Daesh’s African ally, Boko Haram, has made the headlines again with yet another grim massacre, this time in Dalori village in their north-east Nigerian enclave where at least 65 people were slaughtered last week, the children being burnt alive inside their homes according to a witness who had hidden up a tree.
It is interesting to observe the difference in the international community’s response to the African terror group as opposed to its panic over Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).
The rest of the world does not consider Abu Bakr Shekhau’s extremist army to be its problem as it ramps up its efforts against Daesh in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Yet in 2014, Boko Haram killed 6,644 people — nearly 500 more than Daesh — and has displaced 2.5 million.
The rationale may be that Nigeria is a large, rich country that should be able to deal with what is essentially a local insurgency itself. It is also, in geopolitical terms, far enough away not to matter.
Western intervention in the three countries where Daesh is strongest was responsible, to some extent at least, for the chaos in Iraq, Syria and Libya, which has allowed the group to put down strong roots. Yet we underestimate Boko Haram at our peril.
Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Bahari, a former General, came to power on two major promises — to wipe out Boko Haram and the corruption which had gutted the state under Goodluck Jonathan.
On December 24 he optimistically declared that Boko Haram was no more; last weekend’s events — together with the news that Nigeria has had to apply for a $3.5 billion (Dh12.85 billion) emergency loan from the World Bank — have deeply disappointed his supporters. The army has achieved some notable military successes against the insurgents but remains inadequate to the task.
The Dalori survivor said terrified villagers made numerous calls to the military during the slaughter, but no help came. Last March, when Boko Haram formally joined Daesh, it adopted the moniker ‘Islamic State West Africa Province’. The link is not in name only: the head of the US Africa Command, General David M. Rodriguez, has warned that the groups are working closely together and that the African extremists are receiving training, weapons and funds from Daesh.
Hundreds of Boko Haram fighters have been redeployed to Libya where Deash have seized control of substantial territories along the coast. The two groups have also worked together on several operations both in Africa and the Middle East; meanwhile, in the April 2015 edition of Dabiq, Daesh’s English-language magazine, the group called on its growing ranks of foreign recruits to join Boko Haram ‘if you can’t come to the caliphate’.
Recent videos released by Boko Haram bear Daesh insignia and are of a similar, high-definition production quality suggesting the presence of Daesh technicians in their ranks. In addition, the low profile adopted by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Shekhau — who used to regularly issue threatening video messages — indicates that the group is taking its orders directly from Daesh.
In October 2015, Boko Haram urged Somali terror group, Al Shabaab — the perpetrators of numerous atrocities, including the 2013 Westgate Shopping Mall massacre in Kenya — to pledge allegiance to Daesh ‘Caliph’, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. A splinter group broke away from the group (which is ‘officially’ allied to Al Qaida) and did so. In January this year, Daesh issued a new video, urging the rest of the group to ‘defect’ and join it in its ‘expansion’ in Africa.
As Daesh seeks to consolidate its positions in North Africa (mostly Libya, the Sinai and the Sahara), Boko Haram has begun to attack outside its own territories with a string of suicide bombings in Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Daesh has sleeper cells throughout the Maghreb — we recall with horror the Tunisian beach massacre of European tourists — and has made inroads in Algeria where two former Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) splinter groups have pledged allegiance to Al Baghdadi.
A nightmare scenario would be produced if the various, ostensibly like-minded, extremist groups began to cooperate — including current Daesh nemesis, Al Qaida. The latter overcame its differences with Daesh affiliate Al Mourabitoun last November to mount a joint attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, which left at least 19 people dead.
In Libya, Al Qaida affiliate Ansar Al Sharia has both worked and clashed with Daesh. In many cases it is the group with the deepest pockets which wins the most recruits and defectors; in Nigeria there have even been reports of Christians working with Boko Haram because, since their merger with oil-rich Daesh, they have been paying $400 a month in a deeply impoverished area.
Much of Daesh’s wealth comes from the oilfields and installations it has seized in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. Now that its tenure of these valuable prizes is threatened as the international community ramps up its efforts against the group, it has turned its sights on Africa. Libya sits on the continent’s largest oil reserves at 46.6 billion barrels, while Nigeria has proven oil reserves of 37.2 billion barrels.
Boko Haram has yet to seize any important oil installations although it has issued specific threats to refineries and pipelines in the Niger Delta and Lake Chad and its recent incursions into Cameroon and Chad were in oil-rich regions. Since March, the group has also been implicated in the theft of millions of dollars worth of crude.
Just as the international community was caught napping while Daesh laid the cornerstones of its ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq, it risks losing sight of a rapidly expanding network of extremely dangerous, ruthless and efficient Daesh affiliates in Africa.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor-in-chief of digital newspaper Rai alYoum. He is the author of The Secret History of Al Qaeda; A Country of Words, his memoirs; and Al Qaeda: The Next Generation.