Pushing that Idea Away: The Obama Administration’s Denial of Nigerian Jihad

Dec 12th, 2013 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates

By Andrew E. Harrod

Exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition

(12/12/13 Washinngton, DC) American officials previously “did everything they could to push that idea” about Nigeria’s Boko Haram’s Islamist ideology aside, Ann Buwalda of the Christian human rights organization Jubilee Campaign stated at a November 14, 2013, Hudson Institute panel.  If past is any prologue, a jihad understanding of Boko Haram will have to struggle against attributions of violence in Nigeria to socioeconomic disparities, recent American policymaker statements notwithstanding.

Abubakar Shekau, leader of Islamic terror group Boko Haram

Abubakar Shekau, leader of Islamic terror group Boko Haram

Developmental neglect in Nigeria’s Muslim-majority north as the identified motive in an estimated 4,000 killings by Boko Haram since 2009 has a long history among American policymakers.  Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, for example, expressed such views at a March 24, 2013, hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in an April 9, 2012, address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  “Boko Haram,” he stated, “capitalizes on popular frustrations with the nation’s leaders, poor government service delivery, and the dismal living conditions of many northerners.”  A a “new social compact” with northern Nigeria along with a “security strategy” were necessary.

By contrast, Carson sought “to stress that religion is not driving extremist violence” in Nigeria.  “Nigeria’s religious and ethnic diversity is one of its greatest strengths,” Carson said, “and there are many examples of communities working together to protect each other.”  Carson seemingly spoke of equal opportunity killing in “Boko Haram’s attacks on churches and mosques,” yet Jubilee Campaign and others note the disproportionate concentration of Boko Haram upon Christian targets.

“Boko Haram is focused primarily on local Nigerian issues,” Carson judged.  Only within Boko Haram had a “smaller more dangerous group, increasingly sophisticated and increasingly lethal…developed links with AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and has a broader, anti-Western jihadist agenda.”  As one article noted, Carson spoke at CSIS the day after a Boko Haram car bombing killed 39 at a Nigerian Easter church service, one of many attacks on church holiday services like Christmas.

Boko Haram “has historically focused on local Nigerian issues,” Daniel Benjamin, then State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, likewise stated before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 25, 2012.  Thus “long-standing political and socio-economic grievances” are “some of the drivers feeding the violence in the North.”  Benjamin noted an August 26, 2011, attack on United Nations (UN) headquarters in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja by Boko Haram as “signaling their ambition and capability to attack non-Nigerian targets.”  Yet “no further attacks” on “Western interests” had followed the UN bombing from Boko Haram, a group that “is not a formal AQ affiliate, but is rather a loosely organized collection of criminals, and militants, and terrorists.”

Groups like Boko Haram “depend on resentment and neglect,” Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns continued the official line on June 4, 2012, before the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission.  This made it “incumbent on the government of Nigeria…to provide not only basic services but a compelling narrative of constructive civic engagement that points Nigeria toward a better future.”

Boko Haram benefited from northern Nigeria’s “political marginalization,” an August 10, 2012, background briefing by a “Senior State Department Official” added.  In northern Nigeria “Boko Haram does not—does not—enjoy the support of the largest portion of the Muslim population” who “are just as much targets of Boko Haram as others are; in fact, more so.”  Combatting Boko Haram therefore demanded a “comprehensive program that has a security element as well as a social and economic element.”

A September 13, 2013, House Homeland Security Committee report, however, began to emphasize jihadist elements in Boko Haram more.  The report listed “alienation from the more-developed, predominantly Christian, southern region of Nigeria” as Boko Haram’s “key recruiting tools.”  The report also claims again that the “majority of Boko Haram’s victims have been northern Nigerian Muslims.”  Yet a “crutch of ‘grievances’…hides a more dangerous reality” that Boko Haram has evolved from “disaffected Muslim youths to a ruthless and operationally savvy international terrorist network…fueled by radical Islamism and al Qaeda’s guidance.”

Boko Haram has a “mission to implement sharia law and establish an Islamic state throughout all of Nigeria.”  Additionally, operations by Boko Haram such as the UN headquarters attack “clearly provide Boko Haram with an international footprint that goes beyond local politics.”  Boko Haram and AQIM have a “known and well established” relationship dating since January 2010, including the presence of 200 Nigerians at an AQIM training facility in Mali in April 2012.  Boko Haram and AQIM “unity of ideology and mutual hatred for the West…exposes the danger Boko Haram poses to the U.S. Homeland.”

Comments by Carson’s successor, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, at a November 13, 2013, House Hearing were for Jubilee Campaigns Emmanuel Ogebe a “breath of fresh air.”  While Thomas-Greenfield’s prepared remarks referenced a “holistic” strategy against Boko Haram that treats “longstanding grievances,” she also addressed “Boko Haram’s ideology.”  This “opposes Western culture and education and seeks to overthrow the Nigerian state…with a regime enforcing strict shari’a law.”

Having personally grown up in northern Nigeria’s poverty, Ogebe had long rejected the purported relationship between deficient development and Boko Haram violence.  Claims of northern Nigerian disenfranchisement also received the rebuttal from some that northern Nigerians had ruled an independent Nigeria longer than any other regional group.  Rather, Ogebe and others concurred with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s August 2013 judgment that the American “government needs to recognize the sectarian aspects of the ongoing violence and the religious elements in Boko Haram’s ideology.”

As American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, jihadists will continue their struggle irrespective of socioeconomic improvements instituted by governments.  Such societal material efforts can only be complementary to combatting the ideology of hardcore Islamists whose motivations lie beyond temporal benefits.  American policymakers are apparently slowing learning this lesson once again in Nigeria.


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