Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The threat of Boko Haram and how best to tackle it

The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram conducted a series of bombing attacks and armed assaults January 20 in the northern city of Kano, the capital of Kano state and second-largest city in Nigeria. The attacks, which reportedly included the employment of at least two suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), targeted a series of police facilities in Kano. These included the regional police headquarters, which directs police operations in Kano, Katsina and Jigawa states, as well as the State Security Service office and the Nigerian Immigration Service office. At least 211 people died in the Kano attacks, according to media reports.

The group carried out a second wave of attacks in Bauchi state on January 22, bombing two unoccupied churches in the Bauchi metropolitan area and attacking a police station in the Tafawa Balewa local government area. Militants reportedly also tried to rob a bank in Tafawa Balewa the same day. Though security forces thwarted the robbery attempt, 10 people reportedly died in the clash, including two soldiers and a deputy police superintendent.

In a third attack, Boko Haram militants attacked a police sub-station in Kano on January 24 with small arms and improvised hand grenades. This armed assault stands out tactically from the January 20 suicide attacks against police stations in Kano. The operation could have been an attempt to liberate some of the Boko Haram militants the government arrested following the January 20 and 22 attacks.

Boko Haram, Hausa for "Western Education is Sinful," is an Islamist militant group established in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state. It has since spread to several other northern and central Nigerian states. It is officially known as "Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad," which is Arabic for "Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."

At first, Boko Haram was involved mostly in fomenting sectarian violence. Its adherents participated in simple attacks on Christians using clubs, machetes and small arms. Boko Haram came to international attention following serious outbreaks of inter-communal violence in 2008 and 2009 that resulted in thousands of deaths.

By late 2010, Boko Haram had added Molotov cocktails and simple improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to its tactical repertoire. This tactical advancement was reflected in the series of small IEDs deployed against Christian targets in Jos, Plateau state, on Christmas Eve 2010.

This attack paradigm was shattered June 16, 2011, when Boko Haram launched a suicide VBIED attack against the headquarters of the Nigerian national police in Abuja. Though not overly spectacular (security measures kept the device away from the headquarters building and it exploded in a parking lot), the successful deployment of a large VBIED and a suicide operative represented a dramatic leap in Boko Haram's capability. That it skipped a step prompts experts to believe reports of Boko Haram members receiving training from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Africa or from al Shabaab in Somalia.

The Foreign Minister of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, confirmed these reports. "There is no doubt that there is confirmed information that shows a link between Boko Haram and AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), and it consists primarily of the training given to elements of Boko Haram," Bazoum said at a regional security summit in Mauritania's capital. "One group has been received in AQIM bases here in the Sahel and another group got training, based on information we've gotten, with the Shabaabs in Somalia," he added.

The group apparently has split into three factions, according to a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. One faction remains moderate and welcomes an end to the violence, while another wants a peace agreement with rewards similar to those offered to a different militant group in 2009. The third faction, though, refuses to negotiate and remains the most radical. This is the faction that is in contact with al-Qaida's North Africa branch and with the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab.

If what this diplomat says is true, this is the faction that continues to conduct bombings in many parts of the country, although largely in the north-eastern states, although it has also bombed the national capital.

Boko Haram conducted its second suicide VBIED attack in Abuja on Aug. 26, 2011, this time targeting a U.N. compound in the city's diplomatic district. This attack proved far more deadly because the driver was able to enter the compound and reach a parking garage before detonating his device near the building's entrance. The attack against the U.N. compound also marked a break from Boko Haram's traditional target set of government and Christian facilities.

These recent attacks tell us that before the group can become a real threat to the Nigerian government -- or a legitimate transnational threat -- it will need to develop the ability to deploy its IEDs and suicide operatives to the point that it successfully can attack hardened targets. It will also need to develop the ability to work beyond its traditional areas of operation. Until it can master those skills (and display an intent to use such skills), it will remain a regional, albeit deadly, threat. That is the good news.

The bad news is that these increasing waves  of Boko Haram attacks are causing disquiet among politicians, especially those from the North. There is growing fear of attack. "Nobody seems safe with these attacks. I am really scared of this twist of events," said a politician who has had to tackle more than his fair share of security challenges in the recent past. "My worry is that right under our nose the situation is slipping out of control and it appears no one yet can solve this problem," the politician explained.

"The level of insecurity is alarming, and having soldiers and policemen out on the streets isn’t making it any better," adds Angela Olofu-Adeoye, assistant lecturer at the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos. Instead, she advises the government to invest in intelligence gathering, and get better insights in the modus operandi of Boko Haram. "Nobody really knows what Boko Haram wants. They talk about implementing Sharia law in the north, but details are unclear. Also, one would expect that after receiving N100 million in compensation money for the death of their leader Yusuf, Boko Haram would keep quiet for a while. But the violence has only increased. There’s no logical reasoning to be found."

"A lot of prominent people have already condemned Boko Haram’s actions. Nigeria is a secular state and will remain that way," she adds. "But now, we’re living in a state of fear. Nobody knows when the next bomb will detonate. However, I believe this current violence is just a phase. It came, and it will pass again as well. How and when though, I don’t know."

A prominent politician has accused politicians, especially immediate past governors of some northern states, of preparing the fertile ground for this sort of unfortunate insurgency as they encouraged their security outfits which terrorised people in their various states. Some have also bought off attacks by Boko Haram by paying them substantial sums. Their maladministration created the room or metamorphosed into the insurgency now rocking the country, the politician said.

Though media reports said serving and incumbent security chiefs are putting their heads together with a view to facing this challenge, there are fears among some politicians that even the presidency appears helpless or unable to tackle the problem .But officials say the presidency appears to be working on the strategy which will emphasize dialogue rather than violence. What is certain is that the nation is facing an unusual security challenge now.

"I think we have been lying to ourselves in this country for years;the politicians the media and all, everybody kept avoiding the truth.People would tell lies to get into power. Now we are all in trouble," a politician who expressed concern over Boko Haram said under the condition of anonymity. What appears certain now is that just like the Niger Delta crisis, a tactically reassuring strategy perhaps emphasizing constructive engagement with the group is needed in order to stem the tide of sorrow, bloodletting and death emanating from the growing Boko Haram attacks.

More than 35,000 Nigerians reportedly have left their homes to avoid the Boko Haram violence. With thousands of Christians leaving their homes in northern Nigeria, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja has called upon the government to initiate talks with the Boko Haram terrorist group.

"Sooner or later someone will have to talk to the Boko Haram,” said Archbishop John Onaiyekan, “and I think those who can talk to them are those who share their own expectations, but not their methods.” The archbishop said that it is unrealistic to think that the government can provide adequate security to protect all citizens against active terrorism, and that a political solution is required to end the Boko Haram attacks.

The archbishop said that the Nigerian government must take a more active role, rather than making half-hearted responses to the terrorist threats. He observed that the majority of Nigeria’s people do not support the campaign for an Islamic state, and hinted that the government should be more forthright in confronting the militant threat.

A military solution is not possible. Violence only breeds more violence. It becomes a snake swallowing its own tail. Diplomacy and negotiations are the only way to achieve peace with Boko Haram. Nigerians for the most part want security, but they realize that the army and the police are incapable of protecting each and every Nigerian adequately. 

The Secretary-General, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Dr AbdulLateef Adegbite, has said the Federal Government must adopt a carrot-and-stick policy to resolve the Boko Haram challenge. He explained: "The moderates among them can be accepted as the constitution and the law may permit. Those hard-line Boko Haram elements that are bent on pursuing violent agenda should be sought out and dealt with according to the law."

"The scourge of violence as perpetrated by Boko Haram has become dreadful and frightening and seemingly uncontrollable. The need has obviously arisen to seek divine intervention. We call on peace -loving Nigerian Muslims to collaborate with their Christian counterparts in embracing peace and dialogue to enhance national security." 

"Religious leaders should educate their followers against negative preaching, practices and behaviour. Religious education should focus on authentic texts of every faith devoid of exaggeration that feed extremism," Adegbite added.

He concluded: "It is now crystal clear that these hard–faced rebels have declared war on all Nigerians. This is why it is misguided for some Christian leaders to call for reprisal against Muslims just because Boko Haram targeted a church near Abuja on Christmas Day last year, irresponsibly killing many worshippers. Is it not now evident that with the sad massacre in Kano, and killings elsewhere in the North, an over whelming number of Muslims have been wasted by Boko Haram?"

Adegbite puts his finger precisely on the greatest threat to Boko Haram's continued existence: their killing of fellow Muslims. As long as Boko Haram focussed almost exclusively on attacking Christians, most Muslims ignored them, but now every Muslim, at least in the North, feels personally threatened. 

One illustration of the weakness of Boko Haram is that the recent spate of bombing were concentrated in the North, and more specifically, the North-East. Other regions of the country have largely been spared. The Muslim spiritual leader of Nigeria, the Emir of Sokoto, has arrested members of Boko Haram, and they in turn have threatened to attack Sokoto, which is in the North-West of Nigeria.

As Adegbite  and others have noted, Muslims must join the negotiations that will ultimately lead to peace in Nigeria. I would add that Muslims must take the lead in such negotiations, since they are better able to understand their co-religionists. 

Christians and Muslims who want peace must work together so that this goal may be achieved. Boko Haram must not be allowed to tear Nigeria apart. As Nigeria goes, so does the rest of Africa. This saying is as true now as when it was first uttered.

Pray for peace in Nigeria. I have written several times already about Nigeria, since even though I no longer live there that large and important nation remains close to my heart. Also, I abhor violence and want to promote non-violence wherever I am.

(Note: Because of the length of this post, I have not included as many pictures in relation to the text as I often do. Also the horrific nature of the destruction wrought by Boko Haram made it difficult to choose appropriate photos. Thus I have selected several photos of some of the people that I quote.) 

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