A New Terror Threat?

What the Nigerian plane bomber reveals about America, Africa, and terrorism in the 21st century.

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Members of the Boko Haram Islamic sect dubbed 'Nigeria Taliban'--GETTY IMAGES

On Christmas Day, a clatter, a puff of smoke and a brief, terrifying flame: Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian passenger on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, had allegedly tried to blow up his airplane. Others aboard the airliner quickly subdued the man, a former University College of London student who claims to have ties to Al-Qaeda and been supplied with explosives from Yemen. The plane landed safely in Detroit, where Mutallab was treated for third degree burns, and where federal police officially charged him with attempting to destroy the jet.

Airport security increased dramatically in several airports in the United States and in Europe as a result of the incident. But this latest botched act of terrorism has wider implications: it raises important questions about sources of new threats to the West, the actual level of U.S. competence in guarding against terror, and yet another American effort to build an important relationship with a fragile, unstable country.

Scrutiny has focused on Muhammad Murtallah International Airport in Lagos, from which Mutallab departed on Christmas Eve. As recently as Thanksgiving 2009, the Nigerian airport was deemed compliant with air safety protocols set by the American Transportation Security Administration and the Nigerian Civil Aviation Association—though over the last decade, it has been intermittently placed on TSA watchlists as one of the least secure airports in the world. Mutallab did not undergo secondary security screening at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam before boarding his flight for the U.S.

Since the failed bombing, reportedly involving PETN, a highly volatile explosive, Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Yemen have claimed credit for training Mutallab—though no U.S. government officials have confirmed those connections. Nevertheless, authorities have called the incident "an attempted terrorist attack", and president Barack Obama is “actively” monitoring the situation as it develops, according to the White House.

It’s not clear that Mutallab’s actions represent an Al-Qaeda comeback. But the suspect’s Nigerian connections introduce African affairs into what has been seen, since 9/11, as a primarily Middle Eastern threat.

The American approach to counterterrorism established during the Bush 43 administration focused on fighting wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, but also on capacity building on the African continent, primarily in nations such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. Al Qaeda operatives and sleepers have long been suspected of gathering in the region. Substantial Muslim populations and proximity to the Middle East—indeed, Osama bin Laden spent years living in Sudan before becoming an international fugitive—as well as porous borders, relative poverty and weak state control made the Horn of Africa particularly important front in the global war on terror. The controversial introduction of AFRICOM in 2008 (which aims to establish* American military bases across the continent) was one manifestation of this attempt to handle an increasingly globalized threat, from the 1997 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, to the spate of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia that so captivated world audiences in 2009.

Nigeria, on the other coast of a vast continent, has been less implicated in some of the distressing violence and militant Islamism that has hit the Horn in the last decade. While it has battled high crime rates, homegrown threats from Boko Haram militants, and the rise of Sharia Islamic law in the northern part of the country, Nigeria has been a nominal ally in the American effort to promote democracy and fight Al-Qaeda. Ironically, the Obama administration has vowed to quadruple the amount of oil it sources from Nigeria, as a means of undercutting the flow of oil money to potential terrorists in the Middle East. But despite its outsized OPEC revenues, Nigeria remains populous, poor, and corrupt—making future contributions to the battle against terrorism difficult to predict. Nigeria’s weakened institutions—also imperiled by the serious illness of president Umar Yar’Adua—compound these difficulties. Without accompanying development assistance or institutional reform, Nigeria could prove just as dangerous to western interests as more traditionally nefarious oil-producing nations.

Airline travel—the surest evidence of globalization—has scrambled these dynamics even further. American authorities have already begun investigating Mutallab’s ties in Britain, Nigeria and in Yemen. The latter, among the poorest Muslim Arab countries, has long had a fragile state suspected of harboring terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda, as well as smugglers, counterfeiters, and other criminals operating in the Indian Ocean. Just a week before the Christmas Day attack, American drones took out Al-Qaeda leadership in Yemen that had supposedly communicated with a team of Afghan-born terrorists.

One needn’t go as far back as the infamous 2001 memo alerting the White House that “Osama Bin Laden [Is] Determined to Strike Within United States” to see that the mechanisms for tracking and apprehending such individuals have yet to be perfected. Afghan citizen and suspected terrorist Najibullah Zazi was arrested in Denver this fall, as were five Virginians Pakistani authorities suspected of working with Al-Qaeda. The trio of British men who plotted to use liquid bombs on a transatlantic flight in 2005 were also sentenced this year. Fort Hood shooter Abdul Malik Hasan, however, continued serving in the U.S. military despite the anti-American statements and erratic behavior that preceded his alleged killing of 13 Americans in November. And for his part, Mutallab was granted a visa and allowed to purchase a one-way ticket to the United States, despite the growing radicalism flagged earlier this year.

The theme perhaps most critical to discussion of the Christmas Day attack: How democratic governments handle homegrown terrorist threats. Mutallab, whose father’s wife is of Yemeni origin and who has spent time in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab Muslim nations, has a different pedigree than most Nigerians of his age. Like Bin Laden, he is an affluent cosmopolite whose wealth allowed him to move with ease from Lagos to London to Dubai. He thus joins a group of attackers, from Zazi to “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla to “shoe-bomber” Richard Reid, who have spent significant amounts of time in Europe or the United States. In the Netherlands, where Mutallab made his airline connection, tensions between native Dutch and Muslim immigrants from nations like Morocco and Egypt have been well documented. In the United States, debate over the supposed tension between civil liberties for Muslim Americans and national security concern rages unabated. Culture clash likewise threatens the peace in other western nations like Germany, France, Britain, and Switzerland—which recently voted to ban construction of minarets used in mosques.

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