Few outside of Nigeria have ever heard of Boko Haram (hereafter BH). Nigeria, too, in the broad scheme of international relations, hardly seems a country of much consequence. But BH violence in Nigeria over the past ten years should sound an ominous warning: Nigeria today has more to do with the future of our civilization than may be immediately apparent.
An oil-rich country and Africa’s most populous, but with a mostly subsistence-level peasantry despite its oil wealth, Nigeria has been riven by religious animosity and violence since a group of jihadist extremists in the Muslim majority (c. 50-60% of the population) began to impose Shari’a law on the twelve northern provinces where most Muslims live. The Christian Nigerians, and many Muslims as well, preferred a secular democracy; but Shari’a has become the law of the land in most of these northern provinces; and what these Muslim jihadists failed to achieve via political means, they seek to achieve by violence: Hence the BH.
Boko Haram in Hausa (the Nigerian dialect spoken in most of the northern provinces) means “western education is sinful.” It is the more common name for a violent jihadist Muslim sect officially known as “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad” [the committee for the propagation of Muhammad’s teachings for proselytizing and for Jihad]. The group seeks the imposition of Shari’a law and the extreme Islamist ideology of the supremacy of the Islam and the sinfulness of western education, on northern Nigeria, and ultimately on all of Nigeria, by force. The purpose of the violence begun in 2002 is to topple the current government and establish Islamic rule for all of Nigeria. Critics, intellectuals, and lawmakers who might stand in the way are threatened or killed. With that goal in mind, the BH rejects all aspects of western and other non-Muslim culture, eschews democratic government, rails against elections, opposes wearing western garb, and outlaws secular education.
The BH created its own schools in northern Nigeria, and these provide a fertile recruiting ground for new young violent jihadist.
The commitment of the group’s leadership to fundamentalist jihadist Muslim teaching is so strong that their former leader, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf, explained during a BBC interview in 2009 that western-style education and science contradict the Qur’an, as do the western assertions that the world is a sphere and rain comes from condensed moisture in clouds. Because of these putative contradictions, the BH sees western education as sinful and hence forbidden to Muslims. Needless to say, there are many Muslims in Nigeria and elsewhere who disagree.
The group started in the 1960’s as a secluded fundamentalist Islamic sect, small and seemingly harmless. But less than twenty years later its adherents caused inter-religious sectarian riots in 1980 in which 4000 died. In 1984 violence erupted again with at least a thousand dead and more than 60,000 driven from their homes. Hundreds more were killed in 1985.
Initially the government denied the role of Islam in the violence. Apologists said that the ranks of the BH were drawn largely from disaffected youth, drug addicts, hooligans, and common criminals who used Islamic extremism as a front for criminal activities.
But the influence of jihadist Muslim ideology and Arab Islamic terror organizations is clear. The BH refer to themselves as the “Nigerian Taliban,” apparently inspired by the success of al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001. “Afghanistan” is the name of their base in northern Nigeria. Some suggest that it was perhaps not coincidental that Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf took control of the group in late 2001, just a few months after 9⁄11, and at once escalated violence and began a terror war against the Nigerian government, in imitation of the Taliban.
Moreover, it seems that at least some in Nigeria’s Department of State Security were unwilling to take seriously the threat that the BH pose. According to official reports, proper authorities were informed of BH plans to start a new cycle of violence, but nothing was done.
In the 80’s the government acquiesced to the BH intimidation and threats of more violence, and by doing so, enabled the terrorists to gain more power and control. Some Muslim leaders in the government, sympathetic to the BH, secretly protected them, funded them, and legitimized their actions. Police were warned about the growth in numbers and power of BH over the years, but ignored these warnings until 2002 when the new attacks began. With no concerted opposition, the BH was able to grow rapidly and attract many new adherents. In what was in essence a power vacuum, the BH enjoyed easy recruitment and freedom for violent attacks.
And their work seems to have paid off, with dozens of attacks since 2002 against police, prisons, politicians, Muslim leaders who oppose them, and numerous bombings of civilian targets including churches. To date thousands of Nigerians, mostly civilians, have been killed in BH violence.
Aggressive counter-terrorist action finally reduced BH violence in 2004, and Yusuf himself was killed by the national police. Some Nigerian leaders at first minimized the threat, suggesting that by 2009 the popularity of BH was waning. But in 2011, in a horrific explosion of new BH terrorism, that optimism was proven premature.
In Syria after the el-Assad massacre in Hama in February, 1982[i], the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated extraordinarily resilience. Today they are a powerful military and political force in Syria. A similar resurgence took place in Egypt after Anwar es-Sadat’s death despite decades of government repression of Muslim Brotherhood leaders. The Nigerian jihadists, inspired by Qur’an, Allah and the Taliban, are a highly resilient group as well.
The BH today includes many non-Nigerian Arabic speaking jihadists from Sudan and Somalia. And police accounts of BH attacks indicate the presence of well-armed foreign mercenaries equipped with sophisticated weaponry. The source of this weaponry, which includes RPGs (anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades) and AK-47s, is not known. It seems likely that such armaments came from jihadist allies outside the country, probably Somalia and Sudan.
In a recent ultimatum to the Nigerian government, a BH spokesperson disclosed for the first time that it had links with Islamists in Somalia. In a handwritten statement quoted in Agence France-Presse, BH spokespersons said: “Very soon, we will wage jihad…We want to make it known that our jihadists have arrived in Nigeria from Somalia where they received real training on warfare from our brethren who made that country ungovernable… This time round (sic), our attacks will be fiercer and wider than they have been… it (sic) will target all northern states and the country’s capital Abuja.” Other reports from BH members indicate that the sect has links with al-Qaeda affiliates in North Africa. El Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were widely admired for years in the Muslim north. Moreover, in a speech in 2000, bin-Laden named Nigeria as a high-priority target nation for “liberation.”
Of what concern is all this to the West?
Consider how much better poised Islamic jihadists will be to take on Western states after they add Nigeria to their growing list of satellite countries in which terrorists can roam freely, recruit, train, arm, develop more sophisticated armaments, perhaps even WMDs, and organize attacks against other countries in Africa and the Middle East. Even after bin-Laden’s death, a solid foothold for al-Qaeda in Nigeria would be an ominous victory for the jihadists and a massive defeat for a democratic Nigeria.
We have seen this pattern before, in East and Central Asian countries where, over several decades, Muslim extremist forces gradually increased in power until they eventually replaced a secular government with Shari’a law and created a terror-supporting state friendly to the goals of al-Qaeda and other terror organizations.
Therefore, the strategic importance of Nigeria to the Islamists’ crusade for global hegemony should not be underestimated, especially since Nigeria holds massive oil reserves. Should Nigeria succumb to this BH Islamist onslaught, it would mark the latest in a long line of Muslim victories by means of infiltration into a host society.
The apologists, the minimizers and the collaborators in Nigeria and in the west, are at risk of losing an oil-rich democratic secular ally to the forces of the darkest and most threatening Islamic extremism. How many steps beyond Nigeria will the jihadists progress before they are poised to cross the threshold of Western Civilization?
[i] For the most comprehensive discussion of the Hama massacre, see Friedman, Thomas L., From Beirut to Jerusalem, Anchor Books, New York, 1989, 1990, 1995, chapter 4 “Hama Rules,” pp. 76ff. It is worth noting that this was the last of a series of revolts that began a decade earlier, in all of which the Muslim Brotherhood was involved, and all of which were put down with extreme brutality. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_uprising_in_Syria#Hama_massacre_-_February_1982 for a documented summary of these revolts.