Originally Published 2011-10-03 00:00:00 Published on Oct 03, 2011
A suicide terrorist attack on 26 August in the capital city of Nigeria turned global attention on a little-known terrorist group which has potential of emerging as a threat to Western interests in Africa.
Nigeria's Taliban
A suicide terrorist attack on 26 August in the capital city of Nigeria turned global attention on a little-known terrorist group which has potential of emerging as a threat to Western interests in Africa. The attack was carried out by Boko Haram. It was the largest ever on a Western target, the UN building in this case, in Nigeria.

Approximately half of the 155 million Nigerian population is Muslim. They are mostly Sunni Muslims and concentrated in the north. Sharia law has been adopted in 9 Muslim majority states and 3 Muslim plurality states in the north since 1999.

Boko Haram's origins can be traced to early 2000s when a radical group emerged in north-eastern Nigeria demanding imposition of sharia. Though it never referred to itself as 'Taliban', the group's admiration for the Taliban in Afghanistan earned them the term "Nigerian Taliban." It mainly stood against the secular state, demanded imposition of full sharia and the removal of western-educated elites in 12 northern states. They gained support from those who saw the implementation of sharia in northern states from 1999 to 2001 as an attempt to eliminate corruption, revitalize the northern economy, and address the north's feelings of political marginalisation.

After three major incidents of conflict with security forces, the group was dispersed in 2004. The group re-emerged during 2006-09 as Boko Haram, which literally translated to 'Western education is forbidden'. The group organised itself around a young leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and expanded its base from Maiduguri city in the north.

Like its predecessor, it gained popularity and sympathy by emphasising on the rampant corruption in Nigeria. Popular support for Boko Haram reflected anger at northern state governors' insincerity in applying sharia and allowing massive corruption and illegal affluence to continue amid rising poverty. The rebel group has consistently criticised Western education, a reflection of long-standing mistrust in northern Nigeria of colonial rule and Christian influence. However, the view that the group is merely opposed to Western education is inadequate to explain its ideology. It is clear that it rejects secularism, seen as incompatible with Islam, and Western influence in general which is considered the source of secularist ideology. Their belief is that since sharia can never be implemented properly under a secular state, an Islamic regime must be established. In its initial years the group was seen by many in north-eastern Nigeria as a social movement campaigning militantly for an Islamic state.

Political alienation of the north has also been instrumental in Boko Haram's popularity. Some analysts are of the view that the current President Goodluck Jonathan's decision to surround himself primarily with members of his own Ijaw ethnic group and others mainly from the south, has led to greater marginalisation of the north, resulting in increased radicalisation.

Many Northern Muslims have shared the movement's desire for stricter implementation of sharia, establishment of an Islamic state and its hostility to federal authorities. This explains why some politicians in the area got close to the group in its early years, sensing that it might help their political careers. The group's political support became evident in 2008 when some of its members, accused of terrorist activities, were released in 2008 due to political and religious pressures from north, primarily from the Sultan of Sokoto, the religious head of the Muslims in north Nigeria.

In recent years, the group has undergone changes in leadership as well as tactics. Earlier the movement had used mass uprisings as an attack against state forces. Now under the guidance of Abubakar Shekau, a lieutenant of Yusuf's, it shifted to guerrilla and terrorist tactics in 2010. During the past year, it has conducted dozens of drive-by shootings, bombings, and small raids on police stations, banks, churches, and bars in the north-eastern states of Bauchi, Adamawa, and Borno.

Until recently, the group had targeted the Nigerian government. The recent attack on the U.N building, an international target, has raised concerns that Boko Haram is strengthening links with al Qaeda. Though there is no hard evidence of such a partnership, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terrorist group's arm in northwest Africa region of Sahel, has previously issued statements in support of Boko Haram.

But the group, in the recent past, has been losing public support dDue to indiscriminate killings and terrorist activities against non-governmental targets. Many now reject its violent tactics, and some now see the group as merely having exploited the dire economic conditions and popular religious sentiments to build a personality cult. Many Maiduguri residents considered the group's followers as cultists and lawless, often in breach of public regulations.

The new global focus on Nigeria's growing problem of terrorism has brought the government under pressure to address the problem with suggestions of increased militarisation and bringing troops from outside to prevent Boko Haram from establishing strong permanent links with international terrorist organisations.

Ideas for political inclusion and negotiated peace need to be given more emphasis as it is obvious that militant actions will trigger a far worse conflict in Nigeria than the one it is already suffering from.

Priyanka Mehrotra is Research Intern, ORF
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