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The West vs. Boko Haram: The Challenge of Cooperation

By Stephanie Linares, Transatlantic Security Analyst


The recent kidnapping of nearly 300 female students from a school in Chibok, Nigeria, as well as a spate of bombings, have brought international attention to the terrorist organization Boko Haram. While spurring major leaps in international cooperation in an attempt to aid Nigeria and furious condemnation from the international community, offers of assistance have come in the form of consultants and reconnaissance capabilities rather than rescue operations and military support. This raises the question of what role can be expected from Western powerhouses in regard to elusive, more scattered terrorist groups that lack clear organizational structures and chains of command.

As even major terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda become more decentralized, the larger picture of what Western nations will be up against in the future becomes increasingly clear and daunting. Insurgent activity in Nigeria will not stay in Nigeria and its government has repeatedly failed to take measures against insurgent movements that have already spread to neighboring countries such as Cameroon, where reports of clerics in mosques recruiting members are increasing. Additionally, with Boko Haram’s desire to join forces with larger insurgent forces in Niger, Mali and the Middle East, shifts in regional conflicts, WMD proliferation and intelligence collection demands will all affect global security.

Founded in 2002, Boko Haram (translated from Hausa, means “Western education is sin”) – a terrorist organization based in northeastern Nigeria, north Cameroon and Niger – has targeted elements of “Westernization” and long sought to establish a sharia state free of secular influences. Since 2010, Boko Haram has become known for targeting schools, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of students. It has also targeted churches, mosques, as well as government officials and Muslim clerics who have openly criticized the group. The group was only recently designated as a terrorist organization in November of 2013 by the U.S. State Department. Despite a growing body count over the years, Boko Haram has been largely perceived as an internal Nigerian problem by both the international community as well as neighboring African nations. However, its suspected links to jihadist organizations outside Nigeria, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and an increasing spate of deadly attacks in Nigeria have attracted significant attention.

Boko Haram’s actions have sparked a large boost in international cooperation, with the U.S., Britain, France, Canada and Israel offering aid, particularly in the form of deploying subject matter experts and surveillance equipment. The U.S. has provided Nigeria with surveillance aircraft (including a predator drone) and an advisory task force, including experts in hostage negotiations and recovery. Most recently, 80 Air Force personnel were sent to neighboring Chad for a drone reconnaissance mission and sixteen military personnel from U.S. Africa Command were sent to advise Nigerian officials. Also offering to send in advisory teams were Britain (British Foreign Minister William Hague offered to embed British advisors with the Nigerian military), Canada, Israel and France. France, itself a growing target of Islamist militants due to its military actions against Islamist rebels in Mali, held a summit in Paris on May 17 that was attended by the leaders of Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, as well as British Foreign Minister William Hague and U.S. officials. China – which recently had one of its engineering companies in the northern Cameroonian town of Waza attacked by Boko Haram, resulting in the abduction of ten Chinese nationals – offered to help with satellite imagery and intelligence gathering.

Despite international offers to help so far, the political limits of targeting smaller, loosely-knit terrorist groups is already becoming evident. Secretary of State John Kerry stated publically during a dinner at the State Department that the U.S. was virtually alone in helping Nigeria locate and recover the missing students. Complicating U.S. aid efforts is the Leahy Amendment, a 1997 legal provision that prohibits the U.S. from providing training or equipment to foreign troops or units that have committed serious human-rights violations. The Nigerian military is a known offender in this regard, which has limited U.S. counterterrorism assistance to the Nigerian government over the years.

While U.S. military personnel are advising and supporting the Nigerian government, there is no active consideration from the U.S. or any helping nations for sending armed forces on rescue operations. While even members of Congress have started to urge the Obama administration to send more military assets to Nigeria to combat Boko Haram, most advocates are keen to avoid suggesting direct action. As acknowledged by Texas Republican Mike Conaway, chairman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Terrorism, the pursuit of justice against such organizations is “easier said than done.” However, California Republican Ed Royce, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the administration to seek a waiver of the Leahy amendment if it is an obstacle to helping Nigeria. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, however, maintained that the American public would not support direct military action in Nigeria.

Much like conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and South Sudan, humanitarian interests are clashing against harsh realities and concerns about the long-term responsibilities of direct foreign intervention, particularly as the U.S. and its allies withdraw from Afghanistan. Public opinion, particularly in the United States, will not likely favor sending more troops abroad in the near future. Nor would sending armed troops guarantee a successful resolution to the Boko Haram problem. Realistically, there will be limits to what Western armed forces can accomplish, even if the Nigerian government were to ask for such support and openly cooperate. While armed intervention similar to French operations in Mali may weaken Boko Haram, risks of feeding Islamist claims of Western imperialism and the challenge of “hearts and minds” campaigns with local populations come at too high a price for any international ally of Nigeria at this time.

However, other options were highlighted at the Paris summit in May, which focused on strengthening cooperation among regional and neighboring African states; establishing partnerships with the EU and the U.S.; respecting human rights; and protecting communities threatened by groups such as Boko Haram. If Nigeria and neighboring nations build their own analysis and response capabilities to enhance security in the region while coordinating with the West, they will have a chance to secure the region and support affected populaces. More broadly, the international community can look to providing socioeconomic development programs in the regions concerned, with an emphasis on gender equality – particularly, the right to education and efforts to combat radicalization.


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