Quick Thoughts on the Failed Hostage Rescue in Nigeria

This post originally appeared at the Sahel Blog.

Last May, two Europeans were kidnapped in Kebbi State in Northwestern Nigeria. News of the victims after their disappearance was always scanty – a video and other rumors purported to link the kidnapping to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and/or another Al Qaeda group, but the evidence of Al Qaeda’s involvement never seemed conclusive to me. Then, yesterday, tragic news broke that the two men had died during a failed rescue attempt in Sokoto (Sokoto State borders Kebbi State). That attempt was apparently led by British special forces.

When the news broke, speculation began immediately that the rebel sect Boko Haram was behind the kidnappings. Many also see the kidnapping as evidence of a tie between Boko Haram and AQIM. This would mark the first kidnapping in Nigeria where Boko Haram’s involvement was proven. Kidnapping Westerners is a frequent tactic of AQIM.

British officials have stated their belief that Boko Haram was indeed responsible for the kidnapping, and one official has suggested that AQIM was also part of the operation:

Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed two men were held by terrorists associated with Boko Haram, and a senior British government official said the kidnappers appeared to be from an al-Qaida-linked cell within Boko Haram, but not within the group’s main faction.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has also stated that Boko Haram was behind the kidnapping. Arrests of alleged Boko Haram members followed the gun battle during which the hostages died.

Excellent coverage of news surrounding the kidnapping has been provided by the BBC and by former BBC correspondent Andrew Walker at his blog.

I have only three thoughts to offer on this event. The first is that any doubts about whether it really was Boko Haram that kidnapped the Europeans – doubts that stem from the facts that Kebbi is far outside Boko Haram’s normal zone of operations, that Boko Haram never seems to have kidnapped a Westerner before, or that communications from the kidnappers never seemed to fit with the style of either Boko Haram or AQIM – may be swept aside as the narrative takes hold that this kidnapping was a Boko Haram operation, full stop. There are, indeed, many possible explanations that deserve consideration, ranging from the possibility that the kidnappers were opportunistic criminals to the possibility that they were copycats to the possibility that it was Boko Haram itself, or a splinter group. Those complexities, uncertainties, and nuances may now be ignored. Perhaps more importantly, the idea – or the reality (because I really don’t know) – that Boko Haram is kidnapping Westerners will play into larger narratives about what kind of threat the group poses to Nigeria and to the West. See one example here. If those narratives are built on shaky assumptions, they will skew outside understandings of the situation in Nigeria.

My second thought is more of a question: Are armed rescue attempts worth it? Armed rescues have succeeded elsewhere, but their recent record in the Sahel is one of tragedy. In that vein, this article from the BBC, “Italian anger at UK over rescue bid,” is worth reading.

And my final thought is that the deaths of these Europeans bode ill for the German engineer kidnapped in Kano in January. He was kidnapped the day that I left that city, and he has been in my thoughts. I hope that he is alright, and that he will be free soon. But yesterday’s events cast a shadow over his captivity.

The state response to violence in Northern Nigeria

In a previous post on Nigeria’s Boko Haram, I looked for patterns in the group’s use of violence against the state and against its religious rivals. In this post, I discuss the state’s response to the violence. This response is evolving and experimental. It has included the use of force, but has also featured efforts at making political reforms and addressing the grievances that motivate the movement.

Force has always been a major part of the state’s response to Boko Haram. When Boko Haram launched a full-scale uprising in 2009, state security forces cracked down hard, killing a number of the group’s members as well as its leader, Muhammad Yusuf. Since then the government has continued to use force. Last fall, the federal government deployed soldiers to the Northeast, where Boko Haram is based. In February, security forces raided several homes, arresting several suspects, recovering weapons, and killing a suspected financier for the group. In May, following an ambush on soldiers in Maiduguri, the army arrested 150 persons on suspicion of ties to Boko Haram. Just last week, fourteen more people were arrested in connection with recent attacks.

Killing and arresting suspected members of Boko Haram has proven sufficient for putting down mass uprisings, but these techniques have not halted the guerrilla tactics Boko Haram has increasingly used since the fall of 2010 – drive-by shootings, bombings, etc.

From the beginning, Nigerian authorities at the state and federal levels have looked beyond force to other techniques that could reduce the group’s appeal. These techniques have varied, but their common thrust has been a search for ways to break the tie between violent ideologies and populations susceptible to the appeal of those ideologies.

Authorities have attacked this problem from both sides. In the aftermath of the 2009 uprising, for example, they attempted to shut down inflammatory rhetoric by controlling who could preach. Restricting what came from the pulpits, they reasoned, would help control what came from the streets.

As time has gone by, though, authorities have concentrated more on reaching out to the rank-and-file of the group. This has been the case particularly since the elections this April. The new governor of Borno State (where Maiduguri is and where many of the recent attacks have occurred), Kashim Shettima, has proposed extending an amnesty to members of Boko Haram, in which militants would lay down their weapons in exchange for government-led efforts to address their grievances. Shettima believes that the problem required a political solution, and that force alone will not work. Governor Shettima recently emphasized education reform as a way to address the group’s grievances. This may appear ironic in light of Boko Haram’s well-known rejection of Western education, but Shettima’s logic is that improving education will help reduce poverty and thereby reduce the potential constituency for the group.

Boko Haram rejected the amnesty offer and has continued its attacks, but the idea continues to circulate, including at the federal level. In New York last week, President Goodluck Jonathan spoke of a “carrots-and-sticks approach” to Boko Haram. This Day elaborates, writing, “This involves an amnesty package for the group as well as strengthening security in the area to end the on-going blood-letting in the zone…To set the ball rolling, THISDAY gathered that the government will reinvigorate its intelligence gathering method to be able to nip in the bud further incidence of bombings in the area.”

The proponents of amnesty and other reforms, including Jonathan and Shettima, refer explicitly to the amnesty program in the Niger Delta, where militant groups have threatened oil production and clashed with security forces for years, as a model. The amnesty there succeeded in reducing violence for a time, but it has drawn its share of critics, including former militants who charge that the government has not fulfilled its promises to educate and re-train them. Some observers are equally skeptical of the amnesty proposals for Boko Haram.

As the government experiments with new ideas and attempts to refine its use of force, it faces criticism, especially from the press. Today’s editorial in Next attacks President Jonathan personally, and calls for “finding perpetrators of violence and bringing them to book” – a statement that reads to me as a call for mass arrests in the North. Next  compares the situation in the North to the situation in the Niger Delta, but as a lament, not a model: “Boko Haram has quickly replaced the Nigeria Delta militants as the major crisis facing our nation’s people.” Domestic and international pressure on Nigeria’s state and federal authorities is increasing, making policymakers’ jobs even more difficult. Experiments with carrots and sticks will receive a great deal of scrutiny.

Patterns of violence in Northern Nigeria

Northeastern Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement rejects Western-style education, seeks a stronger role for Islam in law and politics, and views the Nigerian state as illegitimate and as an enemy. The group emerged in the 2002-2004 period, when journalists dubbed it the “Nigerian Taliban.” It became infamous in July 2009, when members reacted to perceived persecution by police and launched an attack on police in several states. After a military crackdown that left many members as well as founder Muhammad Yusuf dead, the group lay dormant for a time. But since the fall of 2010, Boko Haram has caused havoc in Maiduguri and elsewhere in the Northeast, conducting assassinations (against police, politicians, and rival Islamic leaders), bombings (including bombings around the time of President Goodluck Jonathan’s May 29 inauguration), and small raids on police stations (more of which occurred last week).

In this post, I look at what Boko Haram hopes to accomplish through violence. My answers are only guesses – so much remains unknown about Boko Haram about Boko Haram and its thinking that it’s hard to do more than look at the movement from the outside and try to identify clues as to its strategies and goals. In Part II, I’ll consider how the government is reacting to the violence.

Probing State Weakness, Targeting Enemies

Boko Haram’s uprisings in 2004 and 2009 failed. The group suffered major casualties, lost its leader, and found that in open battle it was no match for state security forces. But since 2009, as Bloomberg points out, “Boko Haram has shown a more targeted approach.” One analyst elaborates:

“Boko Haram’s strategic focus is to attack institutions of the state to discredit it,” Jude Uzonwanne, Nigeria strategist for Monitor Group, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based investment advisory company, said in a telephone interview on Feb. 10. “They’re likely to intensify the attacks as the elections come closer and it becomes a guessing game how it will end.”

The elections are over, but the violence hasn’t ended yet. Boko Haram’s shift to guerrilla tactics – especially bomb attacks and drive-by shootings conducted by two-man motorcycle teams – suggests it has adopted a long-term strategy of undermining state authority by exposing the state’s limitations. The group still carries out raids, but it has not attempted a large uprising in nearly two years. The new leadership appears to have some degree of patience. Picking off targets and launching regular attacks has the effect of broadcasting the group’s anger, seizing headlines, and heightening people’s uneasiness regarding the actions, or inaction, of elected leaders and security forces. Whether this strategy has increased recruitment for the group is hard to tell, but if nothing else ordinary people in Northeastern Nigeria must now be keenly aware of Boko Haram’s power.

In addition to directing violence at the state, Boko Haram kills Muslim leaders. Assassins have murdered imams and religious personages of various theological stripes, from relatives of the Shehu of Borno (a symbol of the Islamic establishment) to hardline reformist clerics who are themselves anti-establishment. The common thread in these killings is Boko Haram’s desire to silence critics and dominate the field of Islamic discourse in the Northeast. Most of the imams Boko Haram has shot have publicly spoken out against the group’s use of violence. It is possible that Boko Haram is especially keen to assassinate so-called “Wahhabis” whose theological positions are relatively close to Boko Haram’s but who criticize the group; such figures perhaps represent the greatest threat to Boko Haram’s religious credibility. The debates between Boko Haram and its opponents are a reminder of how pluralist the ideological and religious landscape is in Muslim countries (for an example of a religious debate on violence that occurs in a much different context, that of Saudi Arabia, see here and here). In any case, Boko Haram’s killings of imams seem calculated to deter any Muslim leader whatsoever from speaking against the group.

Increasingly, Boko Haram’s violence risks triggering broader Christian-Muslim violence. Recent anti-Christian violence in the North, such as attacks on a Christian pastor and several churches have ratcheted up the rhetoric in the South:

An Anglican Bishop, Rt Rev. Owen Nwokolo has motioned religious fundamentalists in the north that the south would begin reprisal attacks against northerners in their midst if the current spate of killings of innocent southerners in the north continues.

The longer Boko Haram’s campaign of violence continues, the greater the risk that other groups will take up arms as well. This increases pressure on state and federal governments to respond. That response will be the topic of my next post.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud and Somali-American Terrorism Attempts

On Friday, the FBI arrested Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a naturalized US citizen from Somalia, on charges of plotting to detonate a bomb at a Christmas Tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon. Mohamud, like other would-be terrorists arrested in recent years, appears to have been an amateur without substantial skill or training. FBI agents, moreover, had been communicating with Mohamud for months. Mohamud, as an individual, did not ultimately pose a major security threat to the US. But if his plot indicates a growing trend of radicalized Somali-American youth contemplating terrorist attacks on US soil, then the incident takes on greater significance.

The LA Times has the details of Mohamud’s plot and arrest [I’ve edited out everything not directly related to the plot]:

The FBI began tracking Mohamud in August 2009 when they discovered he was e-mailing a former Oregon student who was living in Pakistan’s lawless northwest region, where Al Qaeda has a stronghold. The Associated Press reported that the bureau was led to Mohamud by a tip from someone concerned about him.


An FBI undercover agent contacted Mohamud and pretended to be Abdulhadi, providing an e-mail address that the FBI controlled. Mohamud and the agent met for the first time on July 30 in downtown Portland.


Mohamud told “Abdulhadi” that he “initially wanted to wage war in the U.S.” The FBI agent told Mohamud he could not tell him what to do, but suggested several options, including going “operational” or becoming a shaheed, or martyr. Mohamud said he wanted to build a car bomb, but would need help.


Abdulhadi, the first FBI agent, picked up Mohamud at about noon Friday, and they went to inspect the bomb. Built by FBI technicians, it appeared impressive. But the explosives, the detonation cord and the blasting caps all were inert.

“Beautiful,” Mohamud said.

At 4:45 p.m., they drove the van to Yamhill and Sixth Street and parked. Police had secretly kept the space open. Mohamud attached the blasting cap and flipped the toggle switch to arm the bomb, then put on his hard hat.

They walked several blocks, got in another car and drove to a pre-selected parking lot. Mohamud quickly dialed the number to detonate the bomb. When they didn’t hear anything, he got out of the car to look for a better signal, and FBI agents swarmed in for the arrest.

Some have questioned the behavior of the FBI agents. Others have argued that what happened to Mohamud constitutes entrapment. In response to such concerns, Attorney General Eric Holder has said, “I am confident there is no entrapment here…There were … a number of opportunities … that the defendant in this matter was given to retreat, to take a different path. He chose at every step to continue.”

From a security standpoint, three points emerge for me:

  1. Federal agents intercepted Mohamud at an early point in his radicalization and were able to neutralize whatever threat he posed.
  2. The plot demonstrates the vulnerability of public spaces in the US and shows that would-be terrorists are interested in targets beyond airplanes. Public spaces are difficult, if not impossible, to secure, and effective law enforcement remains the most likely avenue of preventing terrorist attacks such as the one Mohamud planned.
  3. Mohamud seems to have been motivated not primarily by religious concerns, but by political ones related to the situation in Somalia and to aspects of American foreign policy elsewhere in the Islamic world.

Mohamud’s arrest comes on the heels of other arrests of Somali-Americans on charges related to aiding al Shabab, the main rebel group in southern Somalia. As I have written concerning those incidents, “The persons arrested represent a tiny fraction of a large group of hardworking, patriotic, law-abiding US citizens and residents, many of whom came here to escape Somalia’s problems and find a better life for their families.”

Yet that tiny fraction – which perhaps numbers in the dozens – has the potential to commit major acts of violence in the US. That’s one reason why some analysts say more terror plots are on the way. Probably most would-be terrorists will continue to be amateurs as well, but the political fallout from Somalia’s civil war is clearly an increasing liability for the US.