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]turner.com.
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.