A new piece for CNN, this time looking in a bit more detail at the group Boko Haram to try to understand what lessons can be learned from nearby al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travellers to see about its trajectory as an global terrorist threat. My sense is that it is unlikely to start actively launching attacks abroad, but I suppose never say never. I cannot pretend to be an expert on Nigeria, but a detail that stood out for me was that it turns out that only about 10% of Britain’s Nigerian population is Muslim (14,000 in the 2001 census) – which somewhat reduces the potential danger to the UK at least. A project I would be very interested in seeing would be a closer examination of what exactly Nigeria’s diaspora population looks like by tribe and religion. Any pointers anyone has come across would be very interesting.
From Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen” (Hurst/Columbia University Press).
After an explosive festive season that spilled into the New Year and growing stories of increased connections to other regional networks, Nigerian group Boko Haram is likely to be one of the main focuses of attention for counter terrorism experts in this coming year.
While definitively predicting whether it is going to metastasize into a global threat, or remain a regional one, is something dependent on many variable factors, some lessons from other regional violent Islamist networks can be drawn to understand better the general direction Boko Haram is going in.
Three groups are particularly useful to look at: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, al Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). All three are groups that have a clear globalist violent Islamist rhetoric and varying degrees of connectivity with al Qaeda core in Pakistan.
While Boko Haram seems to increasingly sound like a global jihadist group, it has thus far only established connections with regional al Qaedaist networks – specifically, members have admitted to training in Somalia and American military officials have pointed to links with AQIM.
Of these three groups, the one that has repeatedly posed a direct threat to American homeland security is AQAP, the Yemeni based al Qaeda affiliate that hosted Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous Yemeni-American preacher. Established by individuals who had served directly with Osama bin Laden and had been involved with al Qaeda since its early days (and some who have been in Guantanamo) it has been an important part of al Qaeda’s global strategy.
Documents found in bin Laden’s layer point to the organization asking him directly about management issues and there is evidence of direct communication between the groups about operational planning. The group has inherited al Qaeda core’s obsession with the United States, something demonstrated in intercepted emails between Awlaki and a contact in the UK that show Awlaki telling him to prioritize the United States, rather than the United Kingdom, as a target.
And this obsession has been given operational support by a steady flow of young Western recruits, drawn in part by the groups English-language media campaign. These recruits both provide the network with operational assets they can use to strike the West, but also help feed its anti-Western rhetoric, spurred on as they are by a deep rejection of the society that they came from. All of which helps explain why the group is seen as a major threat to the United States and why the group continues to try to launch attacks, all the while also trying to consolidate its position in Yemen.
The group has also been shown to have strong links with al Shabaab in Somalia, another regional network with links to al Qaeda core, but that has so far not demonstrated the same eagerness to launch attacks directly against the American homeland or in Europe. Similar to AQAP, al Shabaab has some leaders who have been quite close to al Qaeda core and it has hosted a number of senior al Qaeda members.
But the majority of its leadership has emerged from the long-standing inter-tribal conflicts that have dominated Somalia’s recent history. It has also been something of a draw for young Westerners seeking the thrill of fighting on a jihadist battlefield, and some of these young people have tried to launch attacks back home – though not at the direction of Shabaab.
But while it may have launched attacks in Somalia against Western targets, and seemed to be involved in plots to attack Western targets regionally (including recent stories of using western recruits for plotting in neighboring Kenya), there is currently little evidence that the group has directed attacks targeting North America or Europe.
Instead, it seems as though the group has chosen to avoid such direct provocations, most likely to not distract from their regional interests and bring too much attention to them from the American security machine. The focus is on consolidating power in Somalia, in many ways something that is merely an extension of the civil war that has been raging in the nation for decades. It clearly has the potential to launch direct attacks in the form of support networks sending money and fighters in Europe and North America, but has chosen not to deploy them.
And finally, there is al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), another group with direct historical ties to al Qaeda core as an evolution of a group that was born from the community of Algerians who had served in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Individuals linked to previous iterations of the group have been involved in attacks in France and individuals linked to the group continue to be found in Europe.
But it has been a long time since it launched an attack, or was linked to an attack, in Europe. Instead, there has been a steady patter of attacks against north African security forces and repeated kidnappings for ransom of Westerners traveling around the region – making the group seem more of a regional criminal-terrorist network that international terrorist organization.
The group may receive some sort of a boost in the wake of the Arab Spring in terms of equipment and there are stories that al Qaeda core is focusing on the region as a new field of operations as pressure in Pakistan continues, but none of this has yet translated into much evidence of a large out-of-area terror campaign.
So where would Boko Haram fit into this spectrum?
It lacks much evidence of direct contacts with al Qaeda core, meaning that it is unlikely to have directly inherited al Qaeda’s obsession with attacking America. Instead, it seems to have developed out of the long-standing tribal and north-south tensions in Nigeria. It has been cloaking itself in an anti-western rhetoric – its name translates as “western education is forbidden” – and made contact with other regional Islamist groups that shout loudly about global jihad, but its focus remains the sharia-ization of Nigeria.
Of course, all of these factors can change, and the attack last August on the U.N. office in Abuja showed a level of technical capacity and an interest in targeting foreigners. But this does not necessarily mean the internationalization of the group’s fight. The attack could be interpreted as a way of drawing attention to the group and its struggle – something key for an organization using violence to advance a political cause. The world press has become sadly used to massacres in Africa, so in order to draw attention, groups have to choose westernized targets.
In this light, it therefore seems that Boko Haram is most like al Shabaab, though at a much earlier stage. Like Shabaab, it grew out of local tribal conflicts and tensions adopting Islamist garb, and it has so far avoided direct confrontations with the west. Unlike the Somali group, it lacks direct connections to al Qaeda core.
While it is clearly angry at the west, it does not yet seem to have made the specific strategic decision to expend its efforts in launching attacks in Europe or North America. It is possible that like Shabaab, in time Boko Haram might expand its operations regionally and again against foreign targets – but this should be seen within a regional context rather than a globalist jihadist framework. Finally, unlike all of the other groups, it also lacks a notable international support network sending money and fighters, but as security agencies have already worried, the large Nigerian diaspora internationally might change this.
For Western security planners it is a hard game to judge. While it would be surprising for the group to launch attacks against the west, if it continues to grow and is able to tap into the globalist jihadist narrative it will draw more attention to itself and its international networks will develop. This will expand the pool of people being radicalized and will provide al Qaeda or affiliate networks with new potential networks they can capitalize upon to advance their globalist cause.
And if the group is able to establish a safe territory where it can impose its will and shariah, it is possible that it could turn into a haven for jihadists being hounded by drone strikes and western intelligence elsewhere. This all poses a threat, but too much direct foreign attention to the group will both increase the groups credibility and also bring them into direct confrontation with western forces – something that might in itself accelerate a shift towards globalist violence.
So far, however, the only Nigerian to be prominently involved in terrorist plotting against the west was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the British educated Nigerian student who was dispatched by AQAP with a bomb sewn into his underwear. And there has been no evidence that he was connected with Boko Haram. Instead, the group has focused on causing chaos and massacring people in Nigeria, something that is terrible but must clearly be focused on in a regional way rather than as part of a global anti-terrorist struggle.