A resurgence of Islamist terrorism in the Lake Chad region of Africa poses a significant threat to U.S. national interests. A pertinent example is Nigeria’s Boko Haram, translated as “Western education is forbidden,” which has pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) and has fought the Nigerian government since 2009. In this piece, Boko Haram will be analyzed in terms of ideology and facilitating factors that allow them to pose a serious threat to regional and international security. The United States should seek to strengthen Lake Chad’s regional coalition to fight Boko Haram, encourage government anti-corruption reform, and sponsor development projects in Nigeria’s northern states.
Boko Haram is rooted in a tradition of resistance to foreign rule and interference in Northeastern Nigeria. An example is the group Wahabist Jama’t Izalat al Bid’a Wa Iqamat al Sunna (Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna), also known as Izala, founded in 1978 with backing from Saudi Arabia. The introduction of this group proved a significant factor in the formation of Boko Haram; Izala focused on the transformation of the predominantly Sufi population in northern Nigeria, converting them to Sunni Islam during the twentieth century. In 2002, building upon the sectarian differences between the Muslim north and Christian south, a man named Mohammed Yousuf founded Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (translated as “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”). It is colloquially referred to as Boko Haram by local Hausa speakers. Its mission was the education of youth under Quranic teachings, emphasizing the lack of instruction in English and the prevention of perceived Western colonial thought. Following Yousuf’s death in 2009, the group evolved into the armed insurgency it is today, professing a desire to protect the Muslim north of Nigeria from the perceived threat of the secular Nigerian government.
In comparison to other terrorist organizations, Boko Haram’s attacks have been largely directed towards the civilian population, which makes up 80 percent of its victims in attacks in Nigeria and other countries in the Lake Chad region. Furthermore, following declarations of allegiance to Daesh in 2014, the insurgents have attempted to consolidate control over captured territory. This alteration in strategy suggests an attempt to create a separate state based on Islam from which to expand its control. Therefore, Boko Haram’s ideology and motivation for operation can be interpreted as the expansion of Sunni Islam through armed conflict to establish a geopolitical entity based on strict interpretation of Sharia law within northern Nigeria.
Boko Haram’s continued presence in the Lake Chad region is due to lack of regional security cooperation and persistence of sectarian differences. Following Nigerian military responses to Boko Haram aggression in 2014, the group was pushed back into the Sambisa Forest of northeastern Nigeria, allowing for recruitment of fighters from other countries in the region. In March 2015, Boko Haram lost all towns under its control as a regional coalition consisting of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, which fought to eliminate the terrorists from the region. However, as Boko Haram has changed tactics to launch more traditional terrorist attacks using IEDs and suicide bombers, the coalition has lost support as each country must focus on its own security to destroy individual terrorist cells. A U.S. policy priority should be to encourage closer collaboration between the Lake Chad countries in order to defeat Boko Haram.
Though Boko Haram has thrived as the ideological protector of Islam in Nigeria’s north, its existence is prolonged by sectarian conflict related to economic inequality. This issue applies to politics as well. According to John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, the “central purpose of the Nigerian state is to divide up the country’s oil wealth among elites, making Nigeria’s politics a zero-sum game.” Illicit profits taken from this crucial natural resource by politicians in the south are a factor in the underdevelopment and poverty of Nigeria’s northern states. Therefore, Boko Haram’s effectiveness and persistence is enabled by the inability of the Nigerian government to effectively deal with corruption or to adequately provide for its citizens. A U.S. policy priority should be the creation of programs designed to encourage investment in infrastructure for economic growth and the adoption of anti-corruption prerogatives to encourage good governance.
Though the spread of radical Islamic ideology is not new to Sub-Saharan Africa, it is important to note its increasing cost to United States. partners. Boko Haram is part of a larger development of recent religious sectarian violence in central African countries, often pitting Christians against Muslims and causing massive refugee displacement. These instances of division are not entirely motivated by religious differences, but rather severe socioeconomic circumstances prevalent due to weak governance present in the region. Therefore, Boko Haram’s presence can be primarily attributed to conditions of disparity and perceived injustice against the Muslim religious minority, driving their recruitment and ultra-violent ideology as a means of rejection of the state. In response, the United States should work to effectively develop the infrastructure and government of countries impacted by religious sectarian violence, allowing mutual participation in the state’s rule and effective division of wealth.
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Joshua Glow is a Master’s Candidate in the Security Policy Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He is currently interning at PublicRelay, working on media analytics, and previously studied International Studies, Intelligence Studies, and History at the University of South Florida. His research currently focuses on emerging threats and transnational terrorist organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.