Unless the Nigerian government quickly acts that African country could collapse into sectarian civil war and eventually become a terrorist haven like Somalia. That prospect creates a serious challenge for American interests in the region.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said the homegrown Islamic extremist group Boko Haram is inciting a religious crisis by attacking Christian churches in an attempt to destabilize the government. Those attacks have taken more than 1,000 lives over the past year and the volume, lethality and sophistication of the attacks are escalating.
Recent church attacks polarized Nigerians. ???I held a position that it is not a religious war in the past,??? said Nigerian Senator Ita Solomon Engang, a Christian. ???But my position on that is becoming shaky ???. I would say this is like a jihad [Islamic holy war],??? Engang told the Nigerian Tribune.
Indeed, Boko Haram is employing jihad to set sectarian violence in motion much like al Qaeda in Iraq waged jihad against Shiite targets which resulted in civil war.
Helping Nigeria avoid civil war serves American interests because it is an important trading partner and it could become an epicenter for transnational terrorists that would threaten our interests and perhaps homeland.
America already experienced Nigerian terrorism vis-à-vis Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah, the foiled Detroit-bound underwear bomber on Christmas day in 2009. He was seen as a loner with no links to Boko Haram, but should Nigeria collapse into civil war terrorists will flood in to destabilize the country, region and threaten global interests.
Further, America wants a stable Nigeria because it is a source of important minerals like iron and tin and it is an important hydrocarbon source. Nigeria exports 8 percent of America???s daily oil needs and has 37 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 5 trillion cubic meters of gas.
Nigeria is vulnerable to sectarian civil war for three reasons.
First, Nigeria has a large Muslim population with a history of jihad.
Islam has deep historical roots in the area now known as northern Nigeria that date back to the 11th century. Two hundred years ago northern Nigerian Muslims led a jihad to force the Hausa tribe to adopt Islam and then it imposed Shari???a [Islamic law] as the legal basis for Muslims.
Nigeria???s contemporary Boko Haram group traces its jihadist ideology from the tradition of the radical Muslim jama`a groups. Their aim is to establish an Islamic Shari???a state through violence and Boko Haram???s founder, Muhammad Yusuf, embraced that view with his aim to emulate the experience of the Taliban by establishing an ???Afghanistan??? in Nigeria.
Yusuf was also associated with Salafism of the Wahhabi variety ??? the strictest Islamism ideologues like al Qaeda ??? and he taught that Western civilization is ???forbidden??? because it contradicts Islam, thus the group???s name Boko Haram.
Therefore the group???s aim is to expunge Nigeria of Western influence, which for many in the north means chasing out all Christians, and then Islamize the country through jihad and forced conversion.
Historically Nigerian Christian-Muslim violence occurs in the volatile ???middle belt??? in the central region of the religiously-split, 36 state country. Now Boko Haram is expanding its jihad beyond the ???middle belt??? which feeds sectarian hatred making civil war more likely.
Second, northern Muslims consider the Abuja government illegitimate which fuels Boko Haram???s appeal and recruitment among Muslims.
Nigeria is corrupt at every level, according to Transparency International, and as a result Nigerian democracy has a bad reputation among northern Muslims who are attracted to Boko Haram???s message. The group portrays elections as a Western-style ???innovation??? as well as a ???religion,??? which fits the group???s anti-West ideology.
Further, northern Muslims also tend to feel disenfranchised by the current government because President Jonanthan, a Christian southerner, is not one of their own. The practical consequence of Jonathan???s position is he controls the distribution of Nigeria???s $60 billion in annual oil revenues which understandably enrages northerners who are cut off from Nigerian wealth.
Meanwhile, the average northerner lives on less than $2 a day and two out of three young people in the region are unemployed. No wonder Boko Haram???s message is appealing.
Northern Muslim frustration is reflected in Boko Haram???s latest ideological warning. Last July the group threatened Nigeria must stop abiding by Abuja???s constitution and the government must stop terrorizing Muslims. And because the Abuja ??? read Jonathan ??? government is not Islamic, anyone who works for that government is an ???infidel and could be killed.???
That pronouncement gave Boko Haram license to intensify its insurgency, to attack churches, security forces and government installations which make civil war more likely.
Third, Boko Haram joined the global Islamic extremist movement.
Musa Tanko, a Boko Haram spokesman, announced the group???s intention to join the transnational Islamic extremist movement. He said ???Islam doesn???t recognize international boundaries; we will carry out our operations anywhere in the world if we can have the chance.??? He specifically mentioned the U.S. as a terrorist target. That statement was soon following by an attack on the United Nations compound in Abuja.
Boko Haram released a video after that August 2011 attack meant to send a message to U.S. President Barack ???Obama and other infidels.???The videotaped bomber referred to the UN headquarters as a ???forum of all the global evil,??? and offered praise for Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader killed in May 2011 by U.S. forces in Pakistan.
In January 2012 the UN reported it found ties between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Mali splinter group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). In fact a Mali lawmaker Abdou Sidibe said ???a good one hundred??? Boko Haram fighters had been seen at a training camp in Gao, which is controlled by MUJAO.
General Carter Ham, commander U.S. Africa Command, warned in September 2011 about the connections between Boko Haram and al Qaeda affiliates Somalia???s al-Shabab and North Africa???s AQIM. These groups, Ham said, want to ???more closely collaborate and synchronize their efforts??? in training and operation.
Then last week two Nigerians were charged with collecting money from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen to pay for training for Nigerian militants and last month the U.S. State Department designated three Boko Haram leaders as global terrorists.
Clearly Boko Haram has joined the ranks of the transnational Islamic extremist network and its goal of taking over Nigeria by jihad must be taken seriously.
So what should the U.S. do to help Nigeria?
First it must insist Nigeria do housecleaning by tackling its corruption problem which undermines citizen trust and then raise the standard of people???s lives. Better services in the north will heal a lot of differences and build trust.
It should also try to engage Boko Haram???s political sponsors to find a peaceful solution and only if that fails should it resort to further armed action.
Second, the U.S. should designate Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization, which denies the group access to American-provided material support or resources, prohibits member entry into the U.S. and seizes group funds.
Further, the U.S. should prepare Nigerian security forces with proven counterterrorism skills, equipment and intelligence. And except for training purposes, U.S. troops should not be deployed to Nigeria and only as a last resort should the U.S. assist Abuja with drone strikes against terrorist leaders.
If Nigeria falls into sectarian civil war it could end up becoming another front in the war on terror. That outcome could radically alter the war because of Nigeria???s vast wealth, its 150 million population, and geographical location among other countries with long histories of Muslim grievances and instability.