Co-written by Quentin Wight
This is a summary of an event with Olivier Guitta, Jacob Zenn and Robin Simcox, chaired by John Glen MP, on 17th June 2014; it reflects the views expressed by the speakers.
On Tuesday 17th June 2014, John Glen MP and the Henry Jackson Society hosted an event at the House of Commons discussing the growing network of violent Islamist groups and their tactics. The talk covered the threat posed by the Nigerian group Boko Haram and how to respond to it; as well as the situation in Iraq and what options the West has regarding the expansionist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Discussing these issues were Olivier Guitta, director of research at the Henry Jackson Society, Jacob Zenn, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation specializing in African and Eurasian Affairs, and Robin Simcox, research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. The panel argued how porous state borders, ineffective military strategies, economic and ideological support for terrorist groups and a lack of consistently effective policies by the West are contributing to the rise of Islamist extremism.
Olivier Guitta discussed the tactics of Boko Haram and the strategies being used to defeat them.
Boko Haram and Ansaru
- In 2002, Osama Bin Laden sent US$3,000,000 to Nigeria. Some of that money ended up in the hands of Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s founder.
- In May 2014, the United Nations Security Council added Boko Haram to its al-Qaeda Sanctions List.
- Boko Haram is closely tied to al-Qaeda groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). If Boko Haram and AQIM were to merge, it could control territory from Morocco to Nigeria.
- It appears that a military engagement will be necessary. Yet in terms of intelligence collection, the sheer size of the terrain the aircraft has to cover makes recognition by satellite and drones very difficult. Therefore, the key asset will be human intelligence.
- Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group, has been operating in Nigeria since May 2011. Their tactics are very close to al-Qaeda; notably using suicide bombings.
- Boko Haram are a very mobile group that take advantage of Nigeria’s neighbouring countries’ porous borders.
- A 7th May summit in Paris saw Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Benin and Chad pledge to share intelligence and coordinate their activities against Boko Haram.
- The Cameroon-Nigeria border is still very easy to cross.
- At present Boko Haram finds a safe haven in Cameroon as Nigerian soldiers cannot pursue them there. It would be useful if Cameroon allowed Nigerian troops to pursue Boko Haram across the border.
- Cameroon serves as a recruiting ground for Boko Haram and there have been allegations of potential complicit of Cameroonian politicians with Boko Haram.
- Chad has not suffered any attacks from Boko Haram. The borders are very tightly controlled with computerised checks at the border posts and systematic searches.
- However, the border around Lake Chad is very difficult to monitor and reports have emerged of Boko Haram using it for arms smuggling, cross-border raids and moving hostages.
- Edmond Mulet, the Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations at the UN, has stated that there is some kind of Boko Haram presence in CAR. Additionally, there have been reports that the missing schools girls captured by Boko Haram might be in CAR.
- The border with Nigeria is not closely monitored. The Nigerian refugee population in Niger is approximately 41,000. According to some sources, some of the refugees include Boko Haram members and radical imams.
- Fighting has broken out on the border between Niger’s security forces and Boko Haram.
Jacob Zenn discussed Boko Haram’s growing network.
- A tribal elder in northern Cameroon who runs a car import business in Qatar is one of the main intermediaries between Boko Haram and Ansaru kidnappers and those seeking to free hostages. Embezzlement of funds that go to Qatar via car imports is likely, helping to disguise how the money gets paid for these hostages.
- Qatar has been involved in financing Islamist militant groups in the Sahel. This has included providing them with various forms of weapons and ideological training.
- There is likely a network connecting the funding of militants in northern Mali by Qatar and Boko Haram’s acquisition of arms and training in northern Mali.
- A pattern Qatar has used over the past decade has been to take in various Islamist leaders from around the world and then return to their home countries in order to become politicians again. Leading figures from Hamas, the Taliban, Ansar Dine and the Islamic Salvation Front have all taken refuge in Qatar.
- For Qatar, by extending its geopolitical network to northern Mali, Nigeria, Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood and so forth, it is able to ensure its long term sustainability.
- In contrast to Qatar, Saudi Arabia is more of an ideological supporter of Boko Haram. A lot of funding that went to the first Boko Haram mosques came from Saudi Arabia via Sudan.
- Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are funding the building of mosques that are preaching an intolerant form of Islam throughout West Africa. This has given rise to a trend of anti-Christianity among the youth; one of the reasons we are seeing an increase of Muslim on Christian violence in Nigeria.
Robin Simcox focused on the situation in Iraq and what the future could there.
Re-emergence of violence
- The US leaving Iraq removed a key check in the Iraqi system. The US was generally seen as an impartial actor by various Sunni, Shia and Kurd groups. Politically, the US was an honest broker.
- The Sunni tribes had been an absolutely key as part of why the US surge helped defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq/ Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in late 2006 – early 2007.
- The strength of ISI largely depended on how much space the Sunni tribes gave them. The loss of the US presence led to a great increase in sectarian rhetoric and policy from Nouri al-Maliki, meaning there was no real motivation for the Sunni tribes to help control ISI. This led to an increase in the danger the group posed.
- This was invigorated even further by the conflict in Syria.
How can the West react?
- One option is to work with Iran, but Iran is not a helpful actor in Iraq and will not become a peacemaker in order to benefit the West.
- Another is military involvement, specifically US air strikes and bombings by drones. Unfortunately however when the US left Iraq in 2011, they lost a lot of their intelligence gathering capacity. This would limit its military options.
- The West should avoid the option of doing nothing. There is an ideological struggle occurring not just in Iraq, but in the broader region. Ultimately our collective security will be imperilled if the West leans towards isolationism.