The terrorists have shown they can move quickly and seamlessly, attacking anywhere in the area, as shown by the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year and assaults on the Western-owned oil-and-gas facility in Algeria earlier this year.
Oil-rich Nigeria is threatened by the terrorist group Boko Haram, which Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf founded in 2002 to establish Islamic, or Shariah, law in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno. It soon evolved into a jihadist movement that threatens both the Muslim establishment and the Christian population.
With more than 170 million citizens, Nigeria is about 50.8 percent Christian and 47.8 percent Muslim, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Foundation.
Yusuf built a religious school and mosque and recruited poorly educated and unemployed young men. The peaceful beginning turned into intermittent terrorist attacks, with Boko Haram soon wanting to create a separate Islamic nation, not just a Shariah-ruled state within the country.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has been responsible for killing thousands of people. These radical Islamists have used roadside bombs and suicide bombers. They have attacked Christians, destroyed churches and assaulted Muslims who criticize them. They also have kidnapped foreigners for ransom to help fund their operations.
The Washington Times in 2011 noted that Boko Haram posed “an emerging threat to the United States and is set to join other al Qaeda affiliates in plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland.” One need only remember the “underwear bomber,” a young Nigerian who tried to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.
Islamists linked to al Qaeda have spread across the Sahel region of northern and western Africa. Boko Haram has established close ties with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and al-Shabab in Somalia.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, former head of U.S. Africa Command, noted: “The three groups represent the greatest threats to security in the region.”
The Nigerian government has been concerned that attacks by Boko Haram and al Qaeda affiliates could have a devastating effect on the country’s southern oil producing region — the world’s 10th largest oil fields and fifth largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States.
Islamists linked to al Qaeda overran two-thirds of neighboring Mali after the overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Libyan arms ended up in the hands of Malian Islamists. Foreign arms also have flowed into Nigeria and other countries in the region.
The ongoing attacks have frustrated government and military leaders who have been unable to secure the northern region since 2009. Claims of brutality and human rights abuses have been attributed to both the military and Islamist extremists in the northern Nigeria’s battle zone.
Mr. Kerry, attending the 50th anniversary of the African Union last month in Ethiopia, criticized Mr. Jonathan about reports of “credible allegations [of] gross human rights violations by Nigerian soldiers.” Mr. Jonathan noted that civilian casualties were inevitable in the fight against the terrorists.
After the French troops liberated Mali’s northern towns, many of the escaping insurgents moved to neighboring countries, which have seen an increase in terrorist attacks. These Islamists have become affiliated with Boko Haram, undertaking some of the attacks. Nigeria’s Minister of Interior Abba Moro recently noted the difficulty of stopping Islamists from infiltrating Nigeria along 1,000 miles of porous borders.
The United States needs to improve diplomatic relations with Nigeria and not lecture them on U.S. democratic values. There’s time for such discussions behind closed doors.
• John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utahs Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of “When the White House Calls,” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.