Terrorism in Nigeria: the Rise of Boko Haram

(This article was originally published in the World Policy Blog)

By Christopher Bartolotta

A suicide bomber drove through the gates of the U.N. headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, just after 11 a.m. on August 26. The car, strapped with a 100-pound bomb, accelerated up the long driveway and crashed into two security barriers near the building’s reception area. The explosion tore apart the building, which houses 26 different U.N. agencies, leaving 23 dead and injuring scores.

The little-known Islamist group Boko Haram claimed responsibility. Founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s name translates as “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language. Yusuf, who was killed by government forces in 2009, instilled the group with extremist ideology, extolling a version of Islam where any interaction with Western society is considered a sin. “Boko Haram is a way of thinking,” says John Campbell, former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. “They are a loosely organized grassroots insurrection against not only the Abuja government but the traditional Muslim establishment as well.”

After nearly a decade of violence, Nigeria’s government still does not have an effective strategy for dismantling the group. The terrorist organization preys on the disillusioned Muslims of the north, who are fed up with corruption and have few economic opportunities. Unless this changes, the audacity of Boko Haram’s attack on the U.N. headquarters will only be a prelude to future violence. The Nigerian government’s current plan of increasing security forces only militarizes the problem, and any help from international forces would only increase local support for the anti-West terrorist group. Guns alone cannot attack the real root problems of the growth of extremism in the country: unemployment and corruption.

Nigeria is divided. The northern half of the country is almost completely Muslim (50 percent of the total population) and the southern half is mostly Christian (40 percent of the total population). Abuja, the capital and target of Boko Haram’s most recent attack, lies in the center of the country. Originating in the Muslim-dominated northeast region of the country, the movement rejected everything deemed Western. Boko Haram grew its ranks by taking advantage of widespread anger in the north over the country’s wealth gap. In the north, 72 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to only 27 percent in the south.

The political goal of Boko Haram is to create an Islamic nation in the 12 northern states of Nigeria, eventually spreading to the rest of the country. From its inception, Boko Haram viewed Nigeria as a state run by non-believers and made the government its main target—even when the country had a Muslim president.

Yusuf died at the hands of Nigerian security forces in 2009 while trying to escape from custody after a battle with Nigerian police. His body, found handcuffed in the street, raised questions about the legitimacy of the escape story. The alleged extrajudicial execution, expected to signal the end of Boko Haram, has so far proven to be their greatest recruiting tool. Over the past two years the group’s members have reformed under a new, and as of yet unknown leader, and increased the breadth and scope of their attacks.

The group, which until recently had been known for attacking local government facilities, is now the subject of intense international scrutiny. Its recent attack on a major international institution in the capital has led many to believe that the group has larger ends in mind than just the domination of Nigeria. In June, the Nigerian State Security Service claimed members of Boko Haram were being trained in Afghanistan and Algeria by members of al-Qaida.

President Goodluck Jonathan stood in front of the smoldering rubble the day after the UN headquarters bombing and said, “Boko Haram is a local group linked up with terrorist activities, and as a government, we are working on it and we will bring it under control.”

Jonathan’s words are vague at best, giving no hint of a cohesive strategy for combating the group. More worryingly, the government does not seem to acknowledge that Boko Haram may have already transformed into more than a local problem—one that could be currently funded and trained by international terrorist groups. The muddled nature of the group, however, makes this difficult to confirm. “The organization has no formal ties—and are too disparate—to say they are as a whole being trained by al-Qaida,” says Campbell. “No one even knows who their leader is.”

While Boko Haram was able to capitalize on Nigeria’s widespread poverty, the lack of economic opportunities is not the only social ill in the country. According to a Human Rights Watch report, corruption in Nigeria has resulted in police abuse, human rights violations, a lack of health care, and political violence. A 2009 report by Amnesty International accused the Nigerian Police Force of hundreds of extrajudicial disappearances and killings each year, all of which have gone uninvestigated. These disheartening factors of failed development combine to create a climate of desperation in Nigeria, especially potent in the north. Few people feel they can trust the state institutions, establishing the perfect recipe for the growth of extremism.

The Jonathan government inherited the Boko Haram problem when it came into office in May of 2010. Since taking office, Jonathan has taken several steps to attempt to solve the problem, such as creating a special joint military task force to eliminate Boko Haram, installing numerous closed circuit televisions throughout the Federal Capital Territory where Abuja is located, and tapping Ambassador Usman Gaji Galtimari to head a committee with the specific goal of dealing with Boko Haram.

But nothing has worked. After the death of Yusuf, Boko Haram experienced a resurgence. Now, many question the ability of the Jonathan government to eliminate the threat. “His administration will need international assistance, especially in the areas of intelligence sharing, counterinsurgency operations, detection of improvised explosive devices, forensic analysis, intelligence gathering and analysis, and the mounting of a de-radicalization program,” says Freedom C. Onuoha, an Abuja-based research fellow at the African Center for Strategic Research and Studies.

However, where this help will come from is unclear. If the Jonathan government looks for international assistance, there are only a few countries with the capability to help. “The African Union is totally out of the picture, as it lacks capacity in these areas. The U.N. has little or nothing to offer. I think countries like the U.S., Israel, and the United Kingdom, among others, will be of great assistance,” says Onuoha. This leaves Nigeria in a Catch-22. Without foreign assistance, the government will have a difficult time eliminating Boko Haram. But if the government of Nigeria does invite foreign forces into the country, it could help the terrorist organization attract more Nigerians. “The attack on the U.N. House in Abuja is likely a strategic move by the sect and its international collaborators to draw foreign forces into Nigeria and possibly make the country ungovernable,” says Onuoha.

A public invitation for foreign assistance will only help the terrorist organization attract followers. “Any international response will be a recruiting tool for Boko Haram,” says Campbell, who believes the Jonathan government is making the wrong choice by militarizing the problem, treating this as only a security issue rather than a political one as well. “The ideal response by the Jonathan government would be conciliatory speeches, visits to the North, and the opening up of economic opportunities for those in the northern regions,” he says.

The international community could assist Nigeria through the use of foreign aid earmarked to create economic opportunities in the country’s northern regions. But for countries to give aid, they would have to be sure that the money is being used in its intended manner. With the current state of corruption in Nigeria, that is anything but certain. Transparency International ranks Nigeria 134th on its Corruption Perceptions Index alongside Bangladesh, Togo, Zimbabwe, and Azerbaijan—not exactly paragons of good governance.

The challenges facing Nigeria are serious, and the solutions are scarce. A local, domestic terrorist group has now grown into something larger and much more dangerous. Onuoha says Boko Haram could bond with extremist movements like al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. “The sect,” he says, “may morph into a new terror network in the form of al-Qaida in Nigeria.”

The expansion of al-Qaida from the Maghreb into sub-Saharan Africa is a scary thought, one that concerns not only Nigeria, but all other countries that could be a target of al-Qaida. Given the origins of the group, the solution will not come from government security forces. If the leadership of Boko Haram is eliminated, another group will simply step up to take its place. Nigeria must look within itself to fix its social, economic, and political problems. Boko Haram is a symptom of alienation in Nigeria’s north, something the U.S. and other countries can do little to address. Extremism is bred in inequality and insufficient economic opportunity, and the government of Nigeria must deal with these problems to achieve peace and security within their country.

[Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Programme]