Islamist attacks draw Nigeria and US military closer

Dealing with Islamist groups such as Nigeria's Boko Haram will require more than a purely military approach, although Nigeria welcomes training from the US military's Africa Command.  

Sunday Aghaeze/AP
Soldier walks past a damage car following an explosion at Christ embassy church in Suleja, Nigeria, on Sunday, Feb. 19. A bomb planted by an abandoned car exploded outside a church in the middle of a worship service Sunday near Nigeria's capital, wounding five people amid a continuing wave of violence by a radical Islamist sect, authorities and witnesses said.

With an Islamist militant group on a killing spree in its northern reaches, Nigeria would appear to be just the kind of country that the US military’s Africom was designed to help out.

Launched in October 2008, the 2,100-strong US Africa Command – based at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart-Moehringen, Germany – sends US Army trainers to the African continent. The personnel equip, assist, and train the armies of partner governments in information sharing, counterinsurgency, logistical support, as well as conducting joint exercises. Among the most eager participants are nations of the north African Sahel region, from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, many of which face Islamist insurgent groups that appear to be growing in sophistication and violent capabilities.

But dealing with a group like Boko Haram – a violent Islamist group that has admitted carrying out a series of attacks in Maiduguri that killed more than 30 this week, and more than 200 since the beginning of the year – will require more than a merely military strategy, experts say. Any successful strategy will require efforts to help Nigeria’s poorer and weaker neighbors to patrol their own territory better, along with civilian efforts in Nigeria’s own law enforcement and financial regulatory agencies to sniff out domestic support for the group, and to cut it off from its funding sources.

Nigeria’s military needs more than the kind of counterinsurgency training and equipment that the $300-million Africom has to offer, says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“Nigeria’s military is not under-resourced,” says Dr. Pham, but other branches of the Nigerian government are, including law enforcement and financial intelligence. The Boko Haram problem must be seen as a regional problem, Pham says, since many of Nigeria’s poorer neighbors have neither the capacity nor the money to adequately patrol their borders in the arid and underpopulated Sahel region, and groups like Boko Haram and the like-minded Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) take advantage of that weakness to move around fighters, weapons, and funding for their next attacks.

“When Boko Haram is using borders around Nigeria as a safe haven, the US military can help those other weaker countries around Nigeria to improve their own capabilities to patrol their borders and to deny Boko Haram a safe haven,” says Pham.

“Boko Haram is not a group that can be bought off, like the Niger Delta rebels were, or beaten down, militarily,” Pham adds. “It’s going to be a long process, like the drug war in Mexico, and not something that can be solved overnight.”

Latest attack kills dozens

In the northern Nigerian town of Maiduguri, site of the latest attacks and the reported homebase of Boko Haram, military spokesman Lt. Col. Hassan Mohammed said that gunmen thought to be from Boko Haram had opened fire and set off bombs inside the town’s fish market, killing more than 30 people. The attack followed the arrest of a suspected Islamist at the market last week.

Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is a sin," aims to abolish Nigeria's secular democracy and replace it with an Islamic sharia government. 

Colonel Mohammed told Agence France Presse news agency that the military had arrived on the scene and "immediately came to the rescue of the situation and safely detonated three bombs planted by members of the sect and shot and killed eight members of the sect."

During a visit with Nigerian military officials in the nation’s capital of Abuja in August 2011, Gen. Carter Ham, the chief of Africom, discussed ways in which the US military could help Nigeria to confront its new internal threats.

In an email interview with the New York Times, he wrote that he was “greatly concerned about [Boko Haram’s] stated intent to connect with Al Qaeda senior leadership, most likely through Al Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb.”

General Ham, along with senior US intelligence officials, believes that Boko Haram has already established links with Al Qaeda. There are reports, for instance, that Boko Haram members made their way to Somalia after the Nigerian government’s 2009 crackdown, which eventually killed Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf. It was after that initial exchange that Boko Haram changed its fighting tactics, and adopted suicide car bombings, such as its deadly attack on the UN’s headquarters in Abuja that killed 18 people in 2011.

In a Senate hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper identified groups such as Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and AQIM as shared threats, both for Africa and for the United States.

“… across the Mideast and North Africa, those pushing for change are confronting ruling elites, sectarian, ethnic and tribal divisions, lack of experience with democracy, stalled economic development, military and security force resistance and regional power initiatives,” Mr. Clapper said in a hearing at the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Jan. 31. “These are fluid political environments that offer openings for extremists to participate much more assertively in political life. States where authoritarian leaders have been toppled, like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, have to reconstruct their political systems through complex negotiations among competing factions.

But just as the instability of northern Africa presents challenges, it also presents opportunities for like-minded governments to work together, Ham said during his 2011 visit.  

The US is interested in the Nigerian military “simply because our two nations share great commonality of interest for security challenges. So, we look at the future and look at whatever can undermine the security in your country and in mine. We share a lot in common. So, in this visit, we are looking at opportunities to meet with Nigerian leaders to explore avenues for us to strengthen and improve on the existing partnerships between the armed forces of the US and that of Nigeria."

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