As the U.S. court system begins dealing with the accused Nigerian Christmas Day airplane bomber, American scholars are taking a close look at whether Nigeria could be a threat in terms of international terrorism.
While U.S. authorities and its court system are wrestling with the fallout of the December 25 failed attack on the Detroit-bound plane, Nigeria's government has repeatedly said this was an isolated incident. It also pointed out the accused 23-year-old, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, spent most of his teenage and young adult years outside Nigeria.
Nigeria's government reacted angrily when Nigerians were added to a list of passengers for whom the United States is requesting additional screening. Nigeria's government even said this could threaten bilateral relations.
But scholar J. Peter Pham says there is growing concern about Nigeria's Islamic extremism. "Although the traditional Islam of West Africa has traditionally been peaceful and heavily influenced by the Sufi brotherhoods, we have also seen in the last 15 to 20 years, increased encroachment of rather radical elements so I think it was a matter of time," he said.
Dozens of people were recently killed in violence involving Islamic extremists in the northern city of Bauchi, Nigeria. A group calling itself Boko Haram as well as associated groups are calling for imposition of what they see as pure Islam throughout Nigeria. The group's name means "Western education is a sin."
There has also been an Islamic sect calling itself the Taliban which has staged several attacks in the largely Muslim north.
Pham, the director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, says there are other groups in Nigeria which should be watched closely. "There is a Nigerian branch of Hezbollah that has occasionally staged parades in various northern states. There are radical groups that have increasingly penetrated the area, financed often by money coming from outside of the area, but they are clearly present," he said.
But Nigerian-American professor of political science at the City University of New York, Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome, says terror threats cannot be nationalized. "To assume that just because somebody of Nigerian origin did such a thing, one could stretch this to the possibility that all Nigerians are going to be potential terrorists, is to misunderstand the nature of what has happened and the extent to which the world has become a global place. Recruitment of people to do any number of things from jobs to any kind of dangerous activity have also gone global, so the fact that somebody comes from one place does not mean that that place is going to be where the next person comes from," she said.
Like the Nigerian government, she does not agree with the U.S. government request to screen Nigerians more thoroughly. "If one kind of looks at this systematically, and you think about what has happened in cases where citizens of other countries have done similar things, for example, the shoe bomber, who I think was a British citizen, all the citizens of Britain were not put on a list as people who should be subject to extraordinary scrutiny. So I think it is unfair that Nigeria would be put on this list of countries," she said.
The other countries for which U.S. authorities are seeking increased screening include Yemen, where Abdulmutallab spent several months before the attempted December 25 bombing.
The shoe bomber Okome refers to is British national Richard Reid. He is currently serving a life sentence without parole in the U.S. state of Colorado, after being convicted of attempting to blow up a plane with explosives in his shoes in 2001. His crime led to the requirement of having passengers remove their shoes before boarding a plane.