Not long ago, Mike Mbama Okiro, Nigeria’s inspector general of police, raised an alarm over threats by al-Qaeda to launch an attack using time-bombs on Nigerian soil. Okiro’s warning generated much attention in local and international media. Islamic groups in Nigeria, including the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria (SCSN), held several press conferences debunking such claims, and labeled Okiro a “liar.” The police chief did not give more details about his allegation, but said his warning was based on intelligence reports. An SCSN spokesman said: “The police know where the terrorists are and Muslims should not be referred to as terrorists. The militants are terrorists for kidnapping and killing people and the police should go there and stop tagging Muslims as terrorists” (Nigerian Tribune, May 21).
Later a Nigerian newspaper quoted a police high command statement asking Nigerians to disregard recent media reports on the purported threats from al-Qaeda: “For the avoidance of doubt, the Inspector General of Police’s only public pronouncement on terrorism was on 10th March, 2008 during the inauguration of the anti-terrorism squad when he said, 'The creation of the new outfit is borne out of our mission to safeguard our environment against terrorism, even though the nation has not experienced terrorist attack; we don’t have to wait until it happens before we start to prepare.’ ” (This Day [Lagos], May 20). Despite the apparent reversal on the threat assessment, special Nigerian anti-terrorist squads were deployed to Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt (Panapress, May 14).
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation with over 140 million people, roughly split equally between Christians and Muslims. The two groups usually live side by side peacefully, but there are occasional outbreaks of sectarian conflict. Tension heightened in 2000 after 12 mainly Islamic northern states began a stricter enforcement of Shari’a (Islamic law), alienating sizeable Christian minorities. Thousands were killed in sporadic riots across the country. Last September the U.S. embassy in Nigeria said the country was at risk of “terrorist attack,” and in 2003 Osama bin Laden named the world’s eighth biggest oil exporter as ripe for jihad or Islamic holy war (Reuters, May 10).
A number of suspected jihadis have been arrested by police and the Nigerian State Security Service (SSS) in recent years, but the cases have dragged on in the courts and there have been no convictions. No conclusive evidence of al-Qaeda’s presence in Nigeria has been made public. Five Islamist militants with suspected links to al-Qaeda are on trial in the capital, Abuja, for plotting attacks on the government (VOA, December 9, 2007). The men were arrested in November 2007 by the SSS in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria. Three of them have also been charged with training in Algeria with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) between 2005 and August 2007. The GSPC renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January 2007.
The northern part of Nigeria has witnessed some Islamist violence in the past. There are several armed Islamist groups throughout the northern region, but whether they are linked to bin Laden’s al-Qaeda is not clear. These groups include the Hisbah, the Zamfara State Vigilante Service (ZSVS), Al-Sunna Wal Jamma (“Followers of the Prophet,” also known as “the Nigerian Taliban”) and others. To understand Nigeria’s militant Islamist movement it is necessary to briefly look at the origins of some of the groups, their composition, leadership, areas of operation and sources of financing/support:
• The Hisbah are an Islamic vigilante group that support adherence to Shari’a, which several states in northern Nigeria have adopted in recent years (the civil code, covering wills, marriage, and so forth, has been in force across the Nigerian federation since 1979). These groups do not usually carry firearms, but are more likely to carry sticks and whips as well as knives and curved weapons with a blade know as a “barandami” .
The Hisbah groups are sponsored by state governments in the north that practice Shari’a, and draw their membership from the army of unemployed in those states. They were considered instrumental in influencing the outcome of the 2003 elections
• Another Islamist group which operates in the northern part of Nigeria is the Zamfara State Vigilante Service (ZSVS). The ZSVS wear red uniforms and have been described as a “ragtag volunteer army” that patrols Zamfara state arresting anyone suspected of violating Islamic law. The group reportedly carries pistols along with homemade machetes and whips. The governor of Zamfara state has been the driving force directing the ZSVS and organizing its funding .
• Al-Sunna Wal Jamma was formed sometime around 2002. Its objective is the establishment of Nigeria as an Islamic state; its adherents are predominantly Maiduguri university students from the northeastern part of Nigeria. Some 200 members apparently took up arms for the first time in December 2003, possibly in response to the attempt by the governor of Yobe to disband the group.
So fervent is its adherence to a fundamentalist notion of Islam that locals have dubbed it “the Taliban” in recognition of the group’s admiration for the former Afghanistan government, toppled by Coalition forces in 2001. Indeed, Al-Sunna Wal Jamma once replaced the Nigerian flag with the Afghan flag on a state building briefly occupied during an altercation with police.
The porosity of the Nigerian border, economic hardship and religious tensions combine to make these Islamic groups vulnerable to recruitment into dangerous terrorist networks, threatening the security of the country. The alarm raised by Police Chief Mike Okiro regarding threats to the Nigerian nation by al-Qaeda extremists might not be backed by intelligence reports, but in Nigeria, particularly in the Muslim north, there are various armed Islamist formations with agendas similar to that of Osama bin Laden.
1. See Nicolas Florquin and Eric G. Berman (ed.s), Armed and Aimless; Armed Groups, Guns, and Human Security in the ECOWAS region, Geneva, 2005.