Sun, 27 Dec 2009 Nigeria

Mutallab: The Nigerian Agent of Al-Qaeda -by Reuben Abati


Once upon a time in this country, it was fashionable to consider certain things impossible, indeed un-Nigerian. Before the 1960s, many Nigerians considered military intervention in Nigerian politics impossible. Even when the first military coup in Africa occurred: not here, was the refrain on the lips of Nigerians. But then it happened. In the 70s, many Nigerians also never imagined a day when many Nigerians would eat crumbs from dustbins as a result of poverty. It also happened. There is a long list of "would never happen-s" which have since become elements of rude awakening in the Nigerian experience. I concluded long ago that Nigerians are capable of anything. Nothing in this country shocks me anymore.

Up until recently, I kept only one line of faith open: I could still argue that Nigerians are not likely to engage in suicide bombing no matter how fanatical they may be about any cause. Even when reports made it clear that a group of Al Qaeda fanatics had set up cells in parts of the North, I still held on to that last shred of faith in the Nigerian. Why? Nigerians I would argue love life so much that they would cling to it; their own lives that is, not the lives of others. They could kill and destroy, but that average Nigerian would like to preserve himself. We are the happiest people on earth, not so? And didn't one dictionary describe a major segment of our population, the Yoruba as "the fun-loving people of South West Nigeria". Well, even that my resilient line of thought now appears wishful. Boko Haram has shown us that many are willing to die for stupid causes. The latest incident involving the 23-year old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab has further proven the point that everything is possible in a country and among a people who lost their moral compass.

Abdul Mutallab is a most unlikely terrorist or suicide bomber. He is said to be a student of Engineering at the University College , London and the son of a well-known and well-heeled father. What could have driven him to such extremes, that he would attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound aircraft with 278 persons on board? And he is a Nigerian! He is young, privileged: the kind of silver spoon kid that everyone would imagine was being groomed to inherit a part of the earth. What could have happened to such a young man that he would think he is better off serving the Al Qaeda? He reportedly got the chemical substance that he wanted to detonate from Yemen , and as other passengers overpowered him, they said he kept screaming about the situation in Afghanistan . How is that his problem? Everyone on that flight must be heaving a sigh of relief that the Nigerian-born would-be bomber failed in his mission and that he ended up with burned legs, and the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars.

It is not a good story for Nigeria . The would-be bomber's association with Nigeria further casts a slur on the country's image. It took only a few Nigerians being arrested for drug trafficking before we all became drug couriers in the eyes of immigration officials in the West. A few Nigerians added a new dimension to con-art, and the world slapped all Nigerians with the label of 419, as if we invented the confidence trick. When next a Nigerian shows up at any airport anywhere in the world, he is likely to be scrutinised henceforth as if he were an agent of the Al Qaeda. Don't be surprised if in the next few days, the Western media jumps to the conclusion that Nigeria is a major recruitment ground for terrorists, requiring every Nigerian to be treated with suspicion. Our case will not be helped by the acts of terror in the Niger Delta nor would it be helped in any way by the news that barely a week before the Mutallab incident, a local would-be bomber had tried to deliver a bomb parcel at the offices of Super Screen Television in Lagos . Professor Dora Akunyili must be biting her fingers. At a time when she is trying to rebrand the country positively, one Abdul Mutallab has just made global nonsense of all the seminars, all the appeals, all the campaigns, all the slogans, and all her passion about rebranding Nigerian. What is that slogan again? Good people, great country? Mr Mutallab and his failed bomb would not qualify as a good advertisement.

The Nigerian Minister of Aviation, Babatunde Omotoba must also be having sleepless moments. The would-be bomber reportedly started his journey from Nigeria . It doesn't matter that he was not detected at the Amsterdam Airport and that nobody suspected him while he was airborne in the Western airspace: more questions are likely to be raised about all flights emanating from Nigeria . For, at the heart of the Abdul Mutallab incident is both home and international security. We need not quibble over the Nigerian side of it: security at Nigerian airports is lax. Oftentimes the screening machines do not work. Airport security would go through your luggage with their dirty hands. Many of them don't even bother to wear gloves. I saw one guy inspecting one passenger's (I guess dirty) underwear, and then he was to go through my own bag, I quickly moved to another security personnel. Instead of using metal detectors, on many occasions, the officials frisk you with bare hands, pressing your pockets, with some of the mischievous ones trying to touch what they should not. An allegedly privileged child like Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab may not even need to go through security screening. Big men and their wives and children are often piloted through security; they could go straight to the tarmac to board the aircraft, depending on the scope of their influence. With the power of cash, anything can be taken onto an aircraft in Nigeria .

The story is also not good for Islam. The would-be bomber being a Muslim further strengthens a growing suspicion and stereotype, and an established profile of the terrorist in the mind of the West: the terrorist as Al-Qaeda, the terrorist as Muslim. With this incident also coming shortly after the Boko Haram mass murder in Northern Nigeria, it is difficult to blame those who are insisting that Nigerian faces a dangerous threat from Islamic fundamentalism. But our problem is not with Islam, but with bigotry, and demagoguery, and the colour of bigotry is not Islamic, there are Christian bigots just as there are extremists among adherents of traditional African religion. In 1993, some young Nigerians had hijacked an aircraft, they took it to Niger where they were arrested and subsequently tried and jailed. They were defending the June 12 Presidential election and they were not all Muslims. We must be cautious for there are commentators who are already rushing to judgement against Islamic Nigeria. Nor should this become an occasion for Hausa/Fulani bashing. When Nigerians reduce everything so conveniently to an expression of ethnic contempt, they gloss over the facts of a case. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was certainly not acting on behalf of the Islamic North of Nigeria. He is most likely either sick or a product of failed parenting, or simply tragically impressionable.

By African standards, this must be a great tragedy for his parents and other members of his family. The Devil has used their family to discredit the whole of Nigeria and bring shame upon the land. Would they disown him and claim that he is not a member of their family, not even a Nigerian? Most parents would give anything to have their children go to school in England . Children are expected to do well and bring joy to their parents. That is the African way. But to have a child from a well-known family end up as a terrorist is quite revealing. If he had succeeded, I doubt if his parents would feel that he would be on his way to Heaven surrounded by seven virgins as the myth says! Now we know: it is not only the children of the poor who engage in criminal activities; the rich also cry; and in this regard, poverty does not always explain deviant social conduct.

The incident reminds America again of how much it is hated by bigots and fanatics around the world and how vulnerable it is. We live in the American century, but with the enemies of America recruiting agents from all over the world, and the most unlikely places, shows how dangerous the American century is. World peace is threatened. Hate is the dominant spirit of the age. The shape of war has changed: it is no longer on the battlefield; it could arrive in the shape of a pillow, a syringe and a pack of powder and liquid that is designed to kill 278 persons if it works. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab could have succeeded. He was inside the aircraft; the flight was on its way, effectively inside American territory. Either a fortunate stroke of serendipity or amateurishness foiled the plan. But there is something in all of this about the vigilance of the American intelligence system. They knew about Mutallab, the terrorist. He had been on their watch-list although they didn't consider him high-risk. Could they have followed him to and from Nigeria ? Even if he escaped the security system in Nigeria (trying to be charitable here), and the more efficient system at Amsterdam Schipol, was he possibly walking into a prepared net? The agility with which someone sitting close by jumped over other passengers and wrestled him to the ground was more than coincidental. Who was the expert Good Samaritan? "They took him out and it was really quick". A CIA officer on duty? Within an hour, the White House had been informed and a statement was issued with President Obama's authority; who is also personally monitoring the investigations. There are other angles to this story that are not yet in the public domain.

The Nigerian government has acted properly by issuing a statement. The Ministry of Information and Communications has said that the "Federal Government of Nigeria received with dismay the news of an attempted terrorist attack on a US airline. We state very clearly that as a nation, we abhor all forms of terrorism. The Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria , Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has directed Nigerian security agencies to commence full investigation of the incident. While steps are being taken to verify the identity of the alleged suspect and his motives, our security agencies will cooperate fully with the American authorities in the on-going investigations. Nigerian government will be providing updates as more information becomes available."

To keep quiet would mean that the Nigerian government does not really care if the Mutallab incident turns all of us into potential terrorists in the eyes of the world. But the statement does not go far enough. It should include a direct condemnation of the would-be bomber and a declaration that Nigerians are peace-loving people. The Nigerian Government must take a keen interest in the details of the investigations at the American end, and also conduct its own investigations as promised. President Barack Obama snubbed Nigeria during his maiden visit to Africa as American President. Mrs Hillary Clinton later visited only to abuse Nigerian leaders. The other day, she classified Nigeria along with Cuba as a country that is able and capable but unwilling to make progress. What other things do the Americans know about us that are not yet public knowledge?

Mutallab, a former Federal Minister and bank chief, and father of the terrorist with Yemeni connections, has been quoted as saying that Mutallab, the son, is a problem child and that months ago, he had reported him to the US authorities. He is also said to be in Abuja assisting the Nigerian security agencies. Mutallab, the father, deserves our sympathies. This is at a private level, the story of his own failure and a lesson to all parents.

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