Nigerian Terrorism: Causes and Solutions

A Boko Haram bomb attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Apr. 14, 2014, claimed 75 lives. Credit: Ayo Bello

by Emile Nakhleh

Boko Haram’s recent kidnapping of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria has focused the world’s attention on Islamic radicalism and terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel countries. Although the growing terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria has replaced coverage of this extremist group on the front pages of international newspapers, Boko Haram remains a deadly force that must be confronted. Like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram threatens to spread its violence beyond the borders of its base country.

Nigerian terrorism did not develop in a vacuum. Competing historical and ideological narratives, Saudi proselytization, and active recruiting by “religious radicalizers” in the past two decades have paved the way for radicalism.

Islamic activism in Muslim Nigerian towns and villages in the north in the late 1980s and early 1990s was driven by the feverish competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was also funding Islamic groups in the area during the same period.

I visited those areas during my government service and witnessed the growth of Islamic activism and radicalization first hand. I spoke to dozens of Islamic activists in the region about the so-called root causes of their activism.

Saudi NGOs, including the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and al-Haramayn, funded a plethora of projects in Nigerian villages and towns in the north and provided meals to needy Nigerian Muslims, especially during the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha.

They built mosques, Islamic educational institutions and libraries, community centers, and health clinics. Saudi-funded Koranic schools taught Nigerian children to recite the Koran in Arabic and preached to them how to become more committed Sunni Muslims.

The word “jihad” became a central component of the discourse of proselytization. The underpinning argument was that Islam was under attack by all sorts of “infidels” and “apostates,” which demanded a “jihadist” response.

Saudi Arabia also offered scholarships to Nigerian students to study at Saudi religious universities, including Imam Muhammad in Riyadh, Um al-Qura in Mecca, and the Islamic University in Medina.

While studying in Saudi Arabia, Nigerian and other African students were subjected to the Salafi/Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and to the “duty” of “jihad.” They then returned to northern Nigeria and neighboring countries to preach and teach what they had learned, inadvertently acting as a force multiplier for Saudi-driven Islamic activism.

Textbooks in elementary and secondary schools in Saudi Arabia taught a similar ideology of intolerance, exclusion, and narrow-mindedness. Whenever US and other Western diplomats approached Saudi education officials about this curriculum, they were advised it reflected the religious values of Saudi Arabia. Diplomats backed off lest they hurt the religious/cultural sensibilities of the Saudis.

Manipulating Islam

Sunni-based terrorism, whether in Africa or the Middle East, has principally resulted from warped interpretations of religious “jihad” by poorly educated and ideologically motivated clerics and recruiters following Salafi/Wahhabi ideology.  These teachings invariably begin with the premise that Muslims and non-Muslims who disagree with these interpretations are “unbelievers” or “kafir” and “apostates” who must be killed.

Radical and terrorist recruiters have used the Osama bin Ladin message to recruit young men — and women — to do “jihad.” Simply stated, Islam is under attack by its “enemies,” and Muslims, therefore, must wage a “jihad” against these “enemies” by all means possible.

While at the CIA, I frequently briefed senior policymakers in the executive branch about the long-term threat of Saudi-sanctioned and funded religious proselytization in Africa. Due to economic and geopolitical reasons, however, the Bush administration was reluctant to confront the proverbial “two ton elephant” in the room.

With Saudi support, Islamic activists in Nigeria formed an organization called the “Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna,” or “Izala” for short. Over time, Izala became the key driver of Sunni radicalism in Nigeria.

Iran also wooed Islamic activists in Nigeria and worked closely with Ibrahim Zakzaky and his followers. Zakzaky was a university graduate from northern Nigeria and a convert to Shia Islam. He established the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) through which he preached the doctrine of “Khomeinism.” Iranian Quds Force and intelligence operatives in Nigeria, together with Lebanese Hezbollah supporters and activists, pushed the anti-Western Iranian agenda.

By the late 1990s, however, Saudi funding and active proselytization, coupled with the fact that a majority of Nigerian Muslims are Sunni, overwhelmed the Iranian effort. Salafi Sunni ideology became the driving force of radicalization in Nigeria and neighboring countries.

Boko Haram is the most recent, albeit more deadly, reiteration of radicalism and terrorism in West Africa. The kidnapping of schoolgirls last month is unfortunately an ominous omen of West African terrorists’ future plans.

The social problems — including youth unemployment, anemic job creation, failing economies, regime corruption and repression, and religious sectarianism — which have plagued Arab societies are also present in West African and Sahel countries. As such, West African terrorism could follow the same violent path of counterparts in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Confronting the radical threat

According to public opinion polls in the past decade, Muslims who trend toward radical ideas have identified domestic and foreign factors as drivers of their radicalism. The domestic issues included unemployment, poverty, poor economic conditions, hopelessness, regime repression and corruption, injustice, inequality, and massive violations of human rights including against women and minorities.

Foreign factors include perceived anti-Islamic policies by the US and other Western powers, continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the suppression of Palestinian human rights and freedoms, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, drone strikes that result in civilian deaths, as well as western lukewarm support of democratic uprisings and coddling of dictatorial regimes.

Regional and Western governments must confront the immediate and gathering terrorist threat from Boko Haram, ISIS, AQAP, AQIM, al-Shabab, and other groups, including through targeting their leaders and fighters and halting their territorial gains. Washington and other Western capitals should also consider adopting several policies, which in the long-run could address some of the “root causes” of terrorism and radicalism. This can be done in the following ways:

1) Authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere must be told in no uncertain terms that ethnic and sectarian discrimination, political exclusion, and autocratic rule are unsustainable and must be stopped.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s autocratic rule in Egypt and the al-Khalifa’s dynastic control in Bahrain, for example, could not last without including the Islamic current — for example, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Wefaq — in the political process through transparent democratic means. The Shia majority in Bahrain must be allowed to participate in Bahraini politics on the basis of justice and equality. Egregious human rights violations of reformists, liberals, Islamists, women, and other groups must end if these countries hope to establish viable and stable political systems.

If these policies continue, family rule in the Gulf will be swept away, and Sisi’s autocratic regime will be toppled.

2) Western governments should organize massive global programs for job creation, technical education, and entrepreneurial investments in Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian countries to help alleviate poverty and create employment opportunities.

3) The Obama administration should close the Guantanamo prison for good. Detainees should be tried or released in short order. President Barack Obama has advocated closing Guantanamo since coming to office in January 2009. Five years on, it’s time to remove this ugly remnant of the so-called “Global War on Terror.”

4) The Obama administration must do everything in its power to bring down the Assad regime in Syria. Washington’s dilly-dallying in the past three years and Assad’s continued survival have contributed to the rise of terrorist groups in that country.

American national interest dictates that confronting the terrorist threat should be a long-term proposition, not a band-aid approach. Otherwise, Washington would face more “intelligence failures” and more hand wringing.

To request an interview with the author of this article please email lobelog[at]gmail[dot]com

Photo: A Boko Haram bomb attack in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, on Apr. 14, 2014, claimed 75 lives. Credit: Ayo Bello

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Mr. Nakhleh, good post, informative, but how can these issues be changed? You mention 4 different steps, but implementing them, the effort will be piecemeal at most, which is the usual outcome. As for Western interests, exploiting a countries natural resources, of which only a few of its citizens share, which I might add at the barrel of a gun in a lot of the cases, really aren’t interests at all, but theft in one sense, greed in another. Corruption, yes, but when the Western Governments are also corrupt, then wouldn’t that biblical saying hold true, “how can you expect to remove the speck in my eye, when there’s a log in your own”? The strong have always overtaken the weak, always through war or the threat of same, for power. Perhaps today, with all the uprisings taking place in the World, we are witnessing the futility of it all. I do agree with your #2 point, but how you’d implement it at this stage of the game, with the present thinking of the leaders of both Government/Industrial giants, will never happen, IMHO.

  2. I notice your prognosis does not include playing hard ball with the Israeli regime in its relations with the Palestinians. Why is that? The fact is that US neo-cons have used religious dogma themselves, which is why they find it difficult to combat other forms of religious extremism.
    Your local and domestic remedies are fair enough but calling for the deposing of Assad in Syria just will not work as he enjoys protection and support from Iran, Russia and China. Far better would be a policy to end the conflict in Syria now – by removing US, EU, Gulf State, Jordanian, Turkish and Israeli support for extremist terrorists operating there – and to offer the Assad regime a degree of acceptance provided he introduces reforms to democratise Syria.

Comments are closed.