Boko Haram: Nigeria's growing new headache

Strategic Comments | International Institute for Strategic Studies | November 2011


The following article from the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Strategic Comments focuses on the threat posed to Nigerian security by the Boko Haram Islamist group.  By placing Boko Haram in a religious context, both historical and geographical, the author examines its recent emergence as an ideological player in Nigerian society.  However, while articulating its vision through an Islamist framework, the group is largely focused on local issues of economic and religious marginalisation in the north, where 75% of the population live in poverty, compared with 27% in the south. The article also touches on conflict in the Niger Delta over control of resources, in a wider reference to the troubles facing the government in Abuja.



Boko Haram: Nigeria's growing new headache

With a suicide car-bombing of the United Nations building in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in August, and recent deadly attacks in the northeastern states of Yobe and Borno, Islamist group Boko Haram has announced its return to the stage, two years after it was supposed to have been defeated. The radical group, which used to confine itself to drive-by shootings, is more violent than ever, adding to the pressures on Nigeria's security forces. Faced with the sect's calls for an Islamic caliphate and increasingly sophisticated guerrilla tactics, Defence Minister Bello Halliru Mohammed recently compared Nigeria's current position to 'the United States ... after 9/11'.

In a series of high-profile attacks this year, Boko Haram has also burnt down a hotel in its headquarters city of Maiduguri, assassinated a candidate in the race to become governor of Borno, and bombed the national police headquarters in Abuja. More than 100 people died in the Yobe and Borno attacks earlier this month. Although the group draws its inspiration from a broader Islamist agenda, it is also motivated by local economic and religious grievances,

Boko Haram's activities are one of several factors behind Nigeria's largest military deployment since the 1967–70 Civil War. Following repeated outbreaks of violence in the country's north and centre troops have been stationed in about ten states, including Borno, Kaduna, Plateau and Bauchi. Meanwhile, the country's immigration authorities, in conjunction with a military task force, have tightened control along the borders with Chad, Cameroon and Niger, because of suspicion that some Boko Haram members come from neighbouring countries, taking advantage of porous borders.

Islamic extremism in Nigeria
The small religious sect that formed in 2002 is officially called Jama'atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda'Awati Wal Jihad, or 'People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad'. However, it has become known by the name given to it by locals: Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language means 'Western education is unlawful'. It is not northern Nigeria's first extremist Islamic movement; these first appeared in the early nineteenth century when Islam in the area was dominated by the Sokoto caliphate (whose sultan currently remains the key spiritual leader for Nigerian Muslims). They spread across all northern states through the so-called Sokoto jihad. Under British rule the state's authority was challenged by the Islamist, anti-colonial trans-Saharan Mahadist movement, which opposed foreign presence and the unification of the northern and southern protectorates.

Since independence in 1960, power has shifted from the Muslim north to the Christian south. The Iranian revolution of 1979 resulted in growing demand for sharia law to be adopted across Nigeria. In addition, Saudi-sponsored missionaries from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Pakistan and other countries began in the 1990s to promote Wahhabi doctrine and orthodoxy. This helped lead to the adoption of sharia law in 12 northern states between 1999 and 2001.

In the 1980s Islamist militants belonging to the Maitastine movement became prominent in Kano and other northern states and were at the centre of violent disputes with government forces. Maitastine extremists, rejecting Muslims who had, in their eyes, gone astray, lived in secluded areas to avoid mixing with mainstream Muslims, and rejected material wealth on the grounds that it was associated with Western values. The government believed it had repressed the movement in the 1980s but it re-emerged in Kano and Jigawa in 2005, and is now present in almost all northern states.

Common factors among militant groups have included vocal criticism of the country's leadership as corrupt, unjust and unable to deal with social and economic problems; and rejection of Western values that, in their view, caused society and some clerics to abandon the tenets of Islam and to embrace secularism.One such group, the Muslim Brothers, attracted educated young people in the 1970s amidst economic and social crisis and high unemployment. An internal fracture between Sunnis and Shiites led the latter to establish the militant Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), which did not recognise the Nigerian state and engaged in violent clashes with government forces until 1999. Later it renounced violence and became part of the national government.

Over the past decade, new groups of militant Islamists have grounded their ideology more firmly in deteriorating socio-economic conditions, especially in the northern areas. Among this new wave was Muhajirun, whose upper and middle-class leaders from northeast Nigeria and recruited young unemployed to its cell-based network. In 2003 the group launched its first attack in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, and soon began attacking government officials and police, often seizing weapons and ammunitions. It carried the Afghan flag and was later known as the 'Nigerian Taliban' even though it appeared to have no actual link with the Afghan Taliban.

Boko Haram emerges
Boko Haram developed out of Muhajirun. The introduction of sharia law in the north was not enough for its members, who wanted the adoption of Islamic rule across the country. Statements issued by the group also indicated an attempt to align the Nigerian struggle to jihad in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nigeria lies on the so-called 'tenth parallel' and its persistent divide between Christian south and Muslim north has also been blamed for Boko Haram's rise. The pastoral nomadic north has traditionally lagged behind the farming south in terms of economic development. In the Middle Belt of the country, where these two different ways of life meet, competition over land usage, exacerbated by religious, ethnic and political divisions, has resulted in intense violence with central states suffering over 10,000 deaths in the last ten years. Plateau state and its capital Jos witnessed some of the deadliest outbreaks in 2010. This stark polarisation – 75% of northerners live in poverty compared with 27% of those in the south – is a factor behind local insurrections such as that of Boko Haram. According to former federal minister Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, 'most of the apparent ethnic and religious crises in the north, and the youth violence and criminality in the south, can be linked to increasing economic inequality.'

From the outset the group was led by Mohammmed Yusuf, who had previously been associated with the IMN and had been part of the committee implementing sharia law in Borno state. Yusuf's third arrest for incitement to violence and support of terrorism in 2009 led to days of violence between his followers and the police, and resulted in his death under unclear circumstances while in police custody. His deputy, Abubakar bin Muhammad Shekau (also known as Abu Muhammad) is now believed to be the group's leader.

The group has mainly engaged in small-scale attacks against government and security targets, but first made international headlines in July 2009 when five days of intense attacks against 'Westernised' clerics and elites left more than 700 people dead in Maiduguri and forced 5,000 to flee. The extent of the violence showed that Boko Haram was capable of mobilising thousands of people and was better trained and armed than government forces had thought. Boko Haram also appeared to be strengthened – and sought to adopt the new name – following a prison break in 2010 in which 700 convicts escaped.

Boko Haram draws its membership from unemployed and marginalised youth. There have been rumours of splits within the movement since 2009, but in 2011 internal differences became more evident as some elements including the Yusufiyya Islamic Movement (YIM) condemned the targeting of civilians and distanced themselves from attacks against places of worship.

Escalation of the group's attacks was seen on 24 December 2010, Christmas Eve, when two churches were attacked in Maiduguri, and in the series of incidents in 2011. These indicate that the group has become more sophisticated, that its confidence is growing and that it is no longer simply a local problem but a threat to national security.

Official reaction
The government has reacted by deploying troops to the region from 2004 onwards. In recent weeks, house-to-house armed searches by the Joint Task Force (JTF) in Maiduguri have prompted Boko Haram to relocate its base to Damaturu, capital of Yobo state, to which, in turn, additional forces have been deployed to strengthen an already substantial military presence. The federal government has approved the establishment of permanent operational bases for JTFs in the states of Bauchi, Yobe, Borno, Gombe, Taraba and Adamawa. While the overall size of the military contingent is unclear, local reports indicate that troops returning from peacekeeping operations in Kaduna (north-central Nigeria) and elements of the Army's 1st Division, also deployed in Kaduna, have been put on stand-by to join the JTFs. In addition, some of the 2,400 troops engaged in Darfur, Sudan, under the United Nations, due to return to Nigeria in mid-late November, will be assigned to operations in the northeast.

The Nigerian Army has a long-standing relation with its American counterparts which includes the provision of training. There has been speculation that some 300 Nigerian soldiers were sent to the United States to receive counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and bomb-disposal training specifically aimed at fighting Boko Haram. However, Nigerian Army sources were reported as denying this. US officials would not comment on whether such activities were linked to Boko Haram.

Use of the military can be problematic. Former American Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell recently noted that the military and the police in Nigeria are national forces, not local. This means that troops operating in the north are unlikely to share ethnic and cultural background with the local population. Human-rights abuses have been reported following army deployments in the north and some Boko Haram attacks have been carried out in response to the actions of government forces.

A further problem is that rampant corruption weakens the judicial system. Early arrests showed that some Boko Haram militants were the children of the affluent upper class. In subsequent investigations, tardiness, absence of transparency and lack of convictions suggested a willingness to protect some of those detained.

A 2008 diplomatic cable from the American embassyin Abuja, published by the Wikileaks website, highlighted another problem: it was common practice for Islamist terrorist suspects to be released from jail and handed over to imams for re-education.  According to the cable, the imams 'contended that the so-called de-radicalization efforts of the State Security Service were not only ill-conceived, but also ineffective, counter-productive, and unimpressive.'

The increased sophistication of Boko Haram's attacks may be partly explained by growing foreign support. There has been speculation – though without hard evidence – about interaction with al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, including possible training of Nigerians. In August 2011 General Carter Ham, Commander of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), said it was likely that Boko Haram had established contacts with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and with al-Shabaab. He described this as, if confirmed, 'the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well'.In November, Algerian Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel said he had 'no doubts that coordination exists between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda', citing intelligence reports and common operating methods.

Intersection with other groups
Boko Haram is just one of the many security challenges confronting President Goodluck Jonathan's administration. For the past 15 years Nigerian forces have been combating ethno-nationalist rebels, as well as militia groups which oppose foreign exploitation of resources in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The most prominent of these are the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and the Niger Delta Vigilantes (NDV).

Such groups do not view Boko Haram favourably, since it has stolen the limelight and attracted government attention and resources. MEND and other Delta groups, which had gone relatively quiet since a 2009 amnesty, are determined to shift back the official focus and have threatened to resume attacks against oil installations. The Niger Delta groups tend to dismiss Boko Haram as irrelevant to Nigeria's future, and to condemn its tactics. They have declared themselves ready to employ their most violent armed wings, such as NDV's 'Icelanders', if Boko Haram were to shift its operations further south. They would see such a move as an attempt to negotiate a lucrative deal with the government similar to that which the Delta regions rebels have enjoyed as a result of the amnesty.

Serious threat
Boko Haram is now believed to consist of 300 fighters with a wide network of supporters numbering in the thousands. It receives some foreign financial support and, following the attacks it launched over the past 12 months, has made itself known outside Nigeria. However, it would be premature to label Boko Haram as another branch of the al-Qaeda franchise alongside organisations such as AQIM and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The group certainly draws part of its inspiration from the wider Islamist agenda but even the attack against the UN building in Abuja appears to have been motivated by domestic grievances – the UN is seen as aligned with the Nigerian government. There is nothing to indicate that Boko Haram will not remain a domestic, inward-looking movement.

However, the group does represent a serious threat. In an already highly polarised country of 150 million people and nearly 350 ethnic groups speaking 250 languages, where about 50% of the population is Muslim and 40% Christian, and where nearly three-quarters of the people live on less than $1.25 a day, the potential for inter-ethnic and religious violence remains high. Poverty and unemployment in the north, coupled with population increase and government's inability to deal effectively with non-state groups, can turn northern states into an ideal recruitment ground for extremists and a springboard from which they could expand into the rest of the country. The Abuja attacks suggest that this is already occurring.

Article Source: International Institute for Strategic Studies

Image Source: pjotter05


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