Sunday, February 19, 2012

Boko Haram: Between rebellion and jihad

At about 10:40 one morning last August, Mohammed Abul Barra rammed his ash-colored station wagon into a security gate outside the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, knocking it off its hinges. Barra's 1996 Honda Accord then crashed through the main building's glass doors and slammed against the reception desk.
Evacuating victims at the UN housing bombing in Abuja
On security tapes of the incident seen by Reuters, a guard peers into the car, evidently unaware that it is packed with explosives. The grainy footage shows a dozen or so people in the reception edge towards the vehicle. Over 10 seconds pass in confusion before one man seemingly realizes what is about to happen. He grabs the person next to him and darts towards the lift. But it's too late. Barra steadies himself, leans forward and the security screens blur into white fuzz.
The suicide strike left 25 people dead and the UN headquarters in tatters. It also drew global attention to Boko Haram, the militant group from northern Nigeria which has claimed responsibility for the attack and a string of bombings since then that has killed hundreds.
As the bombings have grown in frequency in recent months, the Nigerian government and Western security officials have begun to grapple with the exact nature of the threat. Is Boko Haram just the latest in a long list of violent spasms in Nigeria, or is it the next battalion of global jihadists, capable of thrusting Africa's most populous nation into civil war?
The answer to that is not simple. There is evidence - some of it detailed in this story for the first time - that elements of Boko Haram have received training from foreign militant groups, including North Africa-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM). The August attack was far more sophisticated than anything linked to Boko Haram before.
Protest against Boko Haram 
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan calls the group a terrorist organization with global ambitions. In an interview in his presidential villa last week, Jonathan said there was "no doubt" Boko Haram has links with jihadist groups outside Nigeria. General Carter Ham, the head of the US military's Africa Command, said last year Boko Haram posed a threat to US and Western interests.
At the same time, Boko Haram remains firmly focused on domestic Nigerian issues. When its secretive spokesman claims responsibility for attacks, he almost always lists local grievances that have little to do with the core ideologies of al-Qaida. The group's name means "Western education is sinful" in Hausa, the language spoken in northern Nigeria, the country's Muslim heartland. But its anger is directed not at America or Europe but at Nigeria's elites: at their perceived arrogance, their failure to deliver services, and the brutality of their security forces. Many Boko Haram members say their focus is on targeting officials who have locked up its members or misused state funds.
Even Nigeria's national security adviser, General Owoye Azazi, who sees a link between Boko Haram and AQIM, urges caution in defining the group.  "We need to tackle Boko Haram from several perspectives," Azazi said in an interview. "If you go back to history, there are religious concerns, there are concerns about governance, and of course, political implications. It's a combination of so many things."


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