AZAZI: Combating a common terrorist threat

Time for a strategic security relationship between the U.S. and Nigeria

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ABUJA, NIGERIA

Terrorists from Nigeria have again turned the joyful celebrations of Christmas into a D-Day for premeditated mass murder. This year, extremists slaughtered worshippers in a church during Christmas services near the Nigerian capital and elsewhere in the country.

America is at risk for this type of violence. Two Christmases ago, a militant from my country - the infamous Underwear Bomber - tried to blow up an American jetliner over Detroit.

Nigeria welcomes the White House’s rapid Christmas Day declaration of support against the perpetrators of that day’s attacks, but we must stress that the threat emerging in our country is far larger and may be headed America’s way.

It’s time for a strategic security relationship between Nigeria and the United States.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation. We are blessed with more people than Russia or Japan and are America’s fourth-largest foreign supplier of oil.

In the past two years, a group called Boko Haram has wounded and murdered hundreds of innocent Nigerians. Many observers in the United States and Nigeria dismissed Boko Haram as a tiny, weak, even incompetent terrorist group that, at best, was aimed only at destabilizing our democratically elected president.

They were mistaken. In August, Boko Haram escalated its attacks by sending a suicide bomber to blow up the United Nations building in Abuja. The terrorist group issued a statement to taunt not the president of Nigeria, but the president of the United States.

We can destroy Boko Haram in its early stages, before it goes truly international. We don’t want or need American troops. But we would benefit greatly from American know-how and other forms of support as we develop our new counterterrorism strategy. We have much to offer through our own expertise, human resources and experience.

Well before the Christmas bombings, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing on Boko Haram and issued a landmark report that contained some excellent proposals.

“Historically, Boko Haram has been focused on Nigerian government targets. Until recently, Western intelligence services did not widely view Boko Haram as a potential threat,” said Rep. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the subcommittee on counterintelligence and terrorism, and Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, in an unusual joint statement at the Nov. 30 hearing.

The lawmakers made a bipartisan call for the State Department and intelligence community to take greater note of Nigeria, and to work with us against terrorism and ideological extremism.

The subcommittee report is a fine first step. It observes that small extremist groups can quickly endanger the American homeland before Washington even recognizes the threat.

Like other Islamist extremists, Boko Haram sees itself as fulfilling part of a global mission. Churches are not the group’s only religious targets. Boko Haram claims to be Islamic, but targets the Muslim faithful. Boko Haram is an enemy of all decent people. It is striving to spark a religious war the way racist extremists in the past have tried to provoke race wars. Those who fail to understand the enemy threat doctrine will fail to see the danger until it is too late.

The subcommittee leaders appear to agree: “In the recent past, the U.S. intelligence community has underestimated the intent and capability of other terrorist groups to launch attacks against the U.S. homeland,” and did not foresee those groups attempting to strike the U.S. at home. “These assessments and general assumptions,” Mr. Meehan and Ms. Speier said, “nearly proved fatal” in America.

The report’s conclusions mean that each country requires the assistance from the other. So far, however, the bipartisan congressional recommendations have yet to become U.S. policy, even as the U.S. Africa Command has made clear its similar concerns. The State Department, however, has yet to designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization.

Nigeria’s president intends to create a climate where no supporter of terrorism will be safe. In November, Nigerian authorities made the unusual move of arresting a federal senator from the president’s own party, based on intelligence that he was facilitating Boko Haram.

Such an arrest and prosecution of a sitting lawmaker is rare in any democracy. The severe action indicates both the profound nature of the threat as well as Nigeria’s sense of purpose in wiping it out.

The congressional homeland security panel called for the administration to “increase its support for programs that enhance the ability of Nigerian security forces to more effectively target Boko Haram and counter its evolution.”

Such support will certainly assist Nigeria and West Africa as a whole, but it will also be a low-cost, high-impact way of eradicating Boko Haram - and others like it - as a threat to the United States as well.

With recent developments reverberating across Africa, Nigeria is working out strategic partnerships with key players to track and neutralize extremists wherever they may be - before they become violent. We should not be seen merely as a tactical ally of convenience. The United States has been helpful on a small-scale basis, but is far behind other countries in forging a meaningful, strategic counterterrorism relationship with Nigeria.

Nigeria can defend its interests without U.S. support. But the United States cannot well defend its homeland from Boko Haram and other threats without Nigeria. We welcome a mutually beneficial partnership with the U.S. against terrorists like Boko Haram while there is still time.

Owoye Andrew Azazi is national security adviser to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

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