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International offers of help for Nigeria in its search for more than 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram are being trumpeted as a potential turning point for what so far has been a fruitless effort. But the United States and other countries are limited in what they can do on the ground, where the Nigeria Army is increasingly seen as being outplayed in the five-year insurgency.
Another major attack earlier this week was confirmed today. Local Nigerian officials estimate that as many as 300 people were killed on Monday, when the Islamist terror group Boko Haram attacked a busy marketplace in the northeastern town of Gamboru Ngala, which troops have been using as a base in their search for the girls, according to CNN. The central government says the number is somewhere between 100 and 150, BBC reports.
Shortly after 1:30 pm, militants opened fire on the market with rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices, and burned nearby shops where people were huddled for safety, according to CNN's account. The handful of Nigerian soldiers were no match for Boko Haram's numbers and fled. Local police resisted, but their station was eventually attacked with explosives, leaving 14 officers dead.
Presidential spokesman Doyin Okupe tried to explain to the BBC why Nigeria was struggling to contain Boko Haram.
"We are even fighting a war that we have to limit and manage collateral damages – but the insurgents do not care," he said. "They can kill soldiers, they can kill villagers, but we cannot do that. And people must understand that, we have to fight this war within the rules of engagement that is accepted internationally."
The Obama administration announced earlier this week that it would send personnel and equipment to help with the search, and Britain, China, and France have also offered their help.
But the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reports that American and Canadian assistance will be constrained not only by Nigeria's reticence to appear dependent on foreign assistance for security, but also by a US law that restricts assistance for foreign troops, such as Nigeria's, that have been accused of human rights abuses. And because the US has "assigned a low priority" to Boko Haram, the US intelligence capacity in Nigeria is limited, says Mark Schroeder, vice-president of Africa analysis for the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.
Though Nigeria has reportedly welcomed the U.S. offer of assistance, former U.S. diplomats say the country is typically reluctant to accept international help, particularly on security issues.
A 2015 election is coming and that may be heightening government sensitivity to foreign involvement in its internal crisis.
"This is a proud country with a professional military and intelligence service," said former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs Johnnie Carson.
"They believe that they have had a handle on the problem, and have been making progress in dealing with it," he says. "I think time has shown that the problem has not gotten better, but in fact has gotten worse."
And "foreign involvement can bring into serious question the capabilities of the Nigerian government and confidence in the Nigerian government," said Schroeder. "President Jonathan is loath to raise even more questions about the capability of his government."
John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, told the CBC that Boko Haram "appears to operate with impunity in up to one-third of Nigeria." Three northeastern states have been in a state of emergency since May, further isolating them and stifling the information flow from the area.
In the US Congress yesterday, 20 senators called for Boko Haram to be added to the global terrorism sanctions list. Such a designation could starve the group of international support and funds and have a longer-range impact by drawing attention to the growing threat of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
The UN list tracks organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda. Boko Haram's leader has repeatedly expressed solidarity with the global terror network, according to the Monitor. The State Department says that Boko Haram has links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Africa, Al Shabab in Somalia, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen.
Designating Boko Haram internationally as a terrorist organization would shine a spotlight on the spread of Islamist extremism – and Al Qaeda affiliations – deeper into Africa along the seam where the predominately Muslim north meets the south. That might be more important than stanching Boko Haram’s resources, some terrorism analysts say.
The spreading instability has prompted some regional experts to coin the name “Sahelistan” for the band across the middle of Africa encompassing the semiarid Sahel. The worry is that rising extremism and ethnic tensions in places like Mali and Sudan are seeping [into] countries like Nigeria, with its Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
Placing Boko Haram on the UN’s Al Qaeda Sanctions List would, in theory, enlist all UN members in efforts to weaken and limit the group. The Security Council-managed list was established in 1999 to combat the Afghan Taliban’s embrace of Osama bin Laden’s organization, but it was modified and expanded after the 9/11 attacks and at several points since then.
The list currently counts 213 individuals and 61 entities associated with Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda and Boko Haram have an often uncomfortable alliance, The New York Times reports. Al Qaeda mostly avoids the kind of mass attacks on civilians for which Boko Haram has become known. Many of those posting on online jihadist forums were aghast at the kidnapping.
“The violence most of the African rebel groups practice makes Al Qaeda look like a bunch of schoolgirls,” said Bronwyn Bruton, an Africa scholar at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “And Al Qaeda at this point is a brand — and pretty much only a brand — so you have to ask yourself how they are going to deal with the people who are doing things so hideous even the leaders of Al Qaeda are unwilling to condone them.”
Boko Haram is in many ways an awkward ally for any of them. Its violence is broader and more casual than Al Qaeda or other jihadist groups. Indeed, its reputation for the mass murder of innocent civilians is strikingly inconsistent with a current push by Al Qaeda’s leaders to avoid such deaths for fear of alienating potential supporters. That was the subject of the dispute that led to Al Qaeda’s recent break with its former affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
What’s more, Boko Haram’s recruits and targets have always been purely local, not international ... [and resembles] a cult, like Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, more than it does an orthodox Islamist movement.
The convenience has so far outweighed differences of opinion on tactics and ideology, with the groups publicizing each other's actions and potentially even working together, the Times writes. But "Boko Haram now also represents a growing challenge to Al Qaeda as it seeks to cultivate more such affiliates among loosely Muslim or Islamist insurgencies across Africa, almost all of them far more brutally violent than even the acolytes of Bin Laden can accept."