Al-Qaida, Nigeria, and a long war

The strategy of the United States and its allies in face of the "al-Qaida idea" will prolong not settle the global war.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 December 2013

A theme explored repeatedly in this series of columns is the persistence of the al-Qaida idea. The reason for the emphasis on "idea" is straightforward. It is clear and undeniable that al-Qaida has been greatly diminished as an organised entity, not least by the United States's campaign of armed-drone attacks. But the movement's jihadist worldview has maintained and even enhanced its appeal over the same period, to the extent that its challenge is potentially even greater than it was in the aftermath of 9/11 (see "Al-Qaida, a multiform idea", 8 August 2013)..

This view clearly resonates with US security analysts who now identify a resurgence of al-Qaida in the wake of the Arab awakening's failure to deliver greater justice and emancipation (see Robert F Worth & Eric Schmitt, “Jihadists re-emerge as global threat officials say”, New York Times, 3 December 2013). They focus in part on the rise to prominence of radical groups among the Syrian opposition, and even suggest that Washington might have to consider working alongside the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The perspective is also relevant to other theatres: recent jihadist successes in Yemen, the rise of extreme Islamist paramilitary elements in Libya, and the growth in violence in Iraq. A trend has emerged that contests the notion current in 2010-11 – that al-Qaida, both as movement and idea, was becoming a spent force. It is now recognised that even if the movement may have been hugely damaged, the idea remains as potent as ever.

This emerging analysis echoes and parallels the thinking attempted since 2001 in these columns. Yet the new approach in Washington still partly misses the mark by concentrating so much attention on the middle east. This makes recent developments in Nigeria, especially actions of the Boko Haram movement, a salutary reminder of the need to adopt a broader international understanding.

The Boko Haram file

Several earlier columns have discussed the growth of this movement and its impact on Nigeria as a whole, albeit Boko Haram's strength is concentrated in the country's north (see "Al-Qaida franchise: the Nigerian case"  [25 August 2011], and "Nigeria, the Boko Haram risk"  [9 May 2013]). The past six months have seen further major developments, with escalating violence both by Boko Haram and the government’s counter-terror forces. Yet an extreme emergency, with scores of people being killed every week, is still scarcely covered in the western establishment media (see Will Hartley, “Soft Target - Boko Haram widens campaign against civilians”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, December 2013).

Throughout 2012-13 the Nigerian government has sought rigorously to repress the movement, with tactics that include support for local armed vigilantes. These have had an impact, but Boko Haram has responded by extending its attacks against civil targets, especially schools, in districts supporting the pro-government militias.

There is a strong argument that the movement's violent approach is alienating the public in the areas affected. But this itself makes a specific action early on 2 December 2013 very significant. A Boko Haram operation involving scores - possibly hundreds - of paramilitaries was launched close to the city of Maiduguri, the site of Boko Haram’s foundation and long a centre of support.

The attack was distinguished by its target: not a civilian one, but a major military base. Indeed, the base is a key facility for the state's war against Boko Haram, containing an air-base deploying helicopter-gunships and strike-aircraft as well as army barracks.

The precise details of what happened were at first elusive, not least because the government was keen to downplay the incident. Within a day the picture became clearer, with one report saying:

"[Boko Haram fighters] streamed towards Maiduguri city in the early hours of Monday in pick-up trucks and on motorcycles, before opening fire with rockets and small arms on a military base. After a five-hour battle, two helicopters, three under-repair fighter jets, vehicles, officers' housing, workshops and regimental buildings had been destroyed” (see Mike Pflanz, “Dozens killed by Islamist gunmen in Boko Haram in Nigeria”, Telegraph, 3 December 2013)

Scores of people died in the fighting, including civilians caught in the crossfire. A bigger problem for the government, though, was the very fact that the militants were able to overrun the base with every evidence of impunity.

On past performance, the government will respond with yet more force, in turn provoking a vigorous counter-reaction by Boko Haram. The overall death-toll from five years of conflict since 2009 is already in the many thousands, and it is clear that government claims of a movement in retreat are nonsense.

The wrong track

The continued impact of Boko Haram has a twofold importance. The first aspect is that it exposes the over-emphasis on the middle east in the US's perception of a resurgent global jihadism. Washington is very concerned with Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but it neglects Libya and even more Nigeria (see "Syria and Libya, a slow meltdown", 28 November 2013).

The second aspect is the wider Nigerian context of Boko Haram. This group has arisen in one of the poorest regions of Nigeria, one where state support is meagre and people see themselves losing out as the oil-rich (and largely Christian) south benefits repeatedly (see "Why northerners feel done down”, Economist, 30 November 2013). The commercial capital of Lagos on the south-west coast, for example, has a literacy rate of 92%, whereas in Borno state in the far north-east it is 15%.

Boko Haram can rely on many factors to generate support. The rigorous military repression that has been a signal feature of Goodluck Jonathan's presidency is one. But a deeper factor is the experience and marked awareness of marginalisation among the population the movement draws on. It is this that connects Boko Haram with developments in many parts of the middle east and north Africa. The potent al-Qaida idea may be rigid and often brutal in its execution but it benefits persistently from support from the margins.

A relatively early column in this series was entitled “A thirty-year war” (4 April 2003). In the context of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it argued that the approach of the United States in the middle east "plays directly into the hands of militant radicals." Over a decade later, the US and other western countries see a forceful counter-terror response as the logical answer to the resurgence of the al-Qaida idea. That response may keep its attraction in the short-term; but as long as it does, it will signify how little has been learned from the failures of the “war on terror” across the twelve years since 9/11. The thirty-year war, sadly, is still on track.

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