23 Apr 2014

Boko Haram: Nigeria faces Islamist war of attrition

The Nigerian government seems to be no closer to finding the missing girls seized in an attack on a school last week. Channel 4 News looks at the questions the crisis raises.

The militant Islamic group suspected of being behind the kidnapping of some 234 girls is called Boko Haram, which means “western education is sinful”.

Boko Haram are opposed to education for women and are fighting for the creation of an Islamic state in northern Nigeria – waging a war of attrition against security forces and increasingly targeting the local population.

On the same day the group struck at Chibok boarding school in the north east, they detonated a bomb at a bus station in Abuja, killing 70 people.

Where did Boko Haram come from?

The group was founded in 1995 as a Muslim youth group called Shabaab, becoming Boko Haram in 2002, establishing their own mosque and school in the Borno state, which is believed to have been a recruiting ground for jihadists.

In 2009 the group began their violent campaign after an attempted crackdown by Nigerian authorities, who believed they were arming themselves.

A long campaign of assassinations and bomb attacks followed by Boko Haram, with Amnesty International reporting that 1,500 people have been killed already this year in the region.

More than half the victims are reported to be civilians and both Boko Haram and Nigerian authorities stand accused of acts that may constitute “crimes against humanity”.

Have authorities lost control?

President Goodluck Jonathan has tried to play down the threat, claiming the problem posed by Boko Haram was “temporary”, but three states in the north have been in a state of emergency for the last year.

Authorities recently faced severe criticism over claims that helicopters have been able to drop supplies of arms, food and medicine to Boko Haram strongholds in the north east of the country.

Speaking earlier this month former chief of the air staff, Air Vice Marshall Al-amin Dagash asked: “How did a little band of rag-tag misguided youths metamorphose into a well-kitted, well-armed killing machine moving freely in convoy of vehicles and supported by helicopters?”

In a bid to halt the group, who are reported to have members from neighbouring countries Chad and Niger, the deputy president of Nigeria’s chamber of commerce has called for the borders to be closed.

The military faces a difficult battle, with Human Rights Watch warning that it would be “unacceptable” to fight the militants through normal military means as they are living and operating amongst civilians.

How is the west responding?

The US Africa Command has helped to establish the Nigerian Army Special Operation Command to combat the threat and transform Nigerian troops into a force capable of tackling the threat.

Nigeria has already appealed to France, and neighbouring Francophone countries Chad, Niger and Cameroon for help. French President Francois Hollande has vowed to help the country but currently has troops tied up in Mali and Central African Republic.

Britain proscribed Boko Haram last year and offered help to Nigeria with their counter-terrorism, however the British high commissioner has also noted the importance of a development programme in the poverty-stricken region to undermine support for terrorist groups.

At present the FCO warns Britons travelling to Nigeria that there is a “high threat from terrorism” and says there is a risk of retaliation for intervention in Mali against al- Qaeda aligned militants.

The FCO has also noted Boko Haram’s February warning that it will begin targeting oil workers in the southern Niger Delta region – where they previously did not operate.

Watch below: Dr Ona Ekhomu, security expert, talks to Channel 4 News about the security implications.