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In Nigeria, Somalia, and Afghanistan: what is a foreign fighter?

In countries where colonial borders don't reflect ethnic or family ties, it's not as easy to decide who is a foreigner. Yet Nigeria has deported 11,000 foreigners in the past six months on suspicion of Islamist sympathies.

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / February 27, 2012

As yet another suicide blast strikes yet another church in northern Nigeria, immigration officials have announced that they are cracking down on the flow of foreigners into northern Nigeria who may be adding to the growing numbers of the shadowy Islamist militia Boko Haram.

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Nigerian immigration officials say they have expelled nearly 11,000 foreigners in the past six months alone, the vast majority of them from Chad and Niger.

With the death toll at 1,000 and rising from Boko Haram’s attacks, Nigerian immigration spokesman Joachim Olumba told Agence France-Presse that the repatriation of foreigners “has been intensified in the past six months following the Boko Haram insurgency. We have an obligation to rid the country of undesirable elements."

While few believe that all of those 11,000 deportees were, in fact, fighters for or even supporters of Boko Haram – whose name means “Western education is a sin” – terrorism experts say it is clear from the growing sophistication of Boko Haram’s fighting techniques that the Nigerian group has reached out to foreign jihadists and received funding, training, and arms. And just as Pakistani, Arab, and Chechen fighters changed the techniques and mission of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s and 1990s, foreign fighters may be having a profound effect on the mission and techniques of the Islamist movements in Somalia, Nigeria, and the semi-arid north African region known as the Sahel.

“It is clear that Boko Haram, after the crackdown in 2009, did reach out to Al Shabab and to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Boko Haram members did receive training in Mali last summer, according to the United Nations. Two groups of Boko Haram members received training in Somalia four months ago. Seven members of Boko Haram were arrested in Niger, and they had references to known AQIM members.”

But while Islamists may be reaching out to each other for support, Mr. Pham says, that does not necessarily mean that Africa has become as much a jihadi magnet as Afghanistan was in the Russian period. In fact, many of the so-called “foreign elements” being arrested and expelled in Nigeria are often people of common ancestry with northern Nigerians, separated by colonial borders.

“The colonial borders didn’t respect the actual demographic makeup of the region,” says Pham. The Kanuri ethnic group, found in Boko Haram’s heartland of Borno State, are also found in Niger and Chad. The House of Fulani, an even larger Sahelian ethnic group, can be found from the banks of Lake Chad in the east to the Atlantic coast of Senegal. In other words, the very concept of “foreign fighters” in northern Nigeria is a lot harder to define than it may seem.


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