Why the suicide bombing of the U.N. compound in Abuja isn't just a lone incident -- and why it could spark an ugly religious war in Africa's most populous country.
- By Alex Thurston Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University with a focus on Islam in Africa. He blogs at Sahel Blog.
At mid-morning on Friday, Aug. 26, a car packed with explosives rammed through two gates at the United Nations compound in the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, before smashing into the building’s main reception area and detonating. The suicide terrorist attack, the largest ever on a Western target in Nigeria, has claimed at least 18 lives and injured dozens.
By the afternoon, the Muslim rebel sect Boko Haram had claimed responsibility for the attack. In recent months, Boko Haram’s operations have been expanding outward from its base in Maiduguri, a city in the country’s northeast. Boko Haram, which comprises hundreds of members and appears to enjoy some measure of popular support in the northeast, aims to strengthen sharia law in Nigeria and overturn the rule of Western-educated elites. In a country with a history of polarization between the majority-Muslim north and the majority-Christian south, Boko Haram’s message is a polarizing one at the national level and within the Muslim community; the movement has killed Muslim leaders who reject its use of violence. The movement draws recruits by capitalizing on the disappointment many northerners felt when the implementation of sharia in northern states from 1999 to 2001 failed to eliminate corruption, revitalize the northern economy, and address the north’s feelings of political marginalization. Northern grievances were compounded by the reelection this April of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian who came to power after the death of northern Muslim President Umaru Yar’Adua. Some northerners argued that Jonathan should have stepped aside in favor of a northerner, and thereby held to an unofficial power-sharing agreement that rotates the presidency, every two terms, between north and south.
Boko Haram’s tactics have changed over time. In 2003 and 2009, the movement launched mass uprisings against police in the northeast, but suffered hundreds of casualties when security forces put down the rebellions; during the 2009 uprising, their leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was killed in police custody, and the movement went underground for over a year. Reputedly now under the guidance of Abubakar Shekau, a lieutenant of Yusuf’s, Boko Haram 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 northeastern states of Bauchi, Adamawa, and Borno (of which Maiduguri is the capital). The United Nations reportedly received intelligence last month that it was a potential target for the sect, but the compound appears to have had only minimal security. The attack on the United Nations suggests that Boko Haram wanted to embarrass the Nigerian state in front of an international audience, signal to foreigners that they are now targets, and prove that the military’s crackdown in the northeast has not weakened the movement.
Boko Haram increasingly seems to favor the use of suicide bombings. This June, the group carried out an apparent suicide car bombing at the police headquarters in Abuja, though later analysis from Nigerian police suggested the bomber may have intended to park the car and detonate it remotely. On Aug. 15, a suicide-bomb attempt failed at the police headquarters in Maiduguri. As journalist Geoffrey York writes, the bombing of the U.N. office fits into the broader pattern of Boko Haram’s geographical expansion and increasing tactical sophistication.
Speculation has been increasing that this tactical sophistication indicates growing links between Boko Haram and outside terrorist groups, especially al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of whose largest attacks to date has been the double car bombing of the U.N. office in Algeria in December 2007. Some analysts see Boko Haram’s use of large bombs as an indication that it is receiving training from AQIM, as well as encouragement to attack more ambitious national and international targets. As the New America Foundation’s Andrew Lebovich points out, the presence of even a few individuals from AQIM could boost Boko Haram’s prowess. Others see an even broader threat. During a visit to Abuja this month, the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, stated that Boko Haram was increasingly coordinating activities with AQIM while pursuing a "loose" partnership with al-Shabab, southern Somalia’s Muslim rebel movement. Ham warned that a pan-African terrorist alliance would vastly increase security threats to Africa and the United States. Hard evidence of sustained operational ties between Boko Haram and AQIM, however, has yet to become publicly available; AQIM’s centers of operations in northeastern Algeria and the remote desert areas of northern Mauritania and Mali are far from northern Nigeria. It is also quite possible that the expertise in bomb attacks comes from within Nigeria, for example from former soldiers.
Regardless of whose expertise guided Friday’s attack, the incident will increase pressure on Nigeria’s federal government to stamp out the movement. The problem authorities in Abuja face, though, is that no single approach to confronting Boko Haram’s expansion has yet gained broad political backing or attained major momentum. An ongoing military crackdown in Maiduguri, modeled after a military deployment in the Niger Delta that partly succeeded in reducing violence there, fulfills the desires of some elements in the security forces, as well as some southerners, for tough action. Yet the brutality of the crackdown has angered locals, prompting protests against security forces and possibly driving an increase in Boko Haram’s recruitment. Prominent northern politicians and Muslim leaders have urged dialogue with Boko Haram’s leadership and amnesty for its fighters, but the terrorist group has yet to accept the offer and some southern politicians feel the suggestion is naive.
Caught between these competing pressures, the federal government has moved cautiously, setting up a fact-finding panel whose report, likely to be controversial, has already been delayed. With criticism of the federal government mounting at home and abroad, and with President Jonathan taking hits for shying away from the spotlight after the attacks, Boko Haram may already be achieving part of its goal of weakening the Nigerian state’s legitimacy.
The attack confirms that Boko Haram has entered a new phase, one in which its activities are a truly national problem. The effects, in a country of 150 million with a roughly even split between Muslims and Christians, could spread well beyond the zone of Boko Haram’s activities. Since the bombing in June, fear of the movement has been increasing among southerners. Christian hard-liners have threatened retaliatory violence against northern Muslims who live in the south. Incidents of local Muslim-Christian violence, which occur cyclically in some parts of the country’s Middle Belt (where the Muslim and Christian zones meet), could become a national interreligious conflict. Boko Haram’s activities could also strain the state’s capacity to respond to other problems, particularly if violence and political unrest flare up in the Niger Delta once more.
Friday’s tragedy in Abuja will also affect Nigeria’s relationship with the international community. Foreign investors, many of whom have already been nervously watching Boko Haram’s expansion, could begin to reduce their presence in Nigeria. International organizations will face heightened security challenges and could curtail operations in the north by UNICEF and the U.N. Development Program, both of whose offices were housed in the Abuja compound. Pressure from abroad will mount on Jonathan to "solve" the problem, and further militarization could prove the easiest path to follow. All these developments could mean a less secure, prosperous, and cohesive Nigeria — an outcome that could, sadly, give even more momentum to Boko Haram.