-Qa’ida “strongholds” have been subjected to large-scale military assaults, in some cases using missiles that have killed dozens of people, including women and children.

This has been a disastrously heavy-handed approach from the Yemenis, mirroring its draconian military response to rebels in its restive northern territory. Here I think Julian Borger is right, when he appeals for calm. He notes that overblown talk about the threat from Yemen is itself dangerous. Yemen, he says, is a “catastrophe” of a country, and we should help it, not harass it into yet more repression.

Meanwhile, I suspect we can say goodbye to the recently-mooted relaxation on airport security checks at UK airports and OK, I’ll happily take off my shoes with queue along with everyone else. But what we must guard against is a ramping up of domestic fear-mongering and the inevitable knock-on effect on human rights

Even as I write speculation is rife concerning behind-the-scenes political battles over control orders. David Cameron has supposedly said the Coalition is heading for a “fucking car crash” over them. I don’t know about that, but I do think we should stick to the basic principle that people suspected of terrorist crimes should stand trial not be confined to their houses on the basis of secret evidence.  Actually, all joking aside, no amount of plots involving Yemen, underwear or office equipment is likely to sway me from this view.

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