Precise details about what motivated Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to try and blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 are unclear and likely to remain so until he is out of hospital and in court. But we should not jump to rapid conclusions about whether al-Qa'ida was behind the botched attack, nor whether the event constitutes proof of the success of Islamic terror groups in finding new recruits in terrain such as Abdulmutallab's homeland of Nigeria.
The predictable reaction so far has been the announcement of further tightening of security measures on air travellers. It is understandable that politicians and others responsible for passenger safety seek a rapid response. However, we cannot eliminate risk altogether and it is worth pausing to consider whether the benefits of ever-tightening airport security – in terms of deterring terrorists – are outweighed by the dislocation caused to global travel. After all, one of the primary aims of terrorism is to undermine society by sowing maximum fear.
The fact that the bomber was able to evade current safety restrictions shows how, regardless of security, determined terrorists will manage to circumvent even the most rigorous procedures applied in airports. The passengers this time were extremely fortunate that the explosives failed to detonate as planned. Ultimately, the key to preventing the deaths of innocent travellers is strong intelligence and rigorous screening of passengers.
The most shocking aspect of the whole case, of course, is that in November the bomber's own father reported his concerns about his son's extremist views to US officials, in spite of which Abdulmutallab was still able to board a flight to Detroit. It seems almost incredible that a warning of this kind, coming from an immediate and highly respected family member, was not enough to ensure that Abdulmutallab was barred from flights or, at the very least, carefully monitored.
Clearly, there are lessons to be learnt from this incident. But ultimately, we suspect that our collective safety as air travellers depends less on the multiplication of security checks than on improved intelligence and better co-ordination between those entrusted to guard our safety.