Jihad 2.0: How Social Media Supports Islamist Agendas in Syria

Based on primary information from forums, communiqués and social media activities, this article offers an insight into the online activity of political jihadists and shows how online platforms are being used to support the jihadist cause in Syria.

By Camille Maubert, 4th September, 2013

The notion that the internet is a strong asset for international terrorist groups is not new. Forums have long been acknowledged as the main channel for Al Qaeda to reach out to its followers and articulate its goals and ideology. However, changes in the online environment and the fast development of social media as a preferred way of communication have altered the nature of the jihadi activities online.

Despite complaints by some ideologues that forums are being abandoned by their followers in favor of other medias, these platforms remain an essential part of jihadi media strategies. Some of them, such as Shumukh al-Islam and Ansar al-Mujahedeen, have been active for years and thus benefit from an great credibility with their audience. They are also direct links between AQ central and its supporters, featuring messages from famous jihadi writers and clerics the most prolific of which include Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, Sheikh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Abu Ubaydah and of course AQ’s current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Aside from official propaganda, forums enable groups and individuals alike to diffuse contents, post comments and share links with other bloggers in a relatively safe environment, ensuring cohesion within the jihadi community. However, developments in the Syrian crisis have created new needs which forums could not fulfill. As a matter of fact, Syria has been described as the first Youtube war, where every unfolding event is reported live by individuals using camera phones and posting images and videos online instantly. Such level of democratization and reactivity cannot be replicated in forums which are by definition restricted to members and censored by an editorial board. As a result, militants have turned to other platforms, namely Twitter and Facebook.

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Is Mali the ‘next Afghanistan’?

This article is a re-publication of a piece by Andrew Lebovich on his website, al-Wasat.  It analyses the popular attitudes on the security situation in northern Mali to look at the potential risks to international security and the risks that are, at present, overstated.

Mr. Lebovich is a contributor to the popular foreign policy blog The Washington Note, and his work has appeared at ForeignPolicy.com and The Atlantic Online. He also writes a formerly weekly, and now twice-weekly brief with Foreign Policy on legal issues in the struggle against terrorism, the Legal War on Terror (LWOT).

By Andrew Lebovich, 13th June, 2012.

The title of this post is a question I’m seeing more and more, and it reflects the growing concern in Washington, Paris, and African capitals that the security situation in northern Mali is spiraling out of control. In this kind of environment, bad news tends to echo loudly and quickly. The most recent example of this is the strong reaction in the international press to an interview Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou gave to France 24 this week, in which he said that Afghans and Pakistanis were in Mali training fighters, in addition to confirming that French hostages held for nearly a year and a half by AQIM were in “good health” and still alive. This news has garnered quite a bit of attention, especially in the Francophone media, though it should be noted that RFI reported the presence Pakistani trainers in Timbuktu and in Kidal a month ago, to considerably less attention. Still, this and other signs of the degradation in the security environment in northern Mali and the growth of AQIM have spurred speculation about whether or not northern Mali was becoming a “West African Afghanistan“, a new Somalia, or a jumping-off point for terrorist attacks elsewhere.

While I think some of this concern is warranted, I think some of this language and concern may be, for the moment, a bit overwrought, as I will explain in this piece. This post is my attempt to sort through some of the current popular attitudes about the security situation in northern Mali, the very real risks to regional and international security that may be looming in the north, and the equally real constraints on militant groups attempting to impose shari’ah in northern Mali or project force beyond Mali’s already porous (or nonexistent) borders.

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Can the American and Pakistani Positions on Islamic Militancy be Reconciled?

In this article, the author delves into the relationship between the United States and Pakistan in context of the Islamic Militancy in the extended region of Afghanistan-Pakistan. 

By Camille Maubert, 10th April, 2012

In 2001, Pakistan allied itself with the US on the grounds that it would assist in the War on Terror’s effort to tackle terrorism. At the time, the two countries’ interests seemed to coincide, as they had a common target – Al Qaeda and foreign fighters. Yet, from 2003 onwards, the expansion of the American war against the Taliban and its increased pressure on Pakistan to act against the Islamic militants who use the Afghan-Pakistani border to provide the Taliban with safe havens put the Pakistani leadership in a difficult situation. The unpreparedness of Pakistan to answer the US’s demands to repress these groups led to the current diplomatic standoff whereby there seems to be no alignment of strategic interests, let alone coordination between the US and Pakistan, and their respective policies remain fundamentally adversarial.

The premise of this study is to challenge the current understanding of the situation, which is overwhelmingly based on perceptions and representations rather than real insight into Islamic militancy.

Islamic Jihad or Pakistani Nationalism?

Despite the consensus on the decisive role played by militant organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network in providing safe havens, logistical support and training to Taliban fighters, important questions like “who are the militants, who is supporting them and why?” are overlooked.

There is a strong argument that the reason why Islamic militants have such an overwhelming presence in the Afghan-Pakistani border region is because of the radicalisation of the population by madrassas and its sympathy for the jihadi ideology. Such an approach is flawed as it conveys a stereotypical understanding of the militant reality, and overlooks the deeper psychological and political fault lines underpinning it. Indeed, Islamic militants are fighting a revolutionary jihad for ideological purposes, to reform the state and impose a radical version of Islam. Conversely, most Pakistanis practice a more moderate version of Islam and thus do not support radical groups out of sympathy for their ideological agenda. Rather, those who join militant groups put forward reasons that stem from collusion, misinformation, support for the Afghan jihad and, mostly, Pakistani nationalism. Indeed, invasive American actions (drone strikes) have propped up support for militant groups out of patriotic sentiment. In other words, militant organisations have hijacked the nationalist concept of jihad as used during partition, and widely supported by Pakistanis, to justify violent action (against American infringements on Pakistani sovereignty and denounce the subordination of Pakistani leaders to American will (A 2009 Gallup Survey reveals that 59% of Pakistanis consider the US as the biggest threat, while only 11% chose the Taliban). As a result, support for Islamic militants spreads more easily through the various layers of Pakistani society, as they claim to act in the defence of the Muslim nation from external domination.

Therefore, it is the failure of Western analysts to make the distinction between ideologically motivated militants and nationalist Pakistanis that makes cooperation difficult. In the US, the post 9/11 environment and the need to mobilise people against terrorism promoted an unsophisticated understanding of what Islamic militancy is about by having the media “fuse shots of Osama Bin Laden, veiled women, (…) and riots in Kashmir and Palestine, thereby lending the visual impression that the West is confronted with a crazy, irrational faith” (Majid 2010:101). This securitisation of Islamic militancy is intrinsically flawed because it promotes an all-encompassing understanding that merges ideological and nationalist agendas into the same threat, making its targeting indiscriminate and, ultimately, counter-productive. Conversely, the Pakistani approach to Islamic militancy recognises that some elements – the Pakistani Taliban – do represent a threat, but it also acknowledges that it cannot crack down on those organisations as most jihadi groups historically enjoyed state sanction to wage jihad against the state’s enemies in the name of Islam and the Nation. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the relationship between the Pakistani state and Islamic groups in order to understand its reluctance to implement direct military action against them.

Islamic Groups as Pakistan’s Strategic Asset

Were the Pakistani civilian government willing to cooperate with the US, such commitment would only be a shallow promise if it proves to be unable – or unwilling – to convince the military and Inter-Services Intelligence to abide by its will. Not only is Zardari’s government unable to do so – given the historical weakness of Pakistani civilian governments – but it will not, as this would undermine the Pakistani strategic doctrine as a whole. Indeed, Islamic militants have been and remain the most reliable linchpin for Pakistan to project power where it matters; Kashmir. Since Partition, Islamic radicals and the army have teamed together to construct and secure Pakistan’s sovereignty and identity through the tactical use of guerilla warfare in Pakistan’s border regions.

Therefore, the reason why Pakistan does not – and will not – act against Kashmiri-based groups is that its whole foreign policy is founded upon issues of (Muslim) national identity, meaning that it uses militancy to challenge the Indian regional domination. Since this discourse informs Pakistan’s very identity narrative and exercises a powerful hold on the national imagination, it is impossible for Pakistani leaders to renounce it, especially as its influence has been reinvigorated by the fight for (Muslim) freedom in neighboring Afghanistan.

Similarly, Afghanistan is an aspect of Pakistan’s Indian policy. Indeed, Pakistan’s actions in Afghanistan are determined by its entrenched fear of encirclement and the necessity to limit Indian influence at its Western flank. Successive governments have therefore maintained strategic links with Islamic groups in Afghanistan and supported a proxy war aimed at undermining Indian assets. Interestingly, the post 2001 security environment increased the links between Kashmiri and Afghan groups, thereby strengthening the legitimacy of local groups and undermining the ability of the state to identify and target specific individuals.

However, this apparent predicament serves Pakistani interests in the long term; Aware of the need to preserve strategic depth against India and a friendly government in Afghanistan, Pakistan has no interest in withdrawing support to Afghan Islamic militants and the Pakistani groups that prop them up.

Questions like “how much support these groups truly get from the army and the ISI, and how much of it is provided by independent individuals”, remains unanswered. Yet what is clear is that the problem to which Pakistan is confronted with regards to Islamic militancy is one of control. Pakistan is in a situation where the state created organisations on the basis of identity for (geo)political purposes but has lost control over them as they were reinforced by traditional values and developed a life of their own. In effect, not only are Islamic organisations attractive to some sections of the population, they also are ingrained in the state apparatus – they recruit retired personnel from and have relatives working for the army. Given the kinship base of the Pakistani society, this makes them extremely difficult to root out. Consequently, Pakistan understands that disarming the militants would cause more damage than turning a blind eye, as it may lead to an internal conflict of interests within the army between pro-Western and nationalist elements. Such situation, it has been argued, would provoke the collapse of the only strong institution able of holding the state together.

Furthermore, the areas in which militancy is highest are those where the state doesn’t exert authority or governance – North West Frontier Province, Balochistan, Kyber-Pukhtoonkhwa. In these areas, the pre-eminence of Islamic organisations is all the more important that they fill the power vacuum and provide the population with social services that the state is failing to supply. The most notable example is that of LeT’s charity wing Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD). After the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods, JuD provided immediate relief to the population and further integrated itself at the grassroots level. As a result, LeT has been increasingly able to act independently from state sponsor, another reason for Pakistan not to provoke any rupture. What is needed, therefore, is a solution that acknowledges the structural weaknesses of the Pakistani state, the strength of its society, and promotes negotiation rather than coercion.

A Path to Reconciliation?

The difficulty with both US and Pakistani positions is that they are directly reliant on the states’ narratives. In that sense, finding a solution implies that they would have to compromise on those narratives. This is unlikely to happen since, on one hand, the American demands are based on the deeply entrenched ideological principles of the War on Terror, and, on the other hand, the Pakistani reluctance to comply is rooted in the certitude that militants are necessary to its regional strategy – and to an extent its national identity.

These discursive incompatibilities are reinforced by the process of securitisation at play. By framing Islamic militancy as a security threat, the US – and some pro-Western Pakistani civilian leaders – has promoted a military solution, which limits are becoming more visible. The protests steered by drone strikes and the backlashes met by the Pakistani army in Federally Administrated Tribal Areas and North West Frontier Province demonstrate that the use of force is ultimately inefficient as it increases anti-Americanism, steers sympathy for militants, and further disturbs Pakistan’s unstable political landscape.

As observed above, the reason why cooperation has so far failed between the two allies is the mismatch of each other’s vital interests. While the US demands are informed by the short-term requirements of its Afghan strategy, the Pakistani position is determined by a long-term approach to militancy and regional security. In addition, the securitisation process has led to a situation where the US promotes an all-encompassing definition of the militant threat which pushes for the elimination of all organisations linked to Islamic militancy. But what it fails to understand is that Islamic militancy is deeply rooted in the Pakistani society and state apparatus and, as such, it cannot simply be isolated or suppressed.

Therefore, any solution to the problem posed by Islamic militancy would have to acknowledge that it is not only a security threat but rather a socio-economic and nationalist phenomenon. Additionally, it would have to recognise Pakistan’s structural weaknesses and its lack of capacity to impose its will on some sections of the population. Pakistan is a negotiated state, which means that coercive measures from the top-down are unlikely to be successful if they are not supported by local stakeholders. In finding a solution, Pakistan itself has a role to play, as it would have to acknowledge its need for a consistent strategy against its home grown militants – which it lacks so far – to ease cooperation with the US and start to positively engage the militants.

There is a growing understanding that soft power is ultimately more likely to successfully change militant behaviours and counter the growth of violent extremism as it impacts directly on the grass roots level. Indeed, long-term American engagement in issues like education and development would decrease its perception by the population as a security threat and help diffuse more positive representations. Tactical attempts have mostly proven to be successful, as shown by the American help in flood relief in 2010. However, this policy so far happens to be unsuccessful on the strategic level as its positive contribution in winning Pakistanis’ hearts and minds is outbalanced by the negative impact of drone attacks. Therefore, in order to decrease the scale of Islamic militancy, Pakistan would have to restore its sense of sovereignty, which means that the US would have to cease its activities across the border. At the time of writing, such evolution is yet to happen. This is due to the intense climate of mistrust that characterises the relationship between the US and Pakistan, whereby neither side seems to be willing to tone its rhetoric – and demands – down for fear of being thought to make concessions on its narrative.

Islamic militancy highlights the complexity of the US-Pakistan bilateral relation by confronting their intrinsically different strategic and identity narratives. One demands a rapid military solution, the other prioritises its long-terms interests, and both are informed by domestic pressure and ideological discourses. Only when those uncomfortable realities are acknowledged will dialogue be possible. Ultimately, the militant challenge puts the ability of the two allies to engage in a long-term partnership to a test as it will show whether conflicting demands can be complemented by common goals.

China in Afghanistan: Valuable Ally or Emerging Threat?

In this article, the author explores the competing US and Chinese discourses on China’s Peaceful rise strategy, using the PRC’s economic involvement in Afghanistan as a case study. It argues that although China’s interest in Afghanistan is perceived and framed as a threat by the US, it also represents a momentous opportunity for Afghanistan and its neighbors.

By Camille Maubert, 17th March, 2012

Karzai’s attempt to build an Afghanistan with American democratic characteristics and Chinese economic dynamism highlights the delicate positioning at play, whereby Afghanistan is subjected to different and sometimes contradictory foreign influences. Indeed, while the US is the biggest player in Afghanistan, China is also preparing to assume a long-term role in the country. In fact, the successful Chinese Metallurgical Corporation’s bid on the Aynak copper mine in Lowgar province, worth US$4 billion, promoted China as the largest single foreign investor in the country’s history. This had the West shudder by reminding it how powerful – and potentially threatening – a neighbor the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is.

“We do the heavy lifting and they pick up the fruits” – the American narrative

Since 2001, China’s involvement in the country shifted from disinterest to ever-growing investments in the country’s infrastructures, mineral wealth and agriculture. However, its expanding commercial interests are deeply controversial because of their political reach. Indeed, China, who has gained control of strategic assets without shooting a single bullet, has been accused of free-riding on the stability provided by the American troops in order to secure access to natural resources. In fact, American troops not only bring general security in the Logar province, but they also trained the 1500 Afghan National Police soldiers who are directly protecting the infrastructures.

This behavior is perceived as unacceptable because of China’s refusal to share the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)’s burden. Indeed, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Mr Gang, made it clear that it is “out of the question to send Chinese troops (…) in Afghanistan” and discounted NATO’s request to use the Wakhan corridor for logistical supplies. This is interpreted as an indirect confrontation with US interests and goals in the region; and seen with suspicion by the West. Arguably, it is assumed that there is a correlation between increased economic power and amplified political weight; that is to say that because China expands its economic assets in Afghanistan, it will inevitably increase its political influence by the same token. Some indeed fear that China’s business in Afghanistan and Central Asia could alter the balance of power in areas vital to the US’s strategic interests.

By shunning away from any major security role and distancing itself from ISAF, China conveys the image of a profit-focused actor who utilizes its powerful national companies to expand influence in Afghanistan and who doesn’t balk at dealing with rogue actors. Indeed, while China benefits from the US tackling transnational Islamic terrorism, it also adopts a very cautious and balanced diplomacy with both the United States and the Taliban: Being a direct target of terrorist activities because of its policy on Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, and Aynak being located in a potentially Taliban-controlled area, China is in effect willing compromise with all regional actors to maintain stability.

However, the depiction of China’s involvement in Afghanistan and the wider region as a threat to Western interests is biased by the widespread “China Threat theory” which impregnates Western analysis. Because Western interpretations of China’s role in Afghanistan derives from the way the West sees China –as a threat – and the way it sees itself – as liberal and benevolent – it is fair to assume that an examination of the Chinese discourse is needed in order to grasp the other side of the story.

Afghanistan and the Direct Investment Model – The Chinese narrative

What distinguishes China from other actors in the Afghan reconstruction is its outstanding ability to project funds into unstable and high-risk areas. Indeed, its national companies have the capability to deal with risks associated with investing in remote and unsecure regions where Western companies cannot – yet – penetrate. The China Metallurgical Group, by accepting the risks associated with such investment and adding incentives like the building of infrastructures – power plant, hospital, mosque – outbid the West.

The comparative advantage of China over American and European investors is rooted in its Direct Investment model, which offers loans below market rates and have the attractive feature of not associating economic development with political reforms. Indeed, while Western donors and investors condition aid on democratic and human rights improvements, for developing countries like Afghanistan, China’s policy of non-intervention in internal affairs is appealing because it allows them to prioritize economic development. This strategy has been criticized in the West because it is seen as providing support for authoritarian regimes; but, so far, it seems more successful in bringing stability to war-torn countries that Western humanitarian and counter-insurgency missions. Based on successful results in Africa, this macro-level system will have a positive impact on Afghan stability in that it will promote a virtuous circle of economic development in the wider region – Central Asia, Xinjiang, Afghanistan – and will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on international aid, therefore advancing the wider American goal of stability.

The reason for and implication of such strategy resides in China’s primary security interest in its Western province of Xinjiang. The PRC is indeed most concerned about cross-border terrorism coming from its Western and Southern neighbors. Despite the militarization of its borders and the increased security cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, China is very vulnerable to Islamic militancy spillovers from Afghanistan and the Pakistani safe havens. Hence the implementation of a cautious policy of economic development and support to Afghanistan’s reconstruction which enforces stability while at the same time remaining distant from the US initiatives to avoid being associated with the controversial War on Terror.

By providing training to the Afghan police and anti-drug factions, investing in local resources and promoting cooperation between Central Asian governments on the “three evils” – fundamentalism, terrorism and separatism – China aims to maintain dialogue and cooperation and consolidate its long-term presence. This calculation is based on the assumption that by developing a Central Asian economic sphere – in which the opening of the Wakhan corridor would play a crucial role in reviving the Silk Road – China will securely reinforce its economic rise while avoiding becoming the target of Islamic militantism.

One could safely assume from its involvement in Afghanistan that China is pursuing a narrow interpretation of its interests. Although the PRC officially adheres to the shared principles of the War on Terror such as anti-terrorism – from which it profits to legitimize its Xinjiang policy – or anti-narcotics, it also rejects the all-encompassing US strategy and rather prioritizes domestic security and development. Indeed, China claims that far from seeking regional hegemony, it wishes to preserve the international order and pursue its national interest within it.

Afghanistan at the cross-roads of the US-China agendas

What stems from those two conflicting narratives is that the stereotypical distinction between a disinterested West and a voracious China is not relevant in the sense that it stems from ideological perceptions rather than rational observation. Consequently, the idea of China as a threat doesn’t stem from the reality of it as an expanding power but rather from “perceptions, especially those regarding the potential that Beijing will become an example, source or model that contradicts Western liberalism as the reigning paradigm” (Stephen Chan 1999). Indeed, because China, by making profits in Afghanistan, doesn’t fit in the normative expectations of the US on how it should act, it is displayed as a threat to global peace. This means that the idea of China as a threat to the regional status quo is more a self-fulfilling prophecy than an actual reality in the sense that, by framing China as a menace, the US may not only push it towards brinkmanship but also lose its attractiveness to the Afghan government and people, and therefore further get bogged down.

Afghanistan is the place where two narratives and strategic cultures met – the Western fear of losing its hegemony and the Chinese confidence in expanding its economy. Because China’s domestic and economic concerns shape its approach to foreign policy, it is engaging with Afghanistan in its own terms, which is understood as a threat by the West but also as an unmatched opportunity by Afghanistan.

What is Happening in Nigeria? Blood and Oil (Subsidies)

In this article the author looks at the current wave of political and economic turmoil sweeping Nigeria.  With a potential oil shutdown sending waves of panic across Brent Crude prices and terrorism forcing the closure of the borders the state is facing its largest crisis since its return to civilian rule in 1999.


by Jack Hamilton, 14 Jan, 2012

In 2010 the BBC released the controversial docudrama: ‘Blood and Oil’. It depicted a Nigeria crippled by corruption, protests and terrorism and was slammed for the tropes of endemic sleaze and violence. Executions, inhumane oil politics and the collusion of leading politicians in these atrocities were seen to reflect the Nigeria of the past. This is now the Nigeria of the present and it could be about to get a lot worse.

Occupy Nigeria

Naija Rising

This week the country closed its borders following counter-terrorism advice from the UN and a popular strike threatens to entirely shut down oil and gas production (accounting for over 90% of the export market) on Tuesday if demands are not met. There have been two crucial ultimatums:

1. Boko Haram has threatened to kill all Southerners (read: Christians) in the north if their demands of religious reform are not met. The attacks have already begun.

2. Occupy Nigeria has threatened to grind Nigeria’s export economy to a halt if their demands to maintain the fuel subsidy are not met. The deadline has been extended until Tuesday.

Facing a potential civil war and economic collapse, the Federal Government of Nigeria must act decisively.  There is no quick-fix.

There Might Be Blood – Subsidy Strikes

Who is Drinking Nigeria's Milkshake?

Nigerian oil and gas workers have threatened to shut down the Nigerian oil market, deepening the strikes against the withdrawal of petrol subsidies.  The government and unions are locked in talks which have been extended by two days as of today.  This leaves the government until Tuesday to find a solution or face economic meltdown.

The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (Pengassan) have put all production platforms on red alert in anticipation of a shutdown. This demonstrates the lack of optimism in resolution being reached in time.

The crisis in Africa’s largest oil exporter has already had an international impact. Oil prices have already risen in anticipation of the shutdown and Nigeria’s export reserves would only last for six weeks.

Brent Crude prices have risen by $1 per barrel in a single day and in a global crude market already shaken by conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, a shutdown in Nigeria could have expansive ramifications. In an election year the last thing a US incumbent would like to see is a pinch at the pumps.

While the true international impact of the crisis is yet to be fully realised, it has already had a devastating impact domestically. The price of fuel has already more than doubled and the prices of other goods, including food, are skyrocketing. People are struggling to get to work, to put food on the table and to run their electricity generators. If the strike turns violent it is these people who will suffer.

Subsidies are seen to be the only benefit most Nigerians receive from the vast oil riches of the country. The argument for their removal is that they cost the state $8 billion per year in funds that could be better used on infrastructure and development. In a country in which government corruption is rife and the trust in the state is dangerously low it is clear that the people would like to see the money conferred through subsidies rather than pilfered by the ‘1%’.

The subsidy involved a huge amount of corruption but its removal does not equate to the removal of the corruption. It is merely a relocation.

Spreading Terror

The north of Nigeria is ‘sliding towards a full-blown guerrilla war’ according to The Economist. Boko Haram bombing campaigns have intensified since the Christmas Day attacks and acts of retribution have been carried out in the Christian south. The burning of a mosque in Benin City, southern Nigeria, demonstrates the dangerous roadmap the northern insurgency could instigate.

Fears abound over the potential links between Boko Haram, a small cult whose primary objective is the removal of secular education, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  Assertions of a broader terrorist network were originally purported by sources in the American military (AFRICOM) and the Algerian Government but on Tuesday this fear was also echoed by the United Nations.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has stated that ‘concerns will increase’ as the popularity of Boko Haram grows. The alleged sophistication of the attacks, especially the bombing of the UN in Abuja, has provided some substance for these assertions but the most recent activities reflect burgeoning brutality, not capability.

Goodluck Jonathan has responded to the fears of a vast terrorist network by closing the borders of the country. Nigeria’s international borders are now operating on high alert as the latest measures demonstrate the degree of force the Federal Government is willing to use to achieve peace and stability across the country.

Elevated force does not necessarily provide a solution for the state.  They are fighting a guerrilla organisation, galvanised by support from those who fear the encroachment of an over-zealous central government.  Memories of egregious state violence mean that heavy state mobilisation is likely to increase rather than diminish the allure of the Boko Haram message to those who feel alienated from the state.

Will Things Fall Apart?

The Occupy Nigeria protests and Boko Haram attacks are entirely separate movements with the common theme of opposing the Federal Government of the country. With opposition to government threatening the security and the economy of the nation questions abound over the future of Nigeria.

Jonathan has announced palliative measures the mass production of buses to ease the transport issues in the country as well as reducing government salaries by a quarter (although they remain obscenely high in such an impoverished nation).

The most recent response to Boko Haram has been a change in language. Jonathan has acknowledged that the support base may be more than purely criminal. In his speech on Monday he admitted that there may even be members of his government that identify with the organisation.

Talks with Occupy Nigeria have been extended by two days but there is a general lack of optimism for a rapid resolution. Boko Haram are intensifying their attacks and flickers of retribution have begun in the south. At present neither crisis shows signs of abating and the Federal Government is floundering.

Nigeria is being plunged into a future which looks ominously similar to its past. In this scenario ‘Blood and Oil’ appears rosy.


For more on the recent crises in Nigeria and terrorism across West Africa see these articles on InPEC:

The State of Terrorism in Nigeria: The Rising Threat of Boko Haram

Photo Essay: 6 Reasons Terrorism is Gaining Momentum in Northern Nigeria

Securing Emptiness: The Sahara Desert and the Global War on Terror

The State of Terrorism in Nigeria: The Rising Threat of Boko Haram

In this article the author assesses the rising threat of the Nigerian terrorist organisation, Boko Haram.  The most recent spate of bombings and executions has raised questions over the unity of the Nigerian state and the future of security on the continent.  It is therefore necessary to understand why Boko Haram is increasing in popularity as their attacks become increasingly barbaric.

By Jack Hamilton, 14 Nov, 2011

Unchecked Massacre

Brutal attacks in Nigeria over the past week have left over 100 people dead.  A single small religious group has transmogrified into a dynamic terrorist organisation capable of rapidly changing tactics and targets in a pattern of violence responsible for over 1000 deaths in northern Nigeria since 2009.

Last week the gunmen wandered around the northern town of Damaturu killing any Christian who could not recite the Islamic creed on the spot.  Nigeria’s Defence Minister Bello Halliru Mohammed has stated that the security forces once again have control and that there is nothing to fear but his words have assured few.

The fact remains that there is still no coherent strategy to combat Boko Haram.

Rising Intensity

The nature of recent events has shocked many, even in regions where Boko Haram attacks are frequent.  Residents expressed rage at the ease with which gunmen were able to take over the city and leave bodies littering the streets.  Police stations, mosques and churches were reduced to rubble before the security forces mobilised a response.  At that point members of the group engaged in gun battles across the city that lasted for hours.

The situation in northern Nigeria is degenerating rapidly.  International observers fear that Boko Haram may already have links to al-Qaeda and al-Shabab and that the campaign of terror shows no signs of abating.

In order to understand Boko Haram it is first necessary to look at who they are, what they want and how they believe they can achieve it.


Boko Haram colloquially translates as “Western education is forbidden”.  It is a claim to reject all things Western from the theory of evolution to Western-style banking.  This has manifested itself in different tactics since the emergence of the group in 2002.  Before 2009 there were no signs that the group desired the overthrow of the state and rather preached to withdraw from the institutions of the non-Sharia Nigerian nation.  It was a law banning the riding of motorbikes without helmets that would prove to be the catalyst for violence.

In July 2009 the central government sought to enforce the law on helmets.  Boko Haram flouted the legislation and was subjected to police brutality which in turn set off an armed uprising in Bauchi, later spreading to Kano, Borno and Yobe.  By the time the army had suppressed the situation over 800 people were dead across the north of the country.

Since 2009 the group has spread rapidly.  The majority of the attacks have taken place in Borno state but Boko Haram have also expanded to the northern states of Adamawa, Bauchi, Gombe, Kaduna, Katsina and Sokoto as well as the attacks on Abuja and threats against Lagos.  In addition to the geographical spread there has been a change in tactics from the localised skirmishes to strategic suicide bombing campaigns and massacres directed not only at Nigerian security forces but also international targets such as the UN.


Boko Haram have changed their tactics over the years.  Under their previous leader, Mohammed Yusuf, the group staged mass uprisings against the police and suffered hundreds of casualties.  After Yusuf’s death at the hands of security forces in 2009 they began using tactics more in line with jihadist terrorism including the first suicide bombings in Nigeria’s history.

The attack on the UN may have been an attempt to pressure the international community or perhaps it was simply to embarrass the Nigerian state but it succeeded in drawing global attention to a burgeoning problem.  Boko Haram may be diffuse but it is expanding geographically with increasing tactical sophistication.


As Boko Haram expands the questions over their composition complicate.  According to Paul Lubeck, an expert on northern Nigeria, Boko Haram is not a single group but a collection of splinters banded under one name by the Federal Government.  One section appears willing to negotiate while others remain determined to intensify the bombing campaign.

Some statements reflect a strict adherence to Islamic law while others cite a determination for a smaller Nigerian state as their raison d’être.  If the group is as amorphous as Lubeck claims it will make it very difficult to negotiate with let alone combat.



The structural issues of northern Nigeria have allowed Boko Haram to thrive in recent years.  In addition to acute poverty the region has a high birth rate and 50% of the population are below the age of 30.

Inequality, unemployment and industrial stagnation have exacerbated the perception that the north has been marginalised by the liberalisation of the Nigerian economy.  The question of who owns the land has not been answered since independence and the Federal State seems too far away and blighted by corruption to deal with such issues.


Grievances in the north were compounded by the election of a southerner, Goodluck Jonathan, as President earlier this year.  Jonathan assumed the office following the death of the northern Muslim President Umaru Yar’Adua and many northerners believe Jonathan should have stepped aside to allow another northerner to take Yar’Adua’s place.  This would have been in line with the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that the Presidency should rotate between the north, the south-west and the south-east every two terms.


The administration is treating Boko Haram as a security issue rather than tackling the divisive subject of poverty in the north.  Abuja’s response has been to flood the north with heavy-handed military and police forces that now stand accused of human rights violations against civilians.

Politicians in the north have begged for the numbers of security forces to be reduced as police corruption has become rife.  For many in the north the police are the face of the central government.  The people feel alienated from a force they perceive to be corrupt.

Responding to Boko Haram

For many the heavy military presence in the north is the single most important hindrance in securing any negotiated peace.  The failed attempt to destroy the group in 2009 was the greatest recruitment drive Boko Haram could have hoped for, especially the controversial extra-judicial killing of the leader Mohammed Yusuf.

The current strength of Boko Haram is largely a result of such poor foresight by the Nigerian state.  As a result there is now a security vacuum in the most heavily militarised region of the country.

Flagrant myopia has created martyrs and swelled the ranks of the guerrillas.  The legal response to the killing of Yusuf is a good first step but it does little to combat the issues of poverty and corruption that are integral to Boko Haram’s recruitment.

Opposition leaders in the north claim that the government has failed to understand the amount of support Boko Haram has amongst the population.  By stating their opposition to central government and corruption the group has grown far beyond their initial religious doctrine and the government will need to find a response to the structural inequalities in Nigeria if the terrorists are to lose their supporters.  It does not appear as if this is going to happen any time soon.  It is possible that Boko Haram may actually be growing beyond the borders of Nigeria.

The Anti-Social Network?

Many experts have questioned whether the increased tactical sophistication of Boko Haram is evidence of the group branching out to international terrorist organisations, especially al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  A change in tack to target international organisations with large high-tech bombs has caused concern.  General Ham, head of US Africa Command, believes that the worst case scenario already exists and that Boko Haram are working in tandem with AQIM and al-Shabab in a “loose” partnership.

Hard evidence for any such link is still to be produced.  The geographical distance between AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabab make such a partnership unlikely and the possibility remains that the increased military technology may have come from within Nigeria itself.  Alex Thurston, an expert on terrorism in the region, has posited that it is more likely the sophistication came from disaffected Nigerian soldiers than any international training.

The Future State of Nigeria

The failure of the government reactions have meant that Boko Haram has been successful in achieving one of their primary goals: the weakening of the legitimacy of the state.  Attacks on international organisations have created increased pressure on Jonathan to find a solution to the problem.  The short-term solution of heavy military deployment may eventually yield similar successes to those against the militant groups in the Niger Delta but it would also undermine the cohesion of Nigeria.  This would also act to provide momentum for Boko Haram.

The failure to develop a clear strategy to combat the small Islamic group in 2009 has forced the Nigerian state to face up to the larger structural issues concerning the north.  A solely military solution is no longer feasible.

The Lighthouse in the Desert

By Jack Hamilton, 9 Oct, 2011

Folklore spills across time creating and undoing history as it ebbs. Whole identities can be constructed and deconstructed in these stories but it is rare in these ages that entire maps can be reimagined due to a single small tree. The old addage “so geographers in Afric maps, with savage pictures fill their gaps” has long since faded but this is a story about one such ‘gap’, the one piece of life within it and the price of life that goes with it.

The Sahara Desert is awash with a sandstorm of whispers and this particular spec is the lonely Tree of Ténéré. It is a story which entails trust amidst gossip as well as the dangers of blind trust in a terrain in which one can see for miles. Upon first hearing the story I didn’t believe that such a tree could ever have existed. In recent weeks a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda was undone by their belief that the tree still existed. However, I must start by describing the story of the tree.

There was once a solitary tree standing in the centre of the Sahara Desert. Between the Baobabs of Senegal and the Olive Trees of Tunisia remained one sole survivor of a bygone era. Millenia ago the tree had been part of a great forest which had gradually died off as the Sahara became the inhospitable mother she is today. One tree remained to guide all those who dared to traverse the barren lands. It was a beacon: the lighthouse in the desert.

The nomads of the desert alone knew of this tree and used it as a tracking mechanism when traversing the most desolate depths of enduring beige. When these Tuareg would encounter the Fulani in north east Mali they would recount their tracks in order to let the Fulani know of their passage, including the waypoint of the tree in the middle of the desert. Having listened politely to the detailed directions the Fulani would thank the Tuareg and see them on their way providing that no disagreements had been reached.

At this stage the Fulani would all agree never to follow the route of the Tuareg. These men had seemingly been driven dangerously insane by the desert. Of course, there is no chance for a tree to exist in such a place. There are no trees for hundreds of miles in the Sahel (the shoreline of the desert), let alone the Sahara. If this route had a proclivity for perverting the minds of the fearsome Tuareg, it was no place for men.

This story circulated until the times when modern technology made it possible for mere mortals to take the route. Safe inside the machinery that would be used to fight the Second World War, Europeans were able to cross the desert here in hopes of cutting off a rival. It was at this time that they too believed themselves to have gone insane too as in the horizon the withered spectre of an acacia tree loomed. They had not been in the desert long enough to have reached the Libyan coast and had not crossed the Italian lines that would have inevitably preceded the water. It could not be Algeria as there had been no sign of the southern Air mountains. The story was true. They had discovered the Tree of Ténéré. The most isolated life on Earth.

It is here that a part of the mystery ends. Confused and in search of the truth the Europeans (a French division) decided to dig underneath the tree and discovered a well 35 metres down. While the fairytale of the tree was slightly depleted the beacon took on a new significance as not only being the only life but suddenly becoming a redeemer of life in the harsh conditions of the Sahara. The tree was not a mirage but the literal symbol of water in the desert.

However, as with all of these stories of the desert, it ends in tragedy. In the 1970s a Libyan truck driver somehow careered into the tree, allegedly drunk. Upon hearing this part of the story I was always interested to hear how the driver could explain this to his boss. He had somehow managed to hit the only tree in a 400km radius.

The reason I was reminded of this story was due to reading intelligence reports from the security forces tracking al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (the Saharan branch of the terrorist organisation). One of the Algerian trackers claimed that they had an intimate knowledge of the desert and in the pursuit they had passed the Tree of Ténéré. Today in the place of the tree stands a simple metal sculpture representing the optimism of the tree. Unfortunately the tracker described in great detail the tree as it looked before the 1970s, exactly the description that was recounted to me. It was clear that the ‘trackers’ did not know the desert and had possibly never crossed into Niger where the tree used to stand. They were found out immediately.

The idea of the Tree of Ténéré had always seemed to me like one of the lies which whispers around the desert. It brought a smile to my face that the myth was actually the truth and it was this fact that unveiled the fiction.

Jack Hamilton can be followed on Twitter @jmhamilton