Why the suicide bombing of the U.N. compound in Abuja isn’t just a lone incident

At mid-morning on Friday, Aug. 26, a car packed with explosives rammed through two gates
at the United Nations compound in the capital of Nigeria, Abuja, before smashing into the
building’s main reception area and detonating. The suicide terrorist attack, the largest ever
on a Western target in Nigeria, has claimed at least 18 lives and injured dozens.
By the afternoon, the Muslim rebel sect Boko Haram had claimed responsibility for the
attack. In recent months, Boko Haram’s operations have been expanding outward from its
base in Maiduguri, a city in the country’s northeast. Boko Haram, which comprises hundreds
of members and appears to enjoy some measure of popular support in the northeast,
aims to strengthen sharia law in Nigeria and overturn the rule of Western-educated elites.

In a country with a history of polarization between the majority-Muslim north and the
majority-Christian south, Boko Haram’s message is a polarizing one at the national level
and within the Muslim community; the movement has killed Muslim leaders who reject
its use of violence. The movement draws recruits by capitalizing on the
many northerners felt when the implementation of sharia in northern states from 1999
to 2001 failed to eliminate corruption, revitalize the northern economy, and address the
north’s feelings of political marginalization. Northern grievances were compounded by the
reelection this April of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian who came to
power after the death of northern Muslim President Umaru Yar’Adua. Some northerners
argued that Jonathan should have stepped aside in favor of a northerner, and thereby held to
an unofficial power-sharing agreement that rotates the presidency, every two terms, between
north and south.

Boko Haram’s tactics have changed over time. In 2003 and 2009, the movement launched
mass uprisings against police in the northeast, but suffered hundreds of casualties when
security forces put down the rebellions; during the 2009 uprising, their leader, Muhammad
Yusuf, was killed in police custody, and the movement went underground for over a year.
Reputedly now under the guidance of Abubakar Shekau, a lieutenant of Yusuf’s, Boko Haram
shifted to guerrilla and terrorist tactics in 2010. During the past year, it has conducted
dozens of drive-by shootings, bombings, and small raids on police stations, banks, churches,
and bars in the northeastern states of Bauchi, Adamawa, and Borno (of which Maiduguri
is the capital). The United Nations reportedly received intelligence last month that it was a
potential target for the sect, but the compound appears to have had only minimal security.

The attack on the United Nations suggests that Boko Haram wanted to embarrass the
Nigerian state in front of an international audience, signal to foreigners that they are now
targets, and prove that the military’s crackdown in the northeast has not weakened the
movement.

Boko Haram increasingly seems to favor the use of suicide bombings. This June, the group
carried out an apparent suicide car bombing at the police headquarters in Abuja, though later
analysis from Nigerian police suggested the bomber may have intended to park the car and
detonate it remotely. On Aug. 15, a suicide-bomb attempt failed at the police headquarters
in Maiduguri.

As journalist Geoffrey York writes, the bombing of the U.N. office fits
into the broader pattern of Boko Haram’s geographical expansion and increasing tactical
sophistication.

Speculation has been increasing that this tactical sophistication indicates growing links
between Boko Haram and outside terrorist groups, especially al Qaeda in the Islamic
Maghreb (AQIM), one of whose largest attacks to date has been the double car bombing of
the U.N. office in Algeria in December 2007. Some analysts see Boko Haram’s use of large
bombs as an indication that it is receiving training from AQIM, as well as encouragement
to attack more ambitious national and international targets. As the New America
Foundation’s Andrew Lebovich points out, the presence of even a few individuals from
AQIM could boost Boko Haram’s prowess. Others see an even broader threat. During a visit 
to Abuja this month, the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, stated that
Boko Haram was increasingly coordinating activities with AQIM while pursuing a “loose”
partnership with al-Shabab, southern Somalia’s Muslim rebel movement. Ham warned
that a pan-African terrorist alliance would vastly increase security threats to Africa and the
United States. Hard evidence of sustained operational ties between Boko Haram and AQIM,
however, has yet to become publicly available; AQIM’s centers of operations in northeastern
Algeria and the remote desert areas of northern Mauritania and Mali are far from northern
Nigeria. It is also quite possible that the expertise in bomb attacks comes from within
Nigeria, for example from former soldiers.

Author: nmmin

Share This Post On