Jonathan seeks an unlikely savior in al-Qaeda

“Boko Haram is no longer a local terrorist group, it is operating clearly as an Al-Qaeda operation, it is an al-Qaeda of West Africa.” These were the words uttered by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan during a news conference held in the French capital, Paris, on 17 May. The media briefing followed an earlier African security summit, coordinated and hosted by France, where the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Benin and Chad, pledged better regional cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram. In turn, the French government and its UK, US and EU counterparts, committed to provide logistical and technical support to regional initiatives aimed at uprooting the Islamist sect.

The ‘Boko Haram plan of action’ formulated at the summit was by no means earth-shattering or unprecedented. Speaking during a security conference in Abuja in February, French President Francois Hollande similarly promised his country’s support to Nigeria’s armed campaign against Boko Haram. “Your struggle is also our struggle,” President Hollande told delegates, further adding “We will always stand ready not only to provide our political support but our help every time you need it because the struggle against terrorism is also the struggle for democracy.”During the same address, the French president also urged for greater regional cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbouring countries —many of which may already be experiencing contagion from the Boko Haram insurgency.

However, what was unique about the 17 May summit was that it marked one of the first occasions that the Nigerian government had explicitly associated Boko Haram with the transnationalist terrorist al-Qaeda network. In all fairness, such linkages are not without merit. From reports suggesting that sect members trained and even fought alongside al-Qaeda’s North African branch in Mali, to accounts that Boko Haram may have been supported Osama Bin Laden himself, evidence linking the Nigerian militant group to al-Qaeda is plentiful. But such claims are hardly new to the Boko Haram discourse and, one would assume, would have been investigated by the Nigerian government upon first mention. So why would Jonathan only now publically label Boko Haram as an al-Qaeda offshoot? For one, by doing so, he may have potentially earned himself and his government a rather unlikely saviour.

The Chibok kidnapping  has drawn widespread attention to Boko Haram’s near decade-long insurgency against the Nigerian government; an insurgency which has killed at least 2,000 people this year alone.  Moreover, the incident has also placed a rather harsh spotlight on the Jonathan administration and the role it has played in the ensuing carnage. In doing so, a tale of chronic  governmental neglect in north eastern Nigeria ­— Boko Haram’s birthplace and primary area of operation — has come to the fore. Out of Nigeria’s six administrative zones, the country’s north east has the highest unemployment and poverty rates; human development indices which some argue are important indicators for the development of conflict and terrorism by non-state groups.

Prevailing narratives also present the story of an unprofessional and ill-disciplined military who have committed gross human rights abuses in combating the sect. Extortion, extrajudicial killings of civilians and the abduction and subsequent assault of Boko Haram wives and children, have seemingly become part and parcel of the army’s counterinsurgency strategy. In this regard, the army has not only failed to win the trust of local communities, essential to the success of any counterinsurgency campaign, but may have unknowingly aided Boko Haram in its recruitment. Then there are also those accounts which claim that the Islamist insurgency is being used as a pawn in a game of political chess — a perpetual and often ruthless game played between Nigeria’s opposing southern and northern political blocs. A game which has all too often resulted in significant collateral damage.

However, by designating Boko Haram as being northing more than an al-Qaeda proxy, Jonathan has pretty much absolved his beleaguered government of its role in the spiraling conflict. Issues of poor governance, systemic bureaucratic corruption and an ill-disciplined military, which should be central to the Boko Haram discourse, will now be concealed in the shadow cast by the global (and thankfully non-Nigerian) bogeyman. Boko Haram’s actions in the past, present and foreseeable future, will be contextualised to no more than a symptom of al-Qaeda’s global war on a democracy — a war which solely aims to displace democratic governance with a repressive and archaic rule of law which deems western education to be forbidden, commands women to be stoned for adultery and which orders the execution of apostates. A war which the armies of superpowers such as the US, UK and France are struggling to contain.

By telling the world that he is now fighting al-Qaeda and not merely Boko Haram — a global as opposed to a Nigerian enemy —Jonathan may not only be trying to save face. Indeed, he may also be attempting to convince an ever-critical domestic and international audience that his government is actually the unlikely hero in a war which to date has only known victims and villains. 

The Chibok kidnapping: An intricate public relations exercise

In a video released to AFP on 5 May, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, confirmed what many had feared – that the Islamist extremist sect was responsible for the 15 April kidnapping of more than 300 female students from the north eastern Nigerian town of Chibok.

In the communique, Shekau stated, ‘I am the one who captured all those girls and will sell all of them. I have a market where I sell human beings because it is Allah that says I should sell human beings. Yes, I will sell women, because I sell women.’

Shekau’s rhetoric seemingly confirmed my initial suggestions that human trafficking may have been a motivation for the Chibok kidnapping. In my blog entry ‘Why have you taken our girls?’ I referenced an extract from a 30 March statement which Shekau had made, threatening the abduction and possible trade of female civilians. ‘In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves and, in due course, we will start taking women away and sell [them] in the market’, Shekau had declared.

But if human trafficking was truly the motivation behind Boko Haram’s abduction of the Chibok students, why would Shekau wait nearly three weeks to claim responsibility for the incident? More importantly, why would Boko Haram make explicit its intentions and possibly risk compromising what would otherwise be a lucrative revenue-generating enterprise? I believe the answer lies in the fact that Boko Haram never intended to sell its hostages, well at least not in the manner in which Shekau’s rhetoric suggested.

Considering the circumstances which surrounded their abduction and that which would surround Boko Haram’s claims of responsibility, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls has been orchestrated as an intricate and well-planned public relations exercise aimed at captivating both a local and international audience. In kidnapping 300 girls mere hours after killing more than 70 people in the Nigerian capital, Boko Haram has nullified any suggestions that it has suffered an operational decline and/or that the government has gained any foothold in its ongoing war against the insurgency. Narratives which the Nigerian government had often forwarded when questioned about the progression of its counterinsurgency campaign.  Furthermore, the timing of Shekau’s most recent communique was also likely a deliberate and considered decision aimed at garnering international attention. It is no coincidence that Boko Haram confirmed its responsibility for the abductions at a time when a social media campaign, using the twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls, had peaked and where associated protest gatherings occurred with a degree of spontaneity in major cities across the world.

However, apart from glorifying its capabilities and highlighting the deficiencies of the Nigerian government, Boko Haram’s need for publicity may also be the most important indicator of the fate of the Chibok hostages. As mentioned, while trafficking was always considered a plausible outcome for the detainees, the sects actions to date seems incongruent with such an undertaking. Instead, it seems more plausible that Boko Haram already are or likely will use the hostages to negotiate some form of concessions from the Nigerian government. This could either see the Chibok girls being exchanged for Boko Haram detainees and/or to extort a ransom payment or other material assets. Any such outcome will not only seek to strengthen the operational capacity of the sect, but do so to the detriment of the Nigerian government. By drawing as much attention to the incident as it has, Boko Haram has placed itself in an extremely strong bargaining position and is pressuring the Goodluck Jonathan regime to act with a decisiveness and rapidity which has been sorely lacking in its response to the insurgency.

Although  Jonathan has denounced that he would enter into ransom negotiations with Boko Haram, his government does not have much of a choice in the matter. A military option aimed at rescuing the hostages is simply not feasible, as any such initiative will undoubtedly significantly risk the well-being of the hostages. Any actions by the Nigerian government which result in harm to any of the hostages would likely be considered the greatest indictment against Jonathan’s already blemished tenure. However, not responding to the situation with the conviction that the Nigerian and international communities are demanding will be equally damaging. Growing claims that Jonathan is losing his grip on the Boko Haram insurgency will only become more audible, should his government fail to secure the immediate release of the Chibok girls. Although Jonathan may consider bargaining with Boko Haram as a sign of weakness, and possibility counter-intuitive to Nigeria’s ongoing fight against the sect, he should perhaps be reminded that when one is standing on the edge of a cliff, taking a step backwards is often the only means of progress.

Video

Boko Haram claims responsibility for the Chibok kidnapping

In this video, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, claims responsibility for the Chibok kidnapping where in excess of 300 girls were abducted by militants from a education facility in the town of Chibok, Borno state, on 15 April. I included a partial English transcript of the communique below.

“I am going to marry out any woman who is 12 years old, and if she is younger, I will marry her out at the age of nine, just like how my mother, Aisha, the daughter of Abubakar, was married out to Prophet Mohammad at the age of nine.
“You are all in danger, I mean all of you.

I am the one who captured all those girls and will sell all of them. I have a market where I sell human beings because it is Allah that says I should sell human beings. Yes, I will sell women, because I sell women.

I captured and abducted girls in a Western school, and it became a worrying issue for all of you. You have forgotten that I have said that it is not only girls’ education I am against. I am against everyone who attends a Western school. Girls should go and marry.
Slavery is allowed in my religion, and I shall capture people and make them slaves.

Don’t think we are done yet because we are not. We are on our way to Abuja and we shall also visit the South, not to look for Jonathan but to destroy the nation’s refineries.
Talking about human rights and democracy. Nonsense. People that are doing same-sex marriage and saying they are leaders.

I will imprison Jonathan’s daughter. Anyone who turns to Islam will be saved. For me, anyone that embraces Islam is my own. Stupid Jonathan, you will be surprised. Until the land is soaked with blood.

You said you want to capture me. Surely, you will one day. But I will also haunt for Jonathan, and if I catch him, I will kill him.

Do not think I am indispensable, I am not. Anybody can kill me. Even the smallest of creature can kill me. But when you kill me, somebody more deadly will rise, and you will cry that you will rather have me than him, just as you now say that Yusuf Mohamed is more lenient that me.

I am a leader, I don’t have any president; I am my president.

Late Aminu Kano, Late Tafawa Balewa are not Muslims, they are all pagans. I am going to kill all the Imams and other Islamic clerics in Nigeria because they are not Muslims since they follow democracy and constitution. Senator Ali Modu Sheriff is a pagan, Senator Ali Ndume is also a pagan and they are all inclusive. I am against democracy and you should better get prepared.

It is Allah that instructed us, until we soak the ground of Nigeria with Christian blood, and so-called Muslims contradicting Islam. [We will kill and wonder] what to do with smelling of their corpses, smelling of Obama, Bush and Jonathan. Then we will open prison and imprison the rest. Infidels have no value.

This is a war against Christians and democracy and their constitution. Allah says we should finish them when we get them.

In fact, you are supposed to wash and re-wash a plate Christian eats food from before you eat as Muslims. Are Christians the people we should play with? They killed us in Shendam, Zangon Katab and all the places. It is either you are with us or you are with them, and when we see you, we will harvest your neck with knife.”

Who are Ansaru

4529096-3x2-940x627   Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa), commonly known as Ansaru, is an Islamist militant group operating within northern Nigeria. The group announced its formation in January 2012 by disseminating a series of pamphlets in the city of Kano, the eponymous capital of Nigeria’s northern Kano state. Although details surrounding the origins, structure and leadership of the group remain anecdotal at this stage, there is evidence to suggest that Ansaru may have developed as a possible offshoot of Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist extremist sect, comprising of members who became disenchanted with the governance of the sect’s leader, Abu Shekau. However, there is also credible evidence to suggest that Ansaru may be nothing more than a Nigerian-proxy of the transnational al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) movement which is known to operate across the Sahel and Maghreb

Ideology and objective

While sharing Boko Haram’s ideology of Salafist jihadism, there are several key differences which exists between Ansaru and its Islamist counterpart. While Boko Haram’s ambitions tend to be focused on the toppling the Nigerian government, which it accuses of maladministration, corruption and advancing the interests of the country’s oil-rich south at the expense of the Muslim-dominated north, Ansaru’s agenda appears to favour a wider regional agenda. During a video released by the group and distributed to Mauritanian news agency, Agence NouakchottInternationale, on 26 November 2012, the group made explicit that one of its objectives was to create an Islamic Caliphate extending from Niger and incorporating northern Nigeria and Cameroon, in addition to defending African Muslims from alleged persecution by Western-backed governments. In its discourse, the group has also been highly critical of the modus operandi employed by Boko Haram which has resulted in significant civilian casualties across northern, eastern and central Nigeria. Indeed, the formal announcement of the group’s creation followed the January 2012 Boko Haram attacks in the city of Kano which saw in excess of 200 people, the majority of whom were civilians, killed in seemingly coordinated vehicle-borne improvise explosive devices (VBIED) and gun attacks targeting various state-aligned installations across the city. Ansaru stated that the Kano attacks, in addition to a similar acts of violence orchestrated by the sect across northern Nigeria, as being unislamic and undignified. In addition to the tactical and ideological dissonance which exists between Boko Haram and Ansaru, it should be noted that the latter has also made explicit its intention to directly target western nationals and interests within their areas of operation. To date, Boko Haram has generally restricted its attacks within Nigeria to domestic targets and, apart from a suicide bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja on the 26 August 2011, has distanced itself from acts of violence perpetrated against foreign interests. On the contrary, Ansaru has made explicit that foreign nationals belonging to Western governments, who are either directly or tacitly supporting military operations against regional and/or international jihadist groups, will be targeted in reprisals. These threats have already manifested itself in a number of kidnapping incidents targeting expatriate workers within northern Nigeria which has either been claimed or directly attributed to Ansaru-aligned militants.

Structure and politics

As mentioned, information pertaining to the structure and leadership of Ansaru remains unclear at this time. According to terrorism profiler and analyst of African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation, Jacob Zenn, Ansaru’s leadership may be comprised of Boko Haram commanders who are opposed to Boko Haram’s currently leader, Abu Shekau. Ansaru has in several video briefings identified their leader as Abu Usmatul al-Ansari; however, Zenn has asserted that this is likely a pseudonym and that al-Ansari may actually be former Boko Haram commander, Mamaan Nur, The Cameroonian-born Nur briefly led Boko Haram in July 2009 following the death of the sect’s founder, Ustaz Mohammed, and the wounding of Shekau, which occurred during a government crackdown on Boko Haram operations in Maiduguri, commonly referred to as the 2009 Maiduguri uprising. However, following his recovery, Shekau immediately assumed full control of the movement which allegedly caused discontent among Nur proponents. Nonetheless, Nur continued to operate as Shekau’s second-in command up until the Kano bombings of 2012 when he allegedly removed himself from the organisation. Another postulation is that al-Ansari may be the pseudonym for internationally designated terrorist and Boko Haram affiliate, Khalid al-Barnawi. Al-Barnawi, who is alleged to have close ties with the Algerian-based AQIM and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, is alleged to have masterminded a number of kidnapping incidents in North Africa, in addition to establishing kidnapping training camps in Algeria, and is rumoured to currently operate within Nigeria’s northern city of Kano. It currently remains unclear as to whether either Nur or al-Barnawi are indeed leading or actively involved within the Ansaru leadership; however, it appears that the organisation’s highest command has some discernible connections to Boko Haram and seemingly AQIM

Operational areas and tactics

Akin to the Algerian and Malian-based, AQIM movement, Ansaru appears to favour the use of kidnapping as an operational tactic. The first abduction to be claimed by the group occurred on 19 December 2012 a French engineer, Francis Colump, employed by the French-owned energy company, Vergnet, was kidnapped from a secure compound in the town of Rimi, located in Katsina state. Less than 24 hours after the abduction, Ansaru released a video claiming responsibility for the kidnapping which the group claimed to have perpetrated in retaliation for the French government’s recent decision to ban the full-faced veil (known as the niqab) and for their support for military involvement in Mali. On 19 February 2013, the group also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of seven foreign expatriate workers, employed by the Lebanese-owned Setraco construction company, in the Jama’are Local Government Area of Bauchi State. On 10 March, the group released another video claiming that they had executed the hostages as a reprisal to an attempt by the Nigerian government to execute a security operation to free the hostages.  During both of the aforementioned abductions, a group of between 20 and 30 militants attacked highly secured compounds using improvised explosive devices (IED’s) and high calibre rifles in their offensives. Although the kidnappings were the only incidents for which Ansaru have directly claimed responsibility, US and British intelligence services have stated that Ansaru was more than likely responsible for the May 2011 kidnapping of a British and Italian national in the city of Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi state, in addition to the January 2012 kidnapping of a German engineer in the city of Kano. During both incidents, the hostages were executed by their captors following failed attempts by local and international security forces to liberate them.

In addition to kidnapping, Ansaru has also demonstrated the intent and acumen to execute attacks targeting state-aligned security installations in Nigeria’s major urban centres. On 26 November 2012, 40 Ansaru militants attacked the headquarters of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), located in Abuja’s Apo district. During the attack, which was eventually repelled by security personnel, scores of prisoners managed to escape. The majority of those detained and subsequently freed during the raid included persons who were suspected of having ties to Boko Haram and other Islamist extremist movements. Another attack claimed by Ansaru occurred on 19 January 2013 when the group attacked a convoy of Nigerian troops in Kogi state who were en route to participate in combat operations in Mali. The incident marked the second attack to be claimed by Ansaru which was seemingly motivated by a transationalist as opposed to a domestic agenda.

As noted by the aforementioned incidents, Ansaru modus operandi is atypical of that delineated by the Boko Haram Islamist sect. While Boko Haram generally favours the use of vehicle-borne explosive devices and suicide bombers with the intent of causing mass casualties, Ansaru tends to be more sophisticated in their tactics, preferring to use a well-trained and highly coordinated militant detachment to attack hardened targets such as secured residential compounds and detention facilities. Ansaru attacks are also typically surgical with the predetermined targets singled out and with an overt emphasis on limiting casualties. The efficacy and sophistication delineated in the group’s operations draws parallels with the modus operandi commonly employed by AQIM during their insurgent operations in the Sahel and Maghreb which further emphasises the possibility of some symbiotic relationship existing between the movements.

Future outlook

Akin to the Boko Haram counterparts, Ansaru is likely to remain a key feature of Nigeria’s security environment for the short-to-medium. As mentioned, the group has demonstrated acumen in their operations which would indicate that their constituents are well-trained and highly organised and are more than likely receiving some form of patronage from regional jihadist movements. As such, it is likely that the group maintains operational and/or logistical bases outside of Nigeria, possibly in neighbouring countries such as Niger and Cameroon, which could be used as a safe haven during counterinsurgency operations conducted by the Nigerian government. In terms of their ambitions and operations, it currently appears that Ansaru will continue to focus on their primary goal which is targeting foreign personnel in acts of kidnapping, with hostages being used as bargaining chips for political concessions and/or financial reward. Indeed, if the group is found to be operating as an AQIM proxy, it is likely that kidnapping attempts by Ansaru will continue to proliferate in northern Nigeria given the considerable withdrawal of Westerners from Sahel countries, which generally coincided with the foreign military intervention in Mali, and which has mitigated kidnapping activities within the region. While the threat posed by Ansaru will be highest within the country’s northern administrative regions of Kano, Katsina, Yobe, Bauchi and Borno, the threat posed by the group will likely extend to Nigeria’s eastern states of Adamawa and Taraba from where the group may launch attacks from its purported strongholds in Cameroon. It is also likely that the group will continue to target government- and security-aligned interests in armed attacks; however, it is improbable that either the frequency or scale of such attacks would mirror those of the Boko Haram movement. In terms of its relations with the aforementioned, it is likely that Ansaru and Boko Haram will continue to operate as completely separate entities. While sharing a similar interpretation of Islamic doctrine, Boko Haram and Ansaru’s goals appear to be divergent at this time, particularly regarding the former’s targeting of local nationals in its operations. However, the disparity in their ideology will not negate the possibility of cooperation between the two movements, particularly if the endgame of such undertakings is mutually beneficial. Furthermore, there are also concerns that an escalation of Ansaru operations against foreign interests in Nigeria, which is likely to evoke support among hardline militants, may similarly prompt Boko Haram to also adopt a more hardened anti-western stance as it strives to remain the most relevant and formidable Islamist movement operating within the country.

Assessing the jihadist threat in the Central African Republic

In September 2013, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warned that ensuing lawlessness in the Central African Republic (CAR) could see the country become “the next Somalia” − in other words, a failed state and safe haven for regional and transnational armed groups. Less than two months later, Fabius’ concerns were reiterated by Edmund Mulet, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations at the UN, who said that Islamist militants were already on the verge of gaining a foothold in the country, though in contrast to Fabius likened the situation to northern Mali.

These comments were initially dismissed by many observers as mere rhetoric aimed at generating greater international attention to the CAR crisis. But they may have recently gained some credence following a statement released by Nigerian-based Islamist militants Boko Haram.

In a purported communiqué from Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram posted online on 14 February, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to avenge what he called the massacre of Muslim communities by militias collectively known as the anti-balaka.

On the one hand, this threat is perhaps not all that surprising. The fighting that has been taking place in the CAR since March 2013, when the Séléka rebels toppled the government of President Francois Bozizé, has increasingly been coded in religious terms, pitting Christians and Muslims against one other. And especially since Bozizé’s successor, Michel Djotodia, stepped down in January, it is the minority Muslim population that has been heavily victimised. Amnesty International have even asserted that ethnic cleansing of Muslims may be occurring, although others dispute that this threshold has been reached.

Conforming to the Salafi jihadist interpretation of Islam, groups such as Boko Haram likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the persecution of Muslims around the world. Such reasoning was well expressed during the Bosnian civil war when hundreds of foreign Muslims fought alongside their Bosniak counterparts against a predominantly Christian Orthodox Serbian army. Within the African context, such coordination was also recently witnessed in northern Mali where various Islamist militant groups allegedly engaged in joint combat operations against Malian, Chadian and French forces.

Although the avenging of Muslim persecution wasn’t the driving motivation behind this cooperation, the Malian conflict nevertheless underlined that regional Islamist militants possess both the willing and at least some operational capacity to coordinate on foreign soil.

But could this happen in the CAR?

From the Sahel to the Savannah
To begin with, it is worth noting that any such deployment to the CAR would be subject to significant logistical challenges. In terms of its geographical location, the CAR is far less accessible to Islamist militants than northern Mali.

In Mali, Islamist militants had near unrestricted access from their operational strongholds in neighbouring Algeria and, to a lesser extent, Niger and Mauritania. Moreover, long-established and clandestine smuggling routes across much of Mali’s desert north provided militants with a constant supply of arms and other resources.

In the CAR, access routes for both supplies and personnel are not nearly as readily available. There have been some claims that Sudan’s western Darfur region, which shares a border with the CAR’s northern Vakaga province, could be a platform for Islamist groups to access the country. However, such assertions have largely been based on spurious claims of an existing militant Islamist presence in Darfur.

Another suggestion is that Nigerian Islamist militants such as Boko Haram and its alleged offshoot, Ansaru, could infiltrate the CAR from neighbouring Cameroon. But while there is credible evidence to suggest that these groups possess an operational presence in Cameroon, their operations to date have been limited to areas along the Nigerian border, specifically within the country’s Extrême-Nord region. This is several hundred kilometres away from the Central African border which has been also fortified by the Cameroonian military amid an influx of refugees from the CAR.

Aside from logistical problems, militant infiltration into the CAR will also likely be subject to several operational challenges. For one, the majority of Islamist militant groups operating in Africa do so in the semi-arid Sahel and Maghreb regions. Their familiarity with often harsh and inhospitable desert conditions have given them the edge over regional and/or international forces tasked with uprooting them from such areas. However, these desert plains of North and West Africa differ considerably with the jungle and savannah bushes which comprise much of the CAR. Islamist militants’ unfamiliarity with such conditions may not only see them lose an important tactical advantage but could place them firmly on the back foot against local militias which are accustomed to such environs.

Furthermore, an Islamist infiltration in the CAR would likely occur in the absence of significant on-the-ground support. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the majority of the CAR’s Muslim population has fled to neighbouring Chad and Cameroon. Those left behind have found refuge in ad hoc refugee camps dotted across the country. As such, local intelligence networks, on which militant groups typically rely, would be minimal to non-existent.

There is a possibility that the Séléka could assist Islamist militants in their operations, but such cooperation is by no means guaranteed either. While it is true that the Séléka is mainly comprised of Muslim fighters, some emanating from Chad and Sudan, the group was never motivated or united by religion. Instead, the majority of rebel combatants coalesced in a motley rebel coalition due to individual motivations which ranged from grievances against the Bozizé regime to the mere economic reward of pillaging civilian populations. With many of these motivations already fulfilled, there is little reason to assume Séléka’s assistance to jihadists groups is assured or even likely.

A warning shot

At first glance, the CAR appears to be a fertile ground for Islamist infiltration. The collapse of security and governance structures in the vast and sparsely populated country makes it look like the ideal environment for militants to hide or even establish an operational presence. In addition, Islamist groups would likely consider it their religious duty to avenge the many Muslims killed. However, on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that sustaining any armed campaign within the CAR would be subject to significant, if not insurmountable, challenges.

It is also worth noting that a recent statement from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) blamed the 2,000-strong French force in the country for attacks on Muslims and vowed to punish France. AQIM’s assertion that the French − rather than Central African Christians − should be targeted in reprisal attacks further suggests a low probability of that Islamist militants are looking to switch tack and get involved in the CAR.

The threats issued by Islamist groups such as Boko Haram should not be dismissed. Instead, they serve to exemplify just how far the CAR conflict has spiralled out of control and how urgent the need is to find a lasting solution to the crisis. With international and regional troops already struggling to contain disorganised bands of militias, the risk of highly-trained and conflict-hardened militant groups gaining a foothold in CAR − however low it seems at the moment − is one that cannot be taken too lightly.

Has Boko Haram become more than Nigeria’s problem?

In a communiqué released on 13 March, Nigeria’s Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, warned of the growing threat posed by the Boko Haram Islamist extremist sect. Speaking to an envoy representing the Cameroonian government of Paul Biya, Abati called upon greater cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbours in combating the group. A failure to do so, the adviser contended, could see Boko Haram becoming the preeminent threat to regional stability.

Abati’s sentiments echo growing concerns that the sect, which has generally been regarded as a domestic terrorist group, is on the verge of adopting a more transnational agenda. In doing so, Boko Haram would pose a significant threat in a region of Africa already afflicted by a myriad of challenges; including political instability and associated ethnic conflicts.

The Malian expedition

In assessing the merit of such concerns, it is important to note that claims of Boko Haram operating outside of Nigeria are by no means a new development. The first credible accounts of the group’s foreign operations emanated from the deserts of Mali in April 2012 when a power vacuum, catalysed by a military coup, saw the northern half of the country occupied by a coalition of separatist and jihadist forces. According to a briefing issued at the time by Malian regional deputy, Abu Sidibe, Boko Haram was one of the militant groups present within the region.

Sidibe claimed that an estimated 100 Boko Haram militants had infiltrated Mali’s Gao administrative division and had aided insurgents of the al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) in securing control of the territory. Boko Haram militants would also later be cited for their alleged role in the 5th April 2012 attack on the Algerian consulate in Gao which resulted in the kidnapping of seven diplomats.

Suggestions of Boko Haram’s presence in northern Mali were given further credence by French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius. Speaking at a conference addressing security challenges within the Sahel in November 2013, Fabius claimed that France had acquired documentary evidence detailing the training of Boko Haram militants within northern Mali. These camps, which were located in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range between Mali and Algeria, were believed to have been operated by al-Qaeda’s North African branch, namely al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Boko Haram in Niger

Apart from Mali, claims have and continue to be made that Boko Haram may have also established an operational presence in neighbouring Niger. In this regard, the country’s south eastern regions, which border Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled Borno state, have been cited as being used by the sect for the purposes of refuge, training, transit, operational planning and recruitment.

The first suggestions of an established Boko Haram presence in Diffa were made in December 2011 when a group of suspected sect members were arrested by Nigerien security forces. Further Boko Haram-related arrests were also made in Diffa in February 2012 and, most recently, in February 2014. In the most recent incident, the Nigerien military claimed to have dismantled an alleged Boko Haram cell which was planning to execute terrorist attacks in the town of Diffa in what was described as a reprisal for Niger’s support of regional counterterrorism initiatives. In the days following the arrests, Nigerien authorities also claimed to have uncovered a Boko Haram base where militants were being trained in the use of long range anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. However, information detailing the location of the camp and/or the circumstances surrounding its discovery was not disclosed.

The Cameroonian connection

While reports of Boko Haram’s operational presence in Mali and Niger continues to be subject to contention, evidence of the sect’s operations within Nigeria’s eastern neighbour appears to be less ambiguous. Indeed, apart from Nigeria, Cameroon has been the only other country where Boko Haram has explicitly claimed responsibility for conducting attacks.

In the first such incident, the sect claimed responsibility for the February 2013 kidnapping of a French family who were seized from the border town of Dabanga, located in Cameroon’s Far North province. In a video released shortly after their abduction, Shekau officially confirmed Boko Haram responsibility for the kidnapping. He further demanded that the Cameroonian government release all detained sect members in exchange for the French hostages. The family of seven were eventually released unharmed in April 2013 amid speculation that France had paid a ransom of USD 3 million. However, the exact circumstances surrounding their release remain unverified.

In November 2013, Boko Haram conducted its second kidnapping in Cameroon when suspected sect members abducted French priest Georges Vandenbeusch from the nearby town of Koza. In a statement provided to the Agence France-Presse news media outlet, an unnamed spokesman for Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnapping which he claimed the sect coordinated along with Nigeria’s other Islamist extremist movement, namely the Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands (Ansaru). Vandenbeusch was eventually released unharmed a month after his capture amid claims that French authorities had paid a cash ransom to the sect. Both France and Boko Haram denied that a ransom was paid with the latter claiming that the priest was freed by Shekau on compassionate grounds. However, this was denied by a Cameroon military source who claimed that Vandenbeusch was exchanged for a senior Boko Haram commander who was being detained in Cameroon.

The kidnappings, which followed the December 2012 arrests of suspected Boko Haram operatives in the settlements of Fotokol and Kousseri, reinforced growing claims by the Nigerian government that Boko Haram had established an operational presence in Cameroon’s Far North administrative division, possibly occupying territory expanding from Lake Chad to the foothills of the Mandara Mountain range. In this regard, Nigerian authorities have gone as far as claiming that the recent upsurge in Boko Haram attacks in north eastern Nigeria was being orchestrated by insurgent cells which both planned and executed these incursions from within Cameroonian territory. The government of Paul Biya has continued to deny these claims.

The risk of regional contagion? 

Although there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Boko Haram has branched outside of Nigeria, we should remain be careful in assuming that such expansion may delineate the adoption of a transnational agenda. Contrary to above-mentioned claims, there remains little indication to suggest that Boko Haram has veered from its primary ambitions – undermining the legitimacy of the Nigerian Federal Government and converting Nigeria, or at least the country’s predominantly Muslim North, into an Islamic caliphate governed under Sharia Law. In this regard, the sect’s alleged operations within Cameroon, Niger and even Mali, can be ascribed as being congruent with the achievement of its domestic goals.

As mentioned, Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled north east shares poorly policed and highly porous borders with Niger and Cameroon’s respective Diffa and Far North administrative regions. By infiltrating these regions, Boko Haram has not only established an operational platform from which to execute cross-border attacks, but the sect has also garnered a safe haven which can be utilised to evade intensifying counterinsurgency operations conducted in north eastern Nigeria.

Moreover, kidnapping operations conducted by the group, particularly those involving western nationals, can also be utilized to negotiate the release of detained combatants and/or solicit large ransom payments to aid its insurgent operations against the Nigerian government. With the regimes of Cameroon and Niger exhibiting reluctance to provide anything more than logistical assistance to Nigeria’s counterinsurgency efforts, which itself has been compromised by poor communication and intelligence networks, Boko Haram has secured territory in which it can recruit, train and plan its operations with minimal interference.

That said, an export of Boko Haram’s insurgency to Nigeria’s immediate neighbours cannot entirely be discounted. With attacks by the sect continuing unabated in the northern Nigeria, and with evidence corroborating the group’s suggested cross-border infiltrations growing, calls for a coordinated and multi-lateral military response to the Boko Haram insurgency are becoming more audible. Mounting pressure by both the Nigerian and Western governments in this regard suggests that the launching of such initiatives may be an obligatory, as opposed to optional, undertaking. However, any coordinated effort aimed at quelling what intrinsically remains a domestic insurgency could paradoxically be the catalyst which sees Boko Haram truly becoming a regional threat.