Skip to main content

Devastating Nigeria attacks show twisted ambition of Boko Haram

By Tim Lister, CNN
updated 7:11 PM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Boko Haram seems intent on destroying Nigeria
  • Attacks have shown it can coordinate operations
  • Boko Haram is also forcing thousands of Christians from hotspot areas
  • Its ultimate ambition could now be creating its twisted version of God's Kingdom on Earth.

(CNN) -- A large part of northern and central Nigeria is now at the mercy of intensified attacks by Boko Haram, and the group seems to be embarking on a new phase of its campaign against the Nigerian state -- piling further pressure on the government of President Goodluck Jonathan.

The last four days have seen devastating bomb attacks in Jos, in central Nigeria, as well as a suicide bombing in Kano - the largest city in the north. Two more villages in the state of Borno, Boko Haram's stronghold in the northeast, came under attack, with at least 30 civilians killed. There have also been two bomb attacks in the federal capital, Abuja, in the last five weeks.

What alarms analysts is the way Boko Haram and its supporters are able to carry out multiple attacks on targets far apart, all within days of each other. Jos and Kano are more than 300 miles from Borno.

The double car-bomb attack against a market in Jos on Tuesday, which killed 118 people, according to the National Emergency Management Agency, is typical of its strategy beyond Borno: to strike soft targets in places where sectarian tensions are already high, with massive force. The use of two bombs some 30 minutes apart copied an al Qaeda tactic.

Jacob Zenn, a long-time observer of Boko Haram, says its aim is likely to stretch Nigeria's beleaguered security forces, possibly by combining with another Islamic militant group: Ansaru.

"In 2012, one of Boko Haram's goals was to launch attacks in the Middle Belt and southern Nigeria via the Ansaru networks - in order to spread Nigerian forces thin in Borno," Zenn told CNN. "We may be seeing a similar tactic employed now."

Police in riot gear block a route in Abuja, Nigeria, on Tuesday, October 14, during a demonstration calling on the Nigerian government to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. In April, more than 200 girls were abducted from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, officials and witnesses said. Police in riot gear block a route in Abuja, Nigeria, on Tuesday, October 14, during a demonstration calling on the Nigerian government to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. In April, more than 200 girls were abducted from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, officials and witnesses said.
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
>
>>
Photos: Nigerians protest over kidnapped girls Photos: Nigerians protest over kidnapped girls
Terror rules in northeastern Nigeria
U.S. troops join missing girls search

Zenn says Ansaru networks carried out more than 15 bombings in Jos, Kaduna and Abuja between 2010 and 2012, even though the attacks were attributed to Boko Haram. Those networks, he believes, have now been reactivated.

Zenn, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, says Boko Haram recruits who have trained in Borno - disaffected young Muslims from across the Middle Belt region - may be returning home to "carry out attacks against their enemies -- whether rival Christians or the government."

John Campbell, a former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria and now a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that Ansaru seems to be reappearing but adds that little is known about the group and its leadership.

What is known is that Boko Haram and Ansaru have plenty of money to recruit and finance operatives -- through bank robberies and kidnappings.

Campbell says Boko Haram has become adept at bank robberies and stealing weapons from government armories.

Zenn believes Ansaru's connections to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have helped fill its coffers. In 2012 it kidnapped a French engineer, Francis Collomp. AQIM also held four French hostages - who were freed in late 2013 - reportedly for a ransom payment of $27 million. A few weeks later Collomp escaped, or perhaps was allowed to escape, provoking speculation that Ansaru had been in on the deal and shared the ransom money. Last year, Zenn says, Ansaru received part of a $3 million ransom paid to secure the release of a French family kidnapped by Boko Haram in northern Cameroon.

Weeks after the April 14 kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, worried families and supporters blamed the government for not doing enough to find them. Their cries spread worldwide on social media under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement. Weeks after the April 14 kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, worried families and supporters blamed the government for not doing enough to find them. Their cries spread worldwide on social media under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement.
'Bring Back Our Girls!'
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Bring Back Our Girls Bring Back Our Girls
Boko Haram has Nigeria living in fear
Nigerian Muslims speak out

The challenge for the Nigerian security forces grows by the day. According to locals quoted in the Nigerian media, Boko Haram fighters were able to spend several hours unchallenged looting and killing in the village of Alagano early Wednesday. The village is only a few miles from the school where the girls were abducted in April, and supposedly in an area where there is a heightened military presence.

One option to squeeze Boko Haram would be better military coordination with neighboring states, where the group takes refuge and resupplies itself. On Tuesday, President Jonathan announced plans to bolster a Joint Task Force - with a battalion each from Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. But Zenn says that "thus far all initiatives of this sort have absolutely flunked. It's supposed to exist already in the Multinational Joint Task Force but, because of language issues, mistrust and lack of funding, doesn't really work."

There is also a larger question looming in a country that has had military rule for more than half its life as an independent state. Nigeria has had civilian rule since 1999, but Zenn says there is now a risk that "the still less than 20-year old democracy experiment in Nigeria may be coming to an end, since there are increasing reports of military defections and mutinies."

"With the potential for instability ahead of the elections [due in February next year], the military may step in in one way or another," he adds.

Campbell says the surprise is that the military hasn't moved before now, given the deteriorating situation. But he says it is a much smaller and weaker organization than 10 or 15 years ago; the top brass has been thoroughly politicized and is close to the Presidency. The nightmare scenario, he says, is a mutiny by junior officers. But Campbell cautions that the Nigerian military is little understood by outsiders, which incidentally makes foreign assistance to improve its performance more difficult to deliver.

There is another larger danger for Nigeria stoked by the Boko Haram campaign: a version of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Christians have already fled areas like Gwoza in Borno, and Campbell says that sectarian divisions and violence have divided the city of Jos into predominantly Muslim and Christian districts. After Tuesday's bombings, which were likely calculated to inflame religious tension, Christian youths began setting up roadblocks around their neighborhoods. The Kano attack was also in a Christian neighborhood.

In another sign that sectarian tensions are spreading, some Christian groups have demanded that the next Governor of Lagos - the country's commercial capital and the city least prone to religious conflict - be a Christian.

For now, Campbell says, Boko Haram has the wind in its sails, after a series of devastating attacks in recent months that have humiliated the government and military. The abduction of the schoolgirls has brought it international notoriety and attention.

Far from seizing the opportunity to outline demands for greater autonomy and resources for northern Nigeria, Boko Haram seems set on two goals: the destruction of the Nigerian state and what it -- and it alone -- sees as creating God's Kingdom on Earth.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Thu October 9, 2014
Arwa Damon meets two young orphans, now in Niger, whose mother died years ago -- and whose father was killed in a Boko Haram attack in Nigeria.
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
A small river marks the border between Niger and Nigeria -- a shallow divide between security and the horrors of Boko Haram.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Arwa Damon reports that U.S. sources now believe Boko Haram insurgents may be hiding on the islands of Lake Chad.
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Isha Sesay talks to journalist Aminu Abubakar who says approximately 500 people have been killed in northeastern Nigeria.
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
A policeman stand beside children holding as members of Lagos based civil society groups hold rally calling for the release of missing Chibok school girls at the state government house, in Lagos, Nigeria, on May 5, 2014. Boko Haram on Monday claimed the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria that has triggered international outrage, threatening to sell them as
Police in Nigeria's capital Tuesday made a U-turn, saying a ban on protests in support of the more than 200 girls kidnapped in April does not exist.
updated 2:36 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
A top Nigerian official claims to know where the missing schoolgirls are located, as Arwa Damon reports.
updated 5:00 PM EDT, Mon May 26, 2014
Arwa Damon reports on Nigerian schools sitting empty as residents live in fear of Boko Haram.
updated 7:11 PM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
A large part of northern and central Nigeria is now at the mercy of intensified attacks by Boko Haram, and the group seems to be embarking on a new phase of its campaign.
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
Half of a yellow sun poster
It's one of the most important Nigerian stories to hit the big screen -- yet the director says Nigeria's bureaucracy is purposely preventing its release.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
Opinion: The media turns Boko Haram into 'superstar monsters' -- which is exactly what they want.
updated 8:24 AM EDT, Tue May 13, 2014
CNN's Nima Elbagir speaks with the mothers of two missing Nigerian schoolgirls.
updated 9:18 AM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
With fear in her eyes, a young woman tells CNN's Nima Elbagir, the first journalist to visit Chibok, how she fled gun-toting Islamic extremists.
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Over the last 20 years, the narrative on the African continent has shifted from Afro-pessimism to Afro-optimism.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
Women in repressive countries are fighting back against injustice, writes Frida Ghitis.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue March 4, 2014
Biyi Bandele, who recently directed Oscar nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor in "Half of a Yellow Sun," discusses his remarkable journey.
updated 6:24 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement.
updated 5:33 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Nigeria woke up to a brand new economy, apparently. But the country are suffering and its people responded with a hiss.
updated 5:00 AM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
At 23, many people around the world are still at university -- at that age, Gossy Ukanwoke had already started one.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Oprah, if you're reading this, for goodness sake return this woman's calls.
Are you in Nigeria? Share your thoughts on the schoolgirls' kidnapping, but please stay safe.
ADVERTISEMENT