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The Scourge of Boko Haram

03/01/2012

Whilst Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has vowed to crush the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram, following their murderous attacks on Christian Churches on Christmas Day which left dozens dead, the Nigerian state has clearly taken their eyes off the ball. His Administration and allowed Boko Haram to transform from being a violent cult to posing a national security threat to the Nigerian state as a whole.

Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks have increasingly displayed growing sophistication in terms of weapons used, the nature of the attacks as well as the targets chosen. From the use of bows and poisoned arrows to small arms, Boko Haram has increasingly started using fuel-laden motorcycles, car bombings and suicide bombings. Since its formation in 2002, their modus operandi has also matured from drive-by shootings on motorcycles to multiple person teams involved in co-ordinated bombings. The increasingly confident nature of the attacks also transformed Boko Haram from constituting a local terror group to a national and potentially international one. Whilst initially focusing on local police stations and local politicians, the suicide bombing of the national police headquarters in Abuja and the bombing of the UN headquarters in Abuja clearly point to Boko Haram’s growing ability to wreak havoc. The greater sophistication demonstrated by the group in its terror attacks also suggest that they may well be receiving assistance from like-minded groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabab in Somalia. Since late 2008, AQIM and Boko Haram have been in contact and the choice of the attack on the UN in Abuja reflects AQIM’s own choice of targets. In December 2007, AQIM launched a suicide attack on the UN headquarters in Algiers. This, in turn, raises an intriguing question: how much of influence does AQIM exercise over Boko Haram?

Whilst Boko Haram has grown in strength, constituting an ever graver challenge to Abuja, the Nigerian state vacillated in its response. On the one hand it adopted a violent crackdown on the group, but as this was not intelligence-driven many innocent northern Muslims suffered at the hands of the heavy-handed tactics of the Nigerian security apparatus. Such an approach proved counter-productive and may well have resulted in more recruits for Boko Haram. Another approach which was mooted was some sort of immunity for Boko Haram and bringing them into the political process in exchange for their giving up violence. But the organization has scoffed at such “weakness” on the part of the Nigerian state, believing the state to be illegitimate and pressing on with its demand to have all 36 states to be ruled by Sharia law and not just the current 12 states in northern Nigeria.

Following his promise to crush Boko Haram, President Jonathan has instituted a state of emergency in several Nigerian states, closed some of the country’s borders with neighbouring countries and ordered the Chief of Defence to establish a counter-terrorism unit to eradicate the scourge of Boko Haram. Whilst some of the measures like the closing of the country’s borders make sense, given the AQIM presence in neighbouring Niger, others clearly do not. For instance, it is hard to see how any counter-terrorism unit could be successful fighting the terrorism threat posed by Boko Haram blind-folded. Consider here just one aspect: since the killing of its founder-leader, Mohamed Yusuf, nothing is known about its structure and chain of command or the identity of its current leadership. In other words, how are the security forces supposed to fight an organization it has so little intelligence on?