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.

One of Abdulmutallab’s teachers, Michael Rimmer, a Briton who taught history there, describes the Lome school as “a lovely, lovely environment where Christians often joined in Islamic feasts and some of the best Christmas carolers were Muslims.”

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.

Nigeria is certainly no stranger to religious upheavals. Many will recall the lives that were lost in the bloodbath that broke out in reaction to cartoons which depicted the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish publication in 2006 and the riots which greeted the scheduling of a Miss World contest during the month of Ramadan in 2002. And even as Abdulmutallab’s folly was unfolding, there was mayhem in Bauchi, another northern, predominantly Muslim city. A clash between an Islamic sect called Kala-Kato and security personnel claimed more than 40 lives within two days.

In a country whose population, sharply divided along religious and ethnic lines, hardly ever agrees on anything, condemnation of Abdulmutallab and his strange act has been unanimous. The most damning of these criticisms have come from his kith and kin and the Muslim Ulama.

The district head of Funtua (the Mutallabs’ hometown), Sambo Idris, expressed shock and regret. A Funtua-based Islamic scholar, Aminu Liman, condemned acts of terror and described them as un-Islamic. Residents of Funtua also joined other Nigerians to condemn Abdulmutallab’s action. Funtua is in the largely Muslim Katsina state, in the north of Nigeria.

The Muslim Public Affairs Center, an independent Muslim organization based in Kano, another northern Muslim city, also condemned all acts of terrorism and described them as “a complete violation of the teachings of Islam.”

A statement by Disu Kamor, the organization’s director of media and communications, says that “all attacks that threaten peace, or are aimed at civilian targets, even in a state of war are terrorism. We repudiate anyone or group that plans or carries out a terrorist act and we welcome early actions by law enforcement authorities against credible threats to the safety of the travelling public.”

The group also calls on Muslims to “rally together to positively and constructively intervene with our youth to make sure they have a good understanding of Islam so that no extremists will prey upon them.”

The secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Nigeria, Dr. Lateef Adegbite, says “we are embarrassed by this incident and we strongly condemn the alleged action by this young man. … We do not think there is any organized Islamic group in Nigeria that is inclined to such a criminal and violent act. We condemn such an extreme viewpoint and action.”

An Islamic scholar and chief missioner of the Ansar-Ul-Deen Society of Nigeria, Sheik Abdul-Rahman Ahmad, says “hijacking, targeting of innocent people, violence and murder are not acceptable in Islam.”

The director of the Muslim Rights Concern, Dr. Is-haq Akintola, also condemns all acts of terrorism, which he describes as “inhuman and animalistic.”

A group that calls itself “We condemn Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s action: Nigerians are not terrorists” chose Facebook, the popular social networking website, to denounce his “un-Nigerian act.” Thousands signed up to join the group barely hours after it was created. The group decries the “behavior of a lone numbskull who has just dragged Nigeria’s already sodden image more into the mud.”

Since a “technical fault,” as acknowledged by his principals, botched his attempt, thank goodness, the one thing Abdulmutallab may have succeeded in doing is putting a stick in the wheel of the Rebranding Nigeria Project, an ambitious image program aimed at projecting a healthy and positive face of Nigeria to the world.

The campaign has been primarily targeted at Nigerians in the interest of achieving a character reorientation and attitudinal change. If Abdulmutallab can be taken as the average Nigerian, managers of the program may have actually been flogging a dead horse all along.

Information Minister Dora Akunyili, who started the rebranding program, is understandably peeved. She refers to Abdulmutallab as “a stranger” who “sneaked” in and out of the country. A statement from her office says the federal government of Nigeria received news of the bomb attempt “with dismay” and that “Nigeria as a nation abhors all forms of terrorism.”

The vice president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, has ordered all security agencies to investigate the incident and cooperate fully with U.S. investigations. (The president, Umaru Musa YarAdua, is away in Saudi Arabia for health reasons.)

The Nigerian Senate also denounces Abdulmutallab’s act, saying, “We condemn this strange act of terrorism in very strong terms and we are at a loss where he got this strange habit from,” and warns that “nobody should import fundamentalism into Nigeria under any guise.”

The Senate urges the international community to “treat him [Abdulmutallab] on his own merit and not associate this horrible conduct with law-abiding Nigerians who are decent and respectable international citizens wherever they are.”

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s president has launched a comprehensive probe of the bombing attempt. National Security Adviser Abdul Sarki Mukhtar has questioned whether the director-general of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) was right to keep the report made by Abdulmutallab’s father from the intelligence community. According to the security adviser, the report, if circulated, would have alerted the security agencies at so-called travel control points to take required action that would have led to Abdulmutallab’s arrest before he boarded the KLM flight from Nigeria and would have pre-empted the incident and saved Nigeria from international embarrassment.

The NIA has come under fire because, contrary to media reports that Abdulmutallab’s father reported his son’s strange ways to Nigeria’s security agencies, the real truth is that he reported only to a former national security official who served in the immediate past government. That official in turn reportedly informed one of the directors of Nigeria’s National Intelligence Agency, who, obviously, did nothing about the lead.

The father is also facing some tough questions of his own. Why, for instance, did he report his son, who recently concluded a degree program in London, not to the British High Commission but to the American Embassy? What did he know that sent him scurrying to the American Embassy? What are some of the relationships he has in the world of business, government and religion? He was recently named chairman of Nigeria’s first Islamic bank. And being married to an Arab Yemeni himself, what, if anything, does he know of his son’s Yemeni connections?

As a direct result of the Mutallab Challenge (as the incident is now known in Nigeria’s security circles), Nigeria’s Civil Aviation Authority, which when the scandal broke defended itself on grounds of not having equipment to detect powdery explosives, is collaborating with the World Bank to acquire modern detectors of powder-based explosives.

And while waiting for modern detectors, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos now insists on “100 percent primary and secondary physical body screening for intercontinental flights.” Ouch!

Whatever “100 percent primary and secondary physical body screening” means, it’s certainly not a nice time to be at the Lagos airport.

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