On December 25th, the world was taken by surprise when news broke that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian citizen, had nearly succeeded in detonating explosives on a Northwest Airlines flight between Amsterdam and Detroit. The incident was the latest in a series of close-calls in airline terrorism since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and was the first case of a Nigerian attempting to carry out a suicide bombing on American soil.
In the immediate wake of the attempt, there was much speculation about the young Nigerian's background, motives and possible connections to al-Qaeda. Over the next few days it emerged that Abdulmutallab was the youngest son of prominent Nigerian banker Alhaji Umaru Abdul Mutallab; soon after it was revealed that the “underwear bomber” – as Abdulmutallab became known – was a devout but conflicted Muslim and a lonely young man who had received much of his education in Dubai, the United Kingdom, and Yemen.
Prior to the attack, Abdulmutallab had gone missing in the latter country for two months, before which he reportedly told his family to “forget” about him as he was never coming back. Alarmed, his father notified the US Embassy in Abuja as well as other security agencies; as a result Abdulmutallab was added to the US's counterterrorism database, but was not added to the “no-fly list”.
After leaving Yemen, Abdulmutallab spent a short period in Ethiopia and Ghana, then passed briefly through Nigeria en route to the Netherlands where he would board NWA flight 253 to Detroit.
When news of the attempted attack first broke, many Nigerians were caught by surprise, some even doubting whether Abdulmutallab was truly a Nigerian.
Imnakoya at Grandiose Parlor wrote:
I wondered, is this Mudallad a real Nigerian? Having a Nigerian passport is not a cast-iron proof of nationality given the extent of corruption in the nation.
Jide Salu agreed:
Believe me; Nigerians are too cowardly to be terrorists. Our attitude to death is simple; let it be as natural as possible, preferably in bed, sleeping in total oblivion, after a good night out at a party.
When the news was released that Abdulmutallab was beyond doubt a Nigerian citizen, some found consolation in the fact that many of his formative experiences had been made abroad. In a thoughtful post entitled “What does it mean to be a Nigerian?”, Seyi at Heal Nigeria wrote:
If Umar AbdulMutallab was a son of a “Mr Nobody”, it is likely that we will still be arguing over his nationality. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the govt says, his father is an “illegal immigrant” in Nigeria.
Many have argued that Umar AbdulMutallab cannot be classified as typical Nigerian because of the length of time he spent overseas…. So as far as most Nigerians are concerned, Umar AbdulMutallab hasn’t exposed to the traditional Nigerian upbringing. And considering the limited time he spent living in his home country, there was no way he could have been ‘radicalised’ in Nigeria.
Jr Chiahanam Kanu of Solving Africa worried that Abdulmutallab's actions would sink Nigeria's already floundering reputation:
There’s an Igbo proverb that says, “If one finger touches palm oil, it spreads to all the other fingers.” This is indicative of how Nigerians the world over felt when they heard the news of a young man who attempted to detonate a bomb on U.S. soil in the name of Al Qaeda. Many of us worried that the actions of this one finger would spread to cover the entire 150 million of us.
Though he managed to find a silver lining in the events:
And then the next day, the news surfaced that the young man’s father had sent word months earlier to security forces saying he was worried that his son had become radicalized and might even be a threat. In an instant, I was again proud to be Nigerian. I was relieved that the shame that would have hung over my country’s reputation by adding terrorism to the list of already popular vices was abated. Yet somehow, the newsflash on CNN did not reflect this development as fervently as I’d hoped.
If all British citizens don’t have to carry the stigma of the shoe bomber, if all Oklahomans, don’t have to bear the shame of the Oklahoma bombings, then let the world be mindful of the invidious conclusions it so easily makes when someone from a poorer nation commits similar crimes. And if this is too much to ask, then let the oil of his father’s noble and highly sacrificial actions spread to cover those worried 150 million fingers.
And indeed, as many had feared, on January 4th, the US government added Nigeria to a 14 country “watch-list”. The list designates four “state sponsors of terrorism” (Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria) as well as 10 “countries of interest” including – in addition to Nigeria – Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, and Algeria. Passengers flying to the United States from Nigeria and the 13 other countries listed will be subjected to enhanced security screenings, including full-body pat-downs.
In the following days, many Nigerians vented their displeasure by commenting in facebook forums such as “150 million Nigerians disown Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab” and “Get us off that list: Nigerians are not terrorists.”
Chippla Vandu had a different take on “disowning ” Abdulmutallab:
To “disown” connotes a refusal to accept as one's own or to repudiate. Irrespective of what one may say or think, Umar Farouk is a Nigerian. And while his actions certainly do not represent what one could expect from a “typical” Nigerian male adult (Muslim or not), disowning him does not in any way help understand why he did what he did and ensure that such does not happen again.
Citing a Pew Research Center poll which found that 43% of Nigerian Muslims support suicide bombing, Chippla continued:
How does disowning him help Nigerians understand what role extreme Islamic ideology played in causing him to attempt detonating an explosive device on board a US-bound airliner? How does it help Nigerians understand the complex interplay of religious faith, access to extremist religious groups and ideological brainwashing?
Seyi at Heal Nigeria also saw broader implications in Abdulmutallab's actions, pointing out that the addition of Nigeria to the “Terror watch-list” was not prompted by the events of December 25th alone. Highlighting the recent clashes between Nigerian Security forces and militant Islamists groups such as Boko Haram and Kalo Kato, Seyi wrote:
For anyone to think that US govt reaction was just because of Umar AbdulMutallab’s terrorist expedition smacks of naiveté.
With the level of corruption in Nigeria, I’m convinced that a suicide bomber can pay his/her into a passenger aircraft. For the right price, such a person would be offered a ‘first class’ seat. It is in Nigeria where Customs officials aid and abet importation of fake drugs. It is in Nigeria where Immigration officials knowingly issue passports to non-citizens using false identity. There is no doubt that the new US policy would affect every Nigerian, irrespective of social status. Unfortunately, 150 million people will now pay for the sins of one stupid individual. Already a Nigerian traveling overseas is a suspected asylum seeker, suspected over stayer, suspected illegal immigrant, suspected identity fraudster, suspected drug courier, and now a suspected terrorist.
Seye Abimbola also wondered about increasing religious extremism in Nigeria, describing recent minor clashes at his university. Seye concluded:
Mild as these incidents were, what they show is that for these to happen in the liberal south, at the very bastion of southwestern Nigeria liberalism, you can imagine what possibly goes on in the north where some states already practice the Islamic Sharia legal system.
Chxta remarked that it was not the first time “'bigmen’ in Nigeria have gotten away with murder simply because they are ‘bigmen’”:
Earlier our beloved minister of information had attempted to shift the blame to our nice ‘bredas’ in Ghana, pointing out that the misguided young man spent only thirty minutes in Nigeria upon arrival from Ghana before he boarded that KLM flight. The memo that she did not read apparently is the one that states that if he was so disposed, he could have actually taken a motorcycle from the airport to as far as Surulere, collected the explosives there, and returned to the airport. All in less than thirty minutes. Of course at the airport no one would have asked him questions being that he is a ‘bigman’s’ son.
Some were able to see a lighter side to the attempted attack: “Rejoice!!! For the terror suspect is not Igbo” wrote Sugabelly on December 26th. Later, in an update she took a more serious tone:
It's like everyone has lost their sense of humour fa! People on twitter are giving me a hard time because I tweeted this. Oya, I'm sorry. Ndo so.
We are all Nigerians and we are all going to get shit the next time we set foot inside an airport, but let's laugh at the lighter side of this (since no one was hurt).
Be honest, when you heard a Nigerian man tried to commit a terrorist act in America, how many of you immediately thought ‘Please don't let him be [insert your ethnic group]?
So much for the rebranding slogan “Nigeria: Good People, Great Nation”. As a result of Abdulmutallab’s failed bomb attempt in Detroit, maybe the US could now interpret it as, “Nigeria: Good People, one terrorist, but still a Great Nation…hmmn.