TSG IntelBrief: Boko Haram: An Increasingly Radical Threat
June 19, 2012
As of mid-June 2012, Boko Haram continues to exacerbate underlying Christian-Muslim tensions, undermine the Nigerian government’s authority, and pose an increasing threat to Western interests. In just the past ten days, the group has carried out a series of attacks against Christian churches, including suicide bombings in Kanduna province and in Jos that incited Christian retaliatory action, along with an armed assault against a church in Bui. And the group’s campaign looks set to continue: last week, a spokesman for Boko Haram told local newspapers that it shortly “will be launching attacks on the Nigerian state and its security apparatus as well as churches.”
Boko Haram has undergone a significant ideological transition since it was established in 2002 by Mohammad Yusuf, an Islamic cleric, in Maiduguri, Borno. The group’s early objectives were restricted to addressing economic and social grievances in the north and northeast regions of the country, mainly through uprisings against security forces, rather than targeted terrorist attacks. Over recent years, however, the group’s statements suggest it has adopted an increasingly Salafi-Jihadi slant, and its objective now extends to overthrowing the Nigerian government. Analysts indicate that the turning point was July 2009, when Nigerian police arrested and killed hundreds of Boko Haram members during an uprising, including the group’s leader.
The violent repression — along with Yusuf’s death — appear to have radicalized Boko Haram’s leadership. In 2010, Abubakar Shekau, one of Yusuf’s former deputies, appeared in a video and claimed he was the new leader. From the outset, his communications have indicated that Boko Haram intended to pursue a more aggressive set of tactics. In his first video, for example, Shekau warned that the group would not only target the Nigerian government, but also “outposts of Western culture.”
Shekau’s threats are reflected in the group’s subsequent attacks. Over the past eighteen months, Boko Haram has staged near daily strikes against police as well as Christian religious targets, which are most common in the Borno, Yobo and Bauchi states. But Boko Haram does not claim all the attacks attributed to it in the media or the local authorities, and some could have been carried out by other groups.
A number of trends have nonetheless emerged from Boko Haram’s claimed attacks. First, the incidents are becoming increasingly lethal. During 2012, the group has conducted mass-casualty attacks in cities including Abuja, Jos, Baiuchi, Kaduna, Damaturu and Maiduguri. Most notably, on January 20, Boko Haram terrorists conducted a series of attacks against police stations, the headquarters of the secret service, and a local government office, killing more than 140 people in multiple bombs and shootings.
Second, the group is more frequently using sophisticated suicide bombings as a way of staging its attacks. According to Nigerian media reports, there have been at least eleven different suicide attacks so far during 2012, which have targeted Christian churches, police, local newspapers, and government buildings. This development indicates two things: the group has attracted a core of recruits willing to die for its cause, and it possesses the capability to build sophisticated bombs.
Third, Boko Haram has also shown increasing intent — and no lack of capability — in targeting Western interests. In August 2011, the group claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack against a UN building in Abuja, which killed 25 people and wounded 80 others. Meanwhile, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan blamed Boko Haram for killing two Westerners, who had been kidnapped last year, during a failed rescue attempt in Birnin Kebbi, northwest Nigeria in May.
The group appears to have been involved in other plots against Western interests. In November 2011 and April 2012, the U.S. Embassy in Abuja issued warnings that Boko Haram was planning attacks against Western interests, including against hotels frequented by Western guests. Meanwhile, according to Nigerian media reports, the group issued a threat in February that it intended to assassinate the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria.
One credible explanation as to how Boko Haram has been able to develop its capabilities and sustain its operations is that it has received support from other Salafist-Jihadist groups. While analysts dispute the facts and information is difficult to corroborate, there is growing evidence to suggest at least a tactical connection — if not yet an official partnership — between Boko Haram and groups within al-Qaeda’s network.
In January, a Boko Haram spokesman told the British Guardian newspaper that the group was a “spiritual follower” of al-Qaeda and that group leaders had met senior figures in Saudi Arabia. Shortly after the suicide attack against the UN in Abuja, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Nigerian State Security Service believed the perpetrators of the attacks had received training from “al-Qaeda affiliated groups” in both Afghanistan and Algeria.
Sources suggest the group’s closet ties are with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In January, the UN Security Council reported that Boko Haram had sent its members to train in AQIM camps in Mali. In January 2012, Niger’s foreign minister said during a regional summit that there was credible intelligence Boko Haram had trained at AQIM training camps across the Sahel. There have also been some reports that Boko Haram has established connections with al-Shabaab, but this connection is less well-documented. At a minimum, this information indicates that Boko Haram’s relationship with nearby terrorist groups has led to a cross-pollination of tactics, ideas, and training, which has enabled Boko Haram to evolve from a primarily localized group to a highly capable terrorist organization, with growing reach to conduct attacks across Nigeria.
So far, domestic and international responses to Boko Haram have failed to prevent the group’s expansion. One reason Boko Haram has continued to prosper is because the root causes of its development — namely economic, political and social inequality in northern Nigeria — remain largely unaddressed. These grievances feed Boko Haram’s recruitment narrative and help attract new adherents, funding, and international support. Accordingly, US government officials believe that Boko Haram’s popularity will only decrease once the Nigerian government can meaningfully improve economic and political prospects for northerners.
Surprisingly little is known about the group’s wider structure and other leaders. To more effectively combat the evolving threat posed by Boko Haram, the Nigerian government requires substantial enhancements in its intelligence processes, especially its ability to quickly and accurately identify — and subsequently arrest — senior Boko Haram operatives. At the same time, improving the quality and timeliness of intelligence sharing with its neighboring countries, particularly Niger, Cameroon and Chad, will enable Nigeria to significantly improve border security and disrupt the movement of terrorists for training and supplies.
The U.S. government must also render a determination as to whether Boko Haram should be formally identified as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Adding the group to this list would provide further international counterterrorism options, including the possibility of conducting drone strikes that target the organization’s key leaders, materiel, and facilities.
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