WASHINGTON — National security experts and the media have shown intense interest in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s Al Qaeda links, but not enough in his earlier radicalization.
Abdulmutallab’s rage appears to have been shaped by the dissonance between his privileged upbringing and Nigeria’s unjust social and economic system as defined by the Islamic religious revival. Like Osama bin Laden, Abdulmutallab's immediate family has benefited from a system that shows little concern for social justice for the poor as preached by the Islamic revival.
Nigeria is a country where many have strong religious beliefs. The North, where Abdulmutallab’s home state of Katsina is located, is in the midst of a religious revival that seeks a purified Islam and a “just” society as defined by the Shariah “path.” Much of this popular religious ferment is occurring outside of the traditional Muslim establishment of emirs and imams headed by the sultan of Sokoto, but it is widely accessible. If Abdulmutallab was as exceptionally devout as his schoolmates say, it is highly likely that this renewed fervor had a direct impact on his religious outlook and his radicalization.
Islamic religious revival in northern Nigeria takes many forms. In some cases, congregations organize themselves around an imam or a mullah and, in effect, withdraw from the world much like monks in the early Middle Ages. They are peaceful if not pacifist. Other parts of the ferment are militant, even jihadist, and seek to destroy the Nigerian state, killing police when they can. Bloody examples of the latter are Boko Haram, a sect that conducted an uprising against Nigerian authorities in July 2009 that was suppressed with difficulty by the army, leaving hundreds dead.
More recent was the fighting between the security forces and the Kata Kalo sect that left at least 38 dead in mid-December. Notably, northern jihadist violence has focused on Nigeria, not on the West or the United States. Moreover, their participants and fellow sympathizers are only a small part of northern Nigerian Islam and of the broad Islamic revival.
Northern Nigeria, including Abdulmutallab’s home state of Katsina, is one of the country's poorest regions. According to a recent USAID study, more than three-quarters of the north’s people live below the poverty line. Income inequality in Nigeria is among the worst in the world, and is the most unequal in the northern part of the country. Almost half of the children under five years of age are stunted — a clear indication of severe malnutrition.
Making the situation worse over the past decade has been the progressive de-industrialization of the north and underinvestment in agriculture where most people earn their livelihoods. Most northern Nigerians are probably poorer now than they were 20 years ago. Meanwhile, a tiny national elite, including Abdulmutallab’s father, has prospered mightily, directly or indirectly, from oil wealth. The Nigerian press reports that the apartment Abdulmutallab and his brothers occupied in London’s Mayfair cost more than 4 million pounds sterling.
A thirst for social justice in the face of endemic corruption and inequality has long been an important element in northern Nigerian Islam and goes beyond radical sects such as Boko Haram or Kata Kalo. It was central to the overwhelming popular support for the establishment of Shariah law in most of the predominately-Muslim states in the north in the last decade. Shariah promised justice for the common people. Its failure — little changed for the mass of the population — probably has stoked the growth of more radical forms of Islam.
Nevertheless, Al Qaeda activity in Nigeria appears to be limited, so it is unlikely Abdulmutallab developed connections at home. However, unlike most Nigerians, Abdulmutallab could travel and study abroad with plenty of opportunity to make contact with Al Qaeda. Its style of terrorism likely provided him with new enemies and new ways for him to express his rage. For example, suicide is considered anathema by Nigerian Muslims, and despite high levels of violence in the North, suicide bombings are unknown. Yet Abdulmutallab was prepared to blow himself up along with a planeload of innocent victims.
Better security measures could have prevented Abdulmutallab from boarding a U.S.-bound aircraft. But they could not have addressed the Nigerian roots of his terrorism — a confluence of social injustice, personal privilege and his radical Islamic fervor.
Improved understanding of where and how potential terrorists are radicalized should lead to more effective counter measures. Accordingly, it is in the West's interest to understand places where social and economic conditions are potential incubators for terrorism.
John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 1975 to 2007, Campbell served as a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service officer. He served twice in Nigeria.