BY DEVLIN BARRETT & MUSA IBRAHIM
The shooting clattered on for 30 minutes, residents of this dusty town say, and when it ended, four militants holding a German engineer hostage were dead. So were the engineer, and four innocent bystanders.
In vast West Africa, a new front-line region in the battle against al Qaeda, Nigeria is America’s strategic linchpin, its military one the U.S. counts on to help contain the spread of Islamic militancy. Yet Nigeria has rebuffed American attempts to train that military, whose history of shooting freely has U.S. officials concerned that soldiers here fuel the very militancy they are supposed to counter.
It is just one example of the limits to what is now American policy for policing troubled parts of the world: to rely as much as possible on local partners. The U.S. and Nigerian authorities don’t fully trust each other, limiting cooperation against the threat. And U.S. officials say they are wary of sharing highly sensitive intelligence with the Nigerian government and security services for fear it can’t be safeguarded. Nigerian officials concede militants have informants within the government and security forces.
For the U.S., though, cooperation with Nigeria is unavoidable. The country is America’s largest African trading partner and fifth-largest oil supplier. Some 30,000 Americans work here. Nigeria has by far the biggest army in a region where al Qaeda has kidnapped scores of Westerners, trained local militants to rig car bombs and waged war across an expanse of Mali the size of Texas. Last month, al Qaeda-linked extremists’ attack on a natural-gas plant in faraway Algeria left at least 37 foreigners dead.
In Nigeria, a homegrown Islamic extremist group loosely called Boko Haram has for years attacked churches and schools. The name translates as “Western education is sin.” Now, the sect’s followers are joining a broader holy war, led by al Qaeda and financed by kidnappings. On February 16, militants in the north abducted seven mostly European construction workers.
Three days later, gunmen crossed into neighbouring Cameroon to kidnap a family of French tourists outside an elephant park. The family appeared in a YouTube video posted this week, its four children squirming on camera, as a spokesman read a message for France, which last month attacked al Qaeda fighters in its former West African colony of Mali. “We say to the president of France, we are the jihadists who people refer to as Boko Haram,” the turban-shrouded man said. “We are fighting the war that he has declared on Islam.”
French officials said they were analyzing the video and considering the difficulties in either entrusting Nigerian soldiers to rescue their citizens or staging a rescue raid in a foreign land. Such kidnappings, like the attack in Algeria, show how extremist groups are leapfrogging borders.
Boko Haram has fought alongside the regional al Qaeda affiliate known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, according to residents of Mali. Hundreds of self-identified Boko Haram fighters last year learned to fire shoulder-mounted weapons at an AQIM-affiliated training camp in Timbuktu, Mali, said a cook who fed them and neighbors who watched them. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau spent much of last year in Mali, according to a senior Nigeria security adviser.
In Boko Haram “you have a group that’s becoming increasingly efficient and one that al Qaeda, AQIM, can use down the road,” said John Giacalone, a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent in New York who oversees counterterrorism work in Africa. Days after the gas-plant attack in Algeria, French oil company Total SA FP.FR +2.18 per cent said it was moving expatriate workers from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, to the south of the country, where kidnappings are more common but less violent.
While the French battle militants in Mali, the Obama administration has limited its role to providing logistical and intelligence support and drone surveillance from a base in nearby Niger, believing others such as France, Nigeria and other African allies have more immediately at stake and should assume most of the risks and costs. That fits a broader U.S. pattern: After a decade of troop-intensive land wars that have strained American budgets and left the country war-weary, the U.S. is depending increasingly on regional powers.
“It can’t just be the United States. It can’t just be Europe. It’s got to be the African nations as well joining in this effort,” departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview. The new national-security team President Barack Obama has chosen is expected to embrace a light-footprint approach that relies on special forces, drones and local partners to combat terrorism, officials say.
Mr. Panetta brushed aside doubts about relying on Nigerian forces. “You can’t give up on this thing,” he said. “It’s really important for the African nations to be able to develop their capabilities. I don’t think we should just assume that we can’t do that.”
John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said Nigeria is the African country of the greatest strategic importance to the U.S., but has sought to keep the American military at arm’s length. “The Nigerians regard themselves as the hegemons of West Africa, and they are traditionally suspicious of other powers involving themselves,” said Mr. Campbell, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Doyin Okupe, senior special assistant to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, agreed that “Nigeria sees itself as a regional power in Africa. It’s the dominant force, really. Nigeria is a very proud nation. We feel that to subjugate our military under another world power would be to really compromise our integrity.”
He said Nigeria is willing to let Western nations supply equipment, “but we might not be too predisposed to subjugating our forces to undergo training under another military.”
Washington has struggled for years to cement close ties with the Nigerian army. The U.S. military’s Africa Command invited the Nigerian military seven years ago to participate in Operation Flintlock, an annual multinational counterterrorism exercise. Nigerian generals balked at sending a large contingent of soldiers.
Originally entitled ‘On Terror’s New Front Line, Mistrust Blunts U.S. Strategy’, this piece was published yesterday by Wall Street Journal.