The attempt by a 23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on December 25 starkly reminds us that the roots of terror run deep into Africa as they do into the Middle East or AfPak.

For two decades terrorists like Osama bin Laden, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a major al-Qaeda terrorist killed in a commando raid in Somalia in September 2009 have found homes in Africa. The White House recently revealed that it was on highest alert for a possible Somali terror attack on Washington on Inauguration Day 2009.

Ungoverned spaces, failed states, poverty, corruption, and political anarchy in sub-Saharan Africa are significant precursors of jihadist terrorism. The actions of Abdulmutallab demonstrates that Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and home to 75 million Muslims, is a critical nation requiring enhanced U.S. vigilance. In the past few years, Nigeria has witnessed a series of troubling internal security challenges ranging from an active insurgency in the hydro-carbon rich Niger Delta to violent outbursts by radical Muslim sects in the north. One such sect of zealots, Boko Haram, ran riot in four northern Nigerian states in mid-2009 leaving over one thousand dead. While none of Nigeria’s Muslim sects have thus far demonstrated limited international agendas or reach, they are warning signs of a spreading climate of fanaticism and poisoned hatred that pushes individuals like Abdulmutallab to jihadist violence.

But it was also his father’s wealth that allowed young man to travel abroad to London to study and undergo further radicalization. It was his father’s economic standing that gave him access to a coveted U.S. visa. Finally, it was Al-Qaeda’s branch operations in Yemen that recruited and launched him on his suicide mission. These are some of the important dots U.S. intelligence failed to connect.

International security scrutiny falls upon Nigeria at a time when it is transfixed by a severe crisis of governance caused by the absence its President Umaru Yar’Adua, who departed Nigeria on November 23 for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia and whose state of mental and physical health remain a state secret. The murky state of affairs in Nigeria helps to create a sense of political vacuum and uncertainty about the future. Nigeria’s importance to U.S. interests is substantial for energy supply, trade and investment, and as a potential anchor for West African stability. For many in Washington, Nigeria may appear too big to fail. Yet, there is growing concern that a systemic process of failure is currently underway that might make Nigeria attractive to al-Qaeda.

Two lessons should be drawn from this latest al-Qaeda outrage: 1) Africa’s alienated and restless youth constitute a potentially fertile ground for al-Qaeda operatives as they seek new ways and fresh recruits to wage jihad against the U.S.; 2) Anti-terrorism efforts in Africa cannot be downgraded. The Administration must work harder to foster intelligence collection, law enforcement cooperation and coordinated anti-terrorism operations throughout the region.

The Obama administration, which prides itself on its ability to apply “smart power,” must do a better job of finding and neutralizing the individuals and groups that seek to perpetrate horrific terror against the U.S. and its citizens. And these efforts must be conducted in non-bureaucratic and discrete ways that do not cause blowback or create fresh enemies in restless, uncertain nations like Nigeria.