January 20th, 2012
10:41 AM ET

What might Boko Haram do?

From Raffaello Pantucci, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming "We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain's Suburban Mujahedeen" (Hurst/Columbia University Press).

After an explosive festive season that spilled into the New Year and growing stories of increased connections to other regional networks, Nigerian group Boko Haram is likely to be one of the main focuses of attention for counter terrorism experts in this coming year.

While definitively predicting whether it is going to metastasize into a global threat, or remain a regional one, is something dependent on many variable factors, some lessons from other regional violent Islamist networks can be drawn to understand better the general direction Boko Haram is going in.

Three groups are particularly useful to look at: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, al Shabaab in Somalia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). All three are groups that have a clear globalist violent Islamist rhetoric and varying degrees of connectivity with al Qaeda core in Pakistan.

While Boko Haram seems to increasingly sound like a global jihadist group, it has thus far only established connections with regional al Qaedaist networks - specifically, members have admitted to training in Somalia and American military officials have pointed to links with AQIM.

Of these three groups, the one that has repeatedly posed a direct threat to American homeland security is AQAP, the Yemeni based al Qaeda affiliate that hosted Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous Yemeni-American preacher.  Established by individuals who had served directly with Osama bin Laden and had been involved with al Qaeda since its early days (and some who have been in Guantanamo) it has been an important part of al Qaeda's global strategy.

Documents found in bin Laden's layer point to the organization asking him directly about management issues and there is evidence of direct communication between the groups about operational planning.  The group has inherited al Qaeda core's obsession with the United States, something demonstrated in intercepted emails between Awlaki and a contact in the UK that show Awlaki telling him to prioritize the United States, rather than the United Kingdom, as a target.

And this obsession has been given operational support by a steady flow of young Western recruits, drawn in part by the groups English-language media campaign.  These recruits both provide the network with operational assets they can use to strike the West, but also help feed its anti-Western rhetoric, spurred on as they are by a deep rejection of the society that they came from.  All of which helps explain why the group is seen as a major threat to the United States and why the group continues to try to launch attacks, all the while also trying to consolidate its position in Yemen.

The group has also been shown to have strong links with al Shabaab in Somalia, another regional network with links to al Qaeda core, but that has so far not demonstrated the same eagerness to launch attacks directly against the American homeland or in Europe. Similar to AQAP, al Shabaab has some leaders who have been quite close to al Qaeda core and it has hosted a number of senior al Qaeda members.

But the majority of its leadership has emerged from the long-standing inter-tribal conflicts that have dominated Somalia's recent history. It has also been something of a draw for young Westerners seeking the thrill of fighting on a jihadist battlefield, and some of these young people have tried to launch attacks back home - though not at the direction of Shabaab.

But while it may have launched attacks in Somalia against Western targets, and seemed to be involved in plots to attack Western targets regionally (including recent stories of using western recruits for plotting in neighboring Kenya), there is currently little evidence that the group has directed attacks targeting North America or Europe.

Instead, it seems as though the group has chosen to avoid such direct provocations, most likely to not distract from their regional interests and bring too much attention to them from the American security machine.  The focus is on consolidating power in Somalia, in many ways something that is merely an extension of the civil war that has been raging in the nation for decades.  It clearly has the potential to launch direct attacks in the form of support networks sending money and fighters in Europe and North America, but has chosen not to deploy them.

And finally, there is al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), another group with direct historical ties to al Qaeda core as an evolution of a group that was born from the community of Algerians who had served in Afghanistan against the Soviets.  Individuals linked to previous iterations of the group have been involved in attacks in France and individuals linked to the group continue to be found in Europe.

But it has been a long time since it launched an attack, or was linked to an attack, in Europe. Instead, there has been a steady patter of attacks against north African security forces and repeated kidnappings for ransom of Westerners traveling around the region - making the group seem more of a regional criminal-terrorist network that international terrorist organization.

The group may receive some sort of a boost in the wake of the Arab Spring in terms of equipment and there are stories that al Qaeda core is focusing on the region as a new field of operations as pressure in Pakistan continues, but none of this has yet translated into much evidence of a large out-of-area terror campaign.

So where would Boko Haram fit into this spectrum?

It lacks much evidence of direct contacts with al Qaeda core, meaning that it is unlikely to have directly inherited al Qaeda's obsession with attacking America.  Instead, it seems to have developed out of the long-standing tribal and north-south tensions in Nigeria.  It has been cloaking itself in an anti-western rhetoric - its name translates as "western education is forbidden" - and made contact with other regional Islamist groups that shout loudly about global jihad, but its focus remains the sharia-ization of Nigeria.

Of course, all of these factors can change, and the attack last August on the U.N. office in Abuja showed a level of technical capacity and an interest in targeting foreigners.  But this does not necessarily mean the internationalization of the group's fight.  The attack could be interpreted as a way of drawing attention to the group and its struggle - something key for an organization using violence to advance a political cause.  The world press has become sadly used to massacres in Africa, so in order to draw attention, groups have to choose westernized targets.

In this light, it therefore seems that Boko Haram is most like al Shabaab, though at a much earlier stage.  Like Shabaab, it grew out of local tribal conflicts and tensions adopting Islamist garb, and it has so far avoided direct confrontations with the west. Unlike the Somali group, it lacks direct connections to al Qaeda core.

While it is clearly angry at the west, it does not yet seem to have made the specific strategic decision to expend its efforts in launching attacks in Europe or North America.  It is possible that like Shabaab, in time Boko Haram might expand its operations regionally and again against foreign targets - but this should be seen within a regional context rather than a globalist jihadist framework.  Finally, unlike all of the other groups, it also lacks a notable international support network sending money and fighters, but as security agencies have already worried, the large Nigerian diaspora internationally might change this.

For Western security planners it is a hard game to judge. While it would be surprising for the group to launch attacks against the west, if it continues to grow and is able to tap into the globalist jihadist narrative it will draw more attention to itself and its international networks will develop.  This will expand the pool of people being radicalized and will provide al Qaeda or affiliate networks with new potential networks they can capitalize upon to advance their globalist cause.

And if the group is able to establish a safe territory where it can impose its will and shariah, it is possible that it could turn into a haven for jihadists being hounded by drone strikes and western intelligence elsewhere.  This all poses a threat, but too much direct foreign attention to the group will both increase the groups credibility and also bring them into direct confrontation with western forces - something that might in itself accelerate a shift towards globalist violence.

So far, however, the only Nigerian to be prominently involved in terrorist plotting against the west was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the British educated Nigerian student who was dispatched by AQAP with a bomb sewn into his underwear.  And there has been no evidence that he was connected with Boko Haram.  Instead, the group has focused on causing chaos and massacring people in Nigeria, something that is terrible but must clearly be focused on in a regional way rather than as part of a global anti-terrorist struggle.

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. familyman

    Through the corruption and stupidity of the Nigerian Government, these fools are still doing what the can. In the mist of all the problems going on, the government goes and inputs "removal of fuel subsidies" for the poor masses! Which has shown to be a wrong move at a very worng time! The governemnt of Nigeria should face up to what is going on within the country first before trying to double the problem that is already on ground. Boko harem is only as strong as the government lets it be!! The # one priority of the government write now should be the safety of its people, not increases in fuel prices or other ways to make life hard on its citizens. Until this is realised, then they are slowly be surely wasting their time.....Nigerian governement should "wake up and smell the coffee", and kindly wake up from your slumber!!

    January 22, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  2. trevor

    nigeria government are still sleeping.they need to wake up and put things right. the president know who dis animals are.

    January 22, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  3. salman

    How about they die next?

    January 22, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  4. Action

    It will not be Long , Boko Haram will be history /story.

    January 22, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  5. James

    Separate this country in peace before this guys finish her citizen, ojukwu saw this many years ago,

    January 22, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
    • Emmanuel.

      Well James every one is entitle to his or her own opinion but let me tell you one thing this country will not be separated and can not be separated, most of you are just tribalistic nothing more. because they are hausas and i am sure u are not hausa, so you can easily say any negative thing. well Ojukwu is DEAD. no one is better in that country is just a political thing so get use to eat or you can leave the country peacefully

      January 22, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Reply
    • Emmanuel.

      if u watch the first video of the report it was october bombings which was claim on Niger Delta militants what can u said about that? just yesterday a bomb exploded in Bayelsa state while governorship election is being prepared. was that boko haram too??? things are just politically motivated but if we start taking it as tribal or religion then we are all wrong. God help Us

      January 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  6. Skorpio

    Eliminate Muslim clerics and most of the killings around the world will drop drastically. The source of all hatred, terrorism, violence and discrimination lies with Islamic clerics (ayatollahs, muftis, imams, sheiks, mullahs, emyrs, etc.). These evil creatures are the main instigators of most violent actions, they are judges, witnesses, jurors, police and executioners at the same time. Unless these bast@#%s experience the same pain, suffering and anxiety as their victims, nothing is going to change.

    January 22, 2012 at 10:51 am | Reply
    • Freedude

      Skorpio, I could not agree more. The root of ALL violence and acts of hatred comes from religious leaders who think that the world should operate the same way it did 2000 years ago! Given their indifference to the slaughter of not only fellow muslims, but infidels (us) as well, I am of the opinion that the world would be a much safer place with these people out of the way. There are those that say it would be a mistake to take out these people because there would be retaliation against priests, to this i would say be my guest you would be doing us all a favor. It should be pointed out however that priest are randomly murdered in these therocratic hellholes anyway if they are unfortunate enough to annoy anyone, so in a way it may actually even things up, though i'm not sure who is counting.

      January 22, 2012 at 11:27 am | Reply
    • James

      thank you bro onpoint

      January 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    • H. B.

      You're only halfway correct. These imams, etc. are the leaders, but if they were "taken out" others would replace them.

      The core problem is Islam itself. The leaders, the clerics, are merely coordinators in carrying out Islam's prime directive: TOTAL global conquest.

      But how can anyone fight a religion? History proves that making war on the followers of any religion only makes it stronger.

      Muslims MEAN BUSINESS about global conquest.

      There is but one way to rid ourselves of Islamic violence: Quarantine. We'd have to move all Muslims who live outside of the Islamic States, and transplant them to the Islamic State of their choice. Gently, politely, but with zero recourse. It's an ugly thought, and would be wildly expensive. It would have to be done cooperatively with all non-Islamic nations – which will NEVER happen. If we can't do this, though, we will not survive what Islam has in mind for us all.

      Islam does NOT belong anywhere outside of those states. Its existence elsewhere is for one and ONLY one purpose: to conquer the world for Allah.

      Like it or not, this is true of ALL Muslims, no matter how long we've known them, no matter how sure we are that they ARE our friends. They can fake friendship, but Islam flatly prohibits the real thing. In the strongest of terms. Your Muslim "friends" all know this, but can't afford to have US know it.

      They say they "yearn" for democracy, for freedom and rights. They LIE. But lying to us infidels is a virtue in Islam, so they DO it. ALL of them. EVERYTHING about democracy is blasphemous and obscene to them. Yet they pour into our countries. Why? To be ready when the call comes to rise up simultaneously and conquer us FROM WITHIN.

      Muslims are actively mobilizing to conquer us, while they convince us that all the horrific violence done by Muslims is done by "extremists." Islam does not NEED extremists; it is already that way.

      If you don't believe this, it's because you've never bothered to study Islam, as I've done for many years. Muslims NEED your ignorance of their real intentions, and know how to keep us ignorant.

      Your refusal to do the same homework is why the Muslims will succeed in taking over the whole world. And soon, too.

      We keep insisting on believing that it's this group or that group causing all the trouble, and that the "VAST majority of Muslims are peaceful and tolerant."

      Which is precisely how they NEED us to think in order to conquer us.

      And we're LETTING them do it.

      Study Islam now, as though your life depended on it.

      Because it DOES.

      January 22, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  7. Galoot

    What will they do?

    They will do what Koranimals have done all over the world since this sick twisted evil Dark Ages Death CULT was started by some megalomaniacal child molesting sociopath 1,400 years ago.

    January 22, 2012 at 5:47 am | Reply
  8. Utebor Promise

    May God save Nigeria from this Boko haram bomb blasting of a thin, Government should provide security on time and get this evils before they will bomb more life's again.

    January 21, 2012 at 5:35 am | Reply
  9. nony

    Boko haram days are numbered!

    January 21, 2012 at 12:37 am | Reply
  10. ocheibi

    boko haram is only what it is today because of the carelessness of the nigerian government towards security issues. the baby is growing muscles.

    January 20, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  11. Scattered

    Why don't you seek the opinions of Nigerians who know what Boko Haram is likely to do, instead of consulting these so-called analysts who don't really know what they are talking about?

    The primary reason why Boko Haram is in business today, is because Nigeria has a Christian president. Everything Boko Haram does is geared towards making Nigeria ungovernable and thus discrediting his administration.

    All of this talk about Al Shabab and co is besides the point.

    Please consult Nigerians next.

    January 20, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  12. Draft Dodger Newt

    But the real question is; what will Procul Harem do?

    January 20, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
    • mex

      well, it sure won't be a "whiter shade of pale" due to the geographical location of the situation

      January 21, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
    • Scattered

      Great. When Americans die, you expect the entire World to mourn with you. When Africans die, you pass snide comments. After all, they are bloody Africans and their lives are worth nothing.

      January 24, 2012 at 7:12 am | Reply

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