A day after announcing its official partnership with al-Qaeda, the Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram launched Nigeria’s first suicide bombing. Sadly, the Nigerian importation of Islam’s favorite weapon of choice signals a serious escalation in an already brutal sectarian war.
According to Nigerian police, the suicide bomber in the capital city of Abuja drove a car loaded with explosives into Nigeria’s national police headquarters, killing himself and a Nigerian policeman. Boko Haram – often referred to as the Nigerian Taliban – took credit for the bombing.
Since 2009 Boko Haram has been engaged in an escalating and deadly battle with the Nigerian government in an effort to create a Sharia-ruled Islamist state in northern Nigeria. That fight encapsulates the growing rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria, one that has pitted the country’s predominantly Muslim North against its Christian South.
Yet, days before the suicide attack, Boko Haram had issued a statement setting conditions for a ceasefire with Nigeria’s government. However, those proposed talks with the Nigerian government immediately “collapsed” according to Boko Haram when Nigeria’s Inspector General, Hafiz Ringim, the next day declared the terror groups days to be “numbered.”
In response, Boko Haram issued another statement to not only threaten “fiercer” attacks but to also announce its new partnership with al-Shabab, Somalia’s al Qaeda-linked terror group: “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…”
That training was placed on horrid display the next day when Boko Haram launched its inaugural Somalia-trained suicide bomber. While that tragic event signaled Boko Haram’s increased determination to impose its deadly agenda, it also signaled al-Shabab’s capability to export terror tactics far beyond its own borders.
That fact is very unfortunate news for Nigerians as al-Shabab’s terror tactics –which focus on terrorizing civilians through executions, amputations and rape – are decidedly brutal, even by al Qaeda standards.
In fact, in the last several weeks, al-Shabab forces have cut off the arms of three teenagers accused of stealing; cut off the tongue of a young man accused of “mixed-gender handshakes”; and executed two teenagers for alleged spying.
Equally disturbing, given its new Somalia terror link and change in tactics, fears have been raised that Boko Haram has also joined with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). While neither Boko Haram nor AQIM have announced a strategic partnership, both terror groups have been on friendly terms for some time.
That amity first emerged in 2009 when AQIM issued a communiqué eulogizing Boko Haram’s leader Muhammad Yusuf, who had been killed by Nigerian security forces. In that statement, AQIM urged Nigerian Muslims to wage war against Nigerian Christians: “We are prepared to provide weapons training to your sons and to provide them with whatever support we can – men, arms, ammunition, and supplies.”
Of course, even with a newly inked al Qaeda pact in hand, it can be argued that Boko Haram was already doing fine working solo. Their rise to terrorist success story began in earnest in July 2009 when violent clashes between the Boko Haram and Nigerian police took place in Maiduguri, the capital of the northern Nigerian state of Borno. Those clashes, which left hundreds dead, led to the killing of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf one month later.
The death of Yusuf led the Nigerian government to declare Boko Haram finished. However, its fighters regrouped and launched a deadly guerilla war in Borno. Since that time, Boko Haram has set off bombs; attacked Nigerian troops; assassinated a number of policemen and politicians; and killed imams who disagree with their doctrine of rejecting the secular state.
The fight has been intensifying since the January 2011 re-election of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, who defeated his closest rival, Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north. Jonathan’s presidential victory sparked a spree of rioting that killed over 800 people.
For its part, Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings since Jonathan’s inauguration. These bombings included one at an army barracks in the northern city of Bauchi that killed 14 people and one bomb blast that killed four children and injured two others near Maiduguri.
It should be noted, however, that Boko Haram has its Muslim detractors. Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, the spiritual leader of Nigeria’s 70 million Muslims, says Boko Haram represents a small minority of extremists but doesn’t represent the majority of peaceful Muslims: “We’re in the majority but the very few people who don’t believe in this maybe are into taking up arms against innocent lives.”
That topic was one that dominated the recent meeting of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, a conference that included discussions on Nigeria’s post-election violence. It was at the opening of the conference that Nigeria’s Vice President Namadi Sambo urged the religious leaders in attendance to teach Muslims the positive virtues of tolerance and coexistence. As Sambo said, “Islam is a religion of peace and abhors violence.”
Perhaps in a bit of poetic irony, shortly after Sambo had concluded his remarks, the meeting hall was rocked by the nearby suicide bombing of the Nigerian police headquarters.
While the suicide bombing may signal a new and troubling phase in Nigeria’s sectarian strife, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan downplayed its impact, saying, “The security agencies are on top of it. Surely, we will get over it. People should not be panicky at all. Soon, most of these things will be a thing of the past.”
However, the unfortunate reality is that suicide bombings aren’t relegated to the past but rather firmly rooted in the here and now. That is a sad fact evidenced by their continued deadly use in such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia. Now, one can add Nigeria to that gruesome list.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.