US & World

A Breeding Ground For Would-Be Airline Bombers?

An NPR News Investigation: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young man charged with trying to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, came from predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria. Analysts say the area could be an incubator for extremism as Islamic fundamentalism spreads among a population facing inequality and a lack of education.

The allegations against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a plane on Christmas Day, have placed a spotlight on predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria.

Nigerian and American analysts say Abdulmutallab's home region could be an incubator for extremism and would-be terrorists. Underprivileged young people facing social inequality, religious violence and lack of education could be vulnerable to recruitment, they say.

But the special adviser to the governor of Abdulmutallab's home state Kaduna, Alhaja Zula'atu Shehu Bello, is skeptical that the region in a breeding ground for radicals.

"The average Nigerian person doesn't know what al-Qaida is," Bello says. "They've never heard of any group called al-Qaida. They don't know what they do, where they are. They've never heard of them."

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for his failed alleged attempt on the Detroit-bound airliner.

Abdulmutallab grew up in an affluent family in Kaduna. But Bello says many Nigerians lack the resources to get involved with terrorism.

"Because of the poverty here, you're trying to find what you can eat with your family, so you don't have time to start training terrorists," he says. "You don't have the time. You don't have the resources, you don't have the money."

Government Corruption, Neglect

Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Nigeria's leaders had failed to respond to the needs of young people. Clinton warned that Nigeria faced the threat of radicalization and extremism and pointed to lamentable living standards and "unbelievable" corruption, as she put it, in a country that supplies the U.S. with crude oil.

Others also express concern about the inequalities that alienate Nigeria's underprivileged majority, including the large, impoverished population in the Muslim-dominated north. Analysts warn of a potentially combustible cocktail: inequality coupled with local opposition to American policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other Muslim countries, as well as U.S. support for Israel.

Some prominent northern Nigerians, including former Kaduna governor and local sage Alhaji Abdulkadir Balarabe Musa, have put Washington on notice that Islamic fundamentalism is growing.

"America is misusing its power dangerously for the world peace," Musa says. "But let me tell you, Islamic bond in northern Nigeria, and even Islamic solidarity, is as high and sound as it can be in any Muslim country in the world. That is very, very important."

He adds: "What America sees as Islamic fundamentalism exists to a very large extent in the north — even larger than in Pakistan. If America sees this development of Islamic learning and Islamic consciousness in the north here as evidence of the existence of al-Qaida, they are making a terrible mistake — which will eventually create al-Qaida here in Nigeria."

There have been no known al-Qaida attacks in Nigeria, though the north has witnessed violent anti-government uprisings by local radical Muslim sects and periodic eruptions of religious violence.

Teaching A Peaceful Islam

Islamic education is important in northern Nigeria, where children begin learning the Quran from an early age. Women are taught how to bring up their children in Islam.

Young children, from as far away as neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad, attend classes in the Quran. They live far away from parental guidance — nominally under the care of an imam.

Vigilance is key, says Alhaji Sambo Idris Sambo, the district head of Funtua, the ancestral hometown of Abdulmutallab.

"We really monitor most of the goings-on," Sambo says. "And if there is any teaching that is un-Islamic, we wouldn't have allowed it to continue. We are always [telling] our imams, our preachers, to be directing their sermons to the parents so that, at least, they monitor their children and the youth closely — that Islam does not preach violence. Islam is for peace."

Writer and Kaduna-based human rights campaigner Shehu Sani sees the problem from a different angle.

As children head home from a nearby Quranic school, he points down the road from his house to a forlorn-looking compound where he says an active American consulate was housed until it closed its doors about 15 years ago.

Sani says Washington made a big mistake in abandoning its northern Nigeria post — as it left others to step in.

"As such, that vacuum has now been filled by countries from the Middle East that are coming here, giving scholarships to groups and individuals to study in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan," Sani says. "[They are] making a very strong presence in the northern part of Nigeria in terms of opening affiliate offices and engaging organizations and groups here. And I believe that U.S. can win the hearts of people here by restoring such programs as it used to do in the '70s and '80s."

Sani says such a move would likely reduce the anti-American foreign policy sentiment in northern Nigeria that is currently fueled by the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit