In the wake of the 2011 bombing of a U.N. facility in Abuja, Nigeria, policymakers scrambled to learn more about those responsible. Boko Haram, a terrorist group that had previously drawn little attention in Washington, jumped to the forefront of terror threats in Africa. However, after two years, gaps remain in our understanding of the exact nature of the threat they pose.
Though many insist Boko Haram is not interested in attacking the U.S., the threat from Boko Haram to the U.S. homeland should not be underestimated, according to a report released by the House Homeland Security Committee last month. The report, entitled "Boko Haram: Growing Threat to the U.S. Homeland," highlights the deteriorating security situation in West Africa – exemplified by the crisis in Nigeria.
Boko Haram, meaning "western education is sin," is based in northern Nigeria and while it gained international notoriety with its attack on the U.N., it continues to demand attention with near-constant brutal assaults throughout the country. The group is believed to be responsible for more than 3,000 deaths since 2010.
Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairmen Pat Meehan, R-Pa., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., have been leaders on this issue for several years. They issued their first warnings about Boko Haram with a report in November 2011, and have continued to press the administration to devote more resources to tackle the problem. The committee's follow-up report released on September 13 outlines the growing threat of Boko Haram to American national security interests, and makes the case for designating the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
The committee notes four key findings about Boko Haram:
- Boko Haram "has evolved into an al Qaeda ally through their connections with Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabaab."
- Left unchecked, Boko Haram "threatens the stability of Nigeria by risking religious civil war," as the group's attacks are frequently intended to antagonize Nigerian Christians as well as Muslim critics of the organization.
- Boko Haram's activity has expanded beyond Nigeria – impacting Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, and thus becoming a regional threat requiring regional partners and capabilities.
- Despite the fact that three Boko Haram members have been labeled Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the United States, the committee found that this is not sufficient to prevent the potential that persons within U.S. jurisdiction aid the group.
Boko Haram's emergence and growth reflects a larger trend: al-Qaida has been taking advantage of the power vacuums and chaos created by the Arab Spring, providing permissive environments across west Africa for extremist groups allied with al-Qaida's global jihad to take root. The growth of Boko Haram and its spin-off, Ansaru, should be seen in this context. Studies by the American Enterprise Institute's Katherine Zimmerman demonstrate al-Qaida is becoming more of an affiliate-based group, relying less on the traditional "core" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The committee's report notes al-Qaida has long encouraged the growth of an al-Qaida network in Nigeria, and while Boko Haram has yet to be accepted as an official al-Qaida affiliate, it has made several pledges of support to al-Qaida and AQIM's mission and beliefs. During the Mali conflict, Boko Haram fighters were reported to be involved in the fighting alongside extremist jihadis. The group has also sent members to train with AQIM and has been linked to drug trafficking networks connected to AQIM.
Boko Haram's ambitions, coupled with increasing collaboration with AQIM and a growing weapons arsenal – including advanced bomb making and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles from the Qaddafi caches – should be alarming. After all, it was another al-Qaida-linked Nigerian who attempted to bomb an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.
To address the growing threat of Boko Haram to American security interests at home and abroad, the committee offers several recommendations. First, the committee calls for designating both Boko Haram, and its splinter group, Ansaru, as foreign terrorist organizations. This would provide federal agencies the tools they need to target members of the group and financial assets as well as provide clear guidance on how the U.S. views the nature of the threat Boko Haram poses.
U.S. intelligence gathering efforts on Boko Haram and other African terrorist organizations should be increased. AFRICOM Commander General David Rodriguez noted the need for an increase in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts, stating that AFRICOM only receives about seven percent of those requirements. The U.S. should also work to enhance regional counterterrorism and intelligence programs and partnerships to better address the threat.
Finally, the committee advises that Boko Haram's "intent and capability to attack the U.S. homeland" is not to be discounted, warning the U.S. intelligence community to avoid repeating mistakes made with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula – both groups were underestimated until they attempted to launch attacks on American soil.
Recent weeks have shown that terrorism across Africa is a growing problem. Yet, America's shrinking defense budget has led some lawmakers to suggest AFRICOM be moved to U.S. soil as a cost-cutting measure. Others have suggested ending AFRICOM entirely. It is vital that U.S. policymakers don't let the sequester undercut our counterterrorism efforts against the growing threat of Boko Haram and al-Qaida affiliates in the region. History has shown us that power vacuums are always filled.
Caitlin C. Poling is the Director of Government Relations at the Foreign Policy Initiative.