Boko Haram, the al Qaeda-inspired African terrorist group fighting to establish an Islamic state rooted in Shariah law, is expanding its operations from northeastern Nigeria into neighboring Cameroon and Niger — much to the alarm of U.S. officials.
The group, which made headlines in 2011 by claiming responsibility for the bombing that killed 21 people at U.N. headquarters in Nigeria, became the subject of fresh international scrutiny last week amid reports that its members had slit the throats of dozens of children at a Nigerian boarding school.
While such incidents may have long defined the horror inflicted by Boko Haram inside Nigeria, U.S. officials say the group now is engaged in a widening regional campaign, with its fighters traveling across the West African nation’s porous borders.
“We have seen some disturbing reports of the regionalization of some of this threat, and that’s upsetting,” said a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to freely discuss recent developments tied to Boko Haram.
But U.S. officials are not the only ones who are worried. The governments in Cameroon and Niger “are scared to death of [Boko Haram] and what it might mean and what it might lead to,” said John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“You’re talking about states that are very weak and have very limited capacity,” Mr. Campbell said. “So, what are they going to do?”
A ‘war situation’
The State Department official said Boko Haram is responsible for “unspeakable attacks.”
Last week, suspected Boko Haram militants killed about 40 schoolboys in a pre-dawn attack on a school in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Yobe. The attackers burned a locked hostel and then shot and slit the throats of children who escaped through the windows.
While the group’s name in the local Hausa language means “Western education is sin,” Boko Haram’s attacks have not focused exclusively on schools.
On Feb. 15, militants attacked the Christian village of Izge near the border with Cameroon, killing more than 100 people. Less than a week later, the militants killed more than 115 people and burned 1,500 buildings in the northern border town of Bama.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has imposed a state of emergency in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa since May after Boko Haram spokesmen rejected an offer of dialogue with his government.
Last week, a representative from the Jonathan government described the conflict with the Islamic militants as a “war situation.”
It’s an assessment that seemed to speak to the wider division in Nigeria between the nation’s Christian-dominated southern population and its Muslim-dominated North.
While Mr. Jonathan is an outspoken Christian, Boko Haram, whose roots and activities are almost exclusively located in the north, has signaled a desire to carve out its own territory to be governed by Islamic Shariah law.
“Some of their rhetoric talks about the establishment of a pure Islamic state in the north that is predominantly Muslim; other rhetoric talks about establishing an Islamic state throughout Nigeria, including the areas that are predominantly Christian,” said Mr. Campbell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria in the George W. Bush administration.
U.S. label has limitations
After lengthy internal deliberations about the motivations and goals of Boko Haram, the State Department officially designated the group a foreign terrorist organization in November.
While the terrorist label gives U.S. officials legal authority to target Boko Haram with such tools as financial asset seizure, analysts say, the high-profile U.S. government recognition also risks legitimizing the group in the eyes of fellow terrorists and boosting its ability to recruit members.
The terrorist designation specifically prohibits U.S. citizens from providing material support or resources to Boko Haram and freezes any property the group may have in the U.S.
But the terrorist designation has not had much impact on Boko Haram, whose linkages to the U.S. are believed to be few to none, analysts say.
“The designation of Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization has almost no meaning. You don’t have Boko Haram adherents applying for visas to come to the U.S., and there are no Boko Haram assets in the U.S.,” said Mr. Campbell. “The Nigerian-American population is overwhelmingly southern and Christian, and it’s very hard for me to imagine that they are sending any remittances to Boko Haram.”
Further, U.S. reach in northern Nigeria is limited because there is virtually no American diplomatic or economic presence and citizens of the region are generally not focused on the concerns of faraway powers, Mr. Campbell said.
Al Qaeda ties
While U.S. officials have long identified Boko Haram as a threat to regional stability, analysts say, the group exists as a highly diffuse and multistrand movement with nebulous ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — the main al Qaeda franchise in the Sahara and Sahel.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, said at a hearing Feb. 11 that, while many believe “core al Qaeda has been severely damaged, there are new franchises, there are affiliates, there are stand-alone organizations who share the same philosophy as al Qaeda, and that really is the new threat that we face today.”
He listed the threats as coming from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Shabab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Top terrorism analysts in Washington have echoed the assessment, as have senior U.S. military officials such as Navy Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, who last week told the House Committee on Armed Services that Boko Haram is “beginning to conflate with [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] in North Africa.”
The Obama administration has been working with Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon to build their capacities for securing borders and to detect, disrupt and respond to terrorist incidents.
Under the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership established by the Bush administration in 2005, the U.S. is providing civilian and military assistance to more than a half-dozen countries in the Maghreb and Sahel.
Atrocities by security forces
Washington has spent millions of dollars helping Nigeria fight terrorists, but U.S. officials worry that Nigerian security forces are feeding the insurgency by committing atrocities of their own.
In its annual report last week on the worldwide status of human rights, the State Department asserted that abuses committed by Boko Haram and by 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.
In one particularly brutal incident, Nigerian soldiers went on an apparent rampage in the northern town of Baga on April 16 and 17 after witnesses claimed that Boko Haram shot and killed a soldier with the Multinational Joint Task Force, composed of soldiers from Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
Nigerian soldiers indiscriminately fired on people and destroyed homes. A local official put the death toll at 228 and said as many as 4,000 homes had been burned. Human Rights Watch, citing community leaders, said 183 people had been killed and confirmed with the help of satellite images that 2,275 buildings had been destroyed.
The State Department official said that Washington’s “message to the Nigerians has been very clear: ‘To address the threat of Boko Haram you need to have a comprehensive approach, you need to think about the legitimate concerns of the people of northern Nigeria and you need to be making sure that your security personnel are following the human rights protocols that are necessary and protecting civilians.’”
“This is something we have been pretty vocal about,” the official said. “Obviously there is a security threat and the things that Boko Haram is doing are simply atrocious and that is irrefutable, but you need to be very careful how you respond and make sure that you aren’t making more insurgents than you are killing.”
Mr. Campbell said that the Nigerian government may need to alter its strategy for fighting Boko Haram. The government has been pursuing a counterterrorism approach to the insurrection in northern Nigeria, whereas it should be pursuing a counterinsurgency approach, he said.
“In other words,” Mr. Campbell said, “it needs to win the hearts and minds of people who live in Nigeria, many of whom are impoverished and marginalized.”