The growth of the Boko Haram armed movement in Nigeria illustrates the capacity of modern Islamist groups to diversify and make an effective impact - aided by the local state's response.
The fluidity of international security developments in 2011 is highlighted by events from Libya in the west to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. But a key to the future may also be found in areas such as Nigeria on the periphery of current concern among the United States and its allies.
At present, the electoral timetable in 2012 is largely driving United States policy in the core areas where the country’s forces are deployed or in whose vicinity they are active: Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Iraq. Barack Obama wants to campaign on domestic issues and be able to claim that American forces are almost entirely out of Iraq and moving that way in Afghanistan by 2014.
The withdrawal from Iraq, however, is becoming problematic because of an upsurge in violence there (see “America’s lost wars: the choice in 2012”, 18 August 2011). An average of fourteen attacks a day for the whole of 2011 is hardly stability - a number exceeded on 15 August when forty-three coordinated attacks killed more than ninety people and wounded over 300 (see Michael S Schmidt, “Threat Resurges in Deadliest Day of Year for Iraq”, New York Times, 15 August 2011). The shadowy "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" group (AQIM) appears to have regrouped; in a statement released on 19 August it boasts that it can mount a hundred attacks to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden (see Michael S Schmidt, “Iraq Militants Say Violence Is to Avenge Bin Laden”, New York Times, 20 August 2011).
The extent to which this is propaganda is difficult to judge, but the recent operations suggest both a renewed capability and the persistent failure of the Iraqi government's own security forces to counter the movement. This leads in turn to the larger issue of al-Qaida’s condition, and whether it faces serious decline or renewed growth following its leader’s demise (see "Al-Qaida, and a world in balance", 6 June 2011).
An offshoot war
Most analysts tend to embrace the former view, but always with a degree of caution. Many recognise that the issue is complicated by the variety of paramilitary groups evolving in western Pakistan, some of them with an international agenda even if not closely connected with what remains of al-Qaida in the country (see Seth G Jones, “The Terrorist Threat from Pakistan”, Survival, 53/4, August-September 2011).
Others point to the potential of offshoots of the movement to link up with groups in Yemen, the al-Shabaab movement in Somalia and diverse groups in north Africa that are collectively termed "al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb". AQIM is an umbrella term and may include paramilitaries currently working within rebel groups in Libya.
The numbers here may be small, but - depending on the degree of disorganisation after Gaddafi's fall - such forces may have access to some particularly effective light-weapons systems, including portable anti-aircraft missiles.
Yet even if all these elements - in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and north Africa - are put together, they hardly amount to the re-emergence of a major Islamist paramilitary entity with serious transnational potential.
It is in this context that recent developments in Nigeria need to be factored in. Here, the Boko Haram movement has spread with some speed - and the robust and violent response to its campaign from the Nigerian authorities may well be proving counterproductive by assisting rather than subduing it (see Adam Nossiter, “Islamist Group With Possible Qaeda Links Upends Nigeria”, New York Times, 17 August 2011).
The blowback war
The recent spurt in activity by Boko Haram is notable, in that the movement was founded in 2002 but made little impact until July 2009 when it launched an attack on the Maiduguri police headquarters. The group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was then captured by the army, handed over to the police and soon pronounced dead.
Until that point the group (whose title in the Hausa language means "education is prohibited") had seemed to be in retreat, its activities checked and beaten back by Nigerian army assaults. In the last two years, however, it has become more effective; one of the most significant developments is its increasing use of improvised-explosive devices (IEDs).
Boko Haram is most active in northeast Nigeria, close to the borders with Niger and Chad in the city of Maiduguri - the capital of Borno state. But it has also staged attacks in the large city of Kaduna (800 kilometres to the west); and even extended its activities to the capital, Abuja, in the centre of the country. The consequence is that Boko Haram has since 2009 moved from the regional- to the national-security agenda (see "Understanding Nigeria's Boko Haram Radicals", Irin News, 18 July 2011).
The state’s responses include convening conferences hosted by the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, attended by the governor of Borno state Ali Modu-Sherriff and Nigeria's most senior security personnel. One such event in October 2010 led to the army being redeployed, using tactics that are now being called into question (see Chesa Chesa, “Boko Haram: FG may deploy troops to Borno”, Daily Independent [Nigeria] 11 October 2010).
Boko Haram frequently resorts to brutal tactics. But the actions of the Nigerian security forces, especially the army, arguably fuel its operations. Amnesty International estimates that more than 140 people have been killed since January 2011, many of them in operations that amount to a “shoot first, ask questions afterwards” policy. Violence has escalated in the past month, with thousands of people fleeing to try and avoid the conflict. The army's actions have included burning a market and shooting dead a woman, the sort of low-level but destructive incidents that (as in this case) often provoke vigorous public protest (see “Nigeria to probe 'army abuses' in Boko Haram clampdown”, BBC News, 12 August 2011).
Nigeria's tough and uncompromising official policy can be seen as contributing to rather than curbing Boko Haram's growth. Many western security officials are concerned that it will become a regional phenomenon, and a new link in the wider al-Qaida chain. That may be overplayed, but what the arc of Boko Haram does show is that radical Islamist paramilitary groups can develop unexpectedly and rapidly. This is one more argument for the idea that al-Qaida - as a decentred network rather than a centralised movement - still has much life in it.