Boko Haram Steps Up Offensive as Nigeria Halts US Military Training Program

REUTERS/Stringer

 REUTERS/StringerBoko Haram, the African militant group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the summer, appears to have borrowed a page from the jihadists’ playbook as it unleashes a deadly wave of attacks across northern Nigeria in its quest to carve out an Islamic state rooted in Shariah law.

Hundreds of people have been killed in attacks over the past week as Boko Haram has escalated its campaign of violence ahead of Nigeria’s general elections in February:

  • On December 1, two female suicide bombers killed more than half a dozen people in a market in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria.
  • On November 28, three bombs exploded and gunmen rampaged through the Grand Mosque in Kano, northern Nigeria’s main city. Dozens of worshippers were killed and more than one hundred wounded. The attacks followed a recent sermon by the emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, in which he urged Nigerians to defend themselves against Boko Haram.
  • On November 27, a bomb exploded at a bus station near Mubi in Adamawa state claiming the lives of more than three dozen people.
  • On November 25, two female suicide bombers attacked the same market in Maiduguri that was bombed on Monday. At least seventy people were killed in the attack last week.

That Boko Haram is deploying suicide bombers is “a very disturbing development,” said Bronwyn E. Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

“If you look at the Somalia conflict, when you started to see suicide bombers appearing, there it was really a sign that transnational jihadis had come in and that there was foreign training and foreign money at play. I am concerned that that might be a parallel development in Nigeria,” she added.

Meanwhile, in a decision that caught the Obama administration by surprise, Nigeria’s military canceled the third and final phase of a specialized training program conducted by US military trainers for Nigerian troops. The program was aimed at training Nigerian troops to fight Boko Haram.

“We were disappointed” by the Nigerian military’s decision to end the program, a US official said on background.

In turn, Nigeria’s ambassador to the US, Ade Adefuye, last month said that his government was “not satisfied with the scope, nature, and content of the United States’ support…in our struggle against terrorists…We find it difficult to understand how and why, in spite of the US presence in Nigeria with their sophisticated military technology, Boko Haram is expanding and becoming more deadly.”

“The US government has up till today refused to grant Nigeria’s request to purchase lethal equipment that would have brought down the terrorists within a short time on the basis of the allegations that Nigeria’s defence forces have been violating human rights of Boko Haram suspects when captured or arrested,” Ambassador Adefuye said in Washington, DC on November 10. 

Boko Haram made global headlines in 2011 by claiming responsibility for the car bombing that killed twenty-one people at the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

The group, whose name in the local Hausa language means “Western education is sin,” grabbed the West’s attention again in April this year when it abducted 276 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok, a town in Nigeria’s northern Borno state. The kidnappings sparked an international online campaign to “BringBackOurGirls.” Seven months later, the girls have not been freed.

Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakr Shekau, expressed support for ISIS’ self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over the summer, but analysts and US officials see little evidence of coordination between the two groups.

“Across Africa, people like Shekau are very good at understanding what makes the international community nervous. So you always have to wonder to what extent declarations of allegiance to ISIS or to al Qaeda are intended just to make Washington sweat,” said Bruton.

While US officials and analysts don’t consider Boko Haram to be an immediate domestic threat, they are concerned about the destabilizing effect it will have on Nigeria and its neighbors, as the militants have expanded their operations across Nigeria’s porous borders into Cameroon and Niger.

The State Department designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization in November 2013. The decision followed a protracted debate within the Obama administration, which kept coming back to one pertinent question: Will a terrorist label legitimize Boko Haram in the eyes of America’s enemies?

Meanwhile, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has imposed a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa since May 2013.

The Jonathan administration, particularly its military, has faced criticism from Islamic clerics and Western officials for its conduct in the war against Boko Haram. In November, Nigeria’s top Muslim cleric, the Sultan of Sokoto Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, accused the Nigerian army of fleeing in the face of attacks by Boko Haram and committing atrocities against civilians. The State Department’s annual report on the state of global human rights notes that abuses committed both by Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces have escalated over the past year. Nigerian security forces were responsible for atrocities, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, arbitrary detention, and widespread violence, the report said.

The US, which has spent millions of dollars helping Nigeria fight terrorists, is concerned that Nigerian security forces are fueling the insurgency by committing atrocities against civilians, according to senior State Department officials.

Nigeria has a population of 177 million, 50 percent of which is Muslim based predominantly in the north. Christians, who make up 40 percent of Nigeria’s population, mostly live in the south.

The Obama administration should be talking to Boko Haram, which is attempting to serve as the “voice for Muslim grievances in northern Nigeria,” said Bruton.

“The fact that so many people are embracing Boko Haram as a vehicle for expressing their political discontent means, in my opinion, that you ignore them at your peril,” she added.