Terror in Nigeria

It is important that commitments to fighting extremist, especially Salafist, groups in Africa bear fruit and that they are extended.

Nigerians walk by after fire razes market 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nigerians walk by after fire razes market 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Christmas Day, several churches were bombed in three towns in central and northern Nigeria. At the St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla at least 37 people were reported killed.
The upsurge in anti-Christian violence is just the latest in a string of attacks carried out by the Boko Haram terrorist group in the past two years. It is essential to understand that the wave of attacks in Nigeria represent more than an isolated incident and is part of a larger trend towards Islamist terrorism that stretches across the Sahara, all the way to Somalia.
Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates as “Western teaching is forbidden,” was founded in 2002 as a social network designed to impose a strict Islamic lifestyle on the people of northern Nigeria.
It grew among Hausa speakers in the north and only emerged into the news in 2009 when it transformed itself into a Salafist Islamic group and came into conflict with security forces. In that year it was responsible for hundreds of killings, primarily in attacks on police stations. In 2011 its members murdered at least 450 people.
Some observers have cautioned against labeling the group a terrorist organization. Prof. Jean Herskovits of the State University of New York, Purchase, wrote in The New York Times that “criminal gangs have adopted the name Boko Haram to claim responsibility for attacks... It was clear in 2009, as it is now, that the root cause of violence and anger in both the north and south of Nigeria is endemic poverty and hopelessness.”
This argument dovetails with the frequent descriptions of religious violence in Nigeria as stemming from “land disputes.”
Boiling down religious violence, including the bombing of churches, to such excuses as poverty, criminality and land disputes is a type of apologetics that we are used to hearing about the conflicts here in the Middle East. Hezbollah, for instance, is often said to also be partly a criminal enterprise and a social welfare mini-state. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at its core, might well be described as nothing more than a large land dispute. However true those assertions may be, they don’t excuse the perversion of religion to excuse the terrorist bombing of civilians.
What we are seeing across Africa is a deeper connection between various Islamic extremist groups, such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in the Sahara, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Islamic Courts Union and al-Shabab in Somalia. This arc of terror that stretches across Africa is a threat to the stability of the entire region. It has already led to the destruction of part of Somalia.
With instability in Libya and the procurement of weapons left behind from that conflict, there is no way of knowing how far these Islamists might strike in the future. The seething unrest among Tuareg tribesmen who live in Mali, Niger and Algeria has allowed for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African version of the infamous terrorist network, to function with impunity.
The United States is aware of the problem and its Africa Command headed by Gen. Carter Ham has supplied training advice to several countries in the region. In addition the US Congress approved $500 million in counterterrorism aid several years ago.
It is important that these commitments to fighting extremist, especially Salafist, groups in Africa bear fruit and that they are extended. Building up a continent wide program to combat the problem would be useful. However, it is also essential that scholars and commentators understand that what is happening cannot only be ascribed to “poverty” or “criminality,” and that what we are seeing is a continued growth of terrorism and attempts by the groups to link to one another. With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the electoral success of the Salafist party al-Nour there, vigilance against other more extreme like-minded groups must be maintained.