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Forgotten Threats: IS Media Dominance Overshadows African Security Concerns


After stunning the world in the summer of 2014 , the Islamic State (IS) has dominated national security concerns of both the media and public officials in the United States with a rapid advance across Northern Iraq leaving massacred civilians and destroyed antiquities in its wake. However, while there is no denying that IS poses a significant threat, focusing on one security threat to the exclusion of others allows those forgotten concerns to fester through neglect. Two such threats—Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab—have been emboldened by a string of recent successes and a feeble local and international response.

Boko Haram, the jihadist organization operating in northern Nigeria, drew worldwide attention in April 2014 when it abducted 276 girls from a school and prompted the worldwide “hashtivism” campaign #BringBackOurGirls. Despite initial outpourings of international concern and pledges of support, international attention quickly faded as IS took the spotlight with its online beheadings and rapid growth, leaving Nigeria to take on Boko Haram largely alone.

As a result, little has changed on the ground. Boko Haram continues to draw local support thanks to heavy-handed tactics and human rights abuses by Nigeria’s security forces. The Nigerian army remains unable or unwilling to respond effectively to terrorist attacks. In the most recent example from late January, Boko Haram launched an attack on a village located three miles from one of the Nigerian army’s largest bases. The garrison waited several hours before responding to the attack, by which time at least 85 people had been killed and hundreds more driven from their homes.

Security officials cite poor communications and low morale resulting from supply and ammunition shortages as a possible cause for the army’s feeble response. That Nigeria is having difficulties supplying its troops is hardly surprising: 70 percent of its revenue is derived from oil exports, the price of which has declined sharply in the past year. This pressure on the budget, combined with rampant corruption and a revitalized secessionist movement in the oil-rich southern province of Biafra, mean that Nigeria’s capacity to fight Boko Haram is stretched thin.

On the other side of Africa, Al-Shabaab has been growing stronger in Somalia. The Al-Qaeda–affiliated terrorist organization once controlled virtually all of southern Somalia before being pushed out of the coastal regions and almost all cities by African Union forces, known as AMISOM, in 2011–2012. Despite isolated incidents of violence outside of the country in Uganda and Kenya, it appeared to many by 2015 that Al-Shabaab had been defeated.

Yet the organization still controls large portions of rural southern Somalia, and has staged a number of increasingly bold operations in the last year. It struck Kenya again last April, killing 147 people at Garissa University. It assaulted three of AMISOM’s operating bases, in June, September, and most recently on January 15, inflicting heavy casualties and looting valuable equipment. The group is also strongly suspected to be behind the suicide attack on a Daallo Airlines flight on February 2.

Despite its past successes, AMISOM does not appear to the up to the task of combatting the newly-reinvigorated Al-Shabaab. It is plagued by a chronic lack of supplies and personnel and coordination problems between contingents from different nations. AMISOM forces pulled out of the city of Merka on February 5, seemingly without cause, surrendering control of the vital coastal city to Al-Shabaab without a fight. This withdrawal, even if temporary, has further weakened confidence by Somalis that the coalition is able to protect them from the militants.

The international community must provide increased aid to strengthening the security capacity of Nigeria and Somalia, as well as AMISOM, if it wishes to contain these threats. While these two militant groups are, for the time being, threats only to regional stability, both have pledged allegiance to international terrorist organizations—Boko Haram to the Islamic State and Al-Shabaab to Al-Qaeda. Developmental aid, delivered in conjunction with security aid, would mitigate the extreme poverty that breeds support for militant movements. The international media must also play a role, giving these conflicts a portion of the undivided attention that it has afforded ISIS since its rise. With international backing and support, local actors stand a much better chance of beating back militants than they do on their own.

William F. Golba is a senior editor with the Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, as well as associate producer of The Global Current on WSOU 89.5 FM. He is pursuing master’s degrees in diplomacy and international relations and public administration. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Canisius College, and was a Fulbright scholar in Vienna, Austria.

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