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:
- Boko Haram has ties to Al Qaeda, specifically the franchise Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
- Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian security forces
- 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.