Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist group opposed to what they see as the westernization of Nigeria, is making headlines yet again. Staying true to its name –Boko Haram means “Western education is a sin”– the “Nigerian Taliban” has said that it will bomb 18 Nigerian universities between September 12th and 17th. Most ominously, the group said that the attacks are “not a threat, but a notification which must be strictly adhered to.”
While attacks by Boko Haram are nothing new in Nigeria, the latest “notification” specifically targets the University of Ibadan and University of Benin. If Boko Haram successfully carries out either of these attacks, it will be significant for three reasons: both of these universities are among the most prominent in the country and would deal a devastating blow to the psyche of higher education in Nigeria; both of these universities are located in the Christian south and could enflame religious tensions; and the University of Benin is located in the oil rich Niger Delta.
Boko Haram has evolved rather spectacularly from an organization that shunned modern technology and relied on bow and arrow to attack, to an internationally recognized terrorist group in the wake of the Abuja bombing. The evolution and internationalization of Boko Haram is not necessarily a sign of contact with al-Qaeda as Nigerian expert Jean Herskovits notes.
There has also been media speculation, fueled by government suggestions, that at various times members of Boko Haram have received training in Somalia, Sudan, Algeria, Mali, Yemen and even Afghanistan. But Boko Haram has at most only a few hundred hard-core members (though sympathizers, brought along by the brutality of the security forces, may add a few thousand), and they are known by those who live among them to be largely unemployed and impoverished. Few seem to be equipped for such traveling abroad.
Nor do sophisticated, powerful, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have to come through an al Qaeda connection. Nigeria’s first major explosion on such a scale came in July 2009, when the militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), blew up the Atlas Cove jetty, an oil-storage and loading facility in Lagos, the commercial capital.
Herskovits rightly questions just how extensive, if at all, links are between al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. She does make clear, however, that misguided counterterrorism strategy in the region, as this writer suggested could happen, has the potential to do much more damage than Boko Haram could ever dream of.
Should Africom initiatives – especially in counterterrorism training – identify the United States more closely with Nigeria’s current government and its security agencies, there could be a consequence that neither Americans nor most Nigerians would welcome: America would be seen as an enemy, opening the way to exactly the Al Qaeda presence they least want.
As has been stressed before, the situation in Nigeria ought to be watched very closely. It could soon enough mutate into a hotbed for terrorism or American counterterrorism operations.
There is a highly valuable lesson that can be learned, and should be learned, by Americans of political persuasions who still believe the idea that al-Qaeda attacked the United States because of its values, not its policies. Al-Qaeda did not wage a brutal campaign against drinking establishments, pot dispensaries, lingerie stores, churches, ball parks and Walmarts. Instead, they struck the Pentagon, the epitome of American militarism run amok, and the World Trade Centers, the symbol of America’s economic superpower status. When considering their goals, the targets could not have been more appropriate: al Qaeda has succeeded remarkably in bleeding America dry through endless wars.
Boko Haram, on the other hand, has attacked schools, beer gardens, and other “Western” institutions precisely because it detests Nigeria for westernizing. However, even Nigeria has experienced blowback, as the US did on 9/11, in response to its ruthless oppression of Boko Haram.
If the motivation of terrorists is to be understood, there could be no better place to start than in Nigeria with Boko Haram.