August 20, 2011 6 Comments
Over at Sahel Blog, Alex has a really excellent short piece parsing a recent New York Times article (in which I’m mentioned, full disclosure) speculating about the possibility of increased links between AQIM and Boko Haram. He writes:
The first assertion [that Boko Haram has ties to AQIM] relies heavily on the claims of officials and on circumstantial evidence, such as an increase in Boko Haram’s tactical sophistication. Hard evidence of a tie that goes beyond rhetoric and perhaps the exchange of a few personnel remains weak. (The evidence I mean would look something like arrests of AQIM personnel in Nigeria, or of Boko Haram members in Mali or Mauritania). Additionally, AQIM’s southernmost attack that I am aware of, January’s kidnapping in Niamey, Niger, of two Frenchmen, was still a good distance from Maiduguri. The distance between AQIM’s strongholds in the Sahara and Boko Haram’s strongholds in Northeastern Nigeria is considerable, which presents a logistical obstacle to the development of strong operational ties between the two movements. The possibility of such a tie is real, and perhaps growing, but the article frames the issue as though a strong tie (beyond just rhetoric) has been conclusively established.
[…]Finally, the notion that we should fear a scenario where “extremists bent on jihad are spreading their reach across the continent and planting roots in a major, Western-allied state that had not been seen as a hotbed of global terrorism” seems overblown to me. AQIM has suffered setbacks this summer in Mauritania and Mali (and it conducted fewer kidnappings in 2010 than in 2009), al Shabab recently abandoned Mogadishu, and Boko Haram’s primary goals remain oriented to altering Nigerian politics (spreading shari’a, removing hated leaders, etc.). The formation of a pan-African jihadist movement is, it seems to me, still a remote possibility.
The whole piece is well-worth a read, and Alex knows this situation and northern Nigeria quite well. I share his skepticism, given the lack of more concrete evidence of ties, and keeping in mind that even what we hear in the public from officials is extremely speculative. I think in particular his point about the major operational distance separating AQIM camps from Maiduguri is important, as is the possibility explored in the comments section that Boko Haram’s increasing proficiency in explosives and tactics could come from defectors or sympathizers within the Nigerian military, rather than from foreign sources or militant training.
To push back slightly, though, I think the possibility of limited operational ties does not have to necessarily mean the existence of a full-blown jihadi arc, as the Times article might imply. For small and even medium-sized organizations, an increased sophistication and operational tempo wouldn’t require a team of people trained in better tactics, but rather could depend in part on a few members who have received training and then return to construct explosives and possibly disseminate their knowledge. Another possibility that I think Alex does not deal with fully here is outreach from AQIM members who speak Hausa. AQIM has been actively trying to expand its recruitment among non-Arabs, and has in the past shown off Hausa speakers in videos. So it is possible that AQIM has reached out to Boko Haram (rather than the other way around), though I must be clear that there is absolutely no evidence of this, and in the absence of the kinds of indicators Alex lays out (arrests of personnel in Nigeria or in Mali/Mauritania) as well as other proofs such as evidence of communications, Boko Haram members in AQIM videos, etc.., we really can’t draw conclusions.
Instead, what we’re left with are several questions. The first is where this increased sophistication and aggressiveness comes from, and I think Alex deals with that quite well. The second, though, is where the actual materiel is coming from that’s helping fuel this new push. RFI cites unnamed Nigerian officials who claim that that Nigerians are flowing north, while weapons (presumably provided by AQIM) flow south. The latter point is a genuine possibility, given the evidence of increased explosives traffic in the Sahel fueled in part by instability in Libya and and the increased use of large quantities of high explosives in Boko Haram attacks. But again, there is no actual evidence that this trade is occurring, and nothing to indicate that Boko Haram, like other Nigerian rebel groups such as the MEND, aren’t simply obtaining explosives on the rich West African weapons market or from military stocks. And finally, if connections are being made between the two groups, we still must ask about the extent of cooperation and ideological cross-pollination taking place; while the move to suicide bombings by Boko Haram is troubling, that alone does not indicate major influence by AQIM, and friendly media and propaganda relations between the groups also does not indicate that they share all of the same goals.
The bottom line is that in the absence of harder evidence in the open source, credible claims of cooperation between the two groups cannot be made. This is a potentially dangerous situation, and the uptick in violence in northern Nigeria and the Sahel deserves more attention than it’s getting. But government officials and in particular the media need to be careful about how these claims are interpreted and then presented to the public.