Last summer, Boko Haram, a little-known Islamic insurgency based in Nigeria, waged its first attack against an international target: the U.N. headquarters in the capital city of Abuja. A Boko Haram spokesman later claimed the bombing was designed “prove a point to all those who doubt our capability.”
The U.S. intelligence community should not take this lightly. As Boko Haram’s confidence grows, it may soon seek to expand its operations to more high-profile, U.S. targets.
Marketing itself as the “Nigerian Taliban,” Boko Haram (translation: “Western education is sinful”), seeks to transform Nigeria into an Islamic state under sharia law. Since Mohammed Yusuf, the sect’s former leader, was killed by Nigerian security forces in 2009, Boko Haram has escalated its attacks.
Nearly every day, government officials, security services and innocent civilians — Muslims and Christians alike — fall victim to the group’s violence. Boko Haram is particularly known for opening fire on churches and public gatherings where it can inflict the most violence and increase its profile.
While Boko Haram’s primary objective is the dismantling of the Nigerian government, the potential for its objectives and targets to expand should not be underestimated. Weeks before the attack on the United Nations, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, revealed that Boko Haram has close ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabab. When taking responsibility for the bombing, a Boko Haram spokesman announced that it was directed toward not only the Nigerian government but those who support it.
Boko Haram’s shift to more sophisticated tactics should raise alarm bells throughout the U.S. intelligence community. While Boko Haram was mentioned in the administration’s February 2012 World Threat Assessment, the House Homeland Security Committee warned in a report last November that Boko Haram should not be underestimated.
The group’s modest beginnings and subsequent advancement follow a similar pattern to terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Tehrik-i-Pakistan. More worrying is the fact that these groups were not sufficiently examined until they launched attacks against the United States.
A more immediate impact on U.S. interests is Boko Haram’s destabilization of Nigeria. In addition to being the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria is also the largest contributor of peacekeepers on the continent, making it a leading actor in regional security. The United States also receives 8 percent of its oil from Nigeria, more than any other African country.
Already facing a number of political, economic and security challenges, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has been unsuccessful in developing a coordinated counterterrorism strategy. Last August, Nigeria explored the possibility of negotiations with Boko Haram. Other tactics include instituting a state of emergency and the closing of borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Such challenges emphasize the need to more closely monitor the security threat Boko Haram poses. Greater emphasis should be placed on information-gathering and engagement between U.S. and Nigerian intelligence communities. Furthermore, if U.S. assistance to Nigeria is increased, as the Nigerian government has requested, sufficient oversight is necessary. The Obama administration should also begin the process for listing Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Boko Haram is no longer just a Nigerian problem. Such an emerging threat to U.S. national security warrants more attention. To ignored or misjudge the group’s potential would be a costly mistake that jeopardizes not only regional stability but U.S. security.
Morgan Roach is a research associate in the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First moved on the McClatchy Tribune Wire service