By B Raman
04 01 2012
The growth of an increasingly violent Boko Haram, once a ‘harmless’ Nigerian fringe group, is proof of Zawahiri’s new policy of starting a prairie fire across the world
In a televised broadcast on December 31, 2011, Nigerian President Good-luck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in parts of the country following anti-Christian violence by a Jihadi group called Boko Haram. The state of emergency will be in force in the Yobe and Borno States in the north-east. It authorises the Government to use the Armed Forces for counter-terrorism duties. Nigeria’s international borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon are reported to have been closed.
The President’s action followed a series of bombings in the affected region on Christmas Day in which 42 persons were reported to have been killed. The bombings were directed at churches and other targets.
Before his televised address, Mr Jonathan spoke at a church in Abuja where 37 people were killed. He said that Boko Haram, which had “started as a harmless group”, had “now grown cancerous”.
The full name of Boko Haram is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad. It means ‘People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad’. The shortened version of its name as Boko Haram in the Housa dialect means “Western Education Is Sin”. It has been campaigning against Western and Christian education and for the enforcement of Shariah in a country where Christians and animists are in a majority in the South. It was responsible for more than 450 killings in Nigeria in 2011.
The organisation was formed in the town of Maiduguri, the capital of the Borno State, in 2002 by a cleric called Mohammad Yousef. He was reported killed by the police in 2009. The name of its present leader is not known. It was initially thought of as an Islamic fundamentalist organisation with no links to Al Qaeda or its international affiliates such as its units in Yemen, Somalia and Algeria, or the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba in Pakistan or even the Taliban in the AfPak region. Since Boko Haram stepped up its acts of violence in 2009, there are growing concerns of such linkages.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the present leader of Al Qaeda, believes that instead of over-focussing on spreading jihad to the US homeland, his group should concentrate on creating a prairie fire of Jihadi intifada across countries that have a Muslim majority as well as lands that, according to him, traditionally belonged to Muslims but are now under the control of non-Muslims. He has been saying that African countries such as Algeria should play an important role in this multi-front war for the triumph of Islam.
The spreading and growing pan-African Jihadi violence since 2009 has to be seen in the beliefs and conviction of Zawahiri who is now in the driving seat of international Jihadi terrorism. The death of Osama bin Laden during the US raid on Abbottabad on May 2, 2011, was a setback to those in Al Qaeda who had, in the past, advocated a US homeland-centric campaign. Since then, Zawahiri and his followers have come to fore and they believe that instead of wasting human and material resources on organising Jihadi attacks in the US, Al Qaeda and its affiliates should concentrate on the rest of the Islamic world.
In 2004, Boko Haram spread from Maiduguri to Kanamma in the Yobe State where it reportedly set up a base called “Afghanistan”, giving the first indication of a possible Afghan/Taliban inspiration for its ideology and activities. It spread its targets and started attacking the police too. It then spread to the Bauchi area.
On August 26, 2011, the UN headquarters in Abuja was blown up by a suicide car bomber, leaving at least 21 dead and dozens more injured. On November 5, 2011, a series of coordinated attacks in Borno and Yobe States, mainly around Damaturu, killed at least 67 people, and practically destroyed a new police headquarter. Local Government offices were damaged. A Boko Haram spokesman claimed responsibility for the attacks.
US Africa Command Commander General Carter F Ham stated in September 2011 that three African terrorist groups - Al Shabaab of Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb across the Sahel region, and Boko Haram — “have very explicitly and publicly voiced intent to target Westerners, and the US specifically.”
Gen Ham was quoted as stating after the Christmas Day bombings: “I remain greatly concerned about their stated intent to connect with Al Qaeda senior leadership, most likely through Al Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb.”
The death of Osama bin Laden might have weakened Al Qaeda’s senior leadership, but it has not weakened the Jihadi virus and its trans-national carriers. It is important for Indian counter-terrorism agencies to start closely studying the activities of Boko Haram.
The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.