List of dangerous countries reflects politics as much as risk

Of the 19 terrorists who hijacked planes on Sept. 11, two were from the United Arab Emirates and one was from Egypt.

Yet when the Transportation Security Administration named 14 countries whose U.S.-bound citizens will face greater airport screening, neither the UAE nor Egypt was on the list.

Nor was Britain, one of whose citizens tried to blow up a Miami-bound jet in 2001 with explosives in his shoe.

Nor was Jordan, which produced the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA agents in Afghanistan last week.

Not surprisingly, Nigeria and some of the other countries targeted for extra scrutiny are crying foul.

Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab — the young Nigerian who tried to bomb an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas Day — didn't do anything different "from what the shoe bomber did in 2001 and yet his country was not put on the security list,'' Nigeria's minister of foreign affairs complained.

Still, it's not hard to see why Nigerians would be subject to tighter rules given that country's notorious corruption. Though airport security has improved since 9/11, "staff are still often more concerned about extracting a bribe than searching for bombs,'' the Times of London reports.

Nor does it take much imagination to see what put the other countries on the list: Saudi Arabia (home to 15 of the 9/11 hijackers); Iran, Syria and Sudan (the United States calls them state sponsors of terrorism); Lebanon (base of Hezbollah), Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen (al-Qaida strongholds); Somalia (failed state); Iraq, Algeria and Libya (radical Islamic factions).

But at the same time, it's understandable why Cuba — one of the 14 despite being a non-Muslim nation — might consider the list "politically motivated,'' as its official newspaper charged and some critics agree.

"I think the entire thing is an empty-headed political exercise and is going to be destructive in the long run,'' says James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation.

"We've been getting people worldwide to cooperate with us in aviation security by getting them to believe we're honestly working on threats," he said. "But when we do knee-jerk political things, that really undermines our credibility with other countries. It's the worst of the worst way to do security.''

Egypt and Jordan clearly have their radical elements and their share of terrorism — hotel bombings, tourist attacks, assassinations. And in what many still consider a foreshadowing of the 9/11 calamity, EgyptAir Flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic after taking off from New York in 1999, a crash attributed to the first officer's "flight control inputs,'' as the final investigation report diplomatically put it.

But the fact that Egypt and Jordan are not on the list is "not surprising,'' Carafano says. "They'd go through the roof.''

That's because both countries have pro-Western governments whose intelligence agencies work closely with the United States. It doesn't hurt that they're the only two Arab countries officially at peace with Israel, America's closest ally in the Middle East.

The UAE probably escaped a place on the list because it's another friendly Arab nation that has close business ties to the United States. Located across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, it's also a fine vantage point for CIA snooping on the Iranians.

Another country that could easily be on the watch list — but isn't — is Britain. Its Muslim population is growing steadily, thanks to waves of immigrants from what was once the British-ruled Indian subcontinent. Disaffected and poorly assimilated, second- and third-generation Pakistani Britons were involved in the 2005 London bus and subway bombings and the foiled 2006 plot to blow up trans-Atlantic jetliners.

But the United States and its mother country have such a "special relationship,'' as Winston Churchill called it, that it is politically inconceivable Britain would ever be lumped with Somalia and Yemen.

Travelers from many other countries arguably warrant extra screening, too. Indonesia has been the scene of several anti-Western, al-Qaida-linked terror attacks. In 1998, al-Qaida blew up the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which shares a porous border with Somalia.

Under the new rules, citizens of the 14 countries as well as passengers traveling through them will be subject to body searches and extra luggage checks if bound for the United States. Of course there's nothing to stop terrorists from Egypt or Jordan or any other country not on the list from altering their itineraries to bypass those 14 countries.

"The whole idea of a list is kind of ridiculous,'' Carafano says. "Commonly, we don't see threats coming out of obvious places. State sponsors of terrorism certainly don't launch terrorist attacks with return labels.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

List of dangerous countries reflects politics as much as risk 01/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 11:10pm]

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