Boko Haram's suicide attacks on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, last Friday, 26 August, which killed 19 people (9 of them UN staff) and injured scores of others, represent a new phase for the terror group that has become increasingly deadly in recent months. The history of Boko Haram is as illusive as the group itself and studies on the group remain inconclusive about its origins. According to some sources, the group has evolved from various efforts by extremist elements dating back to the 1940s through the end of the 1990s that sought to radicalise various segments of northern Nigeria.
It is largely believed that the current form of the group has evolved from the so called, 'Nigerian Taliban' founded in 2003, with foreign operatives from neighbouring countries such as Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The group went underground following a massive security crackdown by the then government of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Boko Haram, which means Western education is profane or sinful is formally known as 'Jama'atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda'awati Wal Jihad'. It emerged in 2006 with the aims of establishing sharia all over Nigeria. It opposes secular governments and a Western system of education, which it believes is not founded on moral religious teachings.
The current mayhem in Nigeria owes its origin to the killing of Boko Haram's founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and hundreds of his followers by security forces in 2009, which Boko Haram vowed to revenge. The worst of the group's atrocities have occurred this year, reaching their peak in the post April-May elections, that brought President Goodluck Jonathan to the helms of the Nigerian Aso Rock Villa. Since their New Year's Eve bombings at a busy fish market in Abuja, Boko Haram has perpetrated almost daily deadly attacks, which threaten the stability and fledging democracy in Africa's most populous nation. Most attacks have taken place in northern Nigeria, particularly at Boko Haram's headquarters in Maiduguri, which for the past several months has been a ghost town, with many businesses including schools shut down.
Although Boko Haram activities have been confined to the northern part of the country, the group has used Abuja to stage its most high profile attacks aimed at attracting international attention. These attacks have demonstrated sophistication, resilience and ability of Boko Haram to strike when and wherever it deems fit. For example, on 29 May, on the occasion of the inauguration of President Goodluck Jonathan, Boko Haram attacked a crowded beer garden in Abuja, and on 16 June, it carried out a suicide attack at the Federal Police headquarters in the city. Nearly 30 people died in both attacks and several others were injured. Since the New Year's Eve bombings, Boko Haram has carried out no fewer than 70 major attacks (4 of them in Abuja) or an average of one attack every three days. In total, more than 600 people have been killed.
The timing of the 26 August suicide attacks on the UN and the selection of the target were never coincidental nor was it an opportunistic moment. Rather, the attacks show careful planning, a thorough understanding of the target, and a deliberate strategic choice aimed at demonstrating that the group means business. It wants Nigeria, the United States and the rest of the world to take notice and to signal that the group is now under the supreme command of Ayman Zawahiri, the new al Qaeda leader who replaced Osama bin Laden.
Boko Haram's public declaration of its allegiance and loyalty to al Qaeda is part of its 'public awareness strategy'. It also claimed that some of its operatives have been trained with al Shabaab in Somalia. Furthermore, on 18 August 2011 the online version of the Nigerian Standard carried a message purportedly from Imam Abubakar Shekau, the mystic Boko Haram leader, who replaced the charismatic founder, Mohammed Yusuf. In the message, Shekau offered solidarity with al Qaeda and sent a chilling threat to the United States.
Apart from its rhetoric and pronouncements, intelligence gathered on Boko Haram is yet to reveal compelling evidence of its link to al Qaeda, despite the group's increasing use of al Qaeda style sophistication and tactics. The kidnapping of two foreigners in May (a British and an Italian) is perhaps the most illustrious of this growing axis. To date, the group had never attacked or kidnapped foreigners and it is believed that the two foreigners were handed to Al Qaeda in the land of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Algeria based group, which has been touting lawlessness in the Sahel region. Understanding this link, and Boko Haram's ultimate goal of morphing into a global terrorist organisation, is important and such foreknowledge might have prevented the attacks on the UN building.
Abuja is host to many international institutions, including an African Union Office and the headquarters of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), both of which have not been attacked. The attack on the UN was therefore a strategic choice for Boko Haram and represents a trend that we have seen in recent times, particularly in the transformation of local terrorist organisations. This is not the first time that the UN has been targeted by a terrorist group. In 2003, 15 UN staff died in a bomb blast in Iraq following an attack by the militant group, Jama'at al-Tawid wal'Jihad (now called by its new name, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn) shortly after announcing its allegiance to al Qaeda, by its late leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Similarly, 41 people (17 of them UN staff) were killed in December 2007, when a car bomb slammed into the UN building in Algiers, Algeria after the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) declared its loyalty to al Qaeda and adopted its new name, AQIM. More than 20 UN employees have also died in Afghanistan in militant attacks in 2009 and in April this year.
The current trend shows that the UN has become a regular target in the transformation of a local or domestic terrorist group into a global network. This seems to be a key al Qaeda requirement for initiation of local groups - the demand to internationalise their targets and agenda. The internationalisation of a domestic terrorist group or its initiation into al Qaeda may follow different models such as the one taken by al Shabaab in Somalia, which failing to attack a UN building, decided to attack a popular Ethiopian restaurant frequented by foreigners in Kampala, on 11 July 2010, during the finals of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Given its new international profile, Boko Haram will become even more complex, sophisticated and difficult for law enforcement to intercept and neutralise. Although it will lose substantial support in Nigeria as many Nigerians are now growing weary of the groups heinous acts, however, it now has a wider milieu for recruitment, training and access to weapons, as well as other resources for sustaining the group. It could be expected that future attacks would include foreign targets. A far more dangerous consequence of Boko Haram's activities would be if the group expands its activities further south and destroys the imaginary line that divides Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. It should also be expected that suicide terrorism will increasingly become a dominant feature of Boko Haram tactics. Both scenarios do not bode well for a region already plagued by a multiplicity of security and development challenges.
Martin A. Ewi, Senior Researcher, International Crime in Africa Programme, ISS Pretoria Office