- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2014

British authorities announced Thursday they will send some special forces to aid in the search for nearly 300 kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria, where a team of U.S. military, law enforcement and diplomatic advisers has been dispatched to help the government in the effort.

Meanwhile, residents of a Nigerian town criticized security forces for failing to protect them Monday during a raid by Islamist extremists in which about 100 civilians were slain.

The kidnappings and raid, along with other atrocities in recent weeks such as the slaughter of about 40 schoolboys, has focused international attention on Boko Haram — the shadowy extremist group that has fought for years to establish an Islamist-run area in northern Nigeria.

The group’s name means “Western education is sin” in Nigeria’s Hausa language.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau shocked the world Monday by threatening to sell the 273 teenage schoolgirls into marriages or as sex slaves.

“I abducted your girls,” Abubakar Shekau said in a videotaped message. “By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace.”

The brazen abductions marked new tactics for Boko Haram, which has been the focus of international law enforcement efforts for years.

A team of FBI agents was dispatched to Nigeria in 2011 after Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing that killed 21 people and wounded more than 70 others at the U.N. headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

Before then, the group had been known for carrying out only locally focused terrorist acts. The 2011 bombing elevated Boko Haram’s presence on the radar of U.S. intelligence officials tracking the proliferation in Africa of al Qaeda-style terrorism.

Three months after the U.N. attack, a congressional report said the incident had “marked a significant shift in the targeting and goals of the group, largely unknown to the U.S. intelligence community, and capped off an evolution in the capabilities of Boko Haram, beginning in the mid-2000s, from attacks with poisoned arrows and machetes to sophisticated car bombings.”

The report, “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” highlighted claims by U.S. military officials that members of the group were being trained by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — a North Africa network often touted by intelligence officials as among the most threatening of several affiliates tied to al Qaeda’s original core in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Such claims appeared justified in January 2012, when Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a coordinated suicide car bombings against police stations and for killing 185 people in the city of Kano.

U.S. officials have told The Washington Times that, by mid-2012, a debate was raging behind the scenes at the State Department about how to publicly define the Boko Haram threat and how Washington should respond to the mounting violence in Africa’s top oil-producing nation.

Several analysts and officials speaking anonymously with The Times said there was resistance at the time to adding Boko Haram to Washington’s official terrorist organizations lists out of concern that doing so would bolster the group’s stature on the world stage and enhance its ability to recruit members.

In June 2012, the State Department moved to designate three Boko Haram leaders as “global terrorists” with “close links” to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Despite the designations and mounting claims by regional experts that Boko Haram was gaining access through the North African terrorist network to military hardware, the Obama administration resisted labeling the entire group as a global terrorist organization.

Alternatively, the administration appeared to acquiesce to a strategy being pushed during 2012 by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to create an amnesty program in which Boko Haram members might avoid prosecution in exchange for laying down their weapons.

A similar approach during the late-2000s had succeeded in taming militant activity in Nigeria’s Christian south. But the effort yielded no significant results in the nation’s predominantly Muslim north — and was complicated by claims that the Jonathan government’s security forces were running rampant in the north.

A Human Rights Watch report in October 2013 cited the implication of the security forces in such “serious human rights violations” as execution-style killings of detainees.

That report, along with the devolving situation in northern Nigeria, served as backdrop for the State Department’s move in November to designate Boko Haram a terrorist group.

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