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The Mutallab Challenge
Posted on Jan 12, 2010
Christmas 2009 was not particularly cheery in Nigeria. A poor economic climate, an epileptic power supply and scarcity of petroleum products ensured that the celebrations were low-key. As if these challenges were not enough, news of an attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner by a Nigerian filtered in on Christmas Day. The nation’s heart sank. For a country that is always in the news for all the wrong reasons, this was one wrong reason too many.
And the tag that has now been put on the country is a new one for Nigeria. Money laundering? Sadly, yes. Drug trafficking? Unfortunately, yes. Internet scamming? Another sad yes. But suicide bombing? Nigerians are not known to be suicidal. The typical Nigerian revolutionary is more interested in living for his ideals than in dying for them. This is because more often than not he wants a plum fallout, such as a cabinet position, for his troubles.
Besides, all Nigerian cultures teach the sanctity of human life and regard suicide as an act of cowardice, not of bravery. It is believed that only the Supreme Being gives life, and he alone reserves the right to take it, so neither your life nor your neighbor’s is yours to take. In pre-colonial times when anyone dared take his own life his corpse was dumped in the forest for animals and birds to feed on. It was considered an abomination to commit such a body to Mother Earth. And in cases of murder, exhaustive rituals were performed to cleanse the land of the desecration and appease the wronged soul. This usually would occur after the culprit and his family had been banished from the community. So, a suicide-murderer would not ordinarily be a Nigerian.
And certainly not one who comes from a well-heeled family. By all means an upper-class kid, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the last of 16 children, is the son of a respected banker. His father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab, a former federal finance minister, is the outgoing chairman of First Bank, Nigeria’s oldest bank, and new chairman of Nigeria’s first Islamic bank, Jaiz International. He is urbane and cosmopolitan in outlook (though a devout Muslim), and one of his wives is a Yemeni Arab.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab lived in a $2 million home in London, where he studied mechanical engineering at the University of London. He was privately educated at a prestigious boarding school: the British School, an elite college preparatory school in Lome, Togo. The school is attended exclusively by children of diplomats and wealthy Africans. Among his classmates was the daughter of Karl Hoffman, an adviser to Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state.
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It was, however, in this “lovely, lovely environment” that Abdulmutallab began to exhibit the first signs of extremism. A school friend recalls, “We were together in Lome when the twin towers crashed and we watched it on TV. … After the 9/11 thing, he actually defended the Taliban [sic] action, saying that they were provoked. Everyone thought he was kidding, but he stood his ground.”
By the time his father, who admits that his youngest son is “a stubborn young man,” noticed his extremism and started looking for help, Umar was already far gone. He had quit his MBA studies in Dubai for a seven-year Shariah program in Yemen, cut links with his family, spurned invitations to important family events such as his eldest brother’s wedding and his father’s 70th birthday, made contact with al-Qaida, which renamed him Umar Farouk al-Nigiri (the Nigerian), and was about to add a Yemeni bomb to his kitty.
Neighbors of the Mutallabs in Kaduna, a northern Nigerian city which is home to the family, speak highly of Umar, whom they fondly refer to as Ustaz (one who has a deep knowledge of Islam), and say he does not come across as someone who could hurt even a fly. According to a neighbor, “Anytime he is in the country, he only comes out to pray in the mosque and goes back into the house.”
At the mosque, which is a stone’s throw from the family house, the deputy imam, Ustaz Musa Dumawa, who says he has worked in the area for more that 37 years, was incredulous. He says, “… [T]his is where he [Abdulmutallab] prays anytime he is in the country. … [F]or all the time we have known him that he prayed in this mosque, he never exhibited any trait that would make anyone suspect that he shares the al-Qaida belief. … [H]e never for once made attempt to preach here in this mosque or even engaged anyone in a debate about Islam. He would just come, pray and leave like everyone else.”
Longtime friend Basiru Hamza says Abdulmutallab must have been misled into his new ways. Another family friend describes him as “an exemplary child, never putting any wrong foot forward, never offending anyone. He is always kind and devout.”
Ibrahim Lawal describes him as a deeply religious person who is particularly interested in the theoretical side of Islam. Lawal says of his friend, “He is very inquisitive. Always asking questions and always looking to learn new things. He didn’t keep many friends because he was very quiet and a bit shy. I don’t know where he went and became like this, but I don’t think he learnt it from home.”
According to Ustaz Dumawa, the al-Qaida brand of Islam is alien and un-Islamic. “Allah has not permitted anyone of us to kill ants, let alone a fellow human being.”
He agrees that Abdulmutallab “never acquired his Islamic knowledge here [in Nigeria].” He cautions Nigerian Muslim parents who send their children abroad to further their Islamic knowledge to be wary of the places and teachers their children learn from, as “experience has shown that they get these funny ideas about Islam from where they go to study.”
The general consensus in the country is that terrorism is not in the character of Nigerians and that Abdulmutallab certainly learned his strange beliefs and new way of life from friends he made abroad.
Even his family acknowledges that he recently evolved into a stranger. In a press statement, the family claims that his “disappearance and cessation of communication … are completely out of character and a very recent development, as before then … he had never shown any attitude, conduct or association that would give concern.” It was as soon as such concerns arose that his father took the step of reporting him to Nigerian security agencies and the American Embassy in Lagos for having extremist views and talking about a jihad.
There are, however, fears that terrorism may be creeping into Nigeria. Al-Qaida said in 2003 that it had marked Nigeria for “liberation.” The American CIA, citing Nigeria’s frequent sectarian troubles, predicted in 2005 that the country could explode and disintegrate in 15 years.
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