On Monday, a suicide bomb blast ripped through a high school assembly in northeastern Nigeria, killing nearly 50 students. And on Wednesday, a female suicide bomber carried out an attack at a university not far from Nigeria’s capital of Abuja. Though not confirmed, it seems clear that these were the latest tragic attacks by militant group Boko Haram – whose name means “western education is blasphemous” – against students in the country. In September 2013, Boko Haram killed 40 male students and their teachers at a dormitory in northeastern Nigeria. And earlier this year, in its most notorious attack, the militant group kidnapped more than 275 schoolgirls who were taking an exam. Boko Haram wants to deter students from studying anywhere but at Arabic-only madrassas where a Salafist interpretation of the Koran is taught, but no science, math, English or other “infidel” concepts.
Recently, Boko Haram’s schoolgirls kidnapping received an acknowledgement from the Islamic State. In the October 2014 edition of its official magazine Dabiq, the Islamic State cited Boko Haram’s kidnapping in Chibok as precedent for its own sexual slavery of hundreds of non-Muslim Yazidi girls in northern Iraq. Like Boko Haram, the Islamic State has set prices for girls depending on their beauty and youth.
But the reintroduction of slavery is not the only similarity between the Islamic State and Boko Haram. Boko Haram is taking more and more cues from its counterpart in the Middle East, mirroring its savage tactics and inflamed rhetoric. If the United States doesn’t strengthen its resolve to stop Boko Haram’s expansion, the militants’ gains could become a morale boost for the global radical jihadist movement and a loss for democracy and stability in Nigeria and worldwide.
Since Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau first expressed “support” for Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2014, Boko Haram has adopted the Islamic State’s semiotics. Boko Haram edited its own logo to feature the Islamic State’s rayat al-uqab flag on top of its previous logo of crossed guns over a Koran. In a different video, released in October, Boko Haram played the Islamic State’s “national anthem,” the nasheed “My Umma, Dawn Has Arrived,” while Shekau declared Boko Haram’s own Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria in October. And on Sunday, Boko Haram released a video of Shekau in a mosque and praising al-Baghdadi’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria before a screenshot of an al-Baghdadi sermon emerged in the video alongside Shekau.
Not only does Boko Haram appeal to the Islamic State’s symbolism and ideology, but it also follows the Islamic State’s insurgency doctrine. On Nov. 3, for example, a suicide bomber detonated explosives at a Shiite procession in northeastern Nigeria, killing worshippers. Again, Boko Haram is strongly suspected of being behind the attack. Evidently, Boko Haram has brought sectarian warfare to Nigeria like the Islamic State has done in Iraq and Syria.
Moreover, since July 2014, Boko Haram has abandoned its attack-and-retreat guerrilla warfare tactics, hiding out in the mountainous areas between Nigeria and Cameroon after attacks. Now, like the Islamic State, Boko Haram militants have begun to seize and hold territory in at least three northeastern states — Yobe, Borno and Adamawa — with reports of towns in the neighboring states of Bauchi and Gombe also falling. Like the Taliban and Islamic State, Boko Haram is carrying out executions of Christians and whippings, stonings, and amputations of so-called “sinners,” including those who receive Western education.
Boko Haram is a cross-border movement, with support, in particular, from non-state militant actors, arms traffickers and financiers. There is some evidence that Boko Haram has received funding from al-Qaeda. Now, according to well-connected Nigerian journalist Ahmed Salkida, the Islamic State is expected to recommend that African militants join the insurgency in Nigeria if they can’t travel to Syria, in return for Boko Haram’s continued call-outs to the Islamic State and al-Baghdadi.
Unlike the Islamic State — which is boxed in northern Iraq and northern Syria by powerful neighbors, such as the Turks, Kurds, Iranians, Saudis, Jordanians and Israelis — Nigeria’s neighbors are much more fragile. Already Boko Haram’s expansion beyond Nigeria is more feasible than even the Islamic State’s expansion.
For this reason, the United States has serious incentive to work with the Nigerian government and international partners to cut off the resources Boko Haram is acquiring from these outside militants. Yet, right now, the United States is concentrating on rapidly unfolding events in more familiar theaters like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, so it may not be expending the needed resources to combat the insurgency in West Africa. We’ve sent thousands of troops to Liberia to aid in the Ebola response, but just 80 to search for hideouts where Boko Haram has enslaved the kidnapped schoolgirls. Without serious measures and cooperation between the United States and allies with the resolve to win this battle, West Africa could witness human rights atrocities on a scale previously unseen in the region. We could see devastated regional economies, and a proliferation of safe havens and weapons markets for militants elsewhere in Africa to exploit. There also could be a larger flow of refugees into Europe from Nigeria.
In addition to working to end Boko Haram’s funding, the United States can exercise leadership with its European allies in West Africa — such as France, which has close historical and linguistic connection to Nigeria’s neighbors — to develop a regional strategy to prevent Boko Haram’s expansion and roll back the insurgency. The United States and other allies also can work with Nigeria on employing satellite technologies to preempt Boko Haram attacks on civilians in remote towns by detecting the irregular movements of Boko Haram’s armed convoys in the desert areas of northeastern Nigeria. Since Boko Haram is part of the global radical jihadist landscape, the United States can also combine its broader counter-extremist messaging to the Nigerian context and share best practices with the Nigerians.
The United States may have “insurgency fatigue” as a result of unsettled scores in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, let alone the enduring conflicts in Libya, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere. But Nigeria is a longtime ally of the United States, and effective global leadership in West Africa is needed to halt Boko Haram’s momentum. Only then can students like those in Yobe State, Chibok and elsewhere have the opportunity to craft a future for themselves and their country.
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