August 28th, 2011
11:00 PM ET

Nigeria’s growing terrorist threat

Editor’s Note: Daniel R. DePetris is a graduate candidate at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, where he studies security issues and Middle Eastern affairs.  He has contributed to the Small Wars Journal, Foreign Policy in Focus, the Diplomat, and the Christian Science Monitor. If you would like to submit an op-ed for consideration, email the Global Public Square’s editor at amar.bakshi[at]

By Daniel DePetris, Special to CNN’s Global Public Square

Nigerians in the capital city awoke on Friday to a scene of destruction not seen in this commercial hub since the civil war of the 1960’s.  A small car packed with tons of explosives sped in the direction of the UN’s Nigeria headquarters, crashed through the front gates in the main lobby and detonated the fuse just as the building was packed full of UN staff and development workers.  According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, 19 people were killed from the explosion with many more injured .

The attack, the worst in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in many years, is not only symptomatic of the country’s growing terrorism threat from domestic and international groups alike; it is also a vivid reminder that Nigeria’s litany of social and economic problems has not yet been solved.  The fact that the car was laced with explosives and driven through Nigeria’s diplomatic square is a worrying sign that al Qaeda’s suicidal tactics are making their way down into Africa’s most populous state.  Yet the attack was not planned or executed by al Qaeda, but rather by an indigenous radical Islamic sect in Northeast Nigeria calling itself Boko Haram.

Compared to al Qaeda, Boko Haram is a blip on the radar to most international terrorism observers.  But to Nigeria, they are one of the most deadly insurgent organizations in the country, responsible for hundreds of casualties in the north and dozens in the capital.  Nigerian security personnel have been the primary targets of the group since it turned violent in 2009.  Police stations, army barracks, and military checkpoints in the country’s northern provinces are known points of friction for Boko Haram, not only as an “in-your-face” way to resist the Nigerian Government, but as a signal to ordinary Nigerians that President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration is unable to provide even the slightest amount of security to their families.

Unfortunately, Boko Haram is not going anywhere.  Despite Nigerian incursions in the north - where the group is based - and the assassination of the group’s leader Muhammad Yusef in 2009, Boko Haram’s ranks have strengthened over the past year.  Its numbers have grown considerably since Nigeria’s last major security operation - an offensive that was so brutal the civilian population in many areas of the north regarded the government as a bigger predator than the Islamist insurgents using their villages as a staging ground.  Boko Haram has tapped into this popular sentiment, portraying itself as a defender of Nigerian Muslims against a southern Christian authority oppressive in its behavior and indiscriminate in its use of state power.

Nigeria’s federal government faces an intense dilemma going forward.  The first instinct after a horrific and shocking terrorist strike like the one on Friday is too lash out militarily and pursue the terrorist leadership until they are either imprisoned or killed.  But these instincts may only produce more angry Muslim northerners.  Should the central government send the army and police into the north to retaliate, knowing full well how risky such force is to the institution’s credibility?  Or does President Goodluck Jonathan try to use Nigeria’s sub-par law enforcement apparatus to find the terrorists, complemented with outreach to Nigeria’s Muslim community in order to draw them into the decision-making process?  Would that policy jeopardize Jonathan’s support from Nigeria’s southern Christians, who may want a more immediate and forceful response?

Whichever option Jonathan chooses, the attack in Abuja escalates an already dangerous security situation in Nigeria, where fringe movements and Islamists have long viewed terrorism as an acceptable response to what they see as their exclusion from oil wealth and political power.

In Nigeria, with a rising population of 150 million and a noticeable religious divide between Muslims and Christians, a single suicide bombing is far more than an act of terrorism.  It is also a potential catalyst for a wave of reprisal killings between Muslims and Christians - a cycle of violence that benefits no party but the terrorists who sparked it.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Daniel DePetris.

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Topics: Africa

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Wumaduba Garba

    I don't think does people kill innocent citizens are real muslim becoase, is written in holy Quran that even your figting holy war when it is Ramadam period you should cease fire but, this people that i don't know which name to call them but, claiming to be figting holy war are still killing innocent people in the moon of Ramdam. Please FG shuld take serious action about them and let have everlasting peace and development without looking back.

    August 29, 2011 at 12:29 am | Reply
  2. thomae

    Wow. The author knows absolutely nothing about Nigeria. The army is for a long time already engaged in a civil war in the Norht, so there is no need to send them there. Then, which "Northerners" should Jonathan include in decision-making? Half of his cabinet is from the North. Also, there is absolutely no reliable information about who Boko Haram is, if they have split into different groups etc. Completely useless text.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:08 am | Reply
    • thomae

      August 29, 2011 at 3:13 am | Reply
  3. ado mohammed

    Very shallow article, which misinforms, rather than informs. Consider this phrase,"Nigerians in the capital city awoke on Friday to a scene of destruction not seen in this commercial hub since the civil war of the 1960’s". Hellooooo, Lagos is Nigeria's commercial capital, not Abuja, and Abuja did not exist during the Nigerian civil war of the 1960's; it only came into being as a brand new capital in the last 30 years.

    There is no clear cut muslim/christian divide in Nigeria, the issues are much more complicated than that. Jonathan has a Muslim VP, several influential members of his cabinet are Muslim; infact the first army operations against Boko Haram were ordered by a Muslim president, the late President Yaradua.

    GPS should please ensure that their contributors actually have indepth knowledge about the subject matter before publishing their articles.

    August 29, 2011 at 4:21 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Nigeria borders in the north the Sunni Muslim country Niger, which is south of Libya. It explains why Nigeria's north is Muslim with over 50% of the population practising Islam. Furthermore Nigeria has over 250 ethnies. The wealth is in the hands of the Christian south and the resentments towards inequalities are huge.
    Gaddafi had once said that the country Nigeria should be split in two along religious lines. Shortly after he went even further suggesting the country fragment into several states along ethnic grounds.This enraged Nigeria, therefore it voted in favour of the Resolution 1973 at the Security Council on March 18, 2011.

    August 29, 2011 at 6:40 am | Reply
  5. dammie

    i am nigeria, did we awake to the blast? no, it happened when many of us were already at work, after 10am. this author does not know much about nigeria other than what he reads or watches on media such as CNN. it is incorrect to describe nigerians as "Northern Muslims and Christian South" or whatever the language is. alot of people from Maiduguri, base of boko haram, many of them are Christians, and in all the yoruba states in the south, they are both muslims and christians. also Boko Haram leader was not assinated while Goodluck Jonathan was president, but when a fellow Muslim, Umaru Musa YarÁdua was president.
    i think when a person decides to comment on an international relations, he should get his facts right.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:23 am | Reply
  6. thomae

    Please take this article off, you are not doing yourselves any good, cnn.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:40 am | Reply
    • kate

      I am a Nigerian, living in lagos. I quite agree with your opinion. An ignoramus wrote this article. Chikena!

      August 29, 2011 at 11:48 am | Reply
  7. Kingsley

    In as much as I con-core that the writer of the article knows little about Nigeria, I still will want to blame the British for bringing about five different nations together and called them "Nigeria". For goodness sake, I am a Christian from the south, Rivers state to be precise. I have not seen anything in common between these countries that the British brought together. culture, tradition, religion, thinking, language, and even skin colour. I think it is time the so called "Nigeria" divide into its true states.

    August 29, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  8. Cowan Amaye-Obu

    This article needs further research before displayed as informative.

    August 29, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Reply
  9. AAG

    sounds like gang wars. but with religion in the mix.

    August 30, 2011 at 2:48 am | Reply
  10. femi

    Mr DePetris my problem with your article has to do with the fact that there was nothing like Abuja in the 60's. The idea of having a federal capital in the centre of the country was first muted in the 70's and only seriously considered in the 80's and 90's. Abuja also isn't a commercial hub or anything close to that. Its Nigeria's administrative capital. Also in your article you mentioned that musllims in Nigeria view terrorism as " an acceptable response to what they see as their exclusion from oil wealth and political power" This also is entirely wrong as Nigeria has always been a hotbed for religious extremism since the 80's. It would really help to do a little more research before posting articles and misinforming people, especially people who have had no previous knowledge about Nigeria.

    August 30, 2011 at 4:04 am | Reply
  11. Solution

    How about uniting the country by making Nigerians realize that neither Christianity nor Islam are true African religions, they do not belong to the continent, why not start an exercise in converting people out of the 2 crazy religions and start a program that unites people & tribes.

    August 30, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  12. John S.

    Seems the average citizens are but ear mark targets for the gun clothed thugs, fanatics, terrorists, disllusioned. Perhaps the laws should implement the rights of people to bare arms to have more immediate means of protection rather than herded like sheep for th slaughter. Obvious the governments are not able to control the spred of terror in time to save any victims until a catastrophe happens so at least if they had arms they could "Self-Protect".
    Yes, this concept would open up regulatin concerns but at least more people would have a cahnce to defend themselves with equal firepower to thwart those who chose to use forced aggressions .

    November 12, 2011 at 5:47 am | Reply
    • Melchor

      for me these ecoxutiens were a cover up. not just yusuf. all the top command has been quietly executed within days.Also the ferociousness with which the state cracked down leaves the highest death toll in the shortest time ever. not even odi, gbaramatu comibined come any where close to this body count. i here it was like baghdad. There was much to hide.

      February 9, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply

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