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Same old, same old?: Does Boko Haram fit into Trans-Sahelian global terrorism concerns or is it just an internal problem for the Nigerian state?

In David Meyer on December 30, 2011 at 12:32 am

Following coordinated Christmas Day attacks that struck Christian churchs in a suburb of Abuja and the central city of Jos, as well as state security forces in the northern city of Damaturu, it seems that everyone is talking about Boko Haram. The Nigeria-based insurgent group, which has yet to ascend to the official U.S. State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, has gained increased media attention this year following a suicide attack on the United Nations building in Abuja last August, which killed 24 people, and major attacks in November and throughout December. While more ink has been spilled on their behalf over the past year than since their founding in 2002, or even since their initiation to violent struggle against the Nigerian state in 2009, the general consensus seems to be that no one knows much about the organization or what exactly should be done to combat or appease them. The latest wave of violence has led to fears of renewed sectarian violence across the ethnically and religiously divided Nigerian state, finger pointing exchanged between government and opposition political forces, and an international community, especially the “terrorist”-phobic West, weighing their options.

The church bombings, which killed at least 27 people, parallel similar attacks that took place last year on Christmas Day in Jos, which led to stop-and-go Christian-Muslim violence throughout the following months. This threat of inter-religious violence is what’s on everyone’s mind right now. While the Nigerian state has had recent relative success quelling diverse insurgent forces in the Niger Delta, there is also a bloody history of the repression of the Biafra self-determination movement to deal with, which is often referred to as the Nigerian Civil War. While there are parallels to be drawn with both of these previous challenges to the Nigerian state, the question is whether Boko Haram can be confronted with old tactics or if a new strategy is needed.

The general descriptions of Boko Haram include several key attributes of the movement: 1) They are based out of the northeastern Nigerian states, including Borno, Yobe, Kano, and Bauchi 2) They advocate for the application of Shariah law across all of Nigerian (currently Shariah criminal courts have been implemented in twelve northern states; Boko Haram claims an Islamic state would allow for a more complete and consistent application of Shariah in the country) 3) They may or may not have connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and/or Al Shabab. It is this third point that has Western governments, including the United States, most concerned. In fact, in August U.S. General Carter Ham, currently the head of AFRICOM, stated “What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts…I’m not so sure they’re able to do that just yet, but it’s clear to me they have the desire and intent to do that.”

Boko Haram’s home base lies at the edge of the Sahel belt, the flat, semi-arid grasslands that separate the Sahara Desert from the rest of the continent. Following the downfall of the Qaddafi regime, fears of increased arms trafficking in the region stoked interest in regional anti-terrorist cooperation. Algeria organized a regional conference last September to promote this cooperation originally envisioned in the creation of the Comité d’état-major opérationnel conjoint (Cémoc, Committee of Joint Chiefs of Staff) in April 2010, but recent kidnappings and killings of foreigners in Mali have only added to the anxieties of Sahel state governments and the West (link in French). Indeed, on December 20 the Algerian government announced it had sent troops across the border into Northern Mali to “assist” in the fight against terrorism. This follows the Pentagon offering the Malian government 4.5 million CFA francs (which, though only around $10,000 US, is more of a symbol of support within the larger assistance budget) in equipment for its state security forces to combat terrorism (link in French). Of course, critics contend that pinning the upsurge in Sahelian “terrorism” to AQMI glosses over questions of whether AQMI is truly a centralized threat or a convenient attention-grabber for smaller militant groups. In addition, fears of a Tuareg uprising may obscure groups actually linked to AQMI or, at the other end of the spectrum, entrench AQMI elements within Tuareg circles. The complexity seems endless, but are the alleged linkages between Boko Haram and AQMI enough to bring this conflict under the same scrutiny as the alleged linkages between Sahelian “terrorism” and AQMI?

The U.S. government may be leaning in that direction. In November, the Nigerian military revealed that the U.S. Army has been providing counter-insurgency training to Nigerian troops. Of course, past U.S. military assistance has largely been based on the threat that Niger Delta rebels posed to oil extraction and Western oil companies based in Southern Nigeria, so there is likely some residue left over from these policies. Following the Christmas Day attacks, the White House announced that it would assist the Nigerian government in “bringing those responsible to justice.” This diplo-speak really tells us nothing, but past military cooperation shows that further security or anti-terrorism assistance shouldn’t be ruled out of U.S. security policy towards the country. If the U.S. government perceives Boko Haram to be tied to AQMI, even more money could be flowing into the West African state. However, this securitization of the conflict has some commentators worried.

Indeed, Africa Confidential frets about President Jonathan’s apparent lack of strategy to battle Boko Haram and that he seems to be content to throw money at the issue. They worry that this confused policy is weakening the Nigerian state and opening the country up to long-term instability. Drawing on the lessons of the Niger Delta amnesty programs and keeping in mind the major missteps made during the Biafra revolt are going to be extremely important for the Nigerian government going forward, especially as the exact organization and makeup of Boko Haram remains clouded. The last thing they need is the inflammation of a new self-determination movement or the fostering of more Christian-Muslim violence, rumors of which are floating throughout the country following a home-made bomb attack on an Arabic school in the southern Delta state during the night of December 27. There are even unsubstantiated concerns that Northern politicians have been directly or indirectly supporting Boko Haram’s ambitions.

It is widely believed that Boko Haram has split into several factions, with an extremist wing behind the continued violence, led by Abubakar Shekau. It is thought that he leads the group from outside the country, operating out of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. While Boko Haram clearly remains active only in Nigeria, the porous borders of the Sahel region mean the intermixing of insurgent groups and possible contact with Al Qaeda or more “global” terrorist operations. However, at this time, according to Comfort Ero of the International Crisis Group, “Supposed links to al Qaeda doesn’t cover up the fact that Boko Haram is very much a Nigerian problem…It should be understood within Nigeria’s own endemic problems.” This is clearly the best way to approach this issue, but will the West be content to fix it within this framework? It seems unlikely, and with the recent overt deployments of U.S. military advisors into Uganda, drones over Somalia (not to forget the Kenyan invasion of Southern Somalia), and renewed fears of terrorism across the Sahel and in Nigeria, the Western anti-terrorism political-military complex may indeed be coming to town, again. It’s looking increasingly likely that 2012 might be the year that African “terrorism” begins to take a larger role in Western security policy.

-David Meyer


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