Is Nigeria Ready For al Qaeda?

The devastating bomb blast that rocked the United Nations building in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, marks a significant change of course for Boko Haram, the African nation's most notorious outlaw extremist group. It may also mark a significant new direction for al Qaeda, who, in the wake of bin Laden's belated demise, has been accused of losing rank as the death industry's premier dispatcher.

Much of this organizational backslide can be attributed to the thunder-stealing actions of despotic Arab leaders, who, in their not-so-secretive plight to quash the lives of thousands of their own civilians, have won our full attention. While some deem this most recent scenario to be the end of al Qaeda, others (myself included) believe that al Qaeda may be merely preparing to slide undetected into the ensuing fog of political chaos that will undoubtedly blanket the Arab world for some time to come.

While al Qaeda central -- as an organizational structure (and this is largely a Western characterization) -- has been dealt a series of lethal blows, its ability to decentralize, to farm and franchise its ideology out to willing agents like Boko Haram, illustrates a disturbing trend.

Al Qaeda -- and by way of that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the fledgling franchisee al Qaeda in the Sinai -- see Nigeria's largely impoverished population as being ripe for revolution. Any empowerment of Boko Haram -- through al Qaeda-linked resources, technology, or money -- has been consistently downplayed by Nigerian security forces who have routinely boasted of their ability to keep the country's terrorists at bay.

And yet a Nigerian intelligence report unearthed this week claims that the perpetrators of the Abuja bombing received al Qaeda training in Afghanistan and Algeria. This new confirmation of al Qaeda fingerprints in Boko Haram's backyard substantiates long-time warnings that the suboptimal life conditions in Nigeria's north offer dry tinder for an al Qaeda spark. Should a Nigeria-based Al Qaeda in the Sub-Sahara (AQSS) take shape, the new branch would have little difficulty finding devotees.

Until now, Boko Haram -- with its vehemently anti-Western stylings and untempered violence -- has largely directed its deadly activities toward Nigeria's fragile, secular, and quasi-democratic government. This latest attack -- on a high profile, multinational target -- clearly signals the group's intention to elevate its status to that of international terrorist organization.

Whether or not Boko Haram can achieve this level of enterprise will largely depend on the reaction of the Nigerian government. If recent history proves consistent, the reaction of the Nigerian security forces will be swift, blunt, and deadly. Bringing perpetrators to justice is a good thing, but Nigeria will have to find more sophisticated methods of investigating such crimes; there are countless stories of police executing their suspects in the streets. Where innocents are killed, the central government wins little favour. Any newfound love between Boko Haram and al Qaeda will require that Nigeria begin to consider new ways to temper the extremist voices emanating from its northern states. This will not be an easy task.

Nigeria's capital, Abuja, rests on a demographic fault line between the country's predominantly Muslim north and its predominantly Christian south. The south -- although problematic in its own right -- benefits from the knowledge that it sits atop nearly all of Nigeria's rich oil and gas reserves -- an industry that accounts for some 98% of the nation's foreign export earnings and from which the United States imports over 800,000 barrels a day.

Adding to its religious and economic divide, Nigeria is Africa's most populous and most ethnically-divided nation, and one that has suffered a violent history of settler-indigene disputes that routinely end with neighbor-upon-neighbor massacres.

Nigeria's 148 million citizens remain largely impoverished, with 70% living on less than $2 per day. With a median age of 19 years old, the future looks bleak. The country's inflation rate sits at 10% along with an unemployment rate that has recently soared to an incredible 41%, as told this July by the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. The northern states have been especially hard hit, with domestic industries and markets unable to compete against the influx of low-cost imported goods.

These problems are sure to be compounded when (as the World Bank predicts) the country's population doubles by the year 2036. Confidence that the Nigerian government can save the day is waning in light of recent reports that Nigeria now has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, that 20% of its children die before the age of five, that rare strains of polio and cholera have emerged, and that Nigeria's life expectancy has been reduced to 47 years, now 30% lower than the rest of West Africa.

The fact that twelve of Nigeria's northern states have officially instituted Shari'a law -- while the majority of the nation has not - adds further to the north's political and social isolation. It does not help matters that the customary presidential rotation between Christian and Muslim leaders has been recently interrupted in favour of a Christian President following the untimely death of President Yar Adua.

Nigeria is a victim of its own inattention toward the plight of its people and is also the latest victim of al Qaeda's virulent anti-Western ideology. Boko Haram shows that al Qaeda's message (not its organization) is capable of leaping across stretches of geography, to target and propagate in locales in which both hardship and anti-Western sentiments collide.

The Nigerian counterterrorism strategy that emerges from the UN-headquarters bombing will have to move beyond "shoot first" policing. A strategy -- if it is developed -- will require intelligence, savvy, and a good deal of social interest on the part of the government. In this case, the best defence is, in fact, also a good defence. Improving the chaotic and disparaging life conditions in Nigeria's north will go a long way in preventing al Qaeda's organic emergence in the region.

When this author interviewed young Nigerians in the country, they talked emphatically about their future -- a future they hoped would be free from worry and despair. Educated, bright, and globally-oriented, these young people are eager to contribute, work, and live in a safe and prosperous Nigeria. Indeed, the current generation holds immense promise. If governed with respect, they are also the most valuable asset Nigeria has in the fight against extremism. Let's hope Nigeria recognizes this before it is too late.