The lines between al-Qaida, Islamic extremism in Africa, and wider insecurity in the continent’s most populous nation, Nigeria, are converging. Most attention is devoted to the first two challenges, but the time has come to broaden the conversation. In a recorded statement, Osama bin Laden identified Nigeria as an important future arena for al-Qaida. The apprehending of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian from a rich and influential family, who tried igniting an explosive device in his underwear as his aircraft neared Detroit in December 2009, made real bin Laden’s threat.
Then, in October 2010, as invited dignitaries headed to the official celebration of Nigeria’s 50th anniversary in the capital, Abuja, explosions drove them back to their homes and offices. Other bombing incidents have followed. A few weeks ago, the terrorist mastermind Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by missiles fired from CIA drones in Yemen. Public revelations of how Abdulmutallab was prepared for his terrorist assignment by al-Awlaki, during his visits to Yemen, were curtailed when he pleaded guilty to all charges in the bombing plot.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. has stated that the verdict showed that “our courts are one of the most effective tools we have to fight terrorism and keep the American people safe.” There is a need to go beyond such assertions and ask what are the tools for accomplishing these national goals, how should they be combined, and how does ensuring our national security dovetail with what is being done in beleaguered countries such as Nigeria with millions of futureless youth.
As the United States reduces its armed presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also scaling up its technological capacity to kill and intercept terrorists. What, we should ask, are the non-military policies that will complement warfare by cruise missiles, radar-eluding attack helicopters, and predators operated from U.S. air bases? With proposals before the U.S. Congress for deep cuts in foreign aid, and also a request from the Pentagon for $5 billion to operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) just next year, there is an urgent need to broaden the debate on national security beyond military operations.
By taking the extremist path, Abdulmutallab rejected the moderate Islam that prevails among northern Nigerian elites. In his statement to the Detroit court on October 12, he said that he was seeking revenge for U.S. military attacks on Muslims “in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and beyond.” Abdulmutallab therefore used the federal courtroom, not to fight the charges against him, but to continue in another form the horrific mission foiled two years ago. His chilling assertions will be transmitted to the disenchanted poor in northern Nigeria, where Islamic extremism has risen and subsided for decades.
A few months ago, I received an email from a colleague in Abuja saying that I should “tell my friends in Washington not to send drones” because the groups responsible for bombing incidents in the region were home-grown malcontents. Soon after, a suicide bomber destroyed the U.N. building in the Nigerian capital killing 23 occupants and maiming dozens of others. Boko Haram, the self-declared Nigerian al-Qaida franchise, claimed responsibility. Most Nigerians now acknowledge the intractability of the threats they face, fostered as much by material grievances as by the bludgeoning tactics of their own security forces in response to domestic upheavals.
Insecurity has come to characterize the lives of many Nigerians. Armed robbery, a commonplace hazard, is now compounded by kidnapping for ransom. To combat crime, a massive database of sim card numbers, along with personal details and photographs of their owners, has recently been created. Civil liberty concerns about this venture have been raised. The choice given in Nigeria, however, is categorical: comply or put away your cell phone. Similarly, because of the Awlaki-Abdulmutallab December 2009 plot, American air-travelers are increasingly given a choice: body-scan or body- frisk. The prerogatives of national security, whether in the use of drone-fired missiles or expanding electronic surveillance, overshadow policy discussions about the socio-economic drivers of local insurgencies now linking up with global jihadist groups.
During the discussion following a public lecture I gave in the coastal city of Lagos last October, two young men from the northeast spoke with great passion of their distress. In my meeting with them afterwards, all I could do was commiserate with their anguish. As part of the wider dialogue on strengthening security, policymakers should ask how Nigeria can be helped to become a stable, prospering and democratic nation, similar to other large complex nations like Indonesia and Brazil. Poverty, especially in the predominantly Islamic north, is widening the pool of potential terrorist recruits. Once-thriving textile industries have collapsed in the face of Chinese imports; formerly remunerative commercial crops, such as cotton and groundnuts, have dwindled. Beyond herding, small-scale trade and agriculture, and government patronage, it is unclear how this region of over 60 million people subsists.
Expanding the Security Toolkit
During the April 2011 elections, when the northern presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, was once again decisively defeated by a southerner, riots in northern Nigeria led to hundreds of deaths and extensive destruction. The targets of the rioters’ ire were not only resident southerners, but also members of the religious, traditional and political establishment. There is an urgent need in Nigeria to commit substantial domestic resources, bolstered by external assistance, to a comprehensive growth and development initiative focused on the troubled northern region. Industrial ventures could be supported to capitalize on Nigeria’s vast energy resources in oil, gas, solar and wind. Work and training programs in agriculture, agro-industry, infrastructure, public health and environmental sanitation could target millions of distressed youths.
When the next group of young people asks what they can expect from the United States, I want to be able to recite a list of initiatives that can excite their imagination, engage their energies, and bolster their hopes. We cannot rely solely on constructing electronic fences to identify and stop extremists, and then bring them to trial or confine them to Guantanamo. While ramping up technological responses to terrorism, let us not skimp on the urgent people-to-people work. This is not the time to slash foreign aid, but rather innovatively seek to promote transformative governance and job-producing economic growth. There is no reason to concede the battle for hearts and minds when there are so many untapped resources at our disposal, as well as in countries like Nigeria that are assailed by terrorism.