Nigeria: Iran Seeks To Replace Boko Haram

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October 13, 2016: With Boko Haram fading from the headlines Shia Islamic terrorism is becoming more visible. Iran backed groups were always advised (often via training in Iran) Nigerian Shia radicals to maintain a low profile, especially if Sunni Islamic terrorists were active. Since the 1980s Iran has been sponsoring (paying for) Nigerian Shia to make religious or educational visits to Iran where many were recruited to receive training in how to form political and para-military organizations. This low key approach paid off as there are now a lot of Nigerian Shia willing to defend Shia Islam in Nigeria with violence (organized or otherwise). This is another victory for the Iranian Quds Force (which supervises Iranian sponsored terrorism overseas). This Quds involvement became visible in 2010 when Nigeria reported to the UN that Iran had illegally smuggled weapons to Nigeria. Iran first insisted that it was all a misunderstanding, and that the weapons were actually purchased by an unnamed Nigerian politician. Most Nigerian politicians maintain private armies. These forces are illegal, and are usually criminal gangs in the pay of local politicians. Iran then changed its story and denied that the arms shipment was from Iran at all (despite all the shipping documents and witnesses indicating otherwise.) Another claim was that the arms were actually legal exports headed for Gambia (about a thousand kilometers up the coast from Nigeria). There were suggestions that Gambia was but another stop on the way to Egypt, where the weapons would be smuggled to Iranian supported Hamas in Gaza via tunnels under the border. Up until then Nigeria was generally friendly with Iran, a country that has been generous with bribes, and other favors, for Nigerian officials. Two Iranians in Nigeria who arranged the arms shipment took refuge in the Iranian embassy and were apparently members of the Quds Force. At this point the Sunni Boko Haram was becoming more active and this Shia Islamic radicalism faded from the headlines. Now Boko Haram is just about gone and the Shia radicals are still around.

Most of the current Boko Haram media coverage is about the suffering of their victims at the hands of corrupt government officials. Since 2009 more than two million people (90 percent of them Nigerian) were driven from their homes by Boko Haram and at least a third of those are still living, and often starving, in government run refugee camps or areas where there is no food. Six years of Boko Haram violence depopulated over 30,000 square kilometers in northern Borno State. The depopulation led to the collapse of the local economy. Foreign aid organizations are reporting growing chaos in the depopulated area, where many of the refugees are trying to return and rebuild their lives. That chaos is because of a lot more outlaws up there. Most are not Boko Haram but the security forces don’t find that out until a gun battle is over. What makes this worse is that the Nigerian security forces still tend to shoot first and investigate later, if at all. For this reason people prefer to live away from the main roads, where bandits and Islamic terrorists will lie in wait for aid convoys or anyone worth robbing. Troops driving by will shoot at anything that might be an ambush. In most of the depopulated areas aid groups demand armed escorts for aid convoys. But the more troops to assign to convoy escort the less are available for going after and eliminating the remaining Boko Haram and the growing number of bandits. Meanwhile over 50,000 refugees in Borno are in danger of starving to death.

While there is still a lot of corruption within the military (troops complain of not being paid for months) and the bureaucracy (especially those handling all the aid sent to help with refugees and reconstruction in the northeast) the security forces are still active against the remaining Islamic terrorists and bandits up there as well as violent gangs down south in the oil fields of the Niger River Delta. Perhaps most importantly the recently expanded anti-corruption force is making more arrests and making public more details about who grew wealthy stealing what.

Shia Radicalism

There are about seven million Shia in Nigeria and since the 1980s a growing number of Nigerian Shia have joined IMN (Islamic Movement in Nigeria), a group supported by Iran. While relations with Sunni Moslems are generally good, Sunni radical groups like Boko Haram contain many members who accept the anti-Shia attitude so common in Sunni terror groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban. IMN always proclaimed itself a peaceful group that welcomed all Moslems but over the years it has become all Shia and a lot more militant. Using Iran as an example (because a religious revolution in 1979 put Shia clergy in charge of the government by the mid-1980s) many Shia in Nigeria now want such religious dictatorship, using Islamic law, for Nigeria. Before IMN came along many in the Sunni majority believed the religious differences between Shia and Sunni were not a problem. But now, because of efforts by Saudi Arabia and Iran there is a lot of tension and violence over these differences. Since the 1990s there have been assassinations (of Shia and Sunni leaders) as well as riots and some battles linked to the growth of Shia radicalism. While the Nigerian Shia are considered less-than-orthodox by the senior Shia clergy back in Iran and Iraq, they are still recognized as Shia, and Iran has provided more and more support, most of it illegal, in the form of cash smuggled in to help sustain Shia organizations.

A lot of the Sunni violence against Shia is caused by Sunnis belonging to the many Wahhabi mosques founded in Nigeria (and worldwide) since the 1980s with the assistance of Saudi cash and missionaries. The Wahhabi form of Islam is the dominant one in Saudi Arabia and very hostile towards non-Moslems and Moslems who are not Wahhabi.

Meanwhile the Iran connection in Nigeria became more visible in the last decade. For example, in 2013 Iran denied that it had trained a Nigerian Shia cleric in espionage techniques and ordered him to recruit locals and gather information on the activities of Israelis and Americans in southwestern Nigeria (where the cleric, and many Shia) live. This all began when Nigerian police arrested and interrogated three Shia Nigerian Moslems who admitted spying for Iran and provided many details. Since 2013 the Shia violence has increased, as have the Iranian denials that they are involved. The IMN says the increased violence is not their fault and largely triggered by police and army violence against peaceful Shia. The security forces have, for decades, behaved like this towards everyone they perceive of as a threat. Only in the last few years has the government tried to curb this illegal and counterproductive behavior. At the same time groups like IMN and Boko Haram would not act any differently if the security forces behaved because both these groups are dedicated to establish religious dictatorships in Nigeria and destroying Islamic groups that do not agree with them.

The Economic Mess

Three years of lower oil prices have hurt, but not crippled, the economy. Before 2013 0il accounted for about 15 percent of GDP and the lower oil prices have reduced that to 10 percent of GDP. On the plus side the loss of so much oil income has forced the government to actually do something about the fact that so much of the oil income is stolen by corrupt politicians and businessmen and sent out of the country. The new president got elected in part because he seemed able to do something about this and he has.

The most recent anti-corruption move was a government lawsuit against the five foreign oil companies that operate the Nigerian oil fields and ship the oil. The government claims that an examination of foreign (mainly U.S.) records show that between 2011 and 2014 57 million more barrels of Nigerian oil arrived in foreign ports than Nigeria reported shipped. The five foreign companies operating the Nigerian oil fields are responsible for export data. The missing oil was worth over $17 billion. Nigerian investigators believe Nigerian politicians organized this fraud and got the oil companies to cooperate or risk expulsion. Nigerian investigators also know that the foreign buyers of this oil are much more likely to have reliable data. In contrast, Nigerian data is often unreliable because so many corrupt politicians and officials can meddle with it.

Meanwhile another major source of lost oil income is the many gangs in the south that steal oil directly from the many pipelines that run from the wells to the coast. Even the oil thieves are complaining that they are getting less and less for their stolen oil. Nigeria has the dubious distinction of being the oil-producing nation suffering from largest problem with theft of crude oil. Not only is this costing the government billion dollars a year in lost revenue, but much of the oil from the plundered pipelines (the thieves just punch a hole to steal the crude) flows into the Niger River Delta waterways, polluting the delta and the fishing waters off the coast. In the last decade the government had hired former local rebels to provide pipeline security, but these lads appear to have gone into business with the oil thieves or joined the theft gangs themselves. In southern Nigeria the oil thefts have been going on for decades. Despite government efforts (prompted by media and popular pressure) to curb the thefts the losses have increased. The navy was ordered to find and seize the small tankers that collect the crude oil from the thieves and take it to neighboring countries to be sold to brokers who will arrange for the stolen oil to enter legitimate commerce. Naval officers are now suspected of taking bribes from tanker owners, who can afford to pay large sums to avoid seizure.

Most of what money the government actually receives from oil production is stolen by politicians and civil servants, so people living in the oil producing regions see themselves as double victims. They don’t get much oil income because of all the theft and also suffer from the pollution the oil thieves cause when a hole is punched into a pipe. Military and police efforts against the pirates and oil thieves are constant, but because of the large payoffs from this illegal behavior, there are always more people willing to take their chances and make some big money.

More American Help

The United States and France have quietly become more active dealing with Islamic terrorism in countries north of Nigeria. The Boko Haram violence and the threat of Iran-backed Shia terrorism caused Nigeria to ask the Americans and French for help in tracking the activity of Islamic terrorists throughout the region. The Americans and French have been sharing such intel with Nigeria and now the United States building a new airbase in Agadez, Niger, 730 kilometers northeast of the capital (Niamey) and 550 kilometers north of Nigeria. The U.S. had received permission from Niger for such a base in 2014, a year after American UAVs began operation from a Niger military base next to the Niamey airport. The new Agadez base will be built largely from scratch because, unlike Niamey, Agadez does not have a large airport or much in the way of support for lots of aircraft operations. Agadez is closer to Chad, southern Libya and Nigeria, where American aerial surveillance is more in demand by the local governments. Agadez will also apparently support armed UAVs as well. The U.S. will continue to supply intelligence obtained by the Niger-based UAVs with Niger and other nations in the area that have intelligence sharing agreements. Agadez will be the second American airbase in Africa and, like the first one, will be shared with France and other allies. The first U.S. base was established in 2002 when the United States began sharing an old French base in Djibouti, which is the northwestern neighbor of Somalia. Since then Djibouti has hosted the one official U.S. military base (Camp Lemonnier) in Africa. France and the United States SOCOM (Special Operations Command) have had special operations forces (commandos and special aircraft) outside the Djibouti capital since 2002. In 2014 the U.S. signed another ten year lease for that base. U.S. forces in Djibouti were increased after resistance collapsed in Iraq in 2008 and the base became the command post for a network of American operations through the region. Most of the effort is directed at monitoring what is going on in the region (mainly Somalia and Yemen but also Eritrea, Nigeria, Mali, Libya, Kenya, and Ethiopia) not at interfering with the local terrorists. Not much, anyway. The Djibouti base also supports operations throughout the Sahel (the semi-desert strip between the North African desert and the Central African jungles, which stretches from the Atlantic to Somalia).

October 12, 2016: In the northeast (Borno State) a female suicide bomber attacked near a refugee camp outside the state capital (Maiduguri). Eight died and 15 were wounded. This was probably the work of Boko Haram, but the groups has not yet taken credit for it. In nearby Kaduna State police and Shia clashed leaving at least 16 Shia dead.

October 7, 2016: In the northeast (Kaduna State) the state government declared the Iran sponsored IMN an “unlawful society”. This meant any demonstrations or meeting involving IMN are illegal and those participating are subject to arrest.

October 1, 2016: Chad and Niger report that there three month long effort to hunt down and eliminate Boko Haram within their territory has been successful. Boko Haram activity in the two countries has declined sharply. The joint force killed 123 Boko Haram men, captured two and seized large quantities of weapons, explosives and military equipment from several Boko Haram bases. This operation began in June when Chad agreed to send more troops to neighboring Niger to help security forces from Niger and Nigeria find and destroy groups of Boko Haram operating along the border and raiding into Niger. Boko Haram has been more active across the border in southeast Niger this year. Much of this violence takes place near the Niger border towns of Diffa and Bosso. Increased Nigerian efforts to find and destroy Boko Haram groups on their side of the border were more successful because of the Chad/Niger operation. At least four Boko Haram bases on the Nigerian side of the border were found and destroyed.

There aren’t many Boko Haram left on the Nigerian side of the border either. Currently the Nigerian security forces are capturing or killing about a hundred Boko Haram a month and there are only a few Boko Haram attacks (bombings, ambushes, raids) a month, mostly in Borno State.

September 29, 2016: In the south (the Delta State) NDGJM (Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate) took credit for a damaging an oil pipeline with explosives. NDGJM is one of more than a dozen new rebel groups to appear in the Niger River Delta this year. All of these new groups appear to sense an opportunity to extract some cash and other concessions from the government. Elsewhere in Delta State the wife of the Central Bank governor was kidnapped and a $47,000 ransom demanded. By October 10th police had captured the kidnappers (a local gang) and recovered the ransom. Two of the nine men arrested were soldiers and another was a former soldier.

September 25, 2016: Boko Haram released a video showing Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau proving he was still alive and confirming that he busy dealing with a civil war going on inside Boko Haram since early August. This began on August 3rd when ISIL announced on that it was replacing Shekau, who was accused of mismanagement, with a new leader. ISIL believed Shekau devoted too much effort to killing fellow Moslems (especially civilians) rather than the real enemies of ISIL (local security forces and non-Moslems in general). ISIL leadership was also unhappy with the Boko Haram use of children and women as suicide bombers. The Boko Haram gathering the air force spotted and bombed on August 19th was apparently Shekau assembling his loyalists to deal with the ISIL announcement. ISIL believed the Nigerian air force reports that Shekau died in that air raid and Abu Musab al Barnawi the new leader ISIL selected announced that Boko Haram would now concentrate its attacks on the security forces and non-Moslems. Barnawi is a son of Mohammed Yusuf, one of the ISIL founders. Barnawi was appointed chief Boko Haram spokesman in January 2015. Although Barnawi has developed a following in Boko Haram Shekau refused to accept the ISIL decision and even with Shekau and many of his most loyal supporters dead Boko Haram is now split into warring factions. This is nothing new as there have always been some factions, but not to this extent. Now many Boko Haram loyalists regret the March 2015 decision to become part of ISIL. This was believed to be an effort to avoid a split in Boko Haram as more radical members declared themselves followers of ISIL or even tried to go to Syria to join ISIL. Few African Islamic terrorists have done that, largely because of the cost and difficulty travelling from Africa to areas where ISIL is dominant. But in many parts of the world older Islamic terror organizations are fracturing because their more enthusiastic members prefer the ISIL style of ultra-violence. By the time Boko Haram joined ISIL was already on the defensive in the Middle East and so far in 2016 ISIL has suffered one major defeat after another. Barnawi is in his 20s and similar to his father, Mohammed Yusuf, who was well educated, an Islamic conservative and murdered by police in 2009 just before he turned 40. That murder was one of the reasons Boko Haram turned to widespread and ruthless violence rather than just depending on agitation and education. It is still unclear who is winning the power struggle within Boko Haram.

 

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