July 3, 2012 | Foreign Policy

Is Nigeria the Next Front in the War on Terror?

The country's sectarian violence is getting out of control.
July 3, 2012 | Foreign Policy

Is Nigeria the Next Front in the War on Terror?

The country's sectarian violence is getting out of control.

Violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is drawing the country ever closer to a religious war. The instigator of this conflict is Boko Haram, an Islamist movement whose very name means “Western education is forbidden.” If the Nigerian government can't stop this conflict from spiraling out of control, expect the United States to step in — albeit with a relatively light hand — to tip the scales against Boko Haram.

The situation in Nigeria hit a crisis point on June 17, when Boko Haram attacked three churches in Nigeria's north-central Kaduna state — killing 21 people during services. Christians were quick to respond, and sectarian clashes ignited almost immediately. After four days of unrest, roughly 100 Nigerians lay dead.

Terrorist violence is nothing new for Boko Haram, a group that U.S. officials suspect of having links to al Qaeda. As the U.S. State Department has noted, attacks by Boko Haram and associated militants have taken more than 1,000 lives over the past 18 months. Nor is sectarian strife new to Nigeria: The country, predominantly Muslim in the north and Christian in the south, has a history of sectarian violence in its religiously mixed middle belt. Past riots killed more than 100 people in 2002 — again in Kaduna — when Muslim youths protested the Miss World pageant being held in Nigeria, and they also claimed scores of lives in 2006 following Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of controversial cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed.

Recent events show that Boko Haram's attacks are only becoming more deadly. The organization is in the midst of a tactical evolution: Whereas Boko Haram used to employ such tactics as assassinations and massed assaults on security forces, suicide bombings now feature prominently in its arsenal, and Christian targets — which are most frequently attacked while church services are ongoing — have moved to the top of the group's target list.

The Nigerian government has had some successes. Boko Haram was the target of violent suppression in July 2009 when its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was summarily executed by Nigerian security forces following his capture that month, and roughly 800 members of the sect were killed, according to Nigerian military estimates. As scholar David Cook's useful study on Boko Haram details, however, the group re-emerged with a vengeance the following year. It engaged in “a high profile campaign of assassinations and attacks throughout northern Nigeria,” Cook writes, and began to employ suicide attacks in the summer of 2011. Further, Cook notes, Boko Haram's attacks and threats have focused “more and more on interests that touch U.S. economic concerns in the region.”

In line with Boko Haram's tactical evolution, it has frequently employed suicide bombings in its onslaught against Christian targets. Prior to the June 17 attacks, Boko Haram had perpetrated a number of other terrorist assaults on church services. On April 29, gunmen attacked services on Bayero University in the northern state of Kano, killing at least 16 people. The group also took credit for a June 3 suicide attack on a church in northeastern Nigeria that killed 15 people and wounded 40 more. The following Sunday, June 10, two church attacks rocked the cities of Jos and Biu, killing three people and wounding over 40. Once again, Boko Haram claimed responsibility.

Such attacks have provoked a response from Nigeria's Christian community. Christian youths reportedly assaulted local Muslims around Jos in response to those attacks, but that retaliation paled in comparison to the wave of violence that followed the June 17 attacks. As Boko Haram's attacks on church services continued from one weekend to the next, Christian and Muslim leaders have tried to stop the religious violence from escalating. Jamaatu Nasril Islam, an umbrella group for Nigerian Muslim organizations, released an open letter to the government that condemned the church attacks, describing them as “barbaric.”

Even amid the calls for calm, however, rumblings of retaliation could be heard. To Nigerian Christians in areas with a strong Boko Haram presence, it seemed that the state was incapable of providing them with security. The Rev. Emmanuel Chukwuma, chairman of the South East chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said that though Christians appealed for peace, “It seems that the present security of Nigeria cannot curtail the carnage.”

Some of the Christian association's other statements contain more direct threats. Its head, Ayo Oritsejafor, told reporters that the church had previously “put great restraint” on its members, “but can no longer guarantee such cooperation if this trend of terror is not halted immediately.” The Odua Nationalist Congress, a group representing the Yoruba people, also warned that if the government did not counter Boko Haram, “the people, on their own, will rise up to the occasion for self-preservation.”

Following the June 17 attacks on three churches in Kaduna — the third straight weekend of attacks on services — Christian retaliation against Muslims was swift. Some of the targets had actually been involved in the attacks: Reuters reported that militants who threw bombs at one church were “caught by a mob and killed.” Other acts of retaliation were brutal and indiscriminate — the same article noted that Christian youths pulled Muslims out of their cars and killed them.

With violence escalating, Nigerian commentators are openly discussing the prospect of a sectarian civil war. The country's PM News, for example, wrote of “the possibility of a religious war.” A June 26 statement from the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, arguing that security forces' failure to arrest and disarm the militant group had made self-defense “imperative for Christians,” as Nigeria's Guardian news site put it, only intensified these fears.

A religious war may play right into Boko Haram's hands. Although Iraq circa 2006 is very different from Nigeria today, it is worth recalling how al Qaeda in Iraq was able to set sectarian violence in motion through its attacks on Shiite targets — and then position itself as a protector of Sunnis. Boko Haram may similarly be able to capitalize on retaliatory attacks directed at Muslims after it strikes at Christians.

There is evidence that the attacks on Sunday services have managed to polarize Nigeria along religious lines. “I held a position that it is not a religious war in the past,” Nigerian Sen. Ita Solomon Enang, a Christian, said in an interview. “But my position on that is becoming shaky because when people now blatantly take guns to churches and aim at unarmed worshippers, kill them, and go away.… I would say this is like a jihad.”

Meanwhile, Nigeria's government is struggling to contain this new outbreak of religiously fueled animosity. President Goodluck Jonathan has responded to the crisis by firing his national security advisor and defense minister — the country, he said, needed “new tactics” to combat Boko Haram. It is highly unlikely, however, that this shake-up has succeeded in assuaging Christian fears or has reversed the Christian community's pull toward self-defense.

If the Nigerian government isn't up to the job, expect the United States to take a greater interest in counterterrorism operations there. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa, has repeatedly spoken of connections between Boko Haram and two al Qaeda affiliates: Somalia's al-Shabab and North Africa's al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. For the first time, on June 21 the State Department designated three high-level Boko Haram members as “specially designated global terrorists,” and the United States is considering a broader designation of the group as a whole.

Thus far, U.S. policies toward Boko Haram have emphasized empowerment of local partners — for instance, providing Nigeria with counterinsurgency training and intelligence support, and providing the funding to bolster its armed forces — rather than direct, kinetic actions. If Nigeria can't get control of this brewing sectarian war, however, the United States might opt for more direct involvement. For instance, U.S. Special Forces could eventually be used beyond their current training capacity, or the United States could decide to directly target Boko Haram's leadership. Although there is no sign that such an escalation in the U.S. role is imminent, Nigeria's festering sectarian divides mean such options remain on the table.

Nigeria isn't going to turn into Somalia or Yemen — let alone Iraq or Afghanistan — overnight. But if the religiously fueled violence there is not contained, it might become yet another front in the war on terror.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross directs the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and is a lecturer in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of several monographs and books, most recently Bin Laden's Legacy.

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