Despite repercussions, Boko Haram threat will persist

Despite repercussions, Boko Haram threat will persist

Rooted in poor governance, rampant unemployment and transnational links, Boko Haram may pay for its latest senseless act of predation. But its prospects, unfortunately, are bright.

Boko Haram is known for its large-scale bombings and violent attacks across northern Nigeria and beyond, which often leave hundreds dead in their wake. But even by the group’s own brutal standards, last month’s kidnapping of over 200 (mostly Christian) schoolgirls taking exams in rural northeastern Nigerian was particularly audacious.

For the Islamist group with roots in Nigeria’s poor, largely parched Borno state, this LRA-style abduction was by all means a gamble. While the captives will provide Boko Haram domestic help in their remote camps, as well as cementing the loyalty of bride-less commanders, the militants must have known that wholesale condemnation and some degree of military pushback would result.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, reaction from the Nigerian authorities has been abysmally slow, not to mention appalling in their skepticism of the actual events. The international community, however, has been belatedly drawn in, with #BringBackOurGirls trending throughout the social media landscape, protests in support of the girls staged from Washington to London and offers of assistance from several governments finally being accepted by Nigeria.

Will this, as President Goodluck Jonathan avowed during the recent World Economic Forum in Abuja, be “the beginning of the end” of terrorism in the West African state? Sadly, no.

Boko Haram, loosely translated as “Western education is a sin” in the Hausa language, will clearly face repercussions in the weeks and months to come.

For one, although the abductees are likely separated now, most likely across the porous borders of the Lake Chad region, US surveillance support and mobilization of the more than 4,000 French troops stationed in the region will surely result in the abandonment of some current Boko Haram camps and push the terrorist group even further into Borno State’s Sambisa Forest, the Mandara Mountains between northern Cameroon and Nigeria and southeast Niger.

Furthermore, Al Qaeda Central’s (AQC) noticeable silence since the attack speaks volumes. Many believe AQC has in the past offered financial and logistical assistance to the Abubakar Shekau-led outfit. Nevertheless, it is not immune to considering public opinion, evidenced by its denunciation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant after the latter’s unforgiving treatment of local populations in Syria. From this point on, Boko Haram may effectively be disowned by AQC.

However, a brief look at the Nigerian fighters’ history and contemporary links with other likeminded terror groups makes it clear that until vast political, economic and security investments are made, Boko Haram’s threat to inhabitants of Nigeria and neighboring states is here to stay.

Boko Haram should not be viewed in a vacuum. The underpinnings of its recruiting – conservative inhabitants, anger at widespread corruption, a culture of sending young and impressionable boys to ubiquitous West African almajiris at an early age (usually financed through begging), and endemic unemployment in the Lake Chad zone (leading to a population of ready, ideology free mercenaries) – have been rife since the times of Fulani Islamist Usman dan Fodio and show no signs of abating.

In addition, Boko Haram’s heartland is hardly well-governed. What started as a movement based in the once-picturesque trade hub of Maiduguri has spread to Cameroon, Niger and Chad, across vast stretches of forests, mountains and deserts and through borders that exist in name only. Equally unsettling is the degree to which Nigerian state and federal agencies have been infiltrated by Boko Haram and its sympathizers.

It must also be noted that while Boko Haram has very little public support, most Nigerians are confident that there is a political element to the crisis. Indeed, the timeline of Boko Haram’s emergence as a systemic threat to stability in Nigeria lends some credence to this notion.

The group markedly stepped up its violence in 2011 – which coincidentally was the year Jonathan won an election many ruling party elites viewed as deserving to go to a northern candidate – owing to the death in office of his predecessor, northerner Umaru Yar’Adua. There has certainly been persistent speculation in the Nigerian media about Boko Haram’s alleged funding by notable northern politicians.

Finally, Boko Haram has long had operational relationships with other terrorist outfits on the African continent. It has been known for some time that a number of its top operatives received explosives training in Somalia, courtesy of Al-Shabab. But what is most clear is its close partnership with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group who most recently took over large swathes of northern Mali for eight months.

AQIM has on more than one occasion provided north Malian training grounds for fellow Nigerian jihadists, and possibly played a role in their fairly recent usage of suicide bombings in Nigeria. It is also known that Boko Haram lent a hand to AQIM and fellow terror groups during the intense bouts of 2012 fighting in both Gao and Timbuktu. And this situation has been made even worse with the profusion of Libyan arms throughout the Sahel since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, some of which have been confirmed to be in Boko Haram’s possession.

In spite of all the recent international indignation and vows to strike a death blow to one of West Africa’s most potent threats, the foundations of Boko Haram’s ideology, the factors leading to the recruitment of its foot soldiers and its ties to other Islamist combatants on the continent all look set to remain, even with the onset of a renewed crackdown on the group.

Boko Haram may indeed be forced to regroup largely outside of Nigeria’s borders. Yet, instead of indicating a diminution of its capabilities, a simple shift to different Sahelian environments may be the result, possibly creating a dangerous Algeria-Nigeria corridor linking it and AQIM. Sectarian strife in the Central African Republic and the potential for Islamic groups to become embroiled in that conflict creates another alarming opportunity.

Regrettably for Abuja, Washington and much of the world, it will take more than a bit of intelligence-sharing and even targeted military operations to rid West Africa of Boko Haram and its trail of turmoil.

About Author

Kevin Amirehsani

Kevin is a Denver-based policy and public engagement consultant. He was previously the head of operations for a solar energy startup in Lagos, researcher for the US Commercial Service in Cape Town and the Institute for Democratic Governance in Accra, and Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. He holds an MSc. in International Political Economy from LSE along with a B.S. and B.A. in Industrial Engineering and Political Science from UC Berkeley.