On Appraising Threats

Yesterday I published a piece at World Politics Review on assessing the threat that armed West African Muslim movements like Boko Haram might pose to the West. The piece is a sequel, in some sense, to two posts from earlier this month. The general stance I’m going for is anti-alarmism: I’m arguing for a perspective that takes these movements seriously, but that weighs evidence and probabilities carefully.

I had a very challenging time striking my own balance in writing the piece. To some extent a part of me will always feel that it is still 2001-2004, when some Americans, claiming to speak with a kind of super-patriotism, sought to shut down any nuanced discussion of terrorism’s causes and implications. Whenever I write anything anti-alarmist, I still brace myself for the possibility that one of my countrymen will accuse me of being an intellectual traitor to my country. But I hope that the parameters of the conversation on terrorism are wider in 2013 than they were in 2003. A cautious and judicious approach to questions of terrorist threats to the United States is, in my view, a truer form of patriotism than the alarmism that seeks to send US soldiers and dollars chasing after every possible threat or source of instability.

In terms of evaluating threats, the issue of weighing evidence is crucial. Murky events in Niger bring that home this week:

An inquiry into shooting at a military police academy in Niger’s capital Niamey found no evidence of an attack on the camp, suggesting it could have been an over-reaction by nervous guards, the foreign minister said on Sunday.

Niger’s government had said its security forces had repelled an overnight assault by gunmen on the academy on Tuesday, stoking concerns over an Islamist threat in the West African nation.

The incident followed a June 1 assault on a prison in the capital, during which more than 20 prisoners escaped including several Islamists, and twin suicide bombings at a French-run uranium mine and military barracks in Niger’s desert north in May.

“An investigation was not able to establish if anyone opened fire (on the camp),” Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum told Anfani radio. “There was no trace of bullet holes or cases. Nothing.”

This, too, may not be the final version of the story. The problem is when we simplify the murkiness inherent in events like these, which analysts (including me) do sometimes merely to meet word counts. Simplifications can reduce the descriptions of such events from paragraphs (as above) down to phrases like “Muslim militants’ alleged attack on a Niger police academy” and then to “Muslim militants’ attack on Niger police” (removing any trace of doubt) and finally to “a string of Muslim terrorist attacks in Niger,” where not only does doubt disappear, but the disputed incident gets folded into an alleged trend. There is a danger, in other words, of allowing language to play such tricks on us that we wind up with exaggerated constructs through which we read future events.

Nigerian critics may charge that I am downplaying the seriousness of Boko Haram. Not so. The question is who Boko Haram really has in its crosshairs, and in my opinion the answer is the Nigerian state, Nigerian Christians, and a host of other Nigerian targets. Western targets are secondary, from everything I can tell; perhaps the UN bombing proves me wrong, but Boko Haram’s aim there seemed to be, in part, to embarrass the Nigerian state and strike at its allies.

Nigeria’s Experimental Steps Toward an Amnesty for Boko Haram

The Nigerian government, amid a military crackdown against the Boko Haram sect in the country’s northeast, is experimenting with measures that may lead to an amnesty for the group. These experiments seem like an effort to build good will with the group in hopes of striking a more comprehensive deal later. We’ll see what fruit they bear.

Nigeria’s Guardian:

The military Joint Task Force (JTF) in Yobe State on [June 13] released Hassana Yakubu, one of the wives of the wanted Boko Haram sect leader, Shiekh [sic] Abubakar Shekau.

[…]

Hassana was released along with seven other wives of top commanders of the Boko Haram sect. Fifteen of their children, aged between five and eight, were also released.

In the PCDR member’s words: “Hassana was released last week alongside Malama Zara, wife of slain leader of the group, Mohammed Yusuf, and seven other wives of top commanders of the Boko Haram sect who have been in detention for 10 months.”

[…]

The women were told to reintegrate themselves into the society and also take part in the peace process initiated by the Federal Government with active support of both the Borno and Yobe state governments.

The commissioner added that the eight women were also immediately enrolled into the skill- acquisition programme of the state government; while the state Ministry of Women Affairs gave them five sets of wrappers and 10 yards of brocade for each of the children.

Besides, he added, the sum of N100, 000 was also approved for each of them.

This move followed earlier releases of women and children allegedly affiliated with the sect.

The Nigerian Tribune:

The Federal Government has said it will soon commence the process of disarmament and de-radicalisation of repentant Boko Haram members as well as ensuring that they are well rehabilitated.

[…]

Speaking in his office in Abuja, on Friday, the Chairman, Presidential Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North and Minister of Special Duties and Inter-Governmental Affairs, Alhaji Kabiru Tanimu Turaki, stated that it was only a matter of time for total peace to be restored in the region.

[…]

He recalled that the committee, last Thursday, had a dialogue with 104 Boko Haram suspects detained in Lagos prisons and expressed confidence that the initiative would achieve the desired goal.

Background here.

On the Prison Attack in Niger

On June 1, violence occurred at a prison in Niamey, Niger. Initial, and partly conflicting, reports suggested that the violence came either from inmates or from external attackers, but the consensus now seems to be that inmates were responsible. Perhaps three or four inmates held on terrorism charges attacked guards at the prison, some reports say. AP has reported that 22 prisoners escaped during the incident.

While some news outlets initially blamed the Mali-centric Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) for the attack, suspicion now centers on the Nigeria-centric Boko Haram sect. Some accounts implicate both Boko Haram and the Islamist coalition that controlled parts of northern Mali in 2012-early 2013; one of the escapees, AP reported, was a member of Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

If we assume that Boko Haram was involved, there are three basic points I would make:

  1. Reports of Boko Haram operating in Niger are not unprecedented. News outlets have in the past reported suspicions of Boko Haram activity in Niger, such as the arrest of suspected Boko Haram members in Diffa, Niger in early 2012. Some analysts have posited an increasing presence of Boko Haram in Niger.
  2. As always, I think it is important to weigh evidence carefully. A moment like the present, when conflicting theories and reported information are swirling, reminds us that the story that gels later – “Boko Haram attacked a prison in Niger to free AQIM members” – can mask ambiguities and uncertainties about what really happened in a given incident. 
  3. Prison breaks have been an important part of Boko Haram’s approach inside Nigeria. The attacks serve to free imprisoned sect members, but also possibly as an opportunity to recruit other convicts. A prison break near Cameroon in March of this year underscored the possibility that Boko Haram might employ this tactic in Nigeria’s neighbors. As we strive to discern what really happened in Niamey, the past pattern of prison breaks in Nigeria casts its shadow over this incident – and highlights the cycles of violence that may take hold when Boko Haram perceives itself as a victim of state authorities, be they Nigerian or non-Nigerian.

Nigeria: Military Campaigns, Amnesty Talk, Security Sector Reform, and Boko Haram

As I started to articulate in this post, the Nigerian government’s response to the militant sect Boko Haram has often seemed ad hoc – and, I will add here, cyclical. The cycle involves (a) military crackdowns, (b) talk about security sector reform, and (c) talk of “amnesty” for Boko Haram fighters. Or maybe the word “cyclical” is inappropriate at the present moment, when all three elements are in play.

Following the imposition of a state of emergency on several states on May 14, Nigeria launched a new military offensive on May 15. The campaign has included raids, arrests, air raids, and the destruction of camps. The offensive has been particularly intense in Maiduguri, a northeastern city that has been an epicenter of Boko Haram’s activities. The Nigerian military has stated that this operation has been carefully planned and may last for quite some time. VOA has an interesting piece on how the Nigerian military’s training and experiences do and don’t prepare it for the experience of fighting a guerrilla war.

How does this offensive’s intensity relate to the amnesty that Nigerian elites debated in April? Perhaps the offensive is meant to serve as the “stick” pushing Boko Haram fighters toward the “carrot” of amnesty. The government has not abandoned the idea of amnesty. In an interesting move, the administration ordered the release of Boko Haram-affiliated women and children prisoners earlier this month – their release had been one of Boko Haram’s preconditions for talks. More here. How will the government follow up on this move?

Meanwhile, the military offensive and amnesty talk (insofar as amnesty talk calls attention to addressing root causes of Boko Haram’s violence) raise a third issue: security sector reform. While the military campaign and the amnesty proposal are Nigerian-generated ideas, talk of security sector reform often comes from the outside – in one recent and notable example, for US Secretary of State John Kerry. In addition to the human rights issues posed by soldiers’ abuses of civilians, these abuses seem to exacerbate the conflict between the government and Boko Haram, suggesting that security sector reform will need to be part of any sustainable solution. But serious demonstrations of accountability for soldiers have not yet taken place.

Military operations, amnesty, and security sector reform may all, indeed, be ingredients in a sustainable solution. The problem I see is that these components do not seem to work together. Moreover, talk of amnesty and talk of security sector reform have not yet been effectively translated into action. Until the government can pursue these different aims in a coordinated and efficacious manner, the de facto policy appears likely to remain crackdowns (with rising and falling intensity) accompanied by inconclusive efforts to promote political solutions.

Nigeria: Shettima Ali Monguno, Boko Haram, Oil, and Amnesty

Shettima Ali Monguno (b. 1926), of Borno State, is a former oil minister. On Friday May 3, gunmen kidnapped Monguno at Mafoni mosque in Maiduguri after congregational prayers. An account of the kidnapping, which includes a biography of Monguno, is here.

Maiduguri is the epicenter of violence associated with the Muslim sect Boko Haram. Most observers suspect Boko Haram of organizing the kidnapping. Boko Haram showed relatively little inclination toward kidnapping for much of the period since its latest guerrilla campaign began in 2010, but the sect appears to have turned more systematically to kidnappings in recent months, partly in order to obtain ransom payments.

Monguno was released yesterday, possibly after a payment anonymously reported as some $318,000. Notably, this amount is much less than the $3 million ransom that Boko Haram reportedly received for the release of a French family that had been kidnapped in Cameroon.

I want to make two points in this post. First, I do not think the kidnapping of Monguno signals a growing threat from Boko Haram to Nigeria’s oil industry. Monguno served as oil minister from 1972-1975 and is currently retired; my conjecture is that the kidnappers targeted him because he is a prominent northeasterner, because they hoped to obtain a ransom, and possibly because he is chairman of the Borno Elders Forum. I do not believe the kidnappers seized him a message to the oil industry. It is always possible that Boko Haram’s activities will spread into the far south, and several suspected members of the sect were arrested in Lagos in March, but I would still at this point be surprised to see Boko Haram attacks in the Niger Delta.

Second, I do think the kidnapping further complicates the politics surrounding efforts to create an amnesty program for Boko Haram. President Goodluck Jonathan’s Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North, inaugurated April 24, has already caused controversy. Monguno’s kidnapping may weaken some Nigerians’ hopes that amnesty is possible. One member of the Northern Elders Forum told the press that Monguno’s kidnapping represented an effort to sabotage plans for amnesty. While the committee will undoubtedly be heartened by Monguno’s release, the prospect of further kidnappings and ransom payments casts a shadow over the committee’s ongoing deliberations, and may even scare individual members. In my view some form of dialogue will be necessary to end the Boko Haram crisis, but movement toward dialogue faces daunting political and security barriers.