Islamic Extremism in Nigeria

The attempted bombing of a transatlantic airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day has shone an unwelcome spotlight on Nigeria and the problem of Islamic extremism within its borders. The suspected bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is a 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim from a prominent family who, it is claimed, picked up his explosives in Yemen before trying to detonate them as the plane began its descent into the United States.

Q1: Is this case a “one-off” for Nigeria?

A1: The Nigerians are certainly keen to present the attack as the work of a lone individual and in no way representative of Nigeria. There has been a careful attempt to shield Nigeria from the embarrassment caused by this “unhappy” and “easily led” young man. The bomber, the government points out, only spent 27 minutes in Nigeria, having arrived from Ghana before switching planes in Lagos in order to continue his journey on to Amsterdam and then Detroit. He was radicalized not at home but overseas, they argue, during studies in Togo, Britain, and Yemen. The domestic media has instead focused on the “heroic” actions of the suspect’s father, who put civic responsibility over family loyalty and spoke to the authorities about his son’s alarming behavior—warnings neither Nigeria nor the United States acted upon.

Q2: But should these reassurances be taken at face value?

A2: The government might not like to admit it but Islamic militancy is a problem in Nigeria. Traditionally, the Sufi-derived Islam found in Nigeria has been less receptive to the puritanical Saudi-exported Wahhabism that has gained a foothold in parts of East Africa and the Horn. But while Abdulmutallab may be an exception, he is not the first extremist to trouble the authorities. Last summer Boko Haram, a fundamentalist sect preaching an end to Western-style education and cultural influence, launched simultaneous attacks across three northern states. The uprising was put down with considerable brutality by the authorities, at the cost of more than 700 lives, many of them civilians. Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was accused of having links to al Qaeda, but we will never be able to verify those claims because he was murdered shortly after being taken into custody. However, it appears that Boko Haram was energized by domestic grievances rather than by any desire to launch an international jihad. A renewed bout of religious violence broke out in December when another radical Islamist sect, Kala Kato, clashed with a rival group and Nigerian security forces in the northern city of Bauchi. Nearly 40 people were killed. Furthermore, northern Nigeria is situated in a troubled neighborhood. It borders the unstable Sahel region, where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is known to operate.

Opinion surveys suggest extremist attitudes are a problem among a significant proportion of the Nigerian population. A poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2009 found that 43 percent of Muslims in Nigeria thought suicide bombing was justifiable. Just over half of Muslims questioned expressed “confidence” in Osama bin Laden. But extremist attitudes do not necessarily lead to extremist actions. For many Nigerians, professing support for bin Laden is little more than bravado, a fairly harmless way of thumbing their noses at the West.

Q3: How should the United States respond to this threat?

A3: It would be wise to keep the threat in perspective. Islamic militancy is a problem, but it is by no means the most serious challenge Nigeria faces. Nigeria is not Somalia, where al Qaeda–affiliated groups arguably do pose a strategic threat to U.S. interests. Moreover, U.S. interventions are unlikely to succeed. Nigeria is a proud nation and bridles at being lectured to or pushed around. Washington’s decision to place Nigeria on a list of countries where passengers flying to the United States will face tougher airport screening has caused deep anger. Nigeria intensely resents being placed in a high-risk security category alongside the likes of Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya and believes the whole country is being made to suffer for the actions of one person.

The threat posed by Islamist militancy in Nigeria is first and foremost a threat to Nigeria itself. This is a large, chaotic, and badly governed country split along ethnic and religious lines. A predominantly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south coexist in a permanent state of tension. Furthermore, the north is chronically underdeveloped and home to a mass of unemployed and restless youth, who, if the experience of other countries is anything to go by, tend to be vulnerable to extremist messages. Nigerians might be right when they dismiss the Abdulmutallab case as a one-off, but they would do well to guard against complacency.

Richard Downie is a fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Richard Downie