Nigeria dispatches troops to north to stop Boko Haram attacks

The Christmas Day attack on a church is only the latest in string of attacks by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram, who has given Christians living in the north three days to leave the region. 

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Reverend Father Issac Achi (L) speaks with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan during a visit to St. Theresa's Catholic church, the scene of a Christmas day bomb attack, just outside the capital Abuja, December 31, 2011. President Jonathan declared a state of emergency on Saturday in parts of Nigeria plagued by a violent Islamist insurgency, and ordered shut the borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger in the northeast.

Nigeria has sent government troops to the country's troubled northern areas, where a radical Islamist group has launched a string of attacks on Christians, most recently a Christmas Day church bombing in the capital of Abuja that killed 43 people.

President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the north, and sent two brigades of soldiers to towns that have been targeted by Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is a sin.”

Abdul Qaqa, who claims to speak for Boko Haram, gave Christians in the north three days to leave, and urged Muslims living in the south to move up north. Nigeria's north is predominantly Muslim, while the south is mostly Christian. 

“We find it pertinent to state that soldiers will only kill innocent Muslims in the local government areas where the state of emergency was declared. We would confront them squarely to protect our brothers. We also wish to call on our fellow Muslims to come back to the North because we have evidence that they would be attacked. We are also giving a three-day ultimatum to the Southerners living in the Northern part of Nigeria to move away,” [Abdul Qaqa was quoted as saying by the Nigerian newspaper This Day].

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Al Shabab in Somalia, and a scattering of groups throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the African Sahel region who call themselves Al Qaeda, Boko Haram claims that it wants to create a society totally adherent to the way Islamic society operated at the time of the prophet Mohammed.

Many Islamic scholars point out that the hardline interpretation Boko Haram is seeking to impose has more to do with the radical ideas of Boko Haram than it does with actual Islamic history. Public opinion surveys indicate that such radical groups represent a tiny percentage of current thinking among modern Muslims. But as the 9/11 attacks, and subsequent attacks in London, Madrid, Moscow, and across the Middle East show, small militant groups can punch above their weight, using violence and intimidation to achieve what they can't achieve on the political stage or the battlefield.

Nigeria’s deployment of troops to the north shows that it takes the Boko Haram threat seriously, although Nigerian military spokesmen dismissed Boko Haram’s rhetoric.  Human rights activists warned that the state of emergency could be a cover for the Nigerian military to commit abuses against Muslims, whether there is evidence to connect them to Boko Haram or not.

Jibrin Ibrahim of the Center for Democracy and Development's Abuja office told Nigerian newspaper The Vanguard, “They’ve already been committing abuses. It will just legalize it, in a sense.”

Because of groups like Boko Haram and the shadowy North Africa-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a number of African governments in the semi-arid Sahel region – a vast region just south of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Somalia – are turning to US military trainers for assistance. Security experts warn that tumult from the Arab uprisings in North Africa has only fed these Islamist insurgencies with weapons and fighters, although Boko Haram’s transition from a tiny local group to an international terror threat occurred more than a year ago, when it detonated suicide bombs in Abuja on Nigeria’s independence day.

David Francis, who reported for the Monitor last fall during a fellowship with the International Reporting Project, wrote that Boko Haram's tactics could provoke a wider war. He also found that some Nigerians wondered if Boko Haram might not be simply fighting in order to get paid off in a general amnesty

But is Nigeria at the brink of a religious civil war? That’s not likely, writes Jean Herskovits, a history professor at the State University of New York in an op-ed for The New York Times.

Mr. Herskovits argues that news media and politicians often give groups like Boko Haram too much credit for organizational and technical ability.

… There is no proof that a well-organized, ideologically coherent terrorist group called Boko Haram even exists today. Evidence suggests instead that, while the original core of the group remains active, criminal gangs have adopted the name Boko Haram to claim responsibility for attacks when it suits them.

Boko Haram’s bombast has encouraged other Nigerian militant groups, of which there are many, to add a few non-peaceful comments. In the oil-rich Niger Delta, where residents staged a short but violent rebellion of residents protesting ecological devastation, the former warlord Mujahid Dokubo-Asari has threatened to take his southern fighters up north to put Boko Haram in its place. Mr. Asari belongs to the same tribe as President Jonathan.

“For Niger Delta people to take up arms is just a minute away. It's just Goodluck that is holding us back," Mr. Asari told Reuters news agency. "We have all reached the extreme. There is nothing anybody can do about it except we fight."

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