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.

AP photo
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.)

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.

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.

As in much of West Africa, governance in Nigeria was for decades characterized by the predatory rapaciousness of governing elites and incomplete institutional development plaguing everything from rule of law to social services. Political competition often centered on getting access to the state to control natural resources, including oil. Governance has been based around tribal, clan, or family loyalties.

More than 10 years after the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha ended, the attitude that government positions are a means to enrich oneself and one’s patronage network rather than a service to the overall Nigerian polity has been only slowly changing in Nigeria.

Parochial interests and loyalties also dominate jihadi cooperation across the region. Although AQIM, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram may communicate over the same jihadi web pages and copy each other’s tactics, their global proclamations often clash with their local interests and necessities.

How successfully outside terrorist groups navigate new geographic territories depends on their understanding of local culture and the complex relationships between politicians, unofficial powerbrokers, and (il)legal economic networks.

Crucially, their success “out of area” also depends on sensitivity to the social constraints and entanglements of their local affiliates.

For example, until the emergence of Al Shabaab in Somalia, Al Qaeda Core in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region  struggled to establish a base there and found the Somali clan rivalries to be maddeningly confounding and not conducive to global jihad. Al Shabaab’s recent troubles have come precisely from its military and social overreach.

Instead of reflexively portraying Boko Haram as a new Al Qaeda affiliate of a monolithic global jihad, US counterterrorism policy needs a more nuanced approach. It should exploit the natural rivalries and misunderstandings among the various terrorist groups. And it should avoid inadvertently driving the often competing and fractious actors together.

The United States must also be cautious when considering training security forces in West Africa. Some governments there can view counterterrorism and counternarcotics aid as yet another form of rent to be exploited for power and profit maximization – as they often viewed anti-communism aid. Instead of effectively countering terrorism, such aid may undermine institutional development and accountable governance.

Nigeria must move beyond the blunt use of lethal force by improving intelligence-gathering and building healthier civil-military relations. Sending tanks to the streets and declaring a state of emergency, as President Jonathan Goodluck did a few days ago, may appease the angry public, but it is not an effective counterterrorism policy.

The United States must encourage the Nigerian government to address the political, economic, and religious insecurities that give resonance to Boko Haram’s ideology.

Finally, the Nigerian government must also empower and protect the many moderate Islamic leaders in the north who have stood up against Boko Haram even while facing assassinations. Ultimately, the real solutions to the Boko Haram menace are local.
Vanda Felbab-Brown is a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and James J.F. Forest is associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

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