Foreign Policy Blogs

The Boko Haram Knockout Punch is Needed Now

The Boko Haram Knockout Punch is Needed Now

Aftermath of the UN bombing in Abuja in 2011 (courtesy of If Boko Haram blew up the US embassy located nearby, would we even be having this discussion?

Boko Haram continued their killing on Sunday, 10 June 2012, when a suicide bomber blew up his car outside a church and gunmen opened fire on another service in Nigeria.

At the same time, there is a fierce debate in Washington whether to designate the activities of the Islamic sect, Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

FTO or not, Boko Haram is extremely sophisticated and well equipped. It uses a mixture of suicide bombers and gunmen, which was evident by Sunday’s attack. Often some members are in police or army uniforms while they carry out their carefully coordinated attacks on hard targets.

Where has it learned and acquired all of its new capabilities from…al-Qaeda in the Maghreb or AQIM.

There are many reasons why the growth and expansion of Boko Haram has to end now. Firstly, although Boko Haram has a highly decentralized structure, it does have leaders that are relentless. And its current leader, Abubakar Shekau, is nothing short of a monster.

“I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill – the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams,” he said in the video clip released just after Boko Haram had killed 180 people in Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city. He regularly orders bombings and drive-by shootings against anyone who disagrees with the group; Muslims, Christians, Jews, doesn’t matter.

Not only are they relentless, they are smart and well trained. Mamman Nur, known as Boko Haram’s third in charge when its founder Mohammed Yusaf was alive, is viewed as the mastermind behind the 26 August 2011 bombing of Abuja’s UN building that killed at least 21 and wounded 60. Nur has al-Qaeda links and returned just before the attack from Somalia where he was working with al-Shaabab.

Secondly, Nigeria has ethnic militias that have contributed to the cycle of violence over the years. They have a political element to them and are often seen as self-defense by particular ethno-religious communities. The fact is these many ethnic militias and separatist groups in Nigeria are proof that there are many grievances and injustices in the system, which needs to be addressed and is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, it is important to note that Nigeria is a country of over 120 million people, 39 federal states and 249 languages. This artificial “contraption” as a local professor referred to the state of Nigeria was truly an “accident of history” created out of a crumbling empire on a foreign continent. This ethnic-religious division will continue the feed the hungry lion that is Islamic extremism in many parts of Nigeria.

The Boko Haram Knockout Punch is Needed NowThirdly, Boko Haram has both weapons and money. Its fighters are accomplished bank robbers and whenever they raid a police station, they usually empty the vaults. Moreover, they are well-versed in a number of tactics thanks to AQIM who are known to take Boko Haram fighters out of Nigeria for training. Unfortunately this is a deadly combination that the local Nigerian law enforcement cannot combat. Often the better trained Nigerian troops of the military’s Joint Task Force join the fight, but often Amnesty International and other human rights groups have voiced their concerns due “excessive force.” So much so that the country’s defense minister was obliged to direct military authorities to investigate the disturbing allegations. And in the end, there are no tangible results in the fight against Boko Haram.

Lastly, and most importantly, If AQIM and Boko Haram – and possibly al- Shabaab and others – manage to further increase ties, they will inevitably be a much more potent regional force than they are now. Without a return to some order, either in the national or regional settings in the near future, these groups may grow larger and more dangerous with threats to Western interests or the American homeland itself. Furthermore, it will continue to be easy for these terrorist groups to recruit the thousands of unemployed, usually uneducated, and often frustrated Islamic African youth due to a lack of economic opportunities and government corruption. Often all it takes is a little money and you got your recruits. According to the Economist, “Literacy rates in the north-east [Nigeria] are two-thirds lower than in Lagos, the southern business hub. Less than 5% of women are able to read and write in some northern states. Income per head is 50% lower than in the Christian south.”

What is the US doing and can it do more?

Recently answering during the closing session of the Nigeria – U.S. Bi-National Commission (BNC) meeting in Washington, the Nigerian Ambassador to the U.S. Prof. Ade Adefuye said that his present administration in Nigeria and the embassy in Washington had been enjoying tremendous cooperation and confidence of the American government.

The BNC does help with the political cooperation aspect, which is of course is vital in sorting out any situation between two sovereign nations. However, the US State Department goes one step further through its Antiterrorism Assistance Program (ATA) that provides training and equipment to Nigeria. As Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the US State Department noted, “A key ATA project initiative involves building Nigeria’s counter incident countermeasures capacity as the level of terrorism and political violence at the hands of Boko Haram increases.” Moreover, in November 2011, it was disclosed that America sent 100 Special Forces soldiers for these purposes.

However, the US has to be careful given the toxic atmosphere in Boko Haram’s hometown. Increased US support for Nigeria’s hated security forces risks backfiring, potentially fueling support for the group, or turning its attention to American targets. There are also rumors circulating that Boko Haram is a CIA creation, but more CIA involvement is exactly what Nigeria needs.

The US House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence does not disagree with this and recently advised intensified intelligence cooperation: “It is critical that the United States work more closely with Nigerian security forces to develop greater domestic intelligence collection and sharing with the U.S. Intelligence Community. Military cooperation is vital to a successful counterterrorism strategy.”

One large step would be to the use of drones in Northern Nigeria and in neighboring countries, similar to the extensive covert military operations that the US has been exercising inside Somalia since 2001, run by Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command with the help of the CIA.

This makes perfect sense due to Boko Haram’s connections to AQIM, with a key operating theatre being parts of Niger with a largely unmarked frontier with Nigeria that spans 900 miles of desert and scrub. There is just too much area that African militaries cannot cover including locations in Mali and others. US military satellites can observe the various locations, but you need the drones to carry out the necessary attacks.

A January 2012 UN report points out that some of the Boko Haram members from Nigeria and Chad have indeed received training in AQIM camps in Mali during the summer of 2011. Secondly, the report suggests that terrorist groups have been acquiring arms, weapons and explosives from Libyan military stockpiles.

From the Nigerian perspective

Nigeria Ambassador to the U.S. Prof. Ade Adefuye, said his country was opposed to the declaration of Boko Haram as a FTO for a number of reasons:

  • It will enhance the image and prestige of the group among other terrorist organizations which may be encouraged to strengthen sect for more impact.
  • It will give the impression that Nigeria is not able to contain the sect when it has successfully contained Niger-Delta militants who were more focused, better organized and deadlier.
  • An FTO in any country is subject to America’s search and destroy operation which includes the sending of drones and other unmanned weapon of mass destruction as it currently happens in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Such activities bring untold suffering to citizens of such countries. “We do not want that in Nigeria,’’ he said.
  • The U.S. does not have direct evidence of danger posed on it by the activities of Boko Haram.
  • That a declaration of a Nigerian-based FTO militants was “strongly against our drive for American foreign investment.’’ He explained that Nigerian citizens arriving at American ports would be treated as inhabitants of an FTO based country and that each traveller would have to prove that he does not belong to Boko Haram.

The Ambassador makes some valid points especially regarding Nigerian citizens traveling overseas. One of my own university students, a exceptionally bright and well-mannered Nigerian and Nelson Mandela Rhodes Scholar, was denied a visa to enter Italy to attend an academic conference last year even though the trip was fully paid for, he was accompanying senior academic staff and he had a return ticket back to South Africa. A Nigerian, with no links to Boko Haram, who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, might have played a role in denying my student his visa.

However, I would like to argue with the Ambassador on the point about the use of drones. Using Yemen as an example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that in May 2012 there were five confirmed US drone strikes and another 18 reported/possible US strike events. A total of 23-171 alleged militants were reported killed in these US operations, with only 1-31 civilians reported as causalities. This is not a bad success rate by any means.

The keyword in the previous paragraph is ‘alleged’. In this case, what the public doesn’t know won’t hurt them. Why not secretly strike Boko Haram targets from the air? It has been a common occurrence in other countries over recent years, and something, if done properly and ‘covertly’ in cooperation with the Nigerian military, would mitigate the other factors mentioned by the ambassador.

Concluding Thoughts

Not only does Nigeria rank among the top five beneficiaries of America’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, but around 80 percent of Nigeria’s exports are destined for Western countries. America imported more than US$33 billion from Nigeria in 2011, up from US$19 billion in 2009. These economic stats alone show the importance of the situation.

Again this is a crucial time, as Al-Qaeda groups in Africa such as the Western Sahara separatist movement, the Polisario Front, Boko Haram, AQIM, and al-Shabaab are now connected and growing in strength.

Boko Haram itself is focused on its local agenda and there haven’t been any more attacks on Western interests since the UN bombing. But as Musa Tanko, a spokesperson for Boko Haram, stated in an interview with AFP in 2010, “Islam does not recognize International boundries. We will carry out our operations anywhere in the world if we have the chance.”

Similarly, a report by the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence entitled Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland advised that America should “not underestimate Boko Haram’s intent and capability to attack the U.S. homeland.”

Being an American living in Africa, I fully understand that most Africans do not want more US military action on the continent. However, sometimes a strong enemy warrants strong action.

Nigeria also does not want more of its citizens taken out of buildings in body bags.

The point here is not to wait. The longer we wait, the stronger the connections with AQIM and others in the region will become, which means more Nigerian civilians will be killed and American interests or the homeland could be attacked.

If we deliver the knockout punch now, we can buy ourselves adequate time to address and extinguish the real problem, which is the root causes of Islamic extremism.




Scott Firsing

Dr. Scott Firsing, an American residing in South Africa, is an expert on US-Africa relations. He is the Director of the North American International School (NAIS) in Pretoria, an Adjunct Research Fellow at Monash University, South Africa, an Executive at the Aerospace Leadership Academy and CEO of LINK Advisory, a consultancy helping American businesses enter Africa. Also a founder of the African NGO Young People in International Affairs, Scott is the former Head of International Studies at Monash, a former employee of the United Nations, Department for Disarmament Affairs, and a former fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).