Saturday, July 14, 2012

Nigeria: Will the Blacklisting of its Leaders end the Boko Haram Quagmire in Nigeria?

Source: ISS

Will the Blacklisting of its Leaders end the Boko Haram Quagmire in Nigeria?

Martin Ewi, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

In a controversial decision on 21 June 2012, the United States Government blacklisted Mr Abu Muhammed Abubakar, the Boko Haram leader popularly known as Imam or Sheik Abubakar Shekau, and two of his cohorts, Khalid el Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar. The three individuals were included on the Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) List, initiated in 2001, pursuant to the Presidential Executive Order 13224, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The decision sent a powerful signal to Boko Haram about the US resolve to vigorously pursue the group. Shekau (43), as the leader of Africa’s most feared terrorist group, bears the greatest responsibility for the egregious crimes that Boko Haram has perpetrated with impunity since its emergence in 2002, in Maiduguri, a remote city in Northeastern Nigeria, where it established its base. The two other top members, Barnawi (36) and Kambar (35), were included on the list for their links with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is already blacklisted. The decision to blacklist the three leaders is loaded with political intrigue and has implications that could precipitate Boko Haram’s tactical evolution. A key question is whether the decision will achieve its ultimate goal of containing the violence in Northern Nigeria?

Boko Haram, denoting, ‘Western education is sin,’ surged to international prominence in 2009, when it staged some of the most audacious and gruesome attacks against civilians and security infrastructure during a five-day riot that resulted in the death of over 800 people and several more sustaining life-threating injuries in various cities in Northeastern Nigeria. Since then, the sect has been relentless in its terror campaign, adopting the al Qaeda-style sophistication and resilience, targeting security agencies, schools, churches, beer parlours, as well as assassination of religious clerics and priests. Indeed, it is estimated that since 2009, the sect has killed over 2 000 people in appalling attacks that have defied one of Africa’s largest security apparatus, bringing to the fore issues about Nigeria’s territorial integrity. It is important to note however, that the blacklisting of the three Boko Haram leaders is not on account of the atrocities they have committed in Nigeria, but in respect to the threat they pose to the United States.

The SDGT List, maintained by the US Treasury Department, carries a series of sanctions including the freezing of funds and other assets held by the three individuals in any territory under US jurisdiction, as well as blocking of all property and interests in property of individuals or groups materially supporting the three Boko Haram leaders. The decision to blacklist three leaders has been received with mixed feelings in Nigeria and the United States. Although its proponents see it as the first step towards bringing Boko Haram to accountability, critics argue, however, that it will have little impact on the group, as Shekau and his commanders have little or no assets in the United States. The designation also falls short of labeling Boko Haram as a whole, a ‘foreign terrorist organisation,’ under the more rigorous Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) List, to allow the US government to pursue all members of the group, who are responsible for the group’s atrocities. It is believed that Boko Haram has several thousand members, many of whom are either directly or indirectly involved in the ongoing bedlam in Nigeria, hence, blacklisting three members is a pinch that could have little effect on the group.

Many Nigerians have been critical of the US move on the grounds that it does not augur well for current initiatives to tame Boko Haram, including the controversial option to negotiate with the sect. The decision also contravenes the Nigerian government’s policy, which continues to treat Boko Haram as a purely domestic problem that requires a Nigerian solution. In this context, the government has vehemently opposed any foreign intervention in its conflict with Boko Haram, opting rather for foreign support to build its own domestic capacity to respond appropriately to the challenge.

Policy experts in the US have also been worried that Washington’s decision could change the current dynamics of the sect, whose attacks have almost entirely focused on Nigeria. Indeed, despite the international nature of its emergence, involving fighters from neighboring countries such as Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, as well as its most propagated links with foreign terrorist groups including al Shabaab in Somalia, AQIM, and the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, Boko Haram has confined most of its attacks to Northern Nigeria. In August 2011, the sect carried out a rare suicide attack against a foreign target — the headquarters of the United Nations in Abuja - killing 23 people including a Norwegian citizen, thus, demonstrating a tendency to hit foreigners. Although the sect has not issued any official response to the blacklisting of its leaders, it might see Washington’s decision as a declaration of war, which could further radicalise the group to evolve into an international terrorist group. Indeed, the potential to target US interests is substantiated by several chilling warnings that the sect has made in the past, threatening to attack American citizens including its embassy in Nigeria.

The preference to include the sect’s leaders in the SDGT list reflects Washington’s dilemma and its ambivalent approach to the Boko Haram quagmire in Nigeria. Despite its unequivocal condemnation of terrorism worldwide, and the fact that Boko Haram has been on the American radar screen for several years, the lack of consensus in Washington has stalled earlier actions against the sect. The Obama regime is caught between competing obligations. On the one hand, it wants to preempt any Boko Haram attacks on US interests or to prevent the internationalisation of the group. On the other hand, it is sympathetic to the group’s underlying structural causes. The US policy is also underpinned by the belief that there are segments of the sect that are non-violent, largely influenced by the myth surrounding Boko Haram and the lack of information about the sect. It is equally credible to argue that the US would not want to blatantly flout Nigeria, a key supplier of oil and other important natural resources to US markets.

Since the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May last year and several top al Qaeda kingpins subsequent to that, targeting terrorist leaders has become the hallmark of the new US counter-terrorism strategy. The blacklisting of Boko Haram’s leaders is consistent with the Obama’s new security orientation towards the continent. Indeed, one of the central pillars of Obama’s strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa is the promotion of peace and security, which obligates the US to combat al Qaeda and its affiliates in Africa. Underpinning this strategy is preemptive action to protect American people and US long-term national interests. This policy has already brought a number of controversial decisions, including the recently announced decision to deploy spy drones in West Africa and the Sahel, raising issues of human rights, especially the right to privacy, and fears that Obama’s strategic approach to the continent is increasingly assuming a militaristic dimension.

Whatever the consequences that the blacklisting of the three Boko Haram members will bring to bear on the future of the group, it is far from being a viable solution to the Boko Haram problem in Nigeria, as it does not respond to the complex underlying factors that motivate terrorism in Africa’s most populous country. This is not the first time that the US is blacklisting members of a group. Indeed, it has now become a common practice that dates back to 1996. Similar strategies have been tried in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and many other places where terrorists dictate the terms of peace, yet terrorism remains prevalent in those countries. Indeed, the US maintains six lists, which contains over 900 000 names of terrorist suspects, who are still at large and continue to commit terrorist acts.

It is therefore unlikely that the blacklisting of Boko Haram’s leaders or even the group as a whole, would have a major impact on its activities in the short term. Instead, the decision may embolden the group to carry out more attacks targeting Nigeria and US or Western interests, in defiance of the US blacklist.
Despite these shortcomings, the decision represents a turning point in efforts to deal with Boko Haram. It would strengthen the much-needed criminal justice dimension as opposed to the prevalent militaristic responses to the group. This means that the three leaders will now be hunted by US intelligence agencies and can be prosecuted by US courts if captured. With this decision, it is just a matter of time for Boko Haram to be included in the FTO list. This will depend on the tactical transformation of the group and the evolution of the position of the Nigerian government. The latter would need a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that addresses the undercutting issues of terrorism in the country and provides a role for external actors including the US and other Western partners, the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States.