Threat Level Rising: How African Terrorist Groups Inspired by al-Qaeda Are Gaining Strength

  • Share
  • Read Later
Samuel James / The New York Times / Redux

Terror alert A Nigerian soldier guards a canal in Maiduguri, the town where the Boko Haram movement arose

The moment Nigeria's Islamists graduated from local to international threat can be dated almost precisely, to just before 11 a.m. on Aug. 26. Mohammed Abul Barra, 27, a car mechanic and father of one from Maiduguri in Nigeria's northeast, had just turned into the diplomatic enclave in Nigeria's hot, dusty capital, Abuja. As he passed by embassies and empty lots, Barra presented an unremarkable sight: his car was a Honda Accord sedan, and Barra dressed and drove conventionally. The first indication of anything unusual was when he swerved into the exit lane of a 100-m driveway leading to U.N. House, the international organization's four-story headquarters. He bounced over one speed bump, then another. Then he drove straight at a 3-m sliding steel security gate, hitting its right edge so that it popped off its rail and fell harmlessly to one side. Barra repeated the maneuver with a second gate a few meters on and, the way now clear, drove on at U.N. House with the same deliberate, unhurried speed. He crashed into the lobby. The car, finally halted by a wall, bounced back. Barra did not try to get out. To one side, a security guard stood frozen. Others — U.N. staff, security personnel — ran away, then turned back. Barra stayed at the wheel. "Was he having second thoughts? Was he praying?" asks U.S. Ambassador Terence McCulley in Abuja, reconstructing the scene based on surveillance-camera footage he has viewed. "Was he searching for the detonator?" After a full 16 seconds, the car exploded.

Debris killed perhaps a dozen people. Most of the other 24 dead and 115 wounded, nearly all Nigerian, suffered massive internal injuries as a blast wave big enough to flatten a water tower 100 m away crushed their insides. An FBI forensic team later determined the bomb was colossal, and clever. Around 150 kg of plastic explosives had been placed inside a metal cone — a shaped charge — to focus its force. "This was very, very carefully planned," says Nigeria's national-security adviser, General Andrew Owoeye Azazi. "This was not just a local guy from Maiduguri."

The attack's ingenuity led many to conclude that Africa's nascent Islamic terrorism threat is metastasizing. The continent is home to three main Muslim militant movements. All are al-Qaeda "franchises," groups inspired by Osama bin Laden, even after his death, and his organization, even if they have no direct contact with it. All are also based in the Sahara or the Sahel, the semidesert that runs beneath it. In the scrub of northern Nigeria, a series of groups known collectively as Boko Haram have killed thousands — soldiers, police, civilians — in the past half-decade, and up to 600 this year. To their north, deep in the Sahara, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is led by Algerian Islamists who kidnap and sometimes kill Westerners in Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania. In the latest such attack, on Nov. 25, suspected AQIM militants kidnapped a Swede, a Dutchman and a South African from a restaurant in Timbuktu, Mali — and killed a German who refused to go along — a day after another group abducted two French geologists in the east of the country. In Africa's eastern deserts in Somalia, al-Shabab fights the official government and its protectors: African Union soldiers from Uganda and Burundi and, since October, an invading Kenyan force, plus, since November, an invading Ethiopian one. Like AQIM, al-Shabab has an international reach. Kenya blames it for several grenade attacks inside its borders. In July 2010, al-Shabab suicide bombers killed 76 people in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

Terror on the Go
The Abuja attack suggests Boko Haram is linking to, and learning from, the two other groups. Nigeria's Azazi says before the attack he had intelligence of Boko Haram fighters traveling to al-Shabab strongholds in Somalia. A man who identifies himself as Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa has also boasted to journalists of sending hundreds of fighters to train there. Boko Haram's links to AQIM are already well established. McCulley says the U.S. has seen reports of Nigerian militants traveling to northern Mali for training with AQIM since 2005. Certainly, the May kidnapping of a Briton and an Italian working for a construction company in northwestern Nigeria suggests AQIM's methods are spreading. In August, the pair appeared in a videotape sent to a news agency in which they identified their abductors as al-Qaeda.

Will Islamist insurgencies in Nigeria and Kenya — the economic powerhouses of West and East Africa — wreck Africa's nascent economic growth, just as the continent struggles to emerge from poverty and conflict? The Arab Spring seems to make al-Qaeda far less relevant, but does this coalescing threat make Africa a new battlefield in the fight against terrorism? The officer who heads Washington's Africa Command (Africom) thinks so. On Sept. 14, General Carter Ham told reporters in Washington: "If left unaddressed, you could have a network that ranges from East Africa through the center. Those three organizations have very explicitly and publicly voiced intent to target Westerners and the U.S. specifically. To me, that is very, very worrying."

Maiduguri, Barra's hometown, is on the southern edge of the Sahara in Nigeria's northeast. Hot, poor, and with some of the world's worst levels of education and health, Maiduguri has been a fount of Islamic revolution since the early 19th century, when Muslim rebels overthrew the ruling Hausa dynasties, accusing them of un-Islamic corruption. That dynamic — antiauthoritarian, revivalist Islamic movements challenging an avaricious, secular elite — endures. Its latest manifestation is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad, better known as Boko Haram, meaning Western Education Is Sacrilege.

The movement has its religious foundation in the Izala sect, a group of Islamic preachers founded in the 1970s and led, by 2005, by a man called Mohammed Yusuf, who had studied in Saudi Arabia. Why bother with Western education, Yusuf would ask in sermons, when there were no jobs even for graduates? Hadn't Western influence given them Ali Modu Sheriff, a state governor who spent little on his people but built himself a palace of marble pillars and golden gates in Maiduguri? Yusuf set up a camp called Afghanistan to train volunteers for his revolution.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3