The arrest of a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on charges of trying to destroy a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day with explosives strapped to his body has triggered a round of new questions on airport security and terrorism. Equally troubling are the signals the incident sends about radicalism and Nigeria's Muslims.
U.S. authorities are reportedly seeking to confirm Abdulmutallab's claims that he had ties to al-Qaeda. If this is true, it could be evidence al-Qaeda is gaining traction among radicalized Muslims in northern Nigeria, already a source of growing concern to the federal government.
Nigeria's population of 150 million is equally divided between Christians and Muslims. The North is predominately Muslim, with significant Christian minorities. Traditionally, Nigerian Islam has been Sunni, tolerant, and well-disposed toward the West. Suicide as a political tool has been alien.
However, new currents have been emerging in Nigerian Islam with Middle Eastern and South Asian origins, propagated through the Internet, that aim at the restoration of religious purity and social justice. Some new, indigenous movements influenced by this strain of Islam withdraw from the world. Others, however, are militant, calling for the transformation of Nigeria into an Islamic state.
These currents are gaining in strength. Among the signs: against the wishes of the Northern Islamic establishment, certain Islamic imams have opposed successfully the World Health Organization's polio vaccination campaign in the North, claiming it is a plot to limit Muslim births. A radical Muslim sect, Boko Haram, staged a bloody insurrection against secular authorities in July 2009 in five northern cities, which could be suppressed only by the Nigerian army and with significant loss of life. The Islamic establishment of emirs headed by the Sultan of Sokoto appears to have little understanding or control over these new radical currents, many of which would sweep it away as corrupt and not Islamic.
It should be noted that such developments have been independent of al-Qaeda and focused on Nigeria, not the West. Over the years, Nigerian security authorities have arrested small numbers of alleged al-Qaeda members, and Osama Bin Laden has called for the overthrow of the Nigerian government, which is secular in tone. Public prosecutors have made scattered allegations of variable credibility that individual Nigerians have participated in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, Niger, and Algeria.
Yet social conditions in northern Nigeria make the region ripe for penetration by jihadist Islam and al-Qaeda. The region's social development statistics are the worst in Nigeria and among the worst in the world. For example, maternal mortality rates are the highest in the world and more than half of children under five years of age in the northwest region are affected by stunted growth. Some Nigerian security authorities have long been concerned about the potential of al-Qaeda or other jihadist Islamic radicals exploiting these realities to advance their agendas. Meanwhile, the federal government is facing a reduced capacity to act against such radicalization. The government has been all but paralyzed by the recent illness of President Umaru Yar'Adua and the lack of consensus among political kingmakers on a course of action if he dies soon, which is widely expected.