Still from a Boko Haram video Source YouTube

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate, Transnational Threats

Earlier this year, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan described Boko Haram, the Islamist group responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in his country, as having global ambitions. A senior Nigerian military commander has put it more starkly: ‘Boko Haram is al-Qaeda’. Many US and UK politicians have called for the group to be proscribed as a terrorist group; the US Department of State recently designated leader Abubakr Shekau – and two others with ties to the group – as terrorists.

In truth, however, it is difficult to quantify the risk that Boko Haram presents outside Nigeria or to say for certain that it is on the verge of becoming an international – rather than a local – threat.

Boko Haram, which has been terrorising northern Nigerian since the early 2000s, began attracting more international attention when it carried out a suicide bombing at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Abuja on August  2011. This was the first time it targeted Western or foreign interests in Nigeria. Since then violence has grown.

However, the UN attack has remained the exception to the rule for Boko Haram; it has spared embassies, NGO workers, and foreign businesses, as well as Nigeria’s neighbouring countries Niger, Chad, and Cameroon from attack. Although Boko Haram has some connections with foreign jihadists and jihadist organisations, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), it has only used these to further its capabilities to carry out attacks within Nigeria.

Boko Haram recruits members from Nigeria and bordering countries, not from the West. It has no known fighters from the Nigerian diaspora or from countries outside West Africa. The group’s financial links to the West and the Middle East are also minimal. It has issued online videos and statements, carried out vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) bombings, and suicide attacks and beheadings, which reflect the group’s commonalities with international jihadi groups.

However, there is no evidence tying Boko Haram to al-Qaeda central or the broader jihadi community on an operational level. Its members have acquired weapons and training from militant groups in the Sahel, including AQIM, and since the demise of Muammar Gadhafi, Libyan arms caches have made their way from the Sahel to Nigeria with the help of AQIM’s regional smuggling networks. Yet the relationship between Boko Haram and other regional groups does not extend far beyond weapons acquisition and training.

Boko Haram exploits Nigeria’s borderlands with Niger, Chad, and Cameroon to smuggle weapons, recruit new members from neighbouring countries, and find refuge beyond the reach of Nigerian Security Services in borderland hideouts. Its growing influence and power within Nigeria has also had a strong ideological impact on Cameroon and, to a lesser extent, Niger and Chad, but operationally Boko Haram has neither threatened Nigeria’s immediate neighbours nor shown the ambition to expand its military activities externally.

The potential exists for criminal gangs to take on the brand name ‘Boko Haram’ or for Boko Haram cells to go ‘freelance’, but Boko Haram continues to resist becoming a wider movement. It fights for the realisation of its founding objectives – to end Western education and influence in Nigeria and to Islamise the country.

For more from Virginia Comolli on Boko Haram, read her piece with Jacob Zenn in Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC): ‘Danger at Home: Boko Haram’s Threat to Nigeria and The Limits of Its Strategic Expansion’ (subscription access).

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