Olivier Guitta is the Director of Research at the Henry Jackson Society.
Earlier this month, London hosted a follow-up meeting to the Paris Summit on security in Nigeria. This took place in the context of ever-increasing attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram, such as the one on 3 June in which hundreds of people (estimates go as high as 500) were killed in raids in northern Nigeria. These recent events have garnered significant media interest, and led to the development of a concerted international effort to track down the missing girls. But how long will this co-operation last?
One can reasonably ask the question, since the international community has, by and large, underestimated Boko Haram. For example, a troubling issue that has come to light recently is how America’s State Department did not classify Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) – even under pressure from the FBI, the CIA, the Justice Department and numerous Members of Congress.
It took the United States until last november to designate the group as an FTO. Yet as Terror in Nigeria, a new report published by the Henry Jackson Society, shows, the links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are numerous, and go back over a decade. In this context, it is ironical that the international community did not take the organisation seriously and instead expressed outrage, pointing fingers at the Nigerian government.
That government is getting a lot of criticism for its supposed incompetence and inability to find the kidnapped girls. But there are reasons which make it very difficult even for the best and richest armies in the world to retrieve the girls.
First, the sheer size and terrain of the area to cover are making even recognition via satellites and drones extremely tenuous.
Second, any rescue operation would be beyond risky and with such a ruthless group like Boko Haram, the girls would be killed way before the special forces could intervene. A massive military intervention, even with the help of Western nations, would not have a good chance of success: back in 2012, British Special Forces tried to rescue two hostages, one Briton and an Italian – but both hostages were killed.
Third, electronic intelligence is, unfortunately, not everything: the real clincher is human intelligence. But it has been very challenging for the Nigerian authorities to build a network of informers in a region where they are viewed in a very negative light. Yet according to Senator Mohammed Ndume (himself once charged for his links to Boko Haram), the military are now doing their best to “regain the trust” of civilians, although the success of this will remain to be seen, precisely because of the fear factor.
There is a further obstacle for the Nigerian government: unfortunately, even with the best intelligence possible, Boko Haram would still thrive due to its supporters’ seeming penetration of the Nigerian political and security apparatus. In January 2012, President Jonathan acknowledged that Boko Haram sympathisers were “in the executive arm of the government; some of them are in the parliamentary/legislative arm of the government, while some are even in the judicial arm. Some are also in the armed forces, the police and other security agencies”.
Earlier this month, it was reported that 15 Nigerian senior military officers were found guilty of providing information and ammunition to Boko Haram. Furthermore, a very worrying allegation is adding fuel to the fire: Femi Fani-Kayode, a former aviation minister and prominent member of the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), resigned from it with a splash after accusing senior members of the APC of being supporters of Boko Haram. Since then, he has re-joined President Goodluck’s party, considered the most steadfast adversary of the jihadist camp.
It is possible that the recent kidnappings will represent a political tipping point and that Nigeria will be increasingly prioritised by Western governments. The stakes are simply too high for the West not to get involved. It cannot afford for any more of Nigeria to be run by jihadists. For example, when Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took over large amounts of territory in Mali in 2012, the French did not hesitate to intervene military to dislodge the terrorists from the country. And Nigeria is a much bigger prize than Mali…