In 2001 Al Qaeda's Egyptian mastermind Ayman al Zawahiri predicted that the western African country of Nigeria would soon become a critical next front in the terror war against the West. So when a radical Islamist sect called Boko Haram began attacking police stations and government offices recently—initiating a bloodbath in which over 700 have been killed so far—it rekindled fears about the emergence of a regional Islamist front. Nigerians referred to the group as the Taliban. Boko Haram translates roughly as "Western education is a sin," and the group advocates banning Western schooling and the imposition of Sharia across the country. One of the group's training camps, situated along the porous eastern border with Niger, was even called "Afghanistan."
But that's where the similarities end. In the eight years since Zawahiri made his claim, his vision of a grand west African front hasn't panned out. Islamists haven't attacked any foreign targets in Nigeria. There are no Nigerians in Guantánamo. Allegations about small cells surface now and again, but nothing has been proven yet. There's no strong anti-American sentiment in Nigeria, and there aren't any U.S. troops nearby to attack. "West Africa just has not been a fertile ground for jihadism," says Peter Lewis, director of the Africa program at the School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. "This doesn't translate into a regional Islamist network." The death-to-the-Westerners mantra just has no constituency there.
What Nigeria does have—and what the Boko Haram attacks actually reflect—is an immensely complicated (and often very nasty) local politics. Nigeria's mean poverty rate, the number of people living below $1.25 a day, soars above 70 percent, even as a tiny minority of wealthy, and often very corrupt, officials live decadently. Nowhere is the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots more pronounced than in Nigeria's fertile northern regions, where the Boko Haram attacks are occurring. Unemployment is rife, even among college-educated youth. That's partly why northerners opted for alternate political systems, and Sharia law in particular—hoping that bypassing the existing system would guarantee them a bigger piece of the pie. Previously vibrant agriculture and textile industries both collapsed over the last decade as oil discoveries in the south became the government's chief revenue earner. Northerners were meant to receive their share of the wealth.
But it never happened. Millions of dollars in oil revenue that by law should have gone toward service delivery, job creation, and development have instead disappeared into the pockets of corrupt Nigerian officials. Nigeria's former finance minister admitted to NEWSWEEK in 2007 that some $27 billion had simply disappeared from government coffers. In 2007, Human Rights Watch said the Nigerian state "resembled criminal activity more than democratic governance." Two years later, nothing has changed. "What's going on is about the failure of the Nigerian state in the broadest sense," says Richard Moncrieff, West Africa Project director for the International Crisis Group. "[Boko Haram] is more radical and rejectionist than typical." But the underlying causes—unemployment, economic frustration, and a corrupt and venal justice system—are the same as they have always been.
In Nigeria—Africa's most populous country and home to more than 200 ethnic groups—problems like land reform, government agricultural subsidies, immigration, and virtually anything else, can very often take on religious overtones very quickly. Fifteen years ago, a charismatic preacher leading a millenarian group called Maitatsine caused mayhem in the north before the Nigerian security services wiped them out.
Still, Islamism exists there. Different groups—some moderate, some not—have been making inroads into Nigeria for decades: Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brothers from Egypt began to appear in the mid-'90s. Their activism, and the steadily increasing influence that Islamic jurisprudence has had—12 of Nigeria's 36 states have adopted some form of Sharia over the past 10 years—is a direct response to the perception that the Nigerian state is no longer able to provide the basics of good governance and opportunity. "At least Sharia law can claim some legitimacy, some moral center in a situation most people see as being amoral, or immoral, or stacked against them," says SAIS's Lewis.
But none of those groups are waging war on the United States, Western Europe, or Israel. They don't demand the release of Taliban fighters captured in Pakistan's Swat Valley. They don't behead captured soldiers. And they don't slaughter civilians in order to terrify the populace (though they have occasionally used human shields). To the extent that they fight the central government, it's to gain more autonomy and to demonstrate their outrage at both the state and the moderate Islamic leaders whom they believe bowdlerize Sharia. It's not about reestablishing the caliphate. Groups under the influence of Saudis or Egyptians might be dangerous, but they're not the latest front in the global war on terrorism.
Boko Haram is just the latest example, albeit an extreme one. What's worrying isn't the group's fundamentalist interpretation of Islam (it's more than likely that they have capitalized on the term "Taliban" to garner headlines as much as anything). What's worrying is the extent to which the fragmentation of the state may help turn Nigeria's young and unemployed against the restraining influence of the moderate strands of Islam practiced in the north. Already, the government is battling to keep rebels in the Niger delta, far to the south, from overrunning the numerous foreign oil platforms that provide Nigeria with the bulk of its foreign revenue. Boko Haram is just a blip in the overall scheme of things, but it could easily become part of a much bigger problem. Nigeria's government won't have to fret over the global war on terror if it finds itself fighting a six-way civil war.