February 19, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Boko Haram Threat to Southern Nigeria: Fact & Fiction
Sorting fact from fiction about Boko Haram operations in southern Nigeria remains a factor in understanding the threat. In recent weeks, the Nigerian press has reported on the terrorist group’s renewed intent to hit targets in the south. The Premium Times, for example, reported on February 14 that Boko Haram was planning to infiltrate Lagos in “military vehicles painted with military colors.” Other publications, such as Information Nigeria, acknowledged there were “rumors” about Boko Haram in southern Nigeria, but quoted a security official who said the police had not yet taken action in the region.
The catalyst for the reports about Boko Haram in southern Nigeria may have been the January arrests of 300 Nigerian Muslim traders from the north in the Rivers State of the Niger Delta. The suspects were detained as alleged being Boko Haram members and subsequently “deported” to northern Nigeria, without a public trial or apparent due process. The absence of solid evidence presented against the suspects suggests political motives may have been behind their removal—now less than one year ahead of the scheduled 2015 elections.
In previous years, publicity about Boko Haram in southern Nigeria has resulted in what appeared to be misplaced policies and government actions. In March 2012, for example, the state government of Lagos demolished mosques in “strategic locations,” such as commercial hubs and areas near government offices, because of the perceived Boko Haram threat. Later, in June 2012, the Southeast chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria announced that more than 6,000 Boko Haram members infiltrated southern Nigeria even though the extremist group, in any credible estimate, does not have that many members. And in July 2012, a Yoruba youth group, Apapo Oodua Koya, stated it was “almost inevitable” that Boko Haram would conduct suicide bombing attacks in Lagos and Ibadan by July 2012. None of the predictions came true, but they increased public fear about Boko Haram attacks and, in some cases, led to actions that alienated the Muslim population in southern Nigeria.
A Genuine Threat
Despite hyperbolic reports about Boko Haram in southern Nigeria, there has been a genuine potential threat from militants connected to it. The origin of the threat, however, was in Usama bin Ladin’s strategy to engage in “economic warfare” against the United States, by attacking oil installations around the world on which the US economy depends. This included a failed attempt in 2006 on an oil processing facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabic. Because bin Laden and Boko Haram had few direct contacts, Bin Laden communicated this strategy to Boko Haram militants via al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has fielded dozens of Nigerians connected to Boko Haram in its ranks since the mid-2000s. Most importantly for the present and longer term, the Qaeda narrative continues to carry a potent motivational force.
The key Nigerian Boko Haram member who acted as conduit for communications between bin Laden and AQIM (as well as al-Shabab) was likely Adam Kambar, whom the US specially designated as a terrorist in 2012. Kambar was arrested in Kano in 2007 after training with AQIM in Algeria, but released after a short stint in prison. In August 2011, several Nigerians who trained with Kambar in Algeria in 2007, and were based in the same district where Kambar was arrested the same year, helped plot the suicide car bombing at the UN Headquarters in Abuja, which killed more than 20 people. This remains to be the only attack claimed by Boko Haram on a “Western” target. Boko Haram’s other attacks have mostly been on churches, government offices, border posts and other more local targets. Kidnappings of foreigners in northern Nigeria have been exclusively claimed by Ansaru (al-Muslimin) and AQIM.
Another Nigerian militant who scouted targets in Lagos was Kabiru Sokoto. He was Nigeria-based, but received funding for his attacks from AQIM, including the bombing of a church in Madalla, Niger State, on Christmas Day 2011. Among the targets Sokoto planned to attack in Lagos were churches and venues on Snake Island, popular among foreigners in Lagos.
A third Nigerian extremist who plotted attacks in Lagos was a Yoruba from southern Nigeria, Suleiman Muhammed. His targets were five-star hotels, the popular Tafawa Balewa Square, churches, malls and banks. The goal of his attacks, according to details gleaned from his interrogation, was to show that Boko Haram was not limited to only northern Nigeria.
In 2012, Adam Kambar was killed during a security raid on his hideout in Kano, and Kabiru Sokoto and Suleiman Muhammed were arrested in Abuja and Kano, respectively. It is likely none of them were in Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s faction in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State because Shekau is known to discriminate against fighters not from Borno, has little influence in Kano, and does not focus on southern Nigeria (more than 85% of Boko Haram’s attacks are in Borno).
Less than one year after the killing and capture of Kambar, Muhammed, and Sokoto, in February 2013, France led a military intervention in northern Mali, which forced AQIM to retreat from the region—at least temporarily—and disrupted ties between Nigeria-based militants and AQIM. As a result, the funding and strategic leadership that guided Kambar, Sokoto, and Muhammed to target southern Nigeria were likely reduced.
• The recent regional press reporting over Boko Haram imminently carrying out an attack in southern Nigeria is misplaced, but if AQIM or al-Qaeda’s leadership reprioritizes economic warfare and reconnects with northern Nigerian militants, Boko Haram (or Ansaru) could once again pose a more imminent and direct threat to southern Nigeria
• Thinly based threat reporting that results in targeting northern Nigerian Muslims could unnecessarily increase friction between Muslims and Christians in southern Nigeria
• A Boko Haram attack in southern Nigeria would likely target a hotel or other soft targets where foreigners regularly congregate; however, the most viable near-term threat to foreigners in southern Nigeria is unrelated to Boko Haram and in the form of Niger Delta militants carrying out hostage for ransom operations.
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