Back in March, Nigeria’s Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The announcement was met with concern both in terms of what this meant about ISIS’ global spread, but also what it might mean for one of Africa’s most brutal terrorist groups. In reality, very little changed, with the exception that Boko’s media output professionalized somewhat. What the declaration highlighted, however, was the group’s persistence as a feature of the international terrorist landscape, and how clearly more needed to be done to counter the group.
On December 21, the U.K. showed its commitment to this goal with the announcement that it would increase its deployment of soldiers to 300 to support Nigeria’s fight against the group. Taken against a backdrop of increasing deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq and potentially Syria, the U.K. can appear to be spreading itself very thin, but in reality the approach being undertaken in Nigeria is likely the most sensible way for outside powers to play a role in countering regional terrorist groups.
Boko Haram is unlikely to develop into a direct threat to the British mainland. It can never be discounted that individuals somehow linked to the group might end up becoming involved in plotting in the U.K., but the threat from the group is far more pronounced regionally. Born out of a longstanding tension between north and south Nigeria, blended with local tribal differences and with an overlay of violent international Islamist ideology, Boko Haram is a product of local history narratives being co-opted by adopting a global ideology.
International terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS have attempted to reach out to the group to support it, but have encountered problems in trying to operate in Nigeria. Notwithstanding this, Boko Haram has developed links with other regional terror organizations (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al-Shabab), though this is usually instigated by the group seeking connections and training outside its borders. It has also increasingly demonstrated an interest in launching attacks across Nigeria’s borders in Cameroon, Niger and Chad. This is where the biggest threat from the group lies: What was at first a local northeastern Nigerian problem is slowly developing into a regional menace.
Given the U.K.’s strong historical links to the region, it makes sense that Britain would see the fight against Boko Haram as an important foreign policy priority. The deployment of forces to act as trainers for the Nigerian authorities is the most logical contribution to make. Ultimately, the U.K. does not have the necessary forces to deploy in substantial numbers to operate on the ground and eradicate the group, and, in any case, it is not clear that this would be the most effective way to deal with the militants.
As with many conflicts dealing with groups that are born out of local problems with an international ideology overlaid on top, the reality is that the fundamental causes for the group’s existence are only ones that local forces and politicians will be able to properly deal with. An external force may be able to provide some support and play a role in eliminating key leaders or disrupting networks, but this is merely managing the problem.
To deal with the underlying issues that Boko Haram is able to feed off for its support, the Nigerian government will have to find ways of alleviating the gross inequalities that exist between the north and south of the country and the longstanding tensions that exist between different tribal communities in Nigeria. Additionally, it will now have to find ways of working with neighboring powers to ensure that the problem is one that is contained and eliminated, rather than simply displaced across borders.
None of this is something that an outside power like the U.K. will be able to undertake by itself. At best, the U.K. can play a supporting role to local efforts. And this is where the role of trainers is key. Whilst regionally the Nigerian Army has a fairly good reputation, it has faced capability problems—both in terms of funding and equipment, but also corruption and problems with alleged human-rights abuses. The contribution of some British trainers will help not only provide Nigerian forces with a higher degree of professionalism, but also act as a signal of support to the (relatively) new government of Muhammadu Buhari.
More broadly, it is also increasingly the manner in which Western countries will find themselves trying to fight terrorist groups around the world. Rather than sending in ground forces to take and hold territory as an outside force, the effort will be focused on growing a local capability to deal with their own domestic problems. Local forces are more likely to be accepted by the local populations, and will have a more attuned sense of on-the-ground dynamics. This is the approach that has been tried in Afghanistan and is very much the focus of efforts in Iraq and Syria.
Building up local capacity to deal with local problems is the heart of the West’s response to foreign terrorist organizations. But at the same time, as has been seen in Afghanistan recently, it is also not clear that this is always the most effective solution or the degree to which local forces are able to overcome historical tensions to deal with longstanding problems. Whether it proves to be the answer for Nigeria will take time to tell, but by deploying more forces in a training capacity, the U.K. is demonstrating that London thinks it is the best approach.