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March 18, 2012

Boko Harum: America's Next Enemy You've Never Heard Of

By

Overnight, Joseph Kony became more famous than Adele. In less than a day, more than 36 million viewed a YouTube documentary on the barbarous Ugandan leader of the Lord's Resistance Army.

But this overnight sensation's star has been waning for years. He's been under indictment from the International Criminal Court since 2005, and his militia -- reduced to but a few hundred fighters -- has been driven out of Uganda.

Though YouTube has raised Kony's name recognition to new heights, it is the people most Americans don't know who are likely to be the Next Big Danger out of Africa.

Transnational terrorism has had a hard time taking root in Africa since bin Laden fled the Sudan in the 1990s. Unable to strike at the heart of their Western "devils," African-based terrorist groups have been limited to attacking a handful of high-profile targets in their own backyards -- e.g., the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

But that may be changing. Al Qaeda has a "fan base" in North Africa, a Nigerian-based terrorist group called Boko Haram. The name translates to "Western education is a sin." Last year alone, members of the group murdered some 450 people. And they claim they are just getting started.

Boko Haram poses a legitimate threat. Following the al Qaeda playbook, these terrorists have aligned themselves with the global Islamist insurgency and escalated the scale of their attacks.

Looking to extend their reach and influence beyond Nigeria's borders, they are trying to form partnerships with other like-minded terrorist groups. For example, Boko Haram members reportedly have trained with al Shabaab, the Islamist terrorist group in Somalia. Boko Haram has also been in contact with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- an al Qaeda offshoot trying to establish a foothold in Algeria.

Boko Haram's aim is impose its version of Islamic Shariah law over the whole country -- even though only about half the population is Muslim. That would be highly destabilizing.

The nation is already divided both economically (poor northern regions vs. a more prosperous south) and politically (in Nigeria's federal system, independent states have a good deal of autonomy).

Trying to force the whole nation to bend to Boko Haram's will would trigger a civil war that could spread beyond the country's borders. Then, Nigeria's problems are unlikely to stay in Nigeria. Should Boko Haram establish a sanctuary there, it could become a training and supply base for transnational terrorist groups across the region.

Luckily, the United States can do a good deal short of opening a second front to marginalize this emergent terrorist group.

For starters, the U.S. Africa Command can help track the networks funneling arms to Boko Haram. After all, that's why we stood up the command in the first place: to provide intelligence of the situation on the ground and to assist and advise our African friends.

The U.S. is already providing assistance and training, but Abuja needs to do more than professionalize its military and develop effective counterterrorism forces.

By the continent's standards, Nigeria is a wealthy country. It's rich in oil and gas. But corruption is rampant and property rights are weak. The 2011 Index of Economic Freedom ranks the economy as "mostly unfree."

America can provide a great deal of guidance and support for improving that situation. Abuja must work to strengthen civil society throughout Nigeria, to fight corruption and uphold the rule of law, and liberalize its largely repressed economy.

That course will offer the poor sectors of Northern Nigeria a much better alternative than the likes of Boko Haram.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Washington Examiner

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