Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Boko Haram opens Africa to Islamic State

With its declaration of allegiance to the Islamic State, Boko Haram has extended the reach of the jihadist group into West Africa, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Boko Haram opens Africa to Islamic State
Boko Haram opens Africa to Islamic State
Al-Ahram Weekly

Boko Haram leader Abu-Bakr Shekau announced last week that his organisation has joined the Islamic State (IS) group. He had earlier declared his support for IS on 13 July 2014.

The Boko Haram map has grown from a local fringe movement in northern Nigeria in 2009 to encompass other Nigerian provinces, most recently spreading into Chad and Cameroon. Some observers now say that Boko Haram will become a pivotal force in the region and could simultaneously form a belt where anarchy and civil war prevail.

Boko Haram has already sought to establish its own caliphate, which it declared as being based in Ghoza in the northeast Nigerian state of Bornu on 24 August. Since then, says Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the movement has begun to pursue new aims and to use new means to expand its influence.

“It avails itself of every instrument at its disposal to seize control over the greatest number of towns and villages possible, perpetuating violence on a wide scale and, more recently, performing ritual massacres in the manner of IS,” says Bakr.

“It also uses women to commit suicide bombings against police and army targets and, in its drive to expand its influence beyond Nigerian borders, it practices transborder criminal activities and communicates and cooperates with a number of jihadist organisations in the region. The movement has thus become a form of transnational organisation.”

Boko Haram relies on a number of elements to achieve its objectives. The first of these are large numbers of followers, which it has built up through intensive recruitment campaigns among the Muslim poor in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, into which Boko Haram operatives can infiltrate with relative ease.

Among considerable segments of these populations, the organisation is perceived as a “defender of Islam”  a message that it conveys through the provision of various social and economic services for the poor.

A second source of strength is the organisation’s sources of funding, chiefly through criminal activities. Kidnapping and holding people for ransom have apparently proved lucrative.

It has been estimated that the terrorist group can obtain a million dollars in exchange for the release of a hostage of some political or social status. It has also received contributions from rich donors who subscribe to its ideas, or from some politicians who receive paybacks in some form or another.

Boko Haram has also built up a strong network of relations with other extremist organisations in the region, includings Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It has sent some of its fighters to other movements for training and exchanging expertise, and to take part in combat operations on various fronts in the region.

From the perspective of world powers, Boko Haram is uncomfortably close to sources of oil and other natural wealth. Nigeria has the 13th largest oil reserves in the world at 36 billion barrels, and produces 70 per cent of Africa’s petroleum.

Ayman Shabana, director of the African Studies Institute at Cairo University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there is a US drive to partition Nigeria in the manner of Sudan. Nigeria is very similar to Sudan in that there is a predominantly Muslim population in the north while in the south the people are mainly Christian or practitioners of indigenous African religions.

“The US does not want that country to develop, even though it was poised for great progress,” he said, adding, “Boko Haram is the card on which Washington is currently relying in order to set that region aflame, so as to make it easier to deal with.”

Yet, in February, statements by US military leaders suggested precisely the contrary. Addressing a session of the International Studies Institute in Washington, Commander of US Africa Command (Africom) General David Rodriguez stressed the importance of preparing for a major US-led military operation to combat extremist groups in West Africa.

At the same time, the commander of US Special Operations Command, General Joseph Votel, addressing a seminar at the West Point Military Academy, urged preparations for a US commando operation against IS and Boko Haram in West Africa.

It appears, however, that the US administration is not yet taking such proposals seriously. Shortly before IS announced its presence in Libya, a military source based in Germany told the Weekly that there had also been a call for US intervention in Libya to stem the flow of Al-Qaeda leaders to that country.

A US Middle East affairs analyst who worked for the Pentagon for decades told the Weekly: “I don’t understand how that administration works in the Middle East, and in Iraq and Syria. It does exactly the opposite of the ideas that are presented to it. It closes the door and refuses to hear anyone outside, even those who worked with it on those very issues before.”

Egypt has repeatedly urged expanding the scope of the international coalition formed to fight IS in Syria and Iraq to include Libya. The US has refused to contemplate the suggestion on the grounds that it seeks a “political solution” to the Libyan crisis. Will the latest developments in Africa lead the US to reconsider the Egyptian point of view?

Chad, Cameroon and Benin have created a force of 8,700 troops to send to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram. Experts believe that a significantly larger force may be needed in view of recent developments, especially since Al-Shabab members fighting beneath the IS banner can easily make their way to that area. Washington has so far refused to provide support to those countries.

“The US obtains oil from West Africa at about 40 per cent less than what it pays for the equivalent amount from the Gulf, and it doesn’t have to pass through the Bab Al-Mandeb,” Shabana said. “This is why the US wants to repeat the same experience as Darfur, where [intervention] forces failed in their mission.”

A government force from Niger and Chad this week launched a major air and land offensive against Boko Haram locations in Nigeria. Moving in from southeast Niger on two fronts toward Boso and near Diram, the operation marked what the Nigerian press described as “the opening of a new front” against Boko Haram in Nigeria.

A previous assault was waged jointly by Chad and Cameroon two months ago. News reports cited Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan as saying that Boko Haram was not as strong as it appeared to be and vowed to arrest its leader after obtaining new weapons to fight the organisation.

The new developments in West Africa are particularly disturbing to France, which has considerable interests in the region. France had been making preparations for an operation, dubbed “Sand Dune”, that would be launched from Chad.

However, during a visit to Chad, Cameroon and Niger last week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius underscored the importance of creating a joint African force to contend with security threats, saying that France was ready to play a coordinating role in that force.

Fabius said that his country does not intend to intervene militarily in the war against Boko Haram. Rather, it will offer military and intelligence assistance. It will also send reconnaissance aircraft to the areas near the Nigerian borders where there are heavy concentrations of Boko Haram fighters.

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