A new report that the ferocious terror group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is infiltrating fighters into Nigeria has for once jolted officials into some action. According to The Sun (newspaper) of London, ISIS is sneaking battle-hardened jihadists from Syria into the country to train Boko Haram extremists and send them to Britain to stage attacks. This should be another wake-up call to our security services and President Muhammadu Buhari that, contrary to their assertions of victory, terrorism is still here and poses an existential threat to us and the rest of the world.
The Sun report comes in the wake of terrorist resurgence in Nigeria’s North-East region, featuring suicide bombings of churches and mosques, attacks on villages, markets and isolated military outposts. There is an ongoing “exchange programme” between Boko Haram and the ISIS, facilitating training trips to the Middle East for Nigerian terrorists and the embedding of ISIS experts in the border areas (bordering Chad, Niger Republic and Cameroon) under insurgent control to train and support local fanatics. The report quoted defence sources as confirming the presence of foreign fighters among insurgents engaged by Nigerian and multinational military forces in the region. In a welcome departure from past practice of reflexive denials and complacency, the government says it is stepping up security at the airports and dispatched an Assistant Inspector-General of Police to head its airport command.
Nigerians have reasons to fear the possibility of a determined ISIS infiltration. Buhari and the intelligence services should take effective steps to prevent it. They should stop living in denial: their repeated claim of having defeated Boko Haram is not only false; it reveals an alarming ignorance of the dynamics of Islamist terrorism. This is dangerous.
To grasp an idea of the deadliness of ISIS, consider its self-professed West African affiliate. Boko Haram had by early 2017 killed over 100,000 persons, according to Governor Ibrahim Shettima of Borno, who debunked the figure of 20,000 killed recycled over the past four years. Over 2.5 million have been displaced internally and in neighbouring countries. At a time, Boko Haram reportedly controlled 27 local government areas in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states and, from Gwoza, declared a “caliphate” in 2014. Its atrocities feature abattoir-style slaughter, burning of entire towns, rape and the mass kidnapping of girls, women and children, the capture of 276 Chibok schoolgirls and 110 Dapchi schoolgirls in 2014 and 2018 respectively.
Gory as the record is, however, it pales in comparison to the apocalyptic bloodletting, cruelty and technological prowess of ISIS. Since its mutation from an off-shoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2013, it has become the most deadly terrorist brand and raised a formidable army that once humiliated the Syrian and Iraqi armed forces. Until its eviction last year, it controlled a large swathe of territory in both countries, including Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from where its elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a global caliphate in 2015. A CNN report said it controlled over 34,000 square miles of territory and vast oil deposits. Humanitarian agencies’ estimates of the casualties of ISIS since 2013 vary from 400,000 to 1.5 million deaths. Human Rights Watch in 2017 cited atrocities to include mass executions, beheadings, crucifixions, stoning to death, rapes, enslavement, burnings and razing of entire villages. A United Nations Commission of inquiry on Syria found in 2016 that ISIS used cluster bombs, chemical and biological weapons on civilians and armed forces and had committed “horrific crimes against humanity.” All churches, including some built in the first century, as well as ancient buildings and artefacts designated as world heritage sites, were destroyed. Iraqi and UN experts say it could take up to 30 years to rebuild Mosul, Fallujah, Raqqa and other Iraqi and Syrian cities destroyed by ISIS and the war to expel it.
ISIS has introduced high-tech into terror, recruiting and training tech-savvy fanatics worldwide, indoctrinating and unleashing them on the world. Its reach is global, striking or inspiring same on every continent.
For these reasons, the Nigerian state should not allow ISIS to berth here at all. The first task is to understand Islamist terrorism. It is driven by an apocalyptic ideology, sufism, that rejects all but its own narrow interpretation of Islam; it seeks to overthrow the current world order and replace it with a global caliphate. In this quest, terror, conquest and excessive cruelty are justified and its jihadists guaranteed a place in a pleasure-filled paradise if they die.
Terrorists are adaptable: defeating them on the battlefield only drives them underground and into the anonymity of humanity where they blend with the crowd, until they are able to detonate suicide vests, bombs, open gunfire on crowds, poison water sources, drive vehicles into people or hijack aircraft or ships. They never give up.
Only effective intelligence operations can combat such a foe. Since 9/11, according to Defence One, a global security consultancy, Western and Middle Eastern nations have tripled their intelligence budgets, overhauled their agencies and invested heavily in police and surveillance technology, all in response to the terrorist threat.
Boko Haram should be neutralised very quickly and denied the capability to hold any territory in Nigeria and in the countries on our borders. When driven from one, terrorists seek ungoverned territories, weak or failing states as new bases, especially where they can count on local sectarian sympathies. Taliban and al-Qaeda moved to Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya when dislodged from Afghanistan; ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates moved to Mali, northern Burkina Faso and Somalia when chased out of Libya.
Nigeria is attractive to jihadists because of lax authority in the borderlands, state promotion of religion, rising extremism among northern youths and kid-gloves treatment of those who commit crimes in the name of religion. This must change.
We should overhaul the security apparatus: forge closer anti-terrorism relations with other countries, prosecute terror suspects and do everything possible to prevent an ISIS presence here.
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