The Muslim jihadist group Boko Haram is eyeing a new offensive that would target Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south, according to Africa analysts.
Yan St-Pierre of the Berlin-based intelligence firm MOSECON, which monitors Boko Haram, said evidence indicates the group has been laying the groundwork for such a move.
“We call it national-park hopping. They’ve been using the national parks as cover for moves down south. This is what we expect them to be doing. They’re going where the money is in Nigeria,” St-Pierre said.
The targets are the nation’s oil and its centers of financial power: Port Harcourt, Kalaba, Lagos and Abuja.
“They’re very slowly setting up these places to operate while everyone focuses on the major attacks. They’re trying to go for the big homeland down south in Nigeria,” St-Pierre said.
International Christian Concern Africa analyst Cameron Thomas said Boko Haram attacks in the more populous south will inevitably produce more casualties.
“I see Boko Haram mounting a series of attacks in places like Abuja and Lagos with the potential to inflict a great many casualties,” Thomas said.
WND reported in April that one bomb attack near the Abuja bus station killed more than 100 people.
In the less-populated north, casualty counts have been smaller. Last week’s bomb blast in the northern city of Kano killed six people.
Free-flow of weapons
Along with St-Pierre, who has been monitoring Boko Haram since 2009, other groups see signs of a southern offensive.
One sign is the movement of weapons into Nigeria.
Islamic terrorism finance analyst A.D. Kendall said weapons are freely flowing into the country.
“Gunrunning from the Sudan and Central African Republic into Nigeria to arm the jihadist group Boko Haram is destabilizing the entire region,” his report said. “Cameroon has had to deploy more forces to its northeastern region to contend with the rising tide of arms traffickers passing through Cameroonian territory.”
St-Pierre said his sources indicate Boko Haram’s recent cross-border raids into Cameroon were to maintain the flow of weapons.
“They’re using the border crossings and the attacks in Cameroon to protect their smuggling routes in Chad or Cameroon,” St-Pierre said.
St-Pierre said his sources report the raids to protect the smuggling routes were accompanied by a series of diversionary bombings. The attacks resulted in more than 100 casualties, bringing the year’s death toll to approximately 3,000.
St-Pierre said the cross-border raids to secure the supply routes and the high-profile bombings were diversions to distract attention from Boko Haram’s long-term objective.
“They’ve been using IEDs and causing lots of damage and many casualties. All the evidence points to the group expanding its operations. They’re going south now,” St-Pierre said.
Rachel Ehrenfeld, executive director of the American Center for Democracy and its Economic Warfare Institute agrees: “They are trying to do just that.”
Thomas also estimates that if Boko Haram moves into the south, resistance will strengthen.
“If they decide to wage a major offensive in the south, that will have a rallying effect,” Thomas said.
Thomas said Boko Haram will carry out the attacks to encourage retaliation against them.
“Resistance to Boko Haram will increase and so will the number of counteroffensives. That way they can claim it’s us versus them and say that Islam is under attack. This is a rallying cry to call for other Islamic groups to come to their aid,” he said.
“So, I see any moves in the south as a way to draw support from foreign militants and get potential sympathizers from countries in the area to fight with them,” Thomas said.
Whether it’s a full scale offensive or a series of attacks, analysts still believe the cross-border operations in Cameroon will play a significant role in any future Boko Haram actions.
A military analyst who asked not to be named for security reasons believes Boko Haram has a second reason for securing the supply and smuggling routes.
“Boko Haram could be planning to use the Cameroon smuggling routes for a flank attack on the south if the direct push isn’t successful. They could easily maneuver into the south from the routes they’ve established through Cameroon,” the military analyst said.
Why the south
With the exception of Boko Haram’s involvement in Mali and the cross-border raids into Cameroon, most of the jihadist organization’s actions have been restricted to northern Nigeria.
But Africa analysts believe that one major reason Boko Haram may have its sights on the south is the region’s oil wealth.
IntelligenceCommunity.com analyst Maha Hamdan said it’s happened before.
“Precious oil was discovered in Borno in the Lake Chad basin in 2012, after oil was discovered in the basins in neighboring Chad and Niger. By that time, the new Boko Haram terror group reappeared in Borno. Was it mere coincidence? This new Boko Haram was more brutal and determined to kill or expel all indigenous people from the oil endowed northern state,” Hamdan said.
She said oil also is the spark for the group’s current expansion plans.
“Oil reserves found in 2012 are the blood-oil flame in the northern part of the country,” Hamdan said.
St-Pierre said that regardless of whether or not Boko Haram is planning an offensive or a series of terrorist attacks, the group will be able to exploit Nigeria’s cultural divisions.
“What they can do, the possibilities are so vast, because they can exploit the regional differences and the ethnic divides in the country. The north-south divide is gigantic. People down south don’t have much regard for people in the north, and people in the north feel dismissed by people down south,” St-Pierre said.
St-Pierre said that if Boko Haram begins to succeed in the south, the tribal allegiances will have more influence. The results of the cultural divide could be serious.
“If they have success in the south, all of the ethnic divisions come up. This is where a country like Nigeria that has a history of internal conflict, a full scale civil war could be a possibility,” St-Pierrie said.
Is Boko Haram going ‘regional?’
Not every analyst is convinced the evidence points to a major Boko Haram southern offensive.
Hussein Solomon, political science professor at University of the Free State in South Africa, argues Christians “overwhelmingly populate the south and provide very little base for Boko Haram’s activities.”
“Second, look at the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. They are a headache for the Nigerian government and an even bigger one for Boko Haram. The groups are totally opposed to each other,” he said.
“In my view Boko Haram is regionalizing, and the entry into Cameroon is linked to their linkup with other regional players like al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa,” Solomon said.
A larger regional objective is precisely what Angelo State University professor of security studies Anthony Celso believes the jihadist group has in mind.
Celso said Boko Haram’s recent operations could be preparation for carving out a larger, regional hegemonic Islamic state.
“Boko Haram’s territorial designs, like the Islamic State’s, hinge upon the unraveling of the state system. Cross-border attacks are an effort to lay the foundations for a caliphate free of Christians and apostate Muslims,” he said.
“Boko Haram is attempting to emulate the success of the Islamic State, and given the lack of an effective response to their activities they may be able to implant a nascent but weak level of governance. If they do so, it, as ISIS is beginning to find out, could be a big liability,” Celso said.
WND reported in July that Boko Haram had cemented an intelligence-sharing alliance with Somalia-based al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab.
WND further reported in September that Boko Haram had established a similar intelligence and tactical alliance with ISIS.
While Thomas and other analysts question whether or not the jihadist group can sustain a lengthy campaign in the south, he says the group is battle tested and has proven its fighting ability.
“Anyone who has taken a hard look at Boko Haram would note that this is a very capable organization that is growing in strength and size. Boko Haram has become one of the deadliest groups in the world,” Thomas said.