Response to NYT Article on Boko Haram

The New York Times recently released an article on Boko Haram, Northeastern Nigeria’s Muslim rebel movement. The article’s main narrative, that Boko Haram has increasing links to Al Qaeda and that the Nigerian state is failing to deal with it, actually consists of three claims of varying strength:

  1. Boko Haram has ties to Al Qaeda, specifically the franchise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
  2. Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian security forces
  3. The Nigerian state’s response to Boko Haram is failing

The first assertion relies heavily on the claims of officials and on circumstantial evidence, such as an increase in Boko Haram’s tactical sophistication. Hard evidence of a tie that goes beyond rhetoric and perhaps the exchange of a few personnel remains weak. (The evidence I mean would look something like arrests of AQIM personnel in Nigeria, or of Boko Haram members in Mali or Mauritania). Additionally, AQIM’s southernmost attack that I am aware of, January’s kidnapping in Niamey, Niger, of two Frenchmen, was still a good distance from Maiduguri. The distance between AQIM’s strongholds in the Sahara and Boko Haram’s strongholds in Northeastern Nigeria is considerable, which presents a logistical obstacle to the development of strong operational ties between the two movements. The possibility of such a tie is real, and perhaps growing, but the article frames the issue as though a strong tie (beyond just rhetoric) has been conclusively established.

The second claim is circumstantial as well, though the case here seems stronger. Boko Haram sometimes seems to know where police officers or soldiers will be. Perhaps that means it has supporters and informers within the rank and file of the military. But such links have not been proven, from what I know (and the article does not offer hard evidence), nor are there serious indications that the movement has subverted high-level commanders in the security forces.

As for the third claim, that the Nigerian government’s strategy is failing, that’s a subjective take, and one the article does not balance by even a mention of the dialogue efforts that the federal government and state politicians have pursued. That military operations have caused anger, even a backlash, in Maiduguri is indisputable. And dialogue could certainly fail. But the narrative that all the Nigerian state is doing is mounting a brutal and clumsy crackdown is too simple.

Finally, the notion that we should fear a scenario where “extremists bent on jihad are spreading their reach across the continent and planting roots in a major, Western-allied state that had not been seen as a hotbed of global terrorism” seems overblown to me. AQIM has suffered setbacks this summer in Mauritania and Mali (and it conducted fewer kidnappings in 2010 than in 2009), al Shabab recently abandoned Mogadishu, and Boko Haram’s primary goals remain oriented to altering Nigerian politics (spreading shari’a, removing hated leaders, etc.). The formation of a pan-African jihadist movement is, it seems to me, still a remote possibility.

If you read the story, let us know what your impressions are.

17 thoughts on “Response to NYT Article on Boko Haram

  1. I agree with you that the evidence contained in that article are circumstantil. However, the conclusions seem somehow valid given the facts. For example, Boko Haram has gotten more sophisticated in their use of remote bombings and suicide attacks. That may imply significant foreign influence.
    If not AQIM, I dont know who else may be responsible for the sophistication of Boko Haram tactics.
    And I do agree that a pan-African terror movement is still far-off.

    • Have you considered the possibility that Boko Haram members serving in the military could provide that expertise?

      I am old enough to remember when Abacha went on a bombing campaign against his “enemies” (real and perceived). Or when Dele Giwa was killed by a parcel bomb. There is a wealth of such expertise amongst both serving and retired military personnel. (It also suspected that former military personnel are the brains behind the Niger Delta bombings).

      Do you suggest that AQIM is also behind the Niger Delta bombings?

      • Have you considered the possibility that Boko Haram members serving in the military could provide that expertise?

        I definitely think this is possible. More likely in fact than AQIM training.

        I assume you’re being sarcastic about the Delta.

      • Sorry about how my comments may be interpreted.

        However, I am very worried about how many people in the US are quick to treat local phenomena as an extension of “US national security interests”. They jump to conclusions without really considering hundreds of years of history, ethnic make-up and local religious traditions.

        On another note, there is a slow divergence between Southern (and Middle Belt) Nigeria and the Core North. This should give more grounds for worry than Boko Haram (which is merely a symptom of certain elements in the North trying to assert themselves).

        People generally move freely through out the South and the Middle Belt, but there is an increasingly reluctance for Southerners to move North and vice-versa. This is a symptom of a nation losing its essence as a corporate entity.

        Spend some time at Nigerian online forums and you’d understand what I am talking about. A significant proportion of Nigerians under thirty are losing (or have lost faith) in the continued existence of Nigeria as a united state – read their comments. A Worldview informed by Evangelical Christianity is up against a Worldview informed by Islam – I just don’t know how it could / would be resolved.

        This is what keeps me awake at night, not Boko Haram, not even the Niger Delta
        militants. The prospect of an all out medieval European style religious war terrifies me.

    • I think sometimes movements get more sophisticated because of their own evolution, and because they attract domestic recruits with skills (see Maduka’s comment), and not necessarily because of foreign influence. For example when the FLN was fighting the French in Algeria, their tactics evolved over time.

      • Good point, and I was thinking about that issue as I wrote the last comment. But it does not seem to me (and I am no FLN expert!!) that FLN’s tactical evolution was driven primarily by outside influences and aid.

        Trying to think of other examples of movements as well.

        Point is no group exists in a vacuum, but it seems to me that there is no reason why trial and error can’t drive increasing tactical sophistication.

    • I think they regrouped and changed strategy after their 09 uprising failed. They decided that guerrilla tactics were better than full-blown confrontations with the security forces. For them to carry out all these attacks, their recruitment must be fairly strong. I’m not ruling out the possibility of outside influences, but without a local base of support and a local pool of recruits they could not sustain this level of violence.

      What do you think?

      • i have to be honest and say I don’t know! I asked as while I have some awareness of what is going on Somalia, I know very little about Nigeria. With regards a growing level of violence and the volume of recruits they are able to attract: clearly there is a strong base of local support stemming from what must be anger at the local government.

        With regards external connections – it seems logical that AQIM would connect given their proximity and AQIM’s quite mercenary and opportunistic approach to jihad. However, I do not recall hearing Nigeria spoken of amongst the list of jihadi battlefields on the forums, or see it much referred to. As far as I know, the one obvious Nigerian jihadi, Abdulmutallab, was not involved in Boko Haram, and aside from a few Nigerians in the UK, it does not seem as though jihad in Nigeria has started to spread too far beyond its borders yet. All of which suggests an organization that is still quite separate from the broader global jihadist milieu.

        But this is all speculative. Be interested in hearing people’s thoughts on where one can learn more about this topic.

      • Violence is merely a tactic, any group worth its salt will adopt the most effective forms of violence. The increasing levels of violence show that Boko Haram is a learning organisation. However, it does not change either their raison d’etre or their strategic objectives. (The Niger Delta militants progressed from harassment, to kidnapping, to sabotage, to launching attacks on Naval Installations and Offshore Platforms hundreds of kilometers from base).

        Boko Haram is largely a local group with local influences. That part of Nigeria has had a history of messianic figures rising to challenge the corruption among elites / insisting on a purer form of Islam. These agitations predate Al Qaeda.

        Is there a possibility that they have been influenced by the success of Al Qaeda? Yes. But the major motivation for Boko Haram is an Islamic State untainted by corruption – and this motivation is as old as Nigeria.

        I am not convinced that the envisioned Islamic State encompasses the entire Northern Nigeria and I am definitely sure that it does not include Southern Nigeria. So Boko Haram may have very limited strategic goals.

        Such groups can always draw support. Matatsine could assemble about 10,000 to openly challenge the Nigerian State in Kano as far back as 1980. The Nigerian State has traditionally dealt mercilessly with such groups, but the tactic of suicide bombing and the fact that the Nigerian State has to simultaneously fight fires in the Middle Belt and the Niger Delta complicates matters.

        In the long run, Boko Haram and the Nigerian State may have to mutually define boundaries, learn to live within those boundaries and reach an accomodation (just like the Nigerian State has learned to live with Niger Delta militants).

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  4. I’m only inclined to believe Western officials because AQIM extended its own hand to Boko Haram, and even then both sides shouldn’t be taken at face value. Insurgencies naturally connect during netwar, giving AQIM and Boko the motivation to intermingle. However I have yet to see any definitive evidence of affiliation beyond ideology/propaganda, and I’m not sure how IEDs became a specific “hallmark” of AQIM. Some of this information can be found right on the Internet; a few commanders may have received basic instruction from AQIM and combined it with local knowledge/military defections. Haven’t seen any links to al-Shabaab turn up in intelligence sites either.

    “Defeat” on the battlefield often force an insurgency to change tactics/strategy, and a small but evolving cadre is capable of inflicting disproportionate damage. It’s easy for these groups to connect but even easier for governments to connect them. The U.S. is trying to link them together to justify a new campaign post-OBL/Afghanistan. This creates the dangerous possibility where each local solution is simplified into a broader counter-terrorism campaign, which the U.S. already fell for in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like you say the dialogue part of Nigeria’s strategy is being minimized.

    Both AQIM’s connection to Boko and U.S. attempts to link them are causes for concern.

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