Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Nigeria: Boko Haram's Unlikely Threat

27 September 2011
Nigeria: Boko Haram's Unlikely Threat

Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram is planning bombing attacks in southern Nigeria, including in the Niger Delta, according to intelligence reports from Abuja. Lacking any notable presence or support base in the south, Boko Haram would have a difficult time following through on these alleged plans and instead could be trying to raise its profile to extract political concessions. If the group did conduct an attack in these regions, it would likely trigger a harsh counteraction by militants in the Niger Delta — not to mention regular Nigerian armed forces, such as the Joint Task Force, deployed to the oil-producing region.

A spokesman for the Niger Delta Liberation Front (NDLF), a militant group based in Nigeria’s south and affiliated with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), said in a Sept. 20 statement that NDLF fighters were prepared to work with Nigerian security forces to defend the delta against attacks from Islamist militant group Boko Haram. NDLF spokesman “Captain” Mark Anthony cautioned that an NDLF response to a Boko Haram attack would be disastrous for the Islamist sect.

The NDLF statement came after Nigerian intelligence reports indicated Boko Haram was planning to carry out bombings in the Niger Delta as well as in the country’s southeast and southwest areas. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for two vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, this year — the first on June 16 targeting police headquarters and the second on Aug. 26 targeting a U.N. compound. Despite these attacks, Boko Haram has not demonstrated the capability to attack regions of the country farther from its base of operations in the northeast. If the group were to try to move into the south, as Anthony’s statement suggests, the repercussions would be severe.

The vast majority of Boko Haram’s attacks have taken place in Borno state in the northeast, with a few possible ones occurring in northwestern Nigeria. Attacks in these areas, which lack oil installations, Western facilities and even notable Nigerian federal government institutions, have attracted very little international attention. Boko Haram’s bombings in Abuja, however, brought tremendous international visibility to the group, including attention from top U.S. military officials such as Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command. The Islamist sect’s stated ambition, according to a spokesman, is to implement Shariah throughout the country (12 of 36 states, all located in northern Nigeria, already are governed by Shariah), but an equally powerful objective is to use high-profile attacks to extract concessions and political patronage for the northeast, one of the most impoverished and least politically represented regions in the country.

The Nigerian government has worked to counter militant threats by stepping up coordination with foreign intelligence agencies. British Ambassador Andrew Lloyd was in Nigeria on Sept. 20 to follow up on an earlier discussion between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Nigerian officials on the creation of an intelligence fusion center in the country. Additionally, the United States is providing training and material to set up a 200-strong Nigerian special operations unit designated for counterterrorism purposes. Western governments are concerned about Boko Haram’s growing aggressiveness as well as reports about possible exchanges between the Islamist sect and al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb and al Shabaab, an Islamist militant organization based in Somalia. Apart from a few Nigerian radicals who have traveled to cities in the Sahel, however, there has been no evidence to substantiate these reports.

In reality, Boko Haram’s capacity to attack southern targets is very much in doubt. The group has no presence or popular support in the south, which means it would have to conduct its own pre-operational surveillance, explosives acquisition, bombmaking and execution. Boko Haram militants would be especially vulnerable to detection during this process, as there are physical and linguistic differences between them and the native population in the south.

Boko Haram’s will to attack in the south is even more uncertain. Boko Haram knows that attempted attacks in the south would almost certainly trigger a conflict with Niger Delta militants, who are effectively proxies of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, as well as with the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta. If such a threat exists, it is more likely a ploy aimed at extracting patronage from northern politicians. In fact, the Nigerian government has quietly engaged local politicians from the country’s northeast with the expectation that the local elders will be able to settle down Boko Haram through amnesty talks, a process that has worked with Boko Haram in the past. This sort of politicization of violence is not unusual for Nigeria and has been seen in use most often by militants in the Niger Delta.

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