Nigeria, homeland of would-be Christmas Day suicide bomber Umar Abdulmutallab, is included on a list of 14 nations whose air passengers traveling to the US will face enhanced screenings at airports. The new policy, announced by the Obama administration on Sunday, is provoking a backlash from the Nigerian government. As officials in Washington continue to ask how better to safeguard America, they must also consider the implications of worsening relations with Africa's most populous country, especially if, as some experts argue, the enhanced screenings are not the best way to protect the United States.
Part of Nigeria's complaint is that they see themselves as good faith actors in airport security. Within days of the Christmas Day incident, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority said it would begin using full-body scanners on passengers. The Authority's director "rejected any suggestion that his government's promise to upgrade its airport security was a smoke screen to avoid international criticism," noting that Nigeria has passed international airport safety examinations and US Transportation Security Administration audits. He "also said would-be terror bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab also went through Amsterdam Airport undetected, even with that city's advanced technology."
Feeling that they are doing their part, Nigerian officials are formally protesting their country's inclusion on the extra screening list. Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe "met US ambassador Rene Sanders on Tuesday to push Nigeria's objection to the new measures" and "the Nigerian Senate has lodged an official appeal with the US to be removed from the list." At least one state-level official joined in protesting the measures.
Yesterday, Information Minister Dora Akunyili used even stronger language. Like others, Akunyili emphasized Nigeria's adherence to international security standards and UN and AU counterterrorism measures. But she also said that Nigeria's inclusion on the screening list has "the potential of undermining long-standing and established US-Nigeria bilateral ties and the goodwill the US enjoys in Nigeria."
This Day, a Nigerian newspaper, also reports that officials in the administration of President Umaru Yar'Adua "said the US did not make any attempt to speak with Yar'Adua in the aftermath of the failed plot," nor did Washington try to contact Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. If true, this lack of communication could further damage trust between the US and Nigeria.
Keeping America safe is the US government's top priority, but it is unclear whether the new screenings will substantially improve security. Attorney and blogger Glenn Greenwald argues that "expanding the scope of raw intelligence data collected by our national security agencies invariably impedes rather than bolsters efforts to detect terrorist plots." The amount of data "clogging" the system may have prevented US intelligence agents from fully processing information they received about Abdulmutallab, Greenwald writes. Similarly, screening every passenger traveling from Nigeria or other countries on the list will be time-consuming and could create similar blind spots as security personnel struggle just to manage the flow of bodies and information.
Moreover, generalizing the actions of one man to all the citizens of his country risks further alienating ordinary Muslims (and non-Muslims), thereby increasing security risks to the United States. And imposing restrictions on Nigeria, the land of Abdulmutallab's birth, but not England, the land where many suspect he was radicalized, could appear to be a double standard, further fueling resentment of US policies.
I would not urge the US to scrap an effective security measure solely because another country's government objected to it. But in this case, US officials should be aware that African governments are increasingly unreceptive to American behavior seen as bullying and condescending. Given the doubts about the effectiveness of mass enhanced screenings, and the potential diplomatic repercussions of tension between the US and Nigeria, I believe Nigeria's inclusion on this list could do more harm than good, both from a security standpoint and from the vantage point of America's interests broadly defined.