By David Francis, a freelance journalist who has been interviewing militant extremists across sub-Saharan Africa.
The kidnapping of more than 300 Nigerian school girls weeks ago – and now word of a new massacre – by Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group that operates in northern Nigeria, has drawn the attention and outrage of the international community.
The Obama Administration said Tuesday it plans to send military officials and hostage experts to help deal with the explosive situation.
Meanwhile, to the east, another gang of extremists known as al Shabaab have been setting off bombs to terrorize, and kill, residents of Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya. The attacks are being carried out in retaliation for the Kenyan military’s pursuit of al Shabaab in neighboring Somalia.
We can all hope the missing girls will be found given the intensified international attention and collaborative effort. But that doesn’t mean Boko Haram, which has grown more powerful since announcing itself in a 2011 attack on a UN compound in Abuja, will have been curtailed – or that the typical response to these terrorists is making much progress.
Likewise for al Shabaab. We don’t hear too much about al Qaeda these days, now that Osama bin Laden is dead. But perhaps that’s because what we have today is a much more dispersed, easy-to-miss phenomenon I call al Qaeda 2.0.
Africa is where al Qaeda 2.0 is thriving.
I was one of the first western reporters to cover Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2011 (here’s my Foreign Policy report on the origins of the group). Since then, I’ve covered extremism across Africa, most recently in Kenya, where I met with members of al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliated group that recently pulled off a high-profile attack on a mall in Nairobi, killing some 68 people.
Al Shabaab and Boko Haram are much less organized than the first generation of al Qaeda, which showed itself capable of striking spectacular attacks like 9/11.
Al Qaeda 2.0 is different; while the leaders of the groups are radical Islamists, many of the foot soldiers in these groups are opportunistic young men and women desperate for jobs and any semblance of a better future.
Terrorism is now a local business, with international implications.
The fact that these young warriors are desperate is not a reason to dismiss their actions; quite the contrary. It’s what fuels their violence and makes them even more formidable. As the saying goes, when you’ve got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose.
This campaign of violence waged by Boko Haram has persisted over the last two years. The same can be said of the actions of al Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya. The Westgate mall attack was the group’s biggest ‘success’ lately, but it’s been terrorizing east Africa for years.
I recently published an investigation into al Shabaab and the truth surrounding the Westgate attack in Business Insider (you can read that piece here). What I found is that the attack was much more sophisticated than Kenyan authorities would have you believe.
The official narrative is that just three gunmen caused a three-day siege of Westgate last September. However, al Shabaab members familiar with the planning of the attack told me it was much more complex.
The group had bribed security personnel at the mall and smuggled weapons and explosives inside prior to September 21, the first day of the siege. They said that al Shabaab had rented a store in the mall to act as a front where these weapons and explosives were hidden. They also told me that the vast majority of the attackers escaped during the Kenyan security services inept attempt to take back the mall.
The Westgate attack got the attention of the Pentagon. A few weeks after, it dispatched Seal Team 6, the Special Operators that killed Osama bin Laden, to a coastal town in Somalia in an effort to kill or capture senior al Shabaab members. The group was more capable than the Seals anticipated, and they were turned away. Since then, the group has been responsible for a series of smaller attacks, both in Kenya and Somalia.
Until now, the United States has not acknowledged involvement in the fight against Boko Haram. But now that U.S. security services are flying to Abuja, it’s worth exploring the similarities between the two. Over the coming weeks, I’ll explore how the group recruits, their tactics and how efforts to stop them are backfiring. Today, I’ll outline how both groups are born out of poverty.
Nigeria is hailed as an economic success, but that success is uneven; the majority of the economic growth there occurs in Lagos and the oil-rich Niger Delta (although it’s important to note that in the Delta, wealth is concentrated among a ruling class of Nigerians who work for oil companies. There remains an active Christian militancy movement there in response). In northern Nigeria, economic growth is non-existent. Some 70 percent of people live on less than a dollar a day, some 20 percent higher than the rate in the south. With this poverty comes symptoms including illiteracy, health concerns including polio, and lack of infrastructure.
This poverty, combined with the perception – and existence – of widespread corruption in the Kenyan government, proved fertile recruiting ground for Mohammed Yusuf, an Islamic preacher who was the group’s first leader (he was killed while trying to escape in 2009). Most of the foot soldiers of Boko Haram aren’t Muslim fanatics; they’re poor kids who were turned against their corrupt country by a charismatic leader. When I was in Nigeria in 2011, I speculated that the group might simply be looking for a payout from the government, similar to the one given to members of the Christian militant groups in the Niger Delta in 2009. According to reports in the Nigerian press, this is one option Jonathan is reportedly considering.
Many of the same problems that attract young people to Boko Haram also attract young people to al Shabaab. Last fall in Nairobi, I spoke with six members of the group. They all came from the slums around Nairobi.
When I asked them why they joined, they all uttered the same phrase – “financial stability.” They told me that outside of al Shabaab, they had to other options. And they said that corruption within the government and security services allow the group to exist.
Corruption in Kenya is notorious; the 2013 Corruption Perception Index has Kenya ranked – 136th out of 176 countries, alongside Nigeria and Pakistan. Most often, this corruption takes the form of bribes. Here’s an example.
I have worked in Nigeria before, so I expected to line some pockets in Nairobi. But I never thought it would happen 10 minutes after I got off the plane one Saturday night in October. I approached the visa counter with a $50 bill, the price of the visa that would allow my visit to Kenya.
“That’s the wrong $50. I can’t take that,” the clerk, who looked as innocent as the marathon runners that define Kenya’s image on the international stage, said to me.
“How much is going to take to make it the right $50?” I asked, and opened my wallet. He pointed at the 10-euro note in my billfold and nodded. I handed it over and he got to work on my passport. Two college-age girls in the line behind me, giddy with laughs and plans for adventure as they approached the counter, fell silent. I turned to them and shrugged. It’s the price of doing business in a place like Kenya.
According to the al Shabaab members I met with, security officials on the country’s border with Somalia are bribed to allow weapons into Kenya. Police and Kenyan security forces are bribed to stay out of Eastleigh, Mathare and Majengo, allowing the group to operate and recruit with impunity.
While poverty is partly responsible for the existence of both Al Shabaab and Boko Haram, is does not dismiss their monstrous crimes. Kidnapping and the killing of innocents must be confronted and dealt with harshly.
However, the way that Kenyan and Nigerian forces have confronted these threats has only compounded the problem. In the coming weeks, I’ll explore how both countries have mishandled the threat, and how this mishandling leads to new cycles of violence.
David Francis is a freelance journalist based in Washington, DC and Chapel Hill, NC. He reported from Kenya as the Richard Holbrooke Journalist-in-Residence at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His reporting was funded by the International Reporting Project, International Center for Journalists in Washington and the Internationale Journalisten Programme in Germany. Visit his web site here and follow him on Twitter @davidcfrancis.