In Nigeria, a radical Islamic sect known as Boko Haram carried out a series of terrorist attacks killing more than 100 people in the states of Borno and Yobe on Friday. Yobe’s capital city of Damaturu bore the brunt of the damage when a car bomb exploded outside a military office and barracks, killing several security agents. The terrorist assault continued through the night when rampaging gunmen blew up a bank, and attacked at least three police stations, and five churches, leaving behind nothing but rubble, officials said. Gunmen also raided the nearby village of Potiskum, leaving at least two people dead there, according to witnesses. A Boko Haram spokesman calling himself Abul-Qaqa promised more of the same. “We will continue attacking federal government formations until security forces stop their excesses on our members and vulnerable civilians,” he warned.
Boko Haram, which translates from the local Hausa language into “Western education is sacrilege” in English, wants to impose Sharia law over the entire oil-rich nation of 160 million people, despite the fact the country is evenly divided into a largely Muslim north and a largely Christian south. The sect completely rejects the notion of Western-inspired democracy, which they contend has corrupted government officials.
Government spokesman Reuben Abati, speaking on behalf of President Goodluck Jonathan, said that “every step will be taken” to arrest those responsible for the carnage. “The security agencies will tell you that what happens on this scale is even a fraction of what could have happened considering the scope of the threat,” Abati said. “The security agencies are busy at work trying to make sure the will of the majority of the Nigerian people is not subverted by a minority with a suicidal streak.”
Yet if the Associated Press is correct, reality is far more complicated. Boko Haram has reportedly split itself into three separate factions, all of which have different goals. One faction is ostensibly moderate and welcomes an end to all violence. A second faction wants a peace agreement similar to the one offered to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in 2009, which included a presidential pardon, a rehabilitation program, and education and training.
The third faction rejects any compromise. Its spiritual leader, imam Abubakar Shekau, heard speaking in a scratchy recording obtained by the AP, insists that holy war is the only way to bring about change. “Whomever we kill, we kill because Allah says we should kill and we kill for a reason,” Shekau says in the recording, characterized as a sermon. Underscoring this faction’s seriousness is the readiness to kill one of their own members. In September, a representative of one of the moderate factions of Boko Haram was executed for negotiating with former Nigeria President Olusegun Obasanjo.
This attack, coupled with one in August on a United Nations compound in Abuja, which killed 24 and wounded 116, indicates the group’s continued potency, despite a 2009 crackdown. In July of that year, a riot and a military response left 700 people dead. Former Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed in police custody in Maiduguri, the sect’s spiritual home. Human Rights Watch called the killing “extrajudicial” and “illegal” at the time. Moreover, the subsequent crackdown following last August’s attack, which human rights activists contend has resulted in the deaths of innocents, may be fueling the insurgency.
Three other factors may be fueling it as well. One is the disappointment many northern Nigerians felt when the implementation of Sharia in northern states from 1999 to 2001 failed to eliminate corruption, fix the northern economy, or address feelings of political irrelevance. Second was the April election to the presidency of southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan, following the death of northern Muslim Umaru Yar’Adua. This ostensibly violated an unofficial power-sharing agreement by which the presidency rotates every two terms, between north and south. Thirdly, is the reality that Nigeria is a nation divided not only by religion, but by an economy characterized as a “prosperous, oil-rich south and its economically deprived, semi-arid north.”
About a year ago, Boko Haram re-emerged and began a campaign of assassinations carried out by motorcycle-riding gunmen toting Kalashnikov rifles hidden under their traditional robes. The mayhem has resulted in at least 361 deaths this year alone, according to AP. In response, motorcycles have been banned from the street in Maiduguri, but the killing continues. Government officials, police officers, soldiers in the region, and clerics who speak out against Boko Haram are routinely targeted. On Sunday another such assassination was carried out against a local police inspector on his way to pray at a mosque with his family. Gunmen separated the man from his family, ordered them to leave, and then murdered him.
Khalifa Dikwa, a professor at the University of Maiduguri, notes that a region beset by grinding poverty, as a well as a level of perceived corruption and injustice, makes for a fertile breeding ground for recruitment by the Boko Haram. While the rich and well-connected get justice, he contends, “somebody who was incarcerated for stealing just a chicken will be behind bars for six years without trial. Again, it boils down to injustice, alienation, arm-twisting of the law, corrupting the entire system.” He further notes that such injustice, coupled with a 70 percent unemployment rate and few opportunities for youths who lack access to good education, makes the terrorist group an attractive alternative to the status quo. “Anybody who feels cheated is Boko Haram,“ he added.
On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council condemned the attacks. “The members of the Security Council reaffirmed that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations is criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of its motivation, wherever, whenever and by whomsoever committed and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group,” a statement read. “The members of the Security Council reaffirmed the need to combat by all means, in accordance with the charter of the United Nations, threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts,” it added. On Sunday Pope Benedict XVI also called for an end to the violence in Nigeria.
A spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) who wished to remain anonymous condemned the killings, but insisted that Muslims could not be responsible because they were perpetrated during a holy month and on the eve of Eid. The Eid al-Adha celebration, or the “Festival of Sacrifice,” is a three-day affair centering around the slaughter of sheep and cattle in remembrance of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son by command of Allah. Allah allowed the boy to live after Abraham demonstrated his willingness to submit to the command. The holy month is a reference to the Hajj, the Fifth Pillar of Islam, which requires every Muslim make a pilgrimage to Mecca, if one is able-bodied and can afford to do so. This year the pilgrimage occurs in November.
Hence the skepticism. “I am very doubtful that the people that did this are Muslims,” said the SCIA spokesman. “If they are, what kind of Islam are they practising? No sane Muslim would do this. If you are fighting for God, you must first obey him and observe his commandments. The holy month must be kept holy.”
Maybe not. On Sunday the U.S. embassy issued a statement warning of more to come. “The U.S. Embassy has received information that Boko Haram may plan to attack several locations and hotels in Abuja (this week) …Targets may include the Nicon Luxury, the Sheraton Hotel, and the Transcorp Hilton Hotel,” it read. As for the rest of the year? A decade of attacks outlined here suggests that with respect to “fighting for God,” anytime may be the right time for Islamic terrorists in Nigeria.
Yet for the most part, terrorism in Nigeria has remained under the radar despite the fact that the country has been victimized by more attacks in the last two years than any country in the world except Somalia–and despite the fact that the fruits of that terrorist-inspired unrest have already been exported to the United States: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate a bomb hidden in his underwear aboard a Northwest Airlines flight in December of 2009, was Nigerian.
An isolated incident? Maybe not. Attacks with large bombs may indicate that Boko Haram is receiving training from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Furthermore in August, Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the United States Africa Command, contended that both groups were attempting to establish a “loose partnership” with Shabaab, the Somali-based terror group responsible for the bombings at the World Cup soccer matches in Uganda last year where more than 70 people were killed. Ham characterized the development as one that “would be the most dangerous thing to happen not only to the Africans, but to us as well.” That same month the Obama administration stated that Nigeria was incapable of fighting terror within the nation’s borders.
It is worth remembering that Americans knew very little about al Qaeda and Afghanistan prior to 9⁄11, and those who did were loath to believe such a relatively “insignificant” development could blossom into a force capable of carrying out the worst domestic attack in the history of the nation. Precious few Americans have heard of Boko Haram. Every reasonable effort possible should be undertaken to prevent them from becoming a household name.
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