The new year is off to great start for the militant group Boko Haram — and much less so for Nigeria, its West African neighbors, and the international community as a whole — as the brutal insurgents continue to carve out what has, in effect, become Africa's ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). It is high time the United States and its allies give this burgeoning problem the attention it deserves.
Over this past weekend, in a stunning humiliation to the Nigerian army, Boko Haram stormed Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, one of the last urban centers in the region remaining in government hands. Even more importantly, the town was supposed host the multinational joint task force set up by Nigeria and its neighbors — Cameroon, Chad and Niger — to combat the militants. The other African forces had not arrived on post when Boko Haram overwhelmed the Nigerian troops, many of whom reportedly threw down their weapons and fled, and took control of the military base that was to serve as the command center for the regional effort to combat the insurgency.
In its ongoing offensive, Boko Haram is not only using the terrorist tactics it has honed over the last five years, but also showing signs of growing conventional military capabilities. In early September, the group shot down a Nigerian Air Force Dassault-Dornier Alpha attack jet — a feat that ISIS fighters have not yet succeeded in doing (although they did capture a Jordanian pilot whose F-16 crashed near Raqqa, Syria, on Christmas Eve) — and subsequently, in a tip of the hat to the latter group's grisly signature product, released a video that showed what it said was the beheading of the captured Nigerian pilot.
More importantly, as terrorism analyst Jacob Zenn has pointed out, Boko Haram's videos show a troubling convergence between the Nigerian militants and their ISIS counterparts not only in terms of symbolism and ideology, but also insurgency doctrine. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau first expressed "support" for ISIS's caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, this past summer, but the pace of at least virtual exchange between the two groups represented by the leaders has quickened. Boko Haram has added the jihadist black banner to its logo and ISIS's anthem to the musical repertoire on its videos. In one recent video, Shekau is even shown in speaking in a mosque in a pose reminiscent of al-Baghdadi's June 2014 proclamation of the Islamic State, and declaring that he is establishing his own "Islamic Caliphate" and sending his greetings to the "brothers" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, as well as to "the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria." In case anyone misses the intentional parallel messaging, one video even cuts to a clip of al-Baghdadi's earlier performance. As I documented several months ago, Boko Haram has, like ISIS, clearly moved beyond one-off asymmetric attacks to sophisticated military operations, resulting in the assimilation of increasingly large chunks of territory and, as former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell has more recently noted, "Boko Haram's focus appears now to be on the acquisition of territory. ... It also appears to be moving in the direction of providing services, especially security for the residents in the territories it controls."
All this would be concerning enough in anywhere, but Nigeria is not just another country. Its nearly 180 million people make the West African state by far the most populous country in Africa and the eighth-largest by population in the world. Furthermore, Nigeria boasts the largest economy on the African continent, which the Obama administration itself describes in strategy documents as "more important than ever to the security and prosperity" of the United States and which was showcased during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in August.
Moreover, other factors are converging to make the situation even more volatile. Nigeria is barely a month away from a hotly contested general election, including a rematch presidential race between incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. No doubt Boko Haram, which rejects democratic politics along with other "infidel" ideas, will take advantage of the campaign and voting process to step up attacks. And the victors who emerge from the polls will have to continue the fight against the militants with fewer resources as declining oil prices slash government revenues, of which hydrocarbons have traditionally accounted for more than 80 percent (although luckily Nigeria has a finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has been managing the budget situation adroitly so far, as she outlined to me in an exclusive pre-Christmas conversation).
It is understandable that with all the foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration and the new Congress — including the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria, the stalled Iranian nuclear negotiations, the continued Russian provocations in Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the reinvigorated Chinese pursuit of hegemony in East Asia, and the ever-unpredictable antics of North Korea's nuclear-armed boy wonder, to name just a few — there isn't much appetite for getting involved in another conflict in what appears to be a remote corner of Africa, especially if it requires more than feel-good tweeting or ritual tut-tutting. Nevertheless, the United States, its African partners, and the rest of the international community need to give some serious attention as well as dedicate real diplomatic — and, yes, military — resources toward a situation that was already quite dire, but could significantly and rapidly deteriorate in 2015.
Pham is director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.