Monday, December 28, 2009

Is foreign education to blame for Nigeria bomber's radicalism?

There are couple of stories in the newspapers that blame "foreign" education for the radicalism of Umar Abdulmatallab - the Nigerian who was charged couple of days ago for trying to blow up a Delta airlines flight. Here is one at Reuters, Nigeria bomber's home town blames foreign schooling and here is another in Dawn/AFP, Nigerians pulled to radicalism by education, poverty.

I was intrigued by this assertion. So where did he go for schooling and what kind of education did he get there? From the Reuters article:
Abdulmutallab was educated at the British School in Lome, Togo -- a boarding school mostly serving expatriates and students from around West Africa -- before studying engineering at University College London (UCL), where he is believed to have lived in a multi-million dollar city-center apartment.

One friend who knew him in London said he kept himself to himself and always wore a skullcap, rare among young Nigerian Muslims who usually wear such caps only on religious occasions.

Nigeria's This Day newspaper said he had been given the nickname "Alfa" -- a local term for an Islamic scholar -- while at school in Togo, for his preaching to other students.

He also made two trips to Yemen during his student days for short Arabic and Islamic courses, according to a family friend.

Okay - it seems hard to pin down the blame at one place. Was it Togo, UCL, or Yemen? To add more information, here is an article from Dawn/AFP:

Alleged would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is from a well-off family in northern Nigeria but his relatives said he had broken contact with them weeks ago after announcing he was studying in Yemen.

“Whatever religious views he held while studying in the UK, Farouk did not get the crazy idea of bombing a plane until he went to the Middle East for further study,” said Sani, who is also a neighbour to the family.

Scores of agents for Asian and Middle East education institutions are based in northern Nigeria.

Well...that may be the case. But where is the evidence that foreign schooling caused his radicalism? Was he rebelling against a particular curriculum or being educated in a particular form of Islam? As such, these are mostly quotations from Umar's relatives and neighbors - but it troubles me that their statements are taken somewhat uncritically in these articles.

It is possible that foreign education did play a role. But there may be other important factors: issues of identity in a foreign land, rebelling against his own privileged class, having a company of friends with radical views, etc. But those interviewed in the articles seem to have already found an answer - with or without evidence. It is also convenient to blame outsiders. But this strategy may simply divert our attention from the root-cause(s), whatever that might be.

I actually don't know what caused him to turn to the dark side (
My bet would be on his company of friends - rather than his schooling). It is possible that he was indoctrinated in some hate-spewing madrassa (not all are like this, but these do exist), but how much time did actually spend in a school in Dubai and Yemen? The Reuters article states that he went to Yemen for short Arabic and Islamic courses. Were these courses that effective to turn him into a bomber in a short period of time (if yes, then we better have a look at the curriculum)? In this particular case, I'm skeptical about this from the information presented in the two articles (for other posts on the recruitment of suicide bombers and radical madrassas, see here, here, and here). We definitely need more information before reaching any conclusions.

Read the Reuters article here and the Dawn/AFP article here.

Here is another article that fills in some more details, Umar farouk AbdulMutallab - a portrait. This again makes it clear that he was in Yemen and Dubai for a relatively short period of time and his ideas may have been radicalized before his journey there:

According to a family member,he particularly excelled in Physics during his time there. According to a friend, it was here that the first signs of his extremist views started to manifest. "We were together in Lome when the twin towers crashed and we watched it on TV," the friend said. "We used to call him "Pope because of the stately manner in which he carried himself. He was kind of quiet but anytime when there was an argument he would just come alive. After the 9/11 thing he actually defended the Taliban's actions saying that they were provoked.

Everyone thought he was kidding but he stood his ground." In 2004, he graduated from the British School with an International Baccalaureate and applied to study Mechanical Engineering in several universities in the United Kingdom and United States, finally opting for the University College London. He began a three-year course there in September 2005 and graduated with honours in 2008. He lived in a three bedroom basement flat near London's West End. Family members would occasionally drop in to spend time there but primarily he lived there alone.

He returned to Nigeria immediately after and later tried go for a Master's in London. However, the British embassy denied him a visa to pursue his studies after he allegedly used a fictitious college name in his application. He got an admission for a Master's degree in Dubai in the same year, but surprised his parents by saying that he wanted to abandon that for a seven-year Sharia programme in Yemen. According to his family, he travelled to Egypt and Yemen for holiday during his time in Dubai. Ibrahim Lawal, a friend of the terror suspect, said that Mr.Abdulmutallab was a deeply religious individual and often showed an avid interest in the theoretical side of Islamic study."He is very inquisitive," he said. "Always asking questions and always looking to learn new things. He didn't keep many friends because he was very quiet and a bit shy even.

Read the full article here.


Snuze said...

It makes you wonder what version of the Al Quran does he refer to that promotes suicide and the killing of innocents. *shakes head sadly*

The real victims here are the other Muslims who do NOT advocate violence who are then subjected to uncalled-for suspicions and discrimination.

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