11 Mar 2012

West ignores Nigeria’s terrorists ‘at its peril’

Writing for Channel 4 News, defence analyst Anthony Tucker-Jones warns that the west ignores the escalation in activities of Nigeria’s Boko Haram at its peril.

Chris McManus.

The failure of the recent hostage rescue mission in Nigeria has brought into sharp focus the West’s seeming indifference to the growing threat posed by Islamist group Boko Haram.

Although freelance al-Qaeda affiliates are believed to be responsible for kidnapping Chris McManus and Italian Franco Lamolinara last May, they undoubtedly had links into a-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram. The latter though strenuously denies any responsibility.

The Nigerian Joint Security Task Force (JSTF) assisted by the SBS and Royal Marines attempted to rescue the two men in the city of Sokoto on 8 March. Following an exchange of gunfire their captors killed them before they could be released.

A captured kidnapper, Abu Muhammad, is believed to have given up the men’s location to the security forces. The authorities acted swiftly as intelligence indicated the men were about to be shot by the panicking gang.

Although Italian national pride has been affronted that they were not consulted or their GOI naval commandos involved – it would have made little difference to the outcome.

Sectarian tension

Talk of a north-south/Muslim-Christian civil war in Nigeria may be premature, but Boko Haram is successfully capitalising on the sectarian tensions that beset the country.

Often dubbed the Nigerian Taliban this militant Islamist faction has been evolving into a highly effective terrorist organisation.

It has graduated from drive by shootings to large-scale suicide car bombings. In recent months the Nigerian military fought running gun battles with militants in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri.

While the Nigerian security forces have finally been goaded into action their operations have often fanned the flames amongst Nigeria’s disgruntled northern Muslim population.

Although the Nigerian Army has extensive peacekeeping experience in support of UN operations, it is much less successful at home.

With about 60,000 troops under arms, the best equipped formations are the Brigade of Guards based in Abuja and two mechanised infantry divisions.

The US is the largest foreign investor in Nigeria, so has the most to lose should the country succumb to the escalating anarchy.

A car burns at the scene of a bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla (Reuters)

Britain – a fair weather friend?

Under the US Security Assistance Program members of the JSTF have received counter-insurgency training in America. It is believed that the Nigerian Army is working to establish a full division with such expertise.

The Nigerian Navy has also been given a number of former US Coast Guard Cutters to help counter piracy in the Niger Delta. Pirates have been shooting at ships and kidnapping crewmembers over the past few months.

Last year the JSTF conducted Operation Restore Order in Maiduguri and more recently was involved in Operation Pulo Shield in the troubled Niger Delta.

JSTF intelligence appears to be improving. Following a tip off it seized a large cache of arms and ammunition in Kano State in early February, which included almost 40 assault rifles.

Former colonial power Britain stands accused of being a fair weather friend. Some Nigerians feel that Britain did not do enough to support the Nigerian Army in Sierra Leone serving with ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group) forces.

In contrast America with deeper pockets has made a point of assisting Nigerian peacekeeping efforts in Africa.

The British Minister for the Armed Forces, Nick Harvey, was in Abuja at the end of last year discussing bilateral relations.

It is likely that Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara came up in the conversation along with British assistance to secure their release.

A Downing Street source states that the Cobra (Cabinet office briefing room A) emergency committee met 20 times regarding the men’s situation.

At least the SBS, who were first on the scene, tried to help; while the rest of the international community sits on the sidelines, US military aid is making little difference to the Nigerian Government’s war against Boko Haram and its anarchic supporters.

Anthony Tucker-Jones is a freelance defence writer and an expert on regional conflicts. He is also the terrorism and security correspondent for Intersec – The Journal of International Security.