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Boko Haram's threat to Nigeria ... and beyond

AROUND this time every year I'm invariably asked which of the world's troublespots will likely make headlines in the months ahead.

TROUBLESPOT: Radical Islamist group Boko Haram has killed hundreds this year in its insurgency in northern Nigeria. Picture: Reuters
TROUBLESPOT: Radical Islamist group Boko Haram has killed hundreds this year in its insurgency in northern Nigeria. Picture: Reuters

For most people, places like Syria, Gaza and Afghanistan immediately spring to mind and there is no doubt that in Syria especially, the next few months if not weeks will be crucial.

However, as someone tasked with monitoring and reporting on global flashpoints, let me suggest another region well worth keeping an eye on in the coming year.

I'm talking about West Africa, notably the countries of Mali and Nigeria.

Both France and the US covet intervention in Mali, worried it is fast becoming a staging post for transnational jihadists.

Wracked by the combined effects of extremist ideologies, foreign agendas and the genuine grievances of Malian tribes, including the Tuareg, there is no doubt Mali is vulnerable to all-out conflict and most security analysts expect a major showdown there some time in the new year.

But it is in neighbouring oil rich Nigeria that the real growth of Islamic extremism is most manifest.

There, the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has killed hundreds this year in its insurgency, focusing its attacks on security and religious targets in an effort to carve out an Islamic state in a country of 160 million split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims.

Yesterday, an attack by around 30 gunmen in Katsina state on the residence of Paris-listed renewable energy firm Vergnet resulted in the death of two guards and the kidnapping of a French engineer.

While the attack has not yet been confirmed as the work of Boko Haram, the group in recent months has increasingly held sway in the region and has indisputably become the biggest security concern to Africa's largest oil exporter.

So just who are Boko Haram and just how much of a threat do they pose?

Many of the clues to the group's religious and political agenda lie in its very name.

In the Hausa language of Nigeria, Boko Haram means Western Education is Sinful, while the movement's official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad. Its self-declared mission is to fight for the establishment of Islamic Sharia law across Nigeria.

Back in its fledgling days, Boko Haram was limited to inciting sectarian violence by attacking Christians with clubs, machetes and small arms.

Since then it has made a huge operational leap to the use of large suicide vehicle bombs which it has deployed against security installations, UN headquarters and, last month, a church in Jaji, Kaduna state.

Indeed, it's probably a fair bet that as Nigeria's Christian community goes about celebrating Christmas over the coming week the chance of further large-scale Boko Haram attacks against churches and Christian worshippers is almost a certainty.

This ability to launch these devastating strikes with more powerful and fairly sophisticated weapons would point to what many intelligence analysts have long believed is an increase in outside training and supplies.

It also helps corroborate reports Boko Haram militants have been attending training camps elsewhere in West Africa, notably in the Sahel, run by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Some Boko Haram fighters are also said to have received training from the jihadist group al Shabaab in Somalia.

The group's leaders also seem to have been maturing as terrorist planners.

One of the most frightening warnings to have emerged about Boko Haram's ability to up the ante in its terror campaign was made some months ago by two former CIA counter-terrorism officers who warned a Washington Post journalist about a threat to commercial airliners.

As far back as September 2011, one of the former CIA officers warned an FBI contact that Libyan portable shoulder held rocket launchers and missiles were moving south into the Agadez region of Niger inhabited by Tuareg tribesmen, who were believed to have links with AQIM and Boko Haram.

The rocket launchers were among many that had gone missing from arsenals in Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

One of the ex-CIA men explained to the FBI contact that an Arab source said there were SA-7s and SA-24s (Russian-made weapons) from Libya already on the ground in Agadez and in the hands of Tuareg affiliated to the Islamist groups. But he heard nothing back.

According to the ex-CIA men, they subsequently received solid evidence blackmarket technicians had refurbished the rocket launchers for Boko Haram, for possible use against commercial jets flying into West African countries such as Niger, Chad and Nigeria.

The two men said they tried to alert US intelligence of the threat for something like eight months, but without success.

Faced with this increasing Boko Haram threat, the Nigerian government, aided by US and European intelligence advisors, has sought to strike back against the group. It has arrested or killed a handful of its leaders and smashed some of its cells and bomb factories.

We are on top of the situation, insists the Nigerian government. Boko Haram will soon be brought to book, goes their message.

But the situation on the ground shows the Islamists have become a spectre that more than ever haunts the ironically named Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

For the moment, the Nigerian government's options are limited and the best it can hope for is to contain and attempt to neuter Boko Haram's terror campaign, especially as a national election looms in the country in early 2015.

As Christmas approaches, many Christians in the predominately Muslim north of Nigeria are bracing themselves for an escalation of Boko Haram activity.

Some commentators have even gone as far as to say the sectarian divide between Muslims and Christians, stoked up in part by Boko Haram, could potentially plunge the country into civil war.

While for the moment Boko Haram's threat remains largely contained to Nigeria, its links with other radical Islamist groups like AQIM across West Africa is an altogether different kind of problem.

There is now no question it presents the international community with a new geographical theatre of operations in the long drawn out war on terror.

Next year, as France and the United States become increasingly embroiled, just watch Boko Haram make the headlines.

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