AL-QAEDA IN NIGERIA: GOING FULL CIRCLE
Recent reports indicate growing concern that Al-Qaeda network plans to use Nigeria as base to launch attacks on Europe. In this piece, TUNJI AJIBADE, traces the history of the Al-Qaeda terror network and states that confronting its presence on Nigerian soil by the nation’s security community may not necessarily need to be a focus, but the local groups to which the network has been a source of inspiration
When a young Nigerian, Farouk Abdumutallab, made a failed attempt to bring down a plane on US territory in December, 2009, attention was focused on Nigeria as a possible recruit ground for the Al-Qaeda terror network. It therefore did not come as a surprise to keen watchers the news from UK security agencies that the network plans to use Nigeria as base to launch attacks on Europe. This was reported in the British newspaper, The Mirror, of July 5, 2011. Quoting an unnamed Intelligence source, the paper said that “radical Islamic groups in the West African nation are dramatically stepping up their campaigns.” As a result of dozens of flights the go from Nigeria to the UK every day, the Intelligence community over there worries it may have to prevent possible attacks here in Nigeria, or it may have to do it in the UK.
At the moment, Nigeria has its local version of terror group named Boko Hamam. This organization has engaged in a number killings and bombings including the recent bombing of the nations police force headquarters, Abuja. The question that searches for an answer therefore is: If the nation has a challenge with a local terror unit, how would it deal effectively when a worldwide network such as Al-Qaeda uses its soil as base for operation?
From the 1970s, there had been frustration in nations where Muslims are in the majority. The reasons for this varied, but one reason was the discontent with the increasing secular trend that the leadership in some of these nations followed. Economic and social issues too played a role. But a major shift occurred when it was discovered that an Islamic state was possible with the success of the Iranian revolution of 1979 against the backdrop of the Cold War that pitched East’s communism against West’s Capitalism. Around this time also in the North of Afghanistan, Mujahidin began to gather from all over the world. One thing united them - their faith. There aim was to push back the Soviet military that had invaded Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden came on the scene at this time. He was a young man who had a wealthy father, a Saudi Arabian construction magnate. He was among the Mujahidin and he was determined to use his resources to assist groups in Afghanistan that resisted the Soviets. He brought in workers and equipment and he began to recruit to build a system that provided support to Muslim around the world. His vision remained at this time to provide a united front in a holy struggle against the communists in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had contact with Abdullah Azam, a spiritual mentor who was a Jordanian but of Palestinian descent. With his resources and business savvy, he combined forces with Azzam’s spiritual leadership. Together, they created a group that operated from Pakistan. This served to provide support across borders for Mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan. Both leaders also linked up with leaders of jihadist groups around the world, while they aided the Mujahidin for a decade as it forces the Soviets to leave Afghanistan.
Another man who proved useful in the struggle had also linked up with Bin Laden while the struggle against the Soviets lasted. He was young Egyptian physician, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He had been a leader among militant jihadists in Cairo from the age of fifteen years. He was captured as one of the people that assassinated former President Anwar Sadat. Al-Zawahiri decided to be of service in Pakistan after he was released from prison in 1984. It was where he met Bin Laden. Like Azzam, Al-Zawahiri had intellectual knowledge of Islamic law and he was committed to the ideology. When the Soviets were defeated, he returned to Egypt. Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia, and there he had problems with the political establishment as a result of his criticisms. He was exiled and his citizenship was revoked. He moved his base of operation through Sudan to Pakistan in the 1990s while he remained in touch with Al-Zawahiri, who continued to be a leading force in Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, one of the largest and most active jihadist groups in Middle East. Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri realized that Islamic discontent was festering all over the world, propelled by issues such as Soviet activities against Islam, foreign policies of nations and globalization. But it was not caused by any single factor. Bin Laden saw an opportunity to harness strong disillusionments among Muslims that were no longer local but global, and he used this to his advantage.
When the official regime in Afghanistan that the Soviets supported fell from power in 1992, the Taliban gained control and it rule from 1996 to 2001. While its rule allowed for a period of stability in that war-torn country, it also made the country a base for Islamist ideology where militant jihadists, including al-Qaeda had a home. From here, Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri continued to be an essential international connection. They were a link between other jihadist groups and they formed themselves into providing a ‘support and services’ to organizations in various countries for paramilitary guerillas, bringing them into the operational core of a terrorist network. Bin Laden would, in 1998, formalized the relationships among these groups under the umbrella of an organization he called ‘‘The Islamic World Front for the Struggle against the Jews and the Crusaders’’
From the onset, Al-Qaeda sought to be “the base’, a foundation (which is the meaning of its name) of support among movements across the world. From supporting local jihad efforts in Afghanistan it first emerged on the global stage informing world Muslims to be commit to jihad against the United States of America. But the target over the years had been extended to include anything linked to the United States, and by extension everything Western. The September 11, 2001 attacks on US soil are part of this. But war on terror has since reduced the capacity and efficiency with which Al-Qaeda engages in recruitment and training of new members. Yet the movement continued to attract, motivate, inspire individuals who are responsive to their call for jihad. This has been an area of success for the organization. Observers have insisted that Al-Qaeda never has sought to be a traditional terrorist group or organization. Rather, it provided supports for local groups, inspired and provided a global focus and leadership. It is instructive that following the September 2011 attacks, Rohan Gunaratna (2001), author of Inside Al Qaeda, pointed out about Al-Qaeda that “just as during the Cold War, the fight is against an ideology, and not against a physical force.”
Other analysts have gone ahead to note that while military intervention may be a necessary part of the strategy, it may not be sufficient. This was the reason Dr. Stephen Biddle of the US Army War College noted after the 9/11 attacks that “… this war (on terrorism) can be won, not merely contained. But this will require war aims focused on our enemies’ ideology, not their tactics… Our real opponent is the ideology that underpins al-Qaeda’s terrorist program…”
Since the global war on Al-Qaeda became stronger, the organization had relied more on affiliated networks that work to recruit, train, and operate at a local level and it had managed to adapt to changing situations. Of necessity the group has moved organizational decisions away from the core of its leadership and into the field. Yet the cells to which it had decentralized do not appear to be functioning with total independence and they still have support from the network though funding and direction. But the role of the leaders of ‘the base’ even before the Americans killed Osama Bin Laden had become more inspirational than instrumental. Now what remains of the network claims it is replacing its depleted leadership, including Bin Laden, and localized groups across countries have vowed to hold on to the ideology their assassinated leader had professed. Bin Laden may be no more, but there are many in parts of Nigeria such as the Boko Haram group that his ideology will continue to inspire. These are crucial points to note by Nigeria’s security forces who may be on the lookout for a tangible Al-Qaeda to confront based on the latest information emanating from UK security agencies. It is noteworthy also that the network does not instigate disillusionment, it only provides supports for localized groups which express their frustrations that local conditions has festered.
Analysts have argued that local socio-political and economic conditions led to the emergence of the bomb-throwing groups such a Boko Haram. It may well be in paying attention to these issues that the real solution to the activities of this local terror group lies. The nation’s security forces may not necessarily need to search for foreigners on its soil with the expectation that they will come as a tactical force and begin to launch attacks on both Nigerians and Europe. For if the Abdumutallab case is anything to go by, providing support and inspiration to Nigerians whose country has routinely frustrated may just be all that the Al-Qaeda global network needs if it wants to carry out operations even against Europe. For the purpose of access to where it intends to carry out an operation, it is known that the network has shown interest in people with U.S. or other Western passports and who do not fall into the expected Al-Qaeda profile of ‘young Arab male.’ And as for capability, it seeks for persons with technical know-how in areas such as chemistry and engineering or operational abilities such as bomb making or use of weapons because of its much-harassed and limited opportunity to recruit and train. In that case, it is feared that the Nigerian system may have made jobless and frustrated university graduates available to a terror network that is international in outlook but which has gone the full cycle to rely on local discontents in order to effectively operate.
Ajibade is a consultant. [email protected]