Things to remember about the Nigerian terror suspect

Things to remember about the Nigerian terror suspect

Poor Nigeria. As if it didn’t already have a terrible reputation, the alleged terror attempt by a 23-year-old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab yesterday on a flight from Amsterdam to Detriot seals the deal. But as you’re reading the news, a few caveats to remember: 

First, much of the information coming out about the suspect’s origin comes from the Nigerian newspaper This Day.  While often a good source of initial information, this report probably shouldn’t be taken as fact without other confirmation. The press in Nigeria, while vibrant, growing, and home to countless incredible journalists, has still been known to exagerate or assume at times. I have no reason to believe that is the case this time, but skepticism is warranted. 

Second, if the suspect does indeed come from a family of means, as his residence in London suggests (forgive a generalization, but anyone who is anyone in Nigeria has got a house in London), it says much about where the real terror "threat" is (and is not) coming from in Nigeria. Security analysts have been worrying about Nigeria since the Sept 11. attacks — fearing that this about half-Muslim country of 140 million people would be a potential host to extremists. But at the end of the day, something that I’ve learned about Nigeria is that it takes money and connections to get things done. Just think back to the violence earlier this summer by the Boko Haram sect. The mostly-impoverished members of the group raised hell in the local context … but that was it. Taking "jihad" international from Nigeria is still a long ways and a lot of financing off (if it is on the way at all).

Which brings me to one more point about extremism in Nigeria. Much of the religious violence that the country has seen in recent years has been less about religion and more about a country rife with corruption and wanting for institutions. When sharia law was introduced in the North earlier this decade, most analysts believe that it had more to do with a desire for the law — any law — to function. Since the secular government had failed for years, many sought refuge in the laws of religious fundamentalism.

And that brings us back to the alleged terrorist in questioning today. His grievances are different from these, one might imagine, since the lack of rule of law often works in favor of (rather than against) the elite. In short, what I’m trying to say is that there are two different phenomena going on here: mass dissatisfaction among many impoverished in the country’s Muslim North, and the different brand of extremism that would incite a well-off 23-year-old to blow up a plane in Detroit. 

Finally, in the time that I’ve written this blog post, I have recieved several requests from news agencies and papers to help me connect them with reporters in Nigeria. An unfortunate reminder that the press in my former-resident country is drying up. And with each correspondent that leaves, it is trickier and trickier to piece together developments that unfold. For the last two years, editors have asked me why Nigeria matters. Case and point.