Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
Vol. 14, No. 15 May 15, 2014
- Three hundred mostly Christian girls from a high school in northeastern Nigeria were kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, whose chief, Abubakar Shekau, announced that the girls had been converted to Islam. Over the past three years Boko Haram has killed more than 1,500 Nigerians, mostly Christian citizens in the predominantly Muslim northern part of the country.
- For the first time since the government decided to fight Boko Haram in July 2009, President Jonathan Goodluck has openly accepted Western and Israeli assistance in the war, thus acknowledging the inability of the Nigerian armed forces and secret services to cope with the terror group.
- The events in Nigeria have highlighted the issue of political Islam in Africa’s most populous country, with its 177 million citizens divided roughly equally between Christians predominating in the south and Muslims in the north.
- Sheikh Ibrahim Alzakzaky, the undisputed leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, is a Nigerian Shiite from Kaduna State. A protégé of Iran, he works to disseminate Shiite theology and create a radical socioeconomic and military order resembling that of Hizbullah in Lebanon. He is believed to have over a million supporters.
- Many armed Islamist groups are now fighting the Nigerian government, seeking to force it to adopt an Islamist regime. Of the Nigerian Federation’s 36 states, 12 have already introduced Sharia law. Northern Muslim states have become a battleground, with Boko Haram combatants being trained in terrorist camps in Mali.
- The crisis created by the Nigerian government’s inability to cope with the Boko Haram threat has led some of the country’s Christian intellectuals and politicians to note that the developed parts of Nigeria are mostly in Christian areas, and call for a partition of the country if necessary. Subduing Boko Haram is in the West’s interest.
The Threat of Political Islam in Africa
Events in Nigeria have captured the attention of the Western democracies. Three hundred mostly Christian girls from a high school in northeastern Nigeria were kidnapped by the terrorist group known as Boko Haram (the name means “Everything Western is forbidden” in the Hausa language). Boko Haram’s chief, Abubakar Shekau, then announced that the girls had been converted to Islam and, unless the Nigerian government released jailed Boko Haram members, would either be sold as slaves or forced to marry members of the organization.
Over the past three years Boko Haram has killed more than 1,500 Nigerians, mostly Christian citizens in the predominantly Muslim northern part of the country.1 Boko Haram has sowed havoc and destruction by attacking government facilities, jails, police stations, universities, and schools. It has even carried out attacks in the capital, Abuja. Boko Haram struck the UN headquarters in the city on August 26, 2011, and it has dispatched car bombers to busy bus stations in the vicinity of the capital. The only places spared so far are the country’s airports and the commercial capital, Lagos.
The international community, however, ignored all this, and only reacted when the girls were abducted. For the first time since the government decided to fight Boko Haram in July 2009, President Jonathan Goodluck has openly accepted Western and Israeli assistance in the war, thus acknowledging the inability of the Nigerian armed forces and secret services to cope with the terror group. French President François Hollande convened a conference in Paris to consider how best to help the regime with the struggle, and the United States, UK, France, and Israel have expressed willingness to help locate the missing students and eventually free them.
The events in Nigeria have highlighted the issue of political Islam in Africa’s most populous country. Its 177 million citizens are divided roughly equally between Christians and Muslims, with Christians predominating in the south and Muslims in the north.
Islamist activity is not new in Nigeria; it dates back to the 1960s. At that time Saudi Arabia stood behind the financing and instruction of the various Islamic groups. It is estimated that over two hundred organizations were then working to strengthen Nigeria’s Islamic character. Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, a student of the Saudi stream, set up the Society for the Eradication of Evil and the Establishment of the Sunna, better known as Ian Izala, which flourished during military rule in Nigeria and promoted Islamic education.2
Iran Behind the Islamic Movement of Nigeria
In the 1980s and 1990s, graduates of this movement established additional radical movements such as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Movement for Islamic Revival, whose leader, Abubakar Mujahid, responded to the 9/11 attack on the U.S. by calling it a fitting response to American provocation. Mujahid was earlier a student of Sheikh Ibrahim Alzakzaky, the undisputed leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria. Alzakzaky, born in 1953, is a Nigerian Shiite from Kaduna State. A protégé of Iran, he works to disseminate Shiite theology and create a radical socioeconomic and military order resembling that of Hizbullah in Lebanon. He is believed to have over a million supporters, and his organization has often clashed with the army and with Christians. Reports claim the Movement for Islamic Revival has killed thousands in northern Nigeria over the past decade. The sheikh himself was in almost every prison in Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s, but has continued his activities.3
Many armed Islamist groups are now fighting the Nigerian government, seeking to destabilize the country and force it to adopt an Islamist regime. Of the thirty-six states that make up the Nigerian Federation, twelve have already introduced Sharia law. Northern Muslim states have become a battleground between the army and armed groups, many of whose fighters come from Chad, Algeria, and even Afghanistan. Fighters from Nigeria took part in terrorist activities in southern Algeria, and Boko Haram combatants have been trained in terrorist camps in Mali. The Nigerian military has shared information on Boko Haram’s ongoing ties with AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), MOJWA (Movement of Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), and the Somali Al-Shabab.4
Boko Haram is undoubtedly the deadliest of the Nigerian organizations. It was established in Kanamma village in Yobe State, not far from the Niger border, by Ustaz Mohammad Youssouf, who was born in 1970 and has four wives with twelve children. Initially a protest movement, his group soon turned radical. He named his training camp “Afghanistan” and referred to his men as “Taliban.”
In July 2009 the then-president of Nigeria, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, ordered a crackdown that was meant to eradicate Boko Haram. The organization lost over nine hundred members; Youssouf was captured, and was executed on July 30. His financier, Buji Foi, was executed a few days later. Boko Haram, however, continued to operate under the leadership of Moallem Sanni Umaru. He was then replaced by Abubakar Shekau, who had been wounded in July and left for dead. Shekau survived and succeeded to restructure the organization.
The U.S. State Department reports that, like many al-Qaeda affiliates, Boko Haram obtains most of its funding from bank robberies and other criminal activities, including extortion and kidnapping for ransom.5
Nigeria’s Intelligence Services
The Nigerian secret services seem initially to have underestimated Boko Haram’s destructive capability, viewing it as a marginal organization with no real impact. Boko Haram, however, gained sympathizers among the Muslim governors of some of the northern states, who helped fund it and sheltered its leaders and operatives from the wrath of the State Secret Service (SSS). High-ranking police officers and politicians were revealed to be collaborators of the organization, some out of sympathy and some out of opposition to the ruling Christian president.
In recent years Nigeria’s intelligence services have acquired from European, American, and Israeli sources all the necessary equipment for eavesdropping, tracking, and locating potential targets. These services’task forces have been trained and equipped by UK and U.S. officers. In some cases, as when British and Italian citizens were held hostage in northeastern Nigeria, the Nigerian government appears to have allowed the British Special Forces to take independent action against Boko Haram, with no great success. The presence of these units was uncovered when the Italian government filed a protest for not having been consulted beforehand.
Essentially, in the war against Boko Haram the Nigerian government is at a loss.6 The national security adviser, American-educated Colonel (ret.) Sambo Dassuki, son of the deposed sultan of the city of Sokoto in northern Nigeria, is supposed to coordinate the activities of all services but has not succeeded to do so. The SSS, the military, and the Defense Ministry continue to work independently and intelligence is not being shared as it should be. Moreover, it seems that the Nigerian military has not developed a rapid-intervention force. Overall, the Nigerian government has shown a lack of resolve in the war against Boko Haram and has left the initiative in the terrorists’ hands.
In January 2012, a new jihadist terrorist organization emerged.7 Unlike Boko Haram, which is based around Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, Ansaru operates in and around Kano State in northern-central Nigeria, an area populated by the Hausa-Fulani peoples of Muslim creed. Ansaru, an abbreviation for Jama’at Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan(Arabic for Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands), is a splinter faction of Boko Haram and reportedly has a more international focus. Ansaru has perpetrated several kidnappings of Westerners in the Cameroon-Nigeria border area.
The Possibility of Nigerian Partition
The crisis created by the Nigerian government’s inability to cope with the Boko Haram threat has led some of the country’s Christian intellectuals and politicians to maintain that Nigeria has no future as a unified state. They note that the developed parts of Nigeria are mostly in Christian-populated areas, and call for a partition if necessary. Nigerian Muslims, for their part, continue to support the unified state. Their complacent attitude toward the jihadists could change, however, when President Goodluck’s tenure ends in February 2015 and a Muslim president is elected instead.
It is this potentially explosive situation that has prompted the concern of the Western powers. A partitioned Nigeria would have dire implications for the stability of the neighboring regimes and for world energy supplies, since Nigeria is the sixth largest producer of crude oil. Irredentist effects could be expected in Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, and further afield in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Subduing Boko Haram is in the West’s interest and could become its top priority in Africa.8
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8. Canadian Intelligence Security Service, “Nigeria: Counter-Terrorism at Home and the Significance of the 2015 Presidential Elections,” in Political Stability and Security in West and North Africa. See more at: http://jcpa.org/article/an-iranian-intelligence-failure-arms-ship-in-nigeria-reveals-irans-penetration-of-west-africa/