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.

10 thoughts on “On Appraising Threats

  1. I might be one of those “Nigerian critics”. The Rwandan genocide was “no threat to the West” – there was absolutely zero possibility of a “Rwandan inspired event” in the United States or Europe.

    But was that an excuse for the West not to have been involved, concerned or to treat it with seriousness? No.

    So forgive me, maybe its the emotional weight of three very bloody years in Nigeria.

    “Boko Haram & co are not threats to the West” – we agree, then what?

    • So it seems you feel that greater Western involvement – are we talking about military involvement? – would help solve the problem Boko Haram poses for Nigeria. That might be the case. But I think that it matters very much for Nigeria, and for the prospects of solving the problem, what assumptions and motivations guide Washington’s involvement. Surely a partner who thinks through the complexities of the situation is preferable to one who does not. I am not saying that the West should not help Nigeria. I am saying that it matters – to Western societies as well as to Nigeria – how Western governments conceptualize these issues. One does not have to look far to find examples of Western-led interventions gone wrong.

      • Nobody’s inviting the West to intervene in Nigeria. Having said that, I question the framework used in assessing the threat posed by Boko Haram.

        Boko Haram doesn’t operate in a part of Nigeria rich with Western targets – but its sister organisation (Ansaru) has targeted Western interests on more than one occasion.

        Either Boko Haram (or organisations related to Boko Haram) were responsible for kidnapping a French family this year – it doesn’t take long for militants to graduate from kidnapping to something more serious (the lesson from the Niger Delta).

        But that isn’t the main risk posed by Boko Haram – it can split wide open the ethnic & religious fault-lines that simmer below the surface in Nigeria – if that isn’t cause for concern for the West/US, I don’t know what is.

        Boko Haram is not as complex as some Western commentators make it out to be. Yes, it is a reaction to local politics. Yes, it is a reaction to poverty & grievances – but these conditions are common in all parts of Nigeria – and Nigerians must learn to resolve them peacefully if they want a Nigeria.

        At the basic level, Boko Haram are people engaged in criminal behaviour and you cannot appease Boko Haram without alienating other communities in Nigeria (like say, the Northern Christian Community).

        At the basic minimum, what we require from the US is moral clarity on Boko Haram – not oscillating between unproven theories on “poverty & alienation” fueling their violence & now announcing huge rewards on Shekau’s head (while refusing to tag the organisation he heads a terrorist organisation).

        Once Jonathan began abandoned meaningless theories on “poverty & alienation” and took the fight to Boko Haram’s doorstep, things began to cool down.

        At the barest minimum, this is the sort of clarity we require from the United States.

      • What would result from the “moral clarity” you ask for? You’re saying it would change Jonathan’s approach/mindset?

      • Jonathan’s approach/mindset changed once he identified Boko Haram for the threat it was, abandoned politics & faced them squarely – Nigeria is better off for it.

        That is the least required from the US.

        (If this was “gay rights”, there would be moral clarity from the US)

        As an aside, consider the federation account allocation figures for Northern states (a major driver of state gdp), compare them with the figures for Southern states – and realise that the “poverty & alienation causes terrorism” thesis is untenable in Nigeria.

        The poorest state in Nigeria (from FAAC allocation figures) is Ebonyi in the South & there is no “poverty & alienation” driven terrorism there, why?


  2. There’s always the risk of missing something, especially in politics. Sometimes you simply have to bite the bullet and make a call.

    Personally I agree that it seems more likely that Boko Haram will continue to focus on Nigerian targets first and foremost, though I doubt they would pass up a tempting Western target if it became available.

    • “Poverty and alienation” are so pervasive in Nigeria that dwelling on it as a “cause of terrorism” is meaningless.

      Non-Nigerian analysts might link “poverty and alienation” with terrorism – but in Nigeria (where it really counts, many people simply don’t buy it).

      If indeed “poverty and alienation” caused terrorism, does the Nigerian government (or any Nigerian government) have the capacity to remedy it? No.

      To do so, you’d have to address, unresolved issues stemming from non implementation of rehabilitation after the Civil War, address lingering issues in the Niger Delta, deal with poverty in the Christian Middle Belt and at the same time try to resolve poverty related issues in the North East & North West.

      The Nigerian government simply lacks those resources.

      About Middle Class activists being behind Boko Haram, probable – but its roots also lie in local politics.

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