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B Raman: Al Qaeda's Nigerian link

Last updated on: December 28, 2009 09:44 IST

From additional details of the terror attempt on December 25 by a Nigerian member of Al Qaeda to cause an explosion in a plane of the US North-West Airlines flying from Amsterdam to Detroit as it was approaching Detroit to land there, it is evident that it was not a lone wolf terrorist attempt by an angry individual to give vent to his anger against the United States.

It was an attempt by Al Qaeda's command and control to cause a spectacular incident involving mass casualties in the US air space and possibly US territory in order to demonstrate to the US and the rest of the international community that Al Qaeda remains strong and active despite the leadership losses suffered by it in the Af-Pak region during 2009.

The target was the US homeland and the audience was the US public, whose confidence in the revamped counter-terrorism set-up might have been shaken had the Nigerian whom Al Qaeda trained and used succeeded in causing an explosion.

The credit for the fact that the aircraft and its passengers escaped what could have been a disaster should go to some passengers of the plane and its crew, who acted promptly and with bravery after the terrorist suspect attempted to cause a detonation, which remained incomplete in the sense that it caused only a fire and not a full-blown explosion. They overpowered the suspect and put out the fire and the flight crew managed to land safely.

Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has repeatedly tried to carry out another major terrorist strike against the US in the US Homeland, and had infiltrated many groups and individuals  from Pakistan and elsewhere into the US for this purpose. An alert Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) thwarted these attempts. It detected and neutralized the cells, which were seeking to act as the Trojan Horses of Al Qaeda in the US Homeland.

Al Qaeda also sought to attack the US by targeting US-bound flights to cause mass casualties if not on the ground, at least in the air. Its 2001 attempt to have a Miami-bound plane blown up through shoe-bomber Richard Reid, who had concealed the explosive in his shoes, failed under circumstances similar to those of Detroit due to malfunctioning of the device and the alertness and courage of the passengers and the crew, who intervened  to prevent a disaster.

In 2006, it again tried to have a number of planes bound for the US from the UK blown up with the help of some persons mainly from the Pakistani diaspora in the UK who were instructed to carry material capable of being converted into explosives into the aircraft by concealing it in soft drink bottles and use it to cause explosions.

The alertness of the British intelligence and security services thwarted this attempt while it was still in the planning stage. The would-be perpetrators were arrested and prosecuted before British courts. One of the would-be perpetrators, Rashid Rauf, a British citizen of Pakistani origin from Birmingham, who was based in Pakistan was used by Al Qaeda to orchestrate this conspiracy. He was related by marriage to Maulana Masood Azhar, the Amir of the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

He was arrested by the Pakistani authorities, who avoided handing him over to the British for interrogation and prosecution. He escaped from custody under mysterious circumstances and was ultimately reported to have been killed in a US drone strike in Waziristan.

Despite the failure of its previous two attempts to blow up US-bound planes with the help of suicide bombers, al Qaeda has not relented in its determination to strike at the US in its homeland -- either on land or in its air space. This is the chilling message from the Detroit incident. The failure of the attempts involving Richard Reid and the latest Detroit incident on Christmas Day were due to circumstances beyond the control of al Qaeda and not due to the effectiveness of the security measures at the Schiphol airport of Amsterdam or the alertness of the Western intelligence agencies.

What should be of concern to governmental and non-governmental security experts all over the world is the fact that al Qaeda's conspiracy almost succeeded in that the Nigerian trained by it in Yemen managed to evade the security screening at Schiphol airport and carry concealed on his body, reportedly in his underwear, a high-grade explosive and a syringe with a chemical trigger to detonate it.

Even after 9/11, on air flights diabetic patients are allowed to carry syringes and insulin on the basis of a certificate issued by a doctor, but the airport security have no way of verifying the authenticity of the medical certificates carried by a passenger.

Citing US security sources, sections of the media, including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), have identified the explosive material carried on board the aircraft by the suspect as containing PETN, also known as pentaerythritol, a high-grade explosive. Did he carry it concealed in his underwear as reported by sections of the media or inside his anus as was reportedly done by an al Qaeda terrorist trained in Yemen who tried to kill the Saudi deputy interior minister in August this year? The device inside the anus of that terrorist was reportedly triggered off by a remote control device. Did the Nigerian use the syringe to trigger off his device?

Even at the time of the attempt to kill the Saudi minister, counter-terrorism experts had warned of the implications for airline security  of the new method of concealment devised by al Qaeda. The security set-up of the minister totally failed to detect the presence of the explosive material inside the anus.

The Nigerian, chosen by al Qaeda for its latest attempt, has been identified as 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly the son of a serving or retired banker of Nigeria, who has reportedly identified his son. It is reported that till 2008 he was studying engineering in a college of London and then disappeared from the UK. He seems to have come into contact with Al Qaeda during this period and undergone training in Yemen.

The suspect came from an affluent family of Northern Nigeria which since 2007 has been showing signs  of becoming another recruiting ground for Al Qaeda.

The Reuters news agency disseminated the following report on May 10,2008: "Al Qaeda Islamist militants have renewed their threat to bomb targets in Nigeria, , a newspaper reported quoting the national police chief. The United States embassy in Nigeria said last September the country was at risk of "terrorist attack" and Osama bin Laden once named the world's eighth biggest oil exporter as ripe for jihad or Islamic holy war.

"The al Qaeda network has threatened to send time bombs to Nigeria ... CPs (commissioners of police) of all the commands should be on the alert and ensure that these items (bombs) do not pass through their end," the Punch newspaper quoted Inspector General of Police Mike Okiro as saying.

He gave no details of what the targets might be, but he told a group of senior officers that intelligence reports showed the threat was real. A number of suspected jihadists have been arrested by police and the State Security Services (SSS) in recent years, but the cases have dragged on in the courts and there have been no convictions. No conclusive evidence of al Qaeda's presence in Nigeria has been made public.

Five Islamist militants with suspected links to al Qaeda are on trial in the capital Abuja for plotting attacks on government targets in Africa's most populous country. The men were arrested in November (2007) by the SSS in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria. Three of them have also been charged with training in Algeria with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) between 2005 and August 2007.

The GSPC renamed itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in January 2007. The charge sheet said the five militants, all in their early 30s, "did conspire to commit terrorist acts," and said three of them trained in Algeria "with intent to attack government facilities and cause insurrection in Nigeria". Another charge said the militants had an AK 47 rifle, ammunition, dynamite, fertiliser "and 11 explosive devices" which they planned to use to attack government facilities and installations in the southern cities of Lagos and Ibadan."

The alleged infiltration of Al Qaeda into Northern Nigeria was preceded by the spread of the ideology of the Taliban in the local Muslim community. An Islamic fundamentalist movement which disseminated the ideas of the Taliban became active. It was referred to by the locals as the Boko Haram movement.

Boko Haram means "Western education is sinful." It strongly opposed Western education as anti-Islam. Its founder Mohammed Yusuf, who was reportedly Iran-educated, was alleged to have been killed by the security forces, but the movement started by him, which is also referred to as the Nigerian Taliban, has remained active.

Shortly after the world came to know of the Detroit incident, a non-governmental organisation of Nigeria known as "Citizens For Nigeria", which is believed to consist largely of  representatives of the Nigerian Christian community, put out the following statement: "Today, we heard of a Nigerian, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, who said he was an agent for al Qaeda and tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane as it was preparing to land in Detroit, Michigan, US.

The Citizens for Nigeria can predict that when Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab's identity is revealed, he will be known to come from the northern part of Nigeria that has always received state protection and patronage for religious persecution.

In July, 2009, when the security forces in northern Nigeria battled the remnants of an Islamic sect loosely modelled on Afghanistan's Taliban movement, the world did not pay attention. In that particular incident, more than 180 people died. It was a local Nigerian news. Now that a  Nigerian likely affiliated with Al Qaeda attacked an American airline, the world's attention will be fixed on Nigeria.

To a majority of Nigerians, religious terrorism has a long history. To Christians, particularly those living in the northern part of Nigeria, terrorism began long before Al Qaeda and 9/11. Northern Nigeria has always provided the breeding ground for intolerant Islamic fanaticism, the kind that gave life to Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab's ill-fated attack on the American soil. Nigerians have for years been killed in large numbers by Islamic fanatics with quiet but active support of the northern elite that have ruled Nigeria for most of her life."

B Raman