By Independent Team and Agencies
How one man’s action could change the way the world looks at a continent
The relatively affluent upbringing of the Nigerian would-be bomber Umar Abdulmutallab is not too dissimilar to that of some of the Sept. 11 attackers or Al Qaeda recruits for other attacks, but it makes him a particular exception in Nigeria, according to an article by Reuters.
Most people live on less than US$ 2 a day and many would give almost anything just to have got aboard the plane he tried to blow up. Every year, tens of thousands of Abdulmutallab’s compatriots brave deserts, oceans and unsympathetic immigration police to try to get to the West for just a taste of the chances he had and to take whatever work they can get to better themselves and their families.
For residents in his home town, it was Umar Abdulmutallab’s foreign education, not his roots in Muslim northern Nigeria, that radicalised him and led him to try to blow up a U.S. passenger plane.
The 23-year-old London-educated Nigerian has been charged in the United States with trying to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 as it approached Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day with almost 300 people on board.
The son of a highly respected banker, Abdulmutallab’s actions shocked Nigeria’s wealthy elite and residents in his family’s predominantly Muslim northern hometown of Funtua.
‘Everyone knew the Mutallabs and the father is honest, generous, helpful and above all a prominent banker. I cannot see why his son should be involved in this act,’ Funtua resident Ibrahim Bello, 65, said, close to the Mutallab family home.
Like other elders from the community, Bello said Abdulmutallab’s schooling abroad meant he had been brought up outside the customs of northern Nigeria, a region with a history of moderate Sufi Islam.
‘My only advice to the elite is to allow their children to mingle with the children of the masses so that he get some of the traditional morals and values that (the elder) Mutallab himself enjoyed,’ Bello told Reuters.
Abdulmutallab is from a privileged background in Africa’s most populous nation, where most of an estimated 140 million people live on under $2 a day.
His father, Umaru Mutallab, retired earlier this month as chairman of First Bank, the country’s oldest, after a distinguished career in finance.
Like many children from rich Nigerian homes, Abdulmutallab spent his formative years abroad. Information Minister Dora Akunyili said he had been living outside Nigeria ‘for a while’ and only returned on the eve of the attack.
‘We were shocked when we heard a report from one of the international radio stations that the son of Mutallab is involved in an act of terrorism in the United States,’ said Ahmed Ibrahim, one of Abdulmutallab’s contemporaries.
‘But many of us did not know the children of the Mutallabs because they did not grow up here in Funtua,’ he said.
The Mutallab home in Funtua, more than 250 km (155 miles) north of the capital Abuja, is a single-story brown and white building behind big gates, larger than surrounding houses but not ostentatious.
Abdulmutallab was educated at the British School in Lome, Togo — a boarding school mostly serving expatriates and students from around West Africa — before studying engineering at University College London (UCL), where he is believed to have lived in a multi-million dollar city-centre apartment.
One friend who knew him in London said he kept himself to himself and always wore a skullcap, rare among young Nigerian Muslims who usually wear such caps only on religious occasions.
Nigeria’s This Day newspaper said he had been given the nickname ‘Alfa’ — a local term for an Islamic scholar — while at school in Togo, for his preaching to other students.
He also made two trips to Yemen during his student days for short Arabic and Islamic courses, according to a family friend.
If Abdulmutallab was radicalised outside Nigeria as many of his compatriots believe, his case would have precedents.
Ahmed Saeed Omar Sheikh, or Sheikh Omar, who was sentenced to death in Pakistan in 2002 for the killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl and suspected of links to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, came from a similarly privileged background.
Born in Britain in the early 1970s, Omar was the son of a wholesale clothes merchant from Wanstead in northeast London who went to an expensive school but dropped out of one of Britain’s top universities, the London School of Economics.
Although only around half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, that still gives it the sixth biggest Muslim population in the world.
But while outbreaks of religious violence in northern Nigeria have killed thousands of people over the past decade ‘” hundreds died in July in clashes between security forces and the radical Boko Haram sect ‘” bloodshed has often also been just as tied to political and ethnic factors.
Islamic jurisprudence in Nigeria is based on the moderate Maliki school of Sunni Islam and Boko Haram’s ideology is dismissed by the country’s Muslim leaders and most believers.
But while some Western diplomats have expressed concern that its huge population and widespread poverty could attract foreign Islamic extremists, there has been no conclusive evidence of such a presence in the country.
Young Muslims who grew up in Funtua insist it was Abdulmutallab’s life overseas, which they view as alien, not Nigerian Islam that gave rise to his extremist views.
‘We the children of the masses in this country, we don’t know anything about terrorism because our parents are poor. They don’t have the money to take us abroad,’ said 25-year old student and Funtua resident Usman Mati.
Abdulmutallab had broken contact with his family several weeks ago before his attempt to blow up the plane.
‘He was such a brilliant boy and nobody in the family had the slightest thought he could do something as insane as this,’ a relative told journalists.
Most of the family only met up with him on his return to Nigeria on holidays from his studies abroad and found him to be easy-going and passionate about Islam, a cousin said.
‘He was of course a very religious, polite and studious fellow but it was unthinkable that he would do anything close to attempting to bomb a plane. I still can’t believe this is for real,’ the cousin said.
US security officials told the media that Abdulmutallab had confessed to training with an Al-Qaeda bombmaker in Yemen.
Abdulmutallab had told his family he wanted to pursue a course in Arabic in Yemen in July and his banker father had consented, given his flair for the language, said the cousin, who also did not want to be named.
But the family had become concerned when the young man announced that he wanted to stay on in Yemen and drop his post-graduate programme in business administration at Dubai University.
‘We became worried when in August Farouk called and said he was no longer interested in his post-graduate studies anymore, saying he would be staying in Yemen to pursue another course he did not disclose,’ said another relative who gave his name only as Sani.
Their alarm was heightened when he sent a text message a few days later informing his family that he was severing all contact with them, he said. Since then they had not been able to get in touch with him, he said.
His father Umaru Mutallab, a former chief of the United Bank for Africa and First Bank of Nigeria, later decided to tell the US embassy in Nigeria and Nigeria Intelligence Agency about his concerns about his son.
The family was stunned by the young man’s attempt to blow up the Northwest Airlines as it descended into Detroit. He had caught the plane in Amsterdam after flying in from Lagos.
‘We could not believe it when we learnt that Farouk had boarded a flight from Lagos to Amsterdam while all along we had the impression that he was in Yemen,’ Sani.
Many Nigerians are concerned that the attempted bombing would make it even harder for Nigerians travelling abroad and for their country to improve its image.
But that need not be if Abdulmutallab unusual upbringing makes him a one-off event.
For along time, American customs officials have harassed even innocent Nigerians because of their unfounded reputation as drug traffickers.
Abdulmulltallab’s act could change the face of racial profiling in America. Until now, the face of the terrorist has been Arab. It is now African.
Since the attack, the US has announced that passengers flying from 14 Muslim countries considered to have links with terrorism are now set to confront additional security checks. The list includes Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, and Somalia from Africa.
Some commentators have said the Abdulmulltallab incident will intensify the US army’s involvement in Africa under AFRICOM as part of the fight against terrorism. Countries like Uganda, Kenya, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Nigeria, Morocco, Libya and South Africa have participated in the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership. They are likely to receive more military funding.