While the attention of most Africa security analysts and policymakers has been focused recently on the campaign to root out the militant Islamists of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, evidence has emerged that another radical group previously thought extinguished was stirring again on the other end of the continent in Nigeria.
On January 16, Media Trust Ltd., was arraigned before the High Court in the capital of Abuja, accused of three counts of terrorism. The director, a Muslim cleric (or mallam) by the name of Mohammed Bello Ilyas Damagun, who was described by prosecutors as belonging to a group dubbed the “Nigerian Taliban,” was charged with receiving funds from al-Qaeda, sending recruits abroad for training, and aiding terrorist activities within Nigeria.
According to prosecutor Abdullahi Mikailu, Mallam Damagun, whose business interests publish the Daily Trust, Weekly Trust, Sunday Trust, and Aminiya newspapers, received $300,000 from al-Qaeda accounts in Sudan which were transferred to his account (number 2106795, to be specific) at Habibsons Bank on St. James Street in London “with the intent that said money shall be used in the execution of acts of terrorism.”
The cleric, who faces fifteen years' imprisonment if convicted, was also alleged to have sent three young men – Nura Umar, Abdul Aziz Hamza, and Mohammed Ibrahim – along with fourteen of their companions to receive terrorism and other combat terrorism at the Ummul Qurah camp in Mauretania, a West African country which has been battling the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, a violent Algerian insurgent group (better known by its French initials GSPC) whose leader, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud last year formally pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda.
The prosecutor also accused Damagun with providing a minibus, thirty loudspeakers, and “various sums of money” to Muhammad Yusuf, a leader of the “Nigerian Taliban” who was himself arraigned in December for his ties to al-Qaeda-linked extremists in Pakistan.
According to the indictment, the resources were delivered to “Taliban” operatives in Maiduguri in northeastern Borno state “to facilitate the spread of extremism and various acts and techniques of terrorism.”
The “Nigerian Taliban,” which refers to itself as the Muhajirun (“migrants”) movement, first appeared around 2003 and was composed, like the Afghan group whose name they adopted, primarily of religious students. Inspired by the latter's vision of an Islamic state run in accord with an extremist interpretation of the Muslim faith, the Nigerian radicals abandoned Maiduguri and, like the prophet of Islam Muhammad who left Mecca for Media, “migrated” away – although in this case the “migration” (hijra) meant moving from the city to the rough bush of Yobe state near the border with Niger.
Descending from their wilderness retreat, the young militants raided the Yobe state capital of Damaturu in early 2004, attacking police stations. Later that same year, the militants tried to launch a guerrilla campaign around Gwoza, in Borno state near the Cameroonian border. According to press reports – interestingly, the most extensive “inside access” articles were by written by a certain Abdullahi Bego who published in the Weekly Trust – the Nigerian insurgents wanted to establish an Islamic state and pronounced Muslims who opposed them to be “unbelievers” deserving of death.
As I previously reported, the Nigerian military ruthlessly put down the uprising, effectively dispersing the group – until now.
· In December, Mohammed Yusuf, the Maiduguri-based imam and “Taliban” leader to whom the mallam delivered the equipment and funds, was himself arraigned on a five-count indictment of illegally receiving foreign currency. However, according to several security sources, the real underlying crime was that he was caught gathering information on American government and business offices and residences in Nigeria, presumably with malevolent intent.
· Likewise in December, Mohammed Ashafa, a Muhajirun sympathizer from the northern city of Kano, was likewise hailed before a court, charged with receiving funds from two Pakistani al-Qaeda operatives to “identify and carry out terrorist attacks” on Americans in Nigeria. He was also charged with recruiting twenty-one fighters who were sent for training with an unspecified Algerian terrorist group, presumably the GSPC.
· In early January, another leader of the militant movement, Aminu Tashen-Ilimi, gave his first interview to members of the foreign press, speaking with Agence France-Presse correspondents Emmanuel Goujon and Aminu Abubakar. Tashen-Ilimi (“new way of knowledge”) praised the insurgents killed three years ago as “Muslims who performed their holy duty” and declared: “Allah, the almighty Lord, has authorized every Muslim to fight to establish an Islamic government over the world. One day it will happen in Nigeria and everywhere.”
As I have repeatedly noted, few countries are as vital to the long-term strategic interests of the United States as Nigeria, which currently supplies more than 12 percent of all the crude oil consumed in America and is, as I previously demonstrated, an especially vulnerable risk, particularly but not only in the Niger Delta where Islamism has begun to exacerbate local grievances. Moreover, as I observed in an earlier column, Nigeria is in the midst of a very critical political transition: the state and national elections, scheduled for April 14 and 21 of this year, will either make or break the country. Unfortunately, as I reported in the online edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest after returning from a visit to the country in December, as it is currently unfolding the electoral process is likely only to heighten tensions.
While all three major presidential contenders – the ruling People's Democratic Party's Governor Umar Musa Yar'Adua of Katsina state, the All Nigeria People's Party's former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, and Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who is running on the Action Congress Party ticket – are Muslims from the north, as one Nigerian academic put it to me, “there are Muslims and there are Muslims.”
Among other concerns, there is the matter of the links between Mallam Damagun and his newspapers, presidential contender Buhari, and radical elements like the “Taliban.” The Media Trust publications have been rather critical of outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo, an evangelical Christian from the south, and his party even as they have been supportive of Buhari and his party. The latter, of course, is not surprising: the company started out as a parastatal concern back in the days (1983-1985) when the General Buhari ran the country as a corporatist military regime which financed such businesses out of its oil wealth (Media Trust went private only in 1998, at which time, according to accounts published in the Nigerian press, Damagun bought in for the cut-rate price of just under $6,000).
However, the real question, as my Nigerian colleague reminded me, is not the Media Trust's affinity to Buhari as such, but the former's closeness to extremists and whether it might not say something about the latter's true ideological orientation and, if elected, his presidential agenda. (During a 2004 visit to Washington, for example, Buhari defended the imposition of Islamic law by twelve northern Nigerian states as “constitutional” and, in an interview with the allAfrica.com news agency, even blamed the victims of the ensuing communal tensions: “It was not a cause of social upheaval until it was given unfavorable publicity by communities who thought shari'a was a threat to them.”)
While one should be careful not to exaggerate the strength of the Nigeria's “Taliban” – in fact, that the State Security Service and other government agencies, acting in collaboration with Nigeria's allies, have managed to arrest Damagun and company is welcome news – neither should one ignore the potential threat posed by the group, others like it, and their fellow travelers.
In a column last fall, I recalled how a rather eccentric radical movement in northern Nigeria which had neither outside sponsorship nor grand political designs, the Yan Tatsine, nonetheless managed to exact a toll of more than ten thousand deaths and untold millions in damage to public infrastructure as well as private property during the relatively tranquil early 1980s. Today, the situation in Nigeria is much more volatile than it was then and as illustrated by the recent judicial cases, indigenous extremists now have access to local power brokers, to say nothing of foreign partners eager to supply them with not only with weapons and other material support, but also a virulent ideology with global ambitions. Even beyond this spring's elections, with all its attendant challenges, Nigeria faces a very bumpy road ahead.
– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.