The Boko Haram Phenomenon

Islamists Lay Siege To West Africa

Defining America’s core national interests in Afghanistan has dogged Western analysts and policy makers for over a decade. Scanning the horizon, Al Qaeda’s new leadership has expanded its recruiting and training facilities by franchising its brand to Takfiris in the Saudi Peninsula, Al Shabaab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb based in Algeria. America’s focus on piracy and terrorist activity on the Yemeni and Somali coasts, combined with recent Islamist agitations in the Sinai and Al Qaeda cells on the front lines in the Syria uprising generates a threat matrix centered in the Greater Middle East. Scant attention is given to West Africa’s growing jihadist elements.

From Libya to the Atlantic, well-armed Salafi extremists are implementing Sharia by intimidating and terrorizing Christians, Animists and Sufi Muslims. The Mali crisis has reached a critical point. After secular Tuareg separatists captured northern Mali, a military junta took over the government and then handed power back to a new civilian leadership. Unfortunately, in the interim, al-Qaeda linked Salafi jihadists of Ansar Dine and MUJWA (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) overran the NMLA Tuaregs in the major cities in the north: Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao. The Islamists immediately set about smashing Sufi shrines, implementing Sharia in schools and raising child conscripts for their militias.

As of September 1, MUJWA militants had taken the central town of Douentza and chose to execute an Algerian Diplomat after holding him and six other consular figures captive for months. Fearing an assault on the capital, Bamako, the Mali security forces have established a military staging area near the town of Mopti and are rapidly training 300 youth militia to help hold off the Islamist advance.

To provide a sense of scope, the Syrian civil war has seen over 200,000 displaced while nearly 500,000 Malians have been driven from their homes. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb have been active in Mali. An unconfirmed drone strike hit a convoy of AQIM fighters in June. In May, Pakistani jihadists and Boko Haram radicals were reportedly operating in Mali’s northern cities alongside Ansar Dine. It is evident that weapons from the revolution which overthrew Gaddafi in Libya are now in the hands of Salafi radicals throughout West Africa.

Mali was once considered one of West Africa’s most stable democracies. The rapid conquest of north Mali by Islamists may further devolve into the collapse of the state in Bamako. The stunning capacity of well-armed religious militants to destabilize the Mali democracy has placed new urgency on Western powers to guarantee the survival of Nigeria’s democracy – the tenth largest oil producer in the world.

Like in Afghanistan, defining America’s core national interests in Nigeria will prove a challenging task for the next administration. Nigeria is experiencing a crisis of American-inspired Federalism. Boko Haram is but a symptom of that crisis.

Islam has laid siege Nigeria’s federal system. The Central Bank of Nigeria is set to adopt Islamic Finance. Out of Nigeria’s 36 states, 12 have opted to institute Sharia Law. Should Nigeria be destabilized by Boko Haram militancy or fractured along religious or political lines, faltering oil production in the Niger delta would naturally follow.

The Boko Haram phenomenon is not, at present, a direct threat to America; however, the August 2011 attack on the UN facility in Nigeria’s capital and the fact that the 2009 underwear bomber, who hailed from Nigeria, was set to task by the AQAP charismatic, Anwar al Awlaki, has led the U.S. Congress to undertake studies of the group to determine the best policy in managing the terror threat.

It is difficult to pin down the inspiration or define the goals of Boko Haram. However, it is possible to construct a time line of their attacks, which seem to have begun in earnest with the assassination of Sheikh Ja’afar Mahmoud Adam as the 2007 presidential elections approached. Sheikh Adam was critical of the militant bent of the group’s leader Mohamed Yusuf.

The name of the original mosque established by Yusuf in Maiduguri was the “Ibn Taimiyyah Masjid.”  The teachings of the 13th Century scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, figure prominently in the Salafi ideology of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, via ibn Wahhab, Sayyed Qutb and Mawdudi. In the 1980s, Taymiyya’s powerful treatise Public Duties In Islam: The Institution of the Hisba was released in translated form by The Islamic Foundation in Leicester, England which has a dawa office in Kano, Nigeria. Throughout northern Nigeria, parallel Islamic courts and policing methods were established in the states which adopted Sharia after the nation’s 1999 move from military rule to a federalist democracy.

Notably, the federal government of Nigeria allowed each state to determine its own path; however, Sharia, if adopted, was only to be applicable to the Islamic citizens of the individual states. The implementation of Sharia was left to the morality police in the north, known as The Hisba. These groups have outlawed drinking alcohol and homosexuality and other haram practices. The lack of oversight and intelligence on these morality patrols and their indoctrination activities, by Nigeria’s Federal Government and the West, makes it difficult to determine if Boko Haram’s leaders or members are drawn from or have links to the local Hisba ranks in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram is derived from the native Hausa term “boko” which means “book” but refers to western education in general. Haram, of course, means forbidden. In this, the make up of the group, primarily well-educated and unemployed young men, provides a window into a key grievance of Boko Haram. Namely, the advance of western businesses into Nigeria, while providing job opportunities for locals often requires knowledge of English, French and German to attain employment.

Beyond this economic surface tension, the political divide between northern and southern Nigeria and the corrupt leadership in the federal and state governments, as a whole, provides fuel to the Boko Haram’s uprising as well as religious justification for its tactical usage of violence against what its members perceive as an oppressive regime. The fact that the group’s leader was murdered by police without trial by jury warrants a review of the corruptions within the Nigerian police units and furthers the Islamic rationale for developing a parallel security and justice apparatus in the north.

Throughout the oil rich Niger delta, numerous groups have launched rebellions and have been offered both amnesty and subsidies by the Nigerian government. Continual shortfalls in funds to administer the oil industry, which represents 95% of Nigeria’s export income, due to subsidies and corruptions are now leading elements within the Federal Government and the Central Bank of Nigeria to seek outside financing, such as the issuance of Eurobonds. These developments along with Nigeria’s membership in OPEC and its official moves toward Islamic Finance indicate that the issuance of a Nigerian Energy Sukuk is not a far off eventuality.

Nigeria is a brew of crises, corruption and violence. The Boko Haram threat has yielded almost weekly bombings, sectarian violence and political assassinations over the last two years. Boko Haram funds its operations with a combination of donations from wealthy patrons, extortion payments from northern Governors seeking a calm business environment, bank robberies and gun running. Yet, while this terrorist group seems to be growing in sophistication, in a country of 170 million people, the small contingent of its members, topping out at no more than 3,000, combined with its meager operational base of less than $20 million per year does not place Boko Haram in the top tier of global terror threats or criminal networks.

The real threat to Western interests in Nigeria is a destabilized Federal Government.

While it does not have the financial means to expand in a dramatic way, the low-level insurgency of Boko Haram does hold the capacity, along with the empowered Hisba groups and influential Islamist radicals, to transform local political agitations for transparent government uncorrupted by Western interests into a populist uprising.

U.S. policy makers, then, should focus less on solving the Boko Haram phenomenon and more on solving the country’s crisis of federalism, which has allowed the establishment of parallel police forces, court systems and welfare distribution schemes by Islamic institutions to such an extent that local leaders no longer harbor a national identity.

South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria are the keys to African commerce. China and the OIC have mercantile designs on these three ports. Around 8% of America’s annual oil imports are drawn from Nigeria. The competition for Nigeria’s oil resources and the natural commerce that surrounds its import-export businesses centers the country’s wealth in its southern states. This singular economic factor will likely insure that the north will not seek to break away in a separatist state. Unfortunately, that factor may also foretell of a coming civil war in which the north sets out to subjugate the south.

Al-Qaeda’s leaders are monitoring the effectiveness of Boko Haram’s internal dispute and providing occasional technical support for terror attacks that will highlight the inadequacy of the Nigerian Federal Government’s security capacity. The democracies of Mali and Nigeria are under siege by Islamists. The West Africa region is set to become the next safe haven for al Qaeda styled jihadists.

It will be up to the next administration in Washington to accurately read the terrain in Nigeria. The American ideals of representative democracy and religious freedom are on collision course in Nigeria. The destabilizing effects of Islamic parallel institutions of law and order set to rock Nigeria in the next round of democratic elections in 2015 will provide western observers a dire lesson on precisely why the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution is absolutely vital for sustained peace in a federalist system.

Gary H. Johnson, Jr. is the Senior Advisor for International Security Affairs at the Victory Institute and a Level I Researcher at Wikistrat