Fighting Africa’s ISIS: Mediating a US Response to Boko Haram
By Michael Smerconish
November 11, 2014
In the days and weeks following April 14, 2014, social media erupted with talk over the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, a response to the abduction of close to 300 female Nigerian students by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The internet was quickly flooded with pictures of celebrities; the likes of Michelle Obama, Justin Timberlake, and Ellen DeGeneres, among others, posted photos of themselves holding signs with slogans like “REAL MEN DON’T BUY GIRLS.”
More than five months after the fact, however, and public outcry has ceased despite the fact that only a single girl has been “brought back.” As the eyes of the world have become locked on ISIS and a deteriorating Middle East, Nigeria’s domestic terror issues have only worsened. While the US is justified in its decision to focus on the greater threat that is the Islamic State, continued logistical and intelligence aid to Nigeria must become a greater priority.
Boko Haram, a term given to the group by the Nigerian public which roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden,” turned to violence in 2009. In protest to a seemingly anti-Islamic law that required motorcycle riders to wear helmets, Haram clashed with the Nigerian military, resulting in over 800 casualties. Although Boko Haram’s leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed in the exchange, he was immediately replaced by one Abubakur Shekau. Five years later, and now notorious for such large scale acts of violence, the group is at its peak in terms of size and territorial control.
Recent months have witnessed the most destructive period in the group’s history, a narrative that began with Yusuf’s founding of the organization in 2002. Since the highly publicized kidnapping of the Chobik schoolgirls in April, Haram has carried out around forty separate attacks and killed over 1,600 civilians. The attacks, which have predominantly occurred in the country’s northeast, ranged from suicide and car bombs to full on assaults of villages and public gatherings. The group’s kidnappings have also continued, most notably with the abduction of the wife of Amadou Ali, Cameroon’s vice prime minister.
Boko Haram has attempted to impose strict Sharia law over its areas of control long before ISIS declared an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. Founded on a staunchly anti-Western platform, Haram forbids its populace from any “Western” habits, including participation in elections, smoking and drinking, or ownership of particular types of clothing. This same basis has also been the motive for Haram to specifically target Nigeria’s more secular schools. According to a 2013 report from Amnesty International, “At least 50 schools have either been burned or seriously damaged [by Boko Haram] and more than 60 others have been forced to close.”
Most alarming to the governments of Nigeria and of surrounding countries; however, has been the group’s recent capture of Gwoza and Bama, cities with a combined population of 600,000. With Bama existing as a gateway to the far more populous Maiduguri, many have feared the worst for the city of over 1,000,000. Although information from the region generally has been limited and consistently unreliable, it is estimated that Boko Haram currently controls an area roughly the size of West Virginia.
If one were to judge the group solely based on international and media response; however, its threat to regional wellbeing would not seem so severe. In the wake of escalated Boko Haram insurgence, the reaction of the United States and the greater global community has been ostensibly lesser than that taken towards ISIS. While the US has begun airstrikes both in and outside of Syria, its aid to Nigeria has been far more subtle. In place of direct military action, the US has settled for finite amounts of logistical and military training for Nigerian forces as well as some intelligence aid to the government. Although recent attempts by Haram to infiltrate neighboring Cameroon have garnered increased attention from the US, our national effort still pales in comparison to that taken in the Middle East.
So why the lack of concern towards a jihadist group that has caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in the past few months alone? Why the ease at which we have forgotten the cruel abduction of over two hundred female students? The best answer lies not within Nigeria but within the superior administrative capabilities and larger international appeal of the Islamic State. Given the difficulty of confronting both Haram and ISIS at once, the US has labeled the Islamic State the more dangerous threat and therefore made the group its center of focus. As one US official told NBC News, “[Boko Haram’s] foreign fighter recruitment is not as extensive, and they aren’t yet as adept at competently governing the areas they control [as ISIS].” Unlike Haram, which has recruited almost the entirety of its members from within the Nigerian northeast, ISIS boasts projections of having thousands of foreign fighters.
What is terrifying in this regard is Boko Haram’s admiration for, and eagerness to learn from, the Islamic State. John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, noted that “Shekau likes to copy and mimic some aspects of ISIS and he was one of the fewer jihadi leaders who welcomed ISIS’s declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.” Recently, there have even been circulating rumors of an imminent alliance between the two groups.
Even so, the current US policy of direct military inaction may likely be the most pragmatic for the time being. The US has been forced to choose between Boko Haram and ISIS and, according to majority opinion, has chosen correctly.
The optimal approach, for now at least, seems to be for the US to augment its intelligence and operational support to Nigeria while also adopting an outlook of regional containment for Boko Haram. Cooperation with neighboring countries, particularly Cameroon on the northeast border, is essential in ensuring that Haram does not continue its expansion.
Bringing additional countries into the strategic discussion would also lessen one of the greatest challenges beleaguering the fight against Boko Haram: the Nigerian government itself. Though overseeing Africa’s largest defense budget, economy, and population, the government has failed in coordinating the group’s suppression. Instead, the country has witnessed numerous instances of Nigerian soldiers fleeing Haram’s assaults, on occasion taking refuge in neighboring Cameroon.
Cooperation with neighboring countries, particularly Cameroon on the northeast border, is essential in ensuring that Haram does not continue its expansion.
Nigeria’s sheer lack of coordination and intelligence capabilities is epitomized by Abu-bakur Shekau. Recently, the Cameroon military claimed to have killed Shekau in a series of standoffs with Boko Haram. In response, Nigeria bizarrely asserted that the deceased in question was only a doppelgänger and the real Abubakur Shekau was killed by its own military back in 2009. Shekau has become “one of the world’s least understood mass killers,” according to the Washington Post. “No one knows how old he is. Some say he’s 35. Others say 44. Twice he was believed dead, and twice he reemerged to usher in a broader and more diabolic campaign of killings across northern Nigeria. The idea of Abubakar Shekau, it appears, cannot be killed.” While Shekau’s actual state likely matters very little, the enigma encapsulates the uncertainty of Haram’s magnitude and territorial breadth.
Such matters of general intelligence should be an area of focus for the US in its continued support of Nigeria. With Nigeria and neighboring countries possessing the military strength to dismantle the group, it is in the best interest of the US to assist them with superior operational assistance. Given the eerie similarities between ISIS and Boko Haram, as well as Haram’s affection for its jihadist counterpart, amplified aid today would hopefully avoid another call for direct military intervention further down the road. AFP