May 8, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Boko Haram’s Domestic and International Strategy

• The mass kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram has strengthened the group’s regional notoriety and aspirations for global recognition

• The sheer audacity and vileness of recent rampages, kidnappings, and the video claiming credit are designed to terrorize a broad domestic and foreign audience

• The perception of Nigerian government has been significantly weakened by its lack of meaningful response for three weeks than by the kidnapping itself

• An effective response needs to be coordinated, strategic, and sustained—and address chronic economic and societal issues—and not driven by any single crisis.

The violent extremist group Boko Haram’s brazen kidnappings of over 300 girls from a school and homes in northeastern Nigeria in mid-April and over the last few days has revealed important and somewhat interrelated realities about Nigeria.

Boko Haram has seized the initiative from the Nigerian government. The group has sidestepped the government’s attempts to minimize the crisis and now appears to be intentionally promoting itself as a significant extremist group on the global stage, using sustained shocking violence and pan-jihadist rhetoric to change how it’s perceived by audiences beyond Nigeria and the region. In his video message claiming credit for the kidnapping, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau spoke both in the local language of Hausa and in Arabic in an attempt to find a broader audience and, in effect, brand his group as part of a longer history of groups fighting against perceived Muslim persecution. Already notorious in the border regions between Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, Shekau is seeking a broader audience.

The strategy behind the mass kidnapping is consistent with the group’s aim of dominating swathes of the country through unrelenting terror. It is the scope of the kidnappings, recent murders, and the sheer audacity and barbarity of the acts that suggest the group sees itself moving into a new stage of infamy through action. While al-Qaeda core’s nominal leader Ayman al-Zawahiri hasn’t publicly accepted Shekau’s pledge of allegiance, Shekau is acting as if his group is a de facto affiliate, embracing the standard rhetoric of fighting historic injustices and oppression in the name of religion. Through its recent bombings in the capital and other mass attacks, Boko Haram has demonstrated one of the most important traits of any would-be successful terrorist group: sustained action.

The kidnappings have revealed the chasm between economic statistics and counterterrorism performance of the Nigerian government. The recent news that Nigeria is now the largest economy on the continent is indeed noteworthy and a justifiable accomplishment for the country. However, this economic advancement hasn’t translated into an effective counterterrorism strategy. The uneven distribution of wealth in the country plays out in the absence of capable government forces that can maintain positive control over states such as Borno and Yobe. Increased revenues haven’t resulted in disrupting the threat of Boko Haram and its offshoots. Quite the opposite, the terrorist group has been able to accelerate and escalate.

With the focus on Boko Haram’s recent rampages and the kidnappings in the northeast, Abuja has lost the highly coveted spotlight of its hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa conference this week. This is a perilous moment for the government, which already faces significant challenges. By initially diminishing the kidnapping, the government lost support among precisely the people it should help and needs to leverage against Boko Haram’s narrative of death and destruction in the name of fighting oppression. If the government now overreacts with heavy-handed military and law enforcement actions that fail to discriminate between Boko Haram and the people it terrorizes, it will continue to lose domestic and foreign support, in addition to the damage done by this latest kidnapping.

The mass kidnapping has revealed the need for a regional strategy to properly address the growing threat of Boko Haram. The group has killed thousands of people through bombings, shootings, and stabbings for several years now. Fears of escalating the conflict through a significant coordinated response are, from a counterterrorism and law enforcement perspective, misplaced since Boko Haram has already escalated its violence and continues to do so. Nigeria and its neighbors are unable to address this threat, and the group is making the most of this inability, with dangerous implications for not only the populations that are vulnerable but to regional stability and growth.

An effective international response could take the shape of military and law enforcement advisors of the sort now being sent by the US and UK to help find the kidnapped girls. But any effective response would need to be strategic and sustained, and not driven by any single crisis. Boko Haram has spent years destabilizing first the northern part of Nigeria and now the whole country and region, so expectations of a quick resolution via international response should be addressed in a comprehensive strategy. Such a strategy would also involve reforming Nigeria’s police and security services so that they are able to proactively meet challenges while not creating new ones. The task of finding the kidnapped girls after more than three weeks is daunting, given the terrain and porous borders. The task of finally addressing the growing insurgency in Africa’s largest economy is even more so.

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