Today, the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a REALLY interesting hearing on Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based militant group—which they deem an “emerging threat to the U.S. homeland.” (Color me surprised… it is a rare occasion when US policymakers on the Hill focus on “emerging” threats instead of waiting until it’s too late.)
Just a bit of background on Boko Haram (the name roughly means “Western education/thinking is sinful/forbidden”). They are an Islamist movement that targets government institutions in Nigeria, often using extreme violence. Essentially, their goal is to establish a fully Islamic government in Nigeria, including the implementation of sharia law. Nigeria is a particularly contentious stage for Boko Haram, given the existing tension between the 50% of the population who are Muslim in the North and the 40% who are Christian in the South. Boko Haram feeds off existing frustration of Nigeria’s Muslim population that their political voice is being drowned out by the influential Christian/secular voices, which dominate political life. (Add to that Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, ~150 million and extremely oil-rich.) For more on Boko Haram, including an outline of its origins, ideological foundation, I recommend the Council on Foreign Relation’s “Backgrounder: Boko Haram” and the statement submitted for the hearing record by Dr. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Ansari Africa Center, who testified at the hearing.
So, why is the US Congress holding a hearing on a terrorist group whose focus is primarily limited to destabilizing Nigeria? Here’s why: al-Qaeda In The Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
AQIM is the growing off-shoot of the al-Qaeda we have become all too familiar with in the US since 9/11, which bases its operations in the Maghreb (North Africa and the Sahel region.) Al-Qaeda has made it clear that it wants to take advantage of the rampant instability of many African nations in the Maghreb/Sahel and its protégé, AQIM, has found the perfect and most susceptible source of manpower…disaffected, economically vulnerable and easily manipulated fighters, mercenaries and militants from a several existing “movements” in the region. Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Polisario Front, an Algerian-backed separatist movement challenging Morocco’s sovereignty in the Western Sahara, are two such groups. (Recently, AQIM militants kidnapped three European aid workers from within the Polisario refugee camps, reportedly with help from Polisario members. ) What do these groups have in common? Not so much ideology. No, these willing militants-for-hire are fueled by desperation, frustration and, in some cases, intense greed for spoils from illicit trafficking of goods, people and arms.
It’s this “emerging threat” from the targeting of these vulnerable groups by Boko Haram and AQIM that was the focus of the hearing. Throw in the mix that, post-Gaddafi, there are a lot of arms—and mercenaries trained to use them—floating around the region with a lot of time on their hands and serious axes to grind against Western interests. Experts who testified at today’s hearing cited evidence of Boko Haram’s evolving focus and attempts to broaden its influence in the region, highlighting the August 2011 bombing of a UN building in Abuja, Nigeria, the group’s first attack on a “transnational target,” according to Pham.
The main take-away from today’s hearing: The US must do all it can to help Nigeria cut Boko Haram off at the knees before it fully develops its terror network with AQIM and its ready mercenaries from the likes of al-Shabaab and the Polisario Front.
You can download the Subcommittee’s report “Boko Haram – Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland” and watch the video from the hearing at : http://homeland.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-hearing-boko-haram-emerging-threat-us-homeland