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Opinion

Nigeria's Boko Haram attacks are misunderstood as regional Islamist threat

Concern is growing that the Boko Haram militant group in Nigeria is linked to Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab as part of a coordinated Islamist terrorist threat in Africa. But most often, the reasons for the group's attacks are local.

By Vanda Felbab-Brown and James J.F. Forest / January 12, 2012

Imam Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, is shown in this image taken from video posted by Boko Haram sympathizers. The video was made available on Jan. 10. (The Associated Press cannot independently verify the authenticity of this material.)

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Washington and Lowell, Mass.

The recent spate of brutal attacks in Nigeria by Boko Haram, a local terrorist group professing allegiance to Al Qaeda, has drawn attention to West Africa as the next regional battleground against violent global jihad.

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But the operative word here is local, not regional – despite such worries in parts of Africa and the West.

This week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon shared a report with Nigeria’s foreign minister that raised “growing concern in the region” about possible links between Boko Haram, based in Nigeria’s Muslim north, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM.

Senior US officials, too, are worried about such a connection, as well as links to Al Shabaab, in Somalia. As if to verify such concerns, Nigeria has closed its borders to prevent entry by outside Islamist militants.

But in Nigeria, no less than in Pakistan, a fanatical ideology often cloaks far more local economic and tribal rivalries. This deep rooting in very local political contexts and economic ambitions actually hampers the terrorists’ efforts at forging pan-African jihad.

Boko Haram is Nigeria’s most visible and vicious militant group, but it is not the only one. In the oil-rich south, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta roams the swamps and links up with politicians in the crumbling cities.

Nor is Boko Haram (whose name means “Western education is a sin”) the country’s only jihadi group. Hisba, a collection of Islamist vigilante gangs, also operates in the north. Both tap into decades of tribal violence among Nigeria’s communities, often manipulated by politicians for political gain and profit.

The groups’ grievances are usually portrayed as religious. Indeed, their targets are often Christians. In 1999, the north adopted Sharia law. But that neither quelled Islamist mobilization there nor addressed deep dissatisfaction with socioeconomic conditions and poor governance.

Instead, vociferous religious ideology often obscures violence driven more by economic factors.

For example, migration by the ethnic Hausa Fulani into Yoruba lands in northern Nigeria has produced conflict. The fact that the Yoruba are predominantly Christians and the Hausa Fulani Muslims matters only secondarily. Rather, the Hausa-Fulani Boko Haram is infusing religion into a long-churning brew of grievances about wealth and power distribution, corruption, and injustice.

The Nigerian government has responded poorly not only to the long-standing communal tensions, but also to the specific case of Boko Haram. The government has often ignored or instigated  tensions, while brutally and indiscriminately overreacting to Boko Haram.

Although Nigeria’s police are more capacious than most in West Africa, they overwhelmingly lack intelligence capacity and the ability to either disrupt attacks before they happen or track down real culprits who are at times connected to key local politicians.

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