In the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing plot, attention has focused almost exclusively on the well-known terrorist havens such as Waziristan, Yemen and Somalia. What has been all but completely ignored is the nationality of the would-be bomber. He is from Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa with the fourth largest Muslim population in the world (even ahead of Egypt). The radicalization of even a relatively small number of Nigerian Muslims would add a whole new front to the war on terror.
There is reason to be concerned that precisely such a radicalization is going on. According to a report by the State Department, published last year and first reported by Foreign Policy.com, “Government neglect is provoking disaffection that, if left unchecked, could lead to the growth of insurgency or even terrorism.” Nigeria has a history of ethnic and religious violence. It also has many of the other characteristics that lead to radicalization: overall poverty and extreme disparities in wealth, the loss of traditional identities and forms of employment, massive corruption and poor governance. Like the underwear bomber, there are many young, affluent Nigerians who have been educated in the West but lack jobs. They constitute a potentially fruitful recruiting pool for Al Qaeda. In many ways, Nigeria is similar to Pakistan.
What may be even more frightening is that there are some in Nigeria with the skills and experience to circumvent many of our systems for securing the homeland. Nigerian criminals have made passport and visa fraud and forgery into high arts. Some groups have pioneered in the field of Internet-based scams and the use of bugs and spyware. Recently, I reported that there is also a growing drug-terrorism connection between groups in Latin America and those in West Africa, particularly Nigeria. The result is a toxic and potentially deadly stew of socio-economic forces, religious issues and criminal activities that could rapidly morph into a serious threat to the United States.
This is one of those situations that call for what the 9/11 Commission said that the Intelligence Community (IC) lacked: imagination. Rather than waiting for a smoking gun — or worse, a smoking building or hole in the ground in the United States — the IC should get out ahead of this potential danger and focus greater attention on Nigeria. We don’t need to be surprised about Nigeria the way we have been about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
This creates something of a dilemma for Washington since Nigeria is a major supplier of oil to the United States. Likewise, the United States and Nigeria have collaborated on a host of regional security issues, including counterterrorism. However, when the Transportation Security Administration put Nigeria on the list of fourteen countries whose citizens would be subject to extra scrutiny, the Nigerian government and people were naturally irate. This is the same problem the United States has in dealing with other prospective terrorist-producing countries such as Pakistan and Yemen. We don’t want to create bad blood between our countries. But at the same time, as the State Department’s report points out, it is the incompetence and weakness of these countries’ governments that has allowed Islamic radicalism to gain a foothold there.
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