Is Nigeria the Next Front in the War on Terror?

The country's sectarian violence is getting out of control.

Violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is drawing the country ever closer to a religious war. The instigator of this conflict is Boko Haram, an Islamist movement whose very name means "Western education is forbidden." If the Nigerian government can't stop this conflict from spiraling out of control, expect the United States to step in -- albeit with a relatively light hand -- to tip the scales against Boko Haram.

The situation in Nigeria hit a crisis point on June 17, when Boko Haram attacked three churches in Nigeria's north-central Kaduna state -- killing 21 people during services. Christians were quick to respond, and sectarian clashes ignited almost immediately. After four days of unrest, roughly 100 Nigerians lay dead.

Terrorist violence is nothing new for Boko Haram, a group that U.S. officials suspect of having links to al Qaeda. As the U.S. State Department has noted, attacks by Boko Haram and associated militants have taken more than 1,000 lives over the past 18 months. Nor is sectarian strife new to Nigeria: The country, predominantly Muslim in the north and Christian in the south, has a history of sectarian violence in its religiously mixed middle belt. Past riots killed more than 100 people in 2002 -- again in Kaduna -- when Muslim youths protested the Miss World pageant being held in Nigeria, and they also claimed scores of lives in 2006 following Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of controversial cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed.

Recent events show that Boko Haram's attacks are only becoming more deadly. The organization is in the midst of a tactical evolution: Whereas Boko Haram used to employ such tactics as assassinations and massed assaults on security forces, suicide bombings now feature prominently in its arsenal, and Christian targets -- which are most frequently attacked while church services are ongoing -- have moved to the top of the group's target list.

The Nigerian government has had some successes. Boko Haram was the target of violent suppression in July 2009 when its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was summarily executed by Nigerian security forces following his capture that month, and roughly 800 members of the sect were killed, according to Nigerian military estimates. As scholar David Cook's useful study on Boko Haram details, however, the group re-emerged with a vengeance the following year. It engaged in "a high profile campaign of assassinations and attacks throughout northern Nigeria," Cook writes, and began to employ suicide attacks in the summer of 2011. Further, Cook notes, Boko Haram's attacks and threats have focused "more and more on interests that touch U.S. economic concerns in the region."

In line with Boko Haram's tactical evolution, it has frequently employed suicide bombings in its onslaught against Christian targets. Prior to the June 17 attacks, Boko Haram had perpetrated a number of other terrorist assaults on church services. On April 29, gunmen attacked services on Bayero University in the northern state of Kano, killing at least 16 people. The group also took credit for a June 3 suicide attack on a church in northeastern Nigeria that killed 15 people and wounded 40 more. The following Sunday, June 10, two church attacks rocked the cities of Jos and Biu, killing three people and wounding over 40. Once again, Boko Haram claimed responsibility.

Such attacks have provoked a response from Nigeria's Christian community. Christian youths reportedly assaulted local Muslims around Jos in response to those attacks, but that retaliation paled in comparison to the wave of violence that followed the June 17 attacks. As Boko Haram's attacks on church services continued from one weekend to the next, Christian and Muslim leaders have tried to stop the religious violence from escalating. Jamaatu Nasril Islam, an umbrella group for Nigerian Muslim organizations, released an open letter to the government that condemned the church attacks, describing them as "barbaric."

Even amid the calls for calm, however, rumblings of retaliation could be heard. To Nigerian Christians in areas with a strong Boko Haram presence, it seemed that the state was incapable of providing them with security. The Rev. Emmanuel Chukwuma, chairman of the South East chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said that though Christians appealed for peace, "It seems that the present security of Nigeria cannot curtail the carnage."

Some of the Christian association's other statements contain more direct threats. Its head, Ayo Oritsejafor, told reporters that the church had previously "put great restraint" on its members, "but can no longer guarantee such cooperation if this trend of terror is not halted immediately." The Odua Nationalist Congress, a group representing the Yoruba people, also warned that if the government did not counter Boko Haram, "the people, on their own, will rise up to the occasion for self-preservation."

Following the June 17 attacks on three churches in Kaduna -- the third straight weekend of attacks on services -- Christian retaliation against Muslims was swift. Some of the targets had actually been involved in the attacks: Reuters reported that militants who threw bombs at one church were "caught by a mob and killed." Other acts of retaliation were brutal and indiscriminate -- the same article noted that Christian youths pulled Muslims out of their cars and killed them.

With violence escalating, Nigerian commentators are openly discussing the prospect of a sectarian civil war. The country's PM News, for example, wrote of "the possibility of a religious war." A June 26 statement from the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, arguing that security forces' failure to arrest and disarm the militant group had made self-defense "imperative for Christians," as Nigeria's Guardian news site put it, only intensified these fears.

A religious war may play right into Boko Haram's hands. Although Iraq circa 2006 is very different from Nigeria today, it is worth recalling how al Qaeda in Iraq was able to set sectarian violence in motion through its attacks on Shiite targets -- and then position itself as a protector of Sunnis. Boko Haram may similarly be able to capitalize on retaliatory attacks directed at Muslims after it strikes at Christians.

There is evidence that the attacks on Sunday services have managed to polarize Nigeria along religious lines. "I held a position that it is not a religious war in the past," Nigerian Sen. Ita Solomon Enang, a Christian, said in an interview. "But my position on that is becoming shaky because when people now blatantly take guns to churches and aim at unarmed worshippers, kill them, and go away.… I would say this is like a jihad."

Meanwhile, Nigeria's government is struggling to contain this new outbreak of religiously fueled animosity. President Goodluck Jonathan has responded to the crisis by firing his national security advisor and defense minister -- the country, he said, needed "new tactics" to combat Boko Haram. It is highly unlikely, however, that this shake-up has succeeded in assuaging Christian fears or has reversed the Christian community's pull toward self-defense.

If the Nigerian government isn't up to the job, expect the United States to take a greater interest in counterterrorism operations there. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. forces in Africa, has repeatedly spoken of connections between Boko Haram and two al Qaeda affiliates: Somalia's al-Shabab and North Africa's al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. For the first time, on June 21 the State Department designated three high-level Boko Haram members as "specially designated global terrorists," and the United States is considering a broader designation of the group as a whole.

Thus far, U.S. policies toward Boko Haram have emphasized empowerment of local partners -- for instance, providing Nigeria with counterinsurgency training and intelligence support, and providing the funding to bolster its armed forces -- rather than direct, kinetic actions. If Nigeria can't get control of this brewing sectarian war, however, the United States might opt for more direct involvement. For instance, U.S. Special Forces could eventually be used beyond their current training capacity, or the United States could decide to directly target Boko Haram's leadership. Although there is no sign that such an escalation in the U.S. role is imminent, Nigeria's festering sectarian divides mean such options remain on the table.

Nigeria isn't going to turn into Somalia or Yemen -- let alone Iraq or Afghanistan -- overnight. But if the religiously fueled violence there is not contained, it might become yet another front in the war on terror.



The Return of the Mexican Dinosaur

Mexico's pretty-boy president is more dangerous than he looks.

Mexico has apparently decided to turn back the clock. Widespread frustration with 12 years of uneven political progress and stunted economic growth under the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) has driven part of the Mexican electorate to desperately call the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary (PRI) back to power. Meanwhile, in a repeat of the country's last presidential race in 2006, the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) has once again finished a close second.

According to the most recent LatinBarometer study, a whopping 73 percent of the Mexican population is dissatisfied with the performance of democracy (Mexico is tied with Guatemala for last place in Latin America in this category.) Such an attitude can be healthy for political development if it pushes citizens to work on improving the political system. But it can also produce a dangerous social malaise, which is the perfect breeding ground for the retrenchment of authoritarianism.

Last November, for instance, Guatemala voted in retired General Otto Pérez Molina as its new president in a worrisome embrace of the past. Pérez Molina has been implicated by civil society groups in systematic violations of human rights during the civil war that wreaked havoc in the country between 1960 and 1996. Activists have even filed a formal report with the U.N. special rapporteur on torture accusing Pérez Molina of war crimes for his direct role in the protracted conflict, which left more than 200,000 people dead and tens of thousands "disappeared."

Mexico has now followed Guatemala's lead. Instead of trying something new and joining the "pink tide" of progressive social democratic politics that has swept through Latin American in recent years, a plurality of Mexicans has apparently succumbed to frustration and turned back to the past.

One of the clearest messages from yesterday's election is that Mexicans are fed up with sitting President Felipe Calderón. They bitterly punished the PAN's candidate, Josefina Vázquez Mota, by relegating her to a distant third place with only 25 percent of the vote. This should come as no surprise after five years of non-stop violence, with more than 50,000 violent deaths due to the failed "drug war" during the Calderón administration alone.

The economy has also performed badly. Average annual per capita growth under the two PAN administrations since 2000 -- those of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Calderón (2006-2012) -- has been about the same (0.9 percent) as it was during the last two decades of the previous PRI administrations (0.8 percent). Meanwhile, poverty and underemployment have significantly increased in recent years.

The surprise is not that Mexicans vote retrospectively, but that they somehow feel that the PRI can move them forward instead of backward. At 45, the PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto may have been the youngest candidate in the race, but there is no evidence that he actually represents something new. To the contrary, everything we know about him suggests that he will bring back the worst traditions of opacity, corruption, and intolerance. U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) may be right, for instance, in pointing out that a Peña Nieto victory could spell a "reversion to the PRI policies of old" based on "turning a blind eye to the [drug] cartels." Peña Nieto's public statements to the contrary in recent days are hardly believable.

Indeed, Sensenbrenner may actually be underestimating the danger; things could quickly get even worse than they were before the PRI was ousted from power in 2000. During the 1990s, the PRI split between what Mexicans called "technocrats" and "dinosaurs," with the former supposedly representing the modern wing of the ruling party and the latter the old guard. The last two presidents who hailed from the old ruling party, Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), held doctorates from elite U.S. universities and made an effort to present themselves as technocrats interested in economic growth and democratic procedure. In reality, malfeasance and authoritarian politics flourished during their administrations, but both men were at least endowed with a basic level of intelligence and worldly sophistication.

Peña Nieto, by contrast, is a "dinosaur" by any definition of the term. He is best known for his carefully combed hair and his soap opera actress wife. He has made it clear that he does not read books and his English is broken at best. His only training for the presidency is his six-year stint as provincial governor of the state of Mexico, a sprawling urban jungle on the outskirts of Mexico City best known for its abusive police, unfinished roads, and machine politics. Under Peña Nieto's watch, corruption, poverty, and violence all increased, according to independent civil society studies.

Peña Nieto was born and raised in a family of politicians in the city of Atlacomulco, home to one of the most powerful "camarillas," or political cliques, in the country. He is extremely close to former governor Arturo Montiel, who has been embroiled in corruption scandals. One of the most important founders of the Atlacomulco Group, Carlos Hank González, is infamous for having quickly climbed the rungs of power -- starting off as principal of an elementary school and soon becoming governor of the state of Mexico, mayor of Mexico City, and finally secretary of tourism and secretary of agriculture. He is best known for coining the aphorism "a politician who is poor is a poor politician," which Mexicans interpret as a cynical public justification for dirty politics.

In many ways, Peña Nieto has more in common with Vicente Fox than with Salinas or Zedillo. Like Peña Nieto, Fox became president after finishing up a term as governor and was not an especially deep thinker. Fox's most important attraction was his populist charisma and his macho, cowboy approach to politics. In June, the former Mexican leader publicly endorsed Peña Nieto's campaign.

Fox was unsuccessful in jumpstarting Mexico's democratic transition. He squandered his opportunity as the first opposition president after more than 70 years of PRI rule. Instead of rolling up his sleeves to transform public institutions, he took the easy route of leaving in place the vested interests of the past.

Peña Nieto could be even more of a disappointment than Fox, since he will have his hands tied from the very beginning of his term. For example, the country's roughly 20 state governors from the PRI (there are 32 states in Mexico) will enjoy unprecedented influence over the Peña Nieto administration. Twelve years without a president from the PRI to control them from above has empowered these local leaders and turned them into the de facto leaders of the party. They now rule like feudal lords without a glimmer of oversight or public responsibility, especially in those states -- including Coahuila, Mexico, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz -- where the PRI has never lost power. As former governor of the state of Mexico, Peña Nieto is a member of this group and will have to co-govern with it from the start.

Peña Nieto also owes his apparent victory to the television duopoly of TV Azteca and Televisa, which controls 95 percent of Mexico's stations and has literally fabricated his popularity out of thin air. The Guardian's recent reports of secret contracts between Peña Nieto and Mexican television companies for the purpose of promoting his image are only the tip of the iceberg. Upon arriving in office, the new president may seek to pay back this invaluable support through new laws and regulatory measures. Such a deal would also inevitably involve protection for the Peña Nieto administration from uncomfortable media oversight and accountability.

Some scholars argue that the return of the PRI will not put Mexico's democracy at risk because the judicial and legislative branches have much greater independence from the executive branch today than they did 20 years ago. While it is true that these branches of government may be able to effectively hold back some authoritarian excesses on the part of the new president, Mexico needs more than just checks and balances. It urgently needs the executive branch to stop treading water and start taking firm steps toward the establishment of accountability and the rule of law. Unfortunately, no evidence suggests that Peña Nieto has the background, the personal convictions, or the political independence necessary to carry out such a challenging and important task.

Meanwhile, the leftist opposition in Mexico will continue to be strong. The PRD candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has defied almost all of the pre-election polls by coming within striking distance of Peña Nieto. López Obrador will most likely finish only five or six percentage points behind the apparent president-elect, with approximately 33 percent of the popular vote compared with approximately 38 percent for Peña Nieto. This would mean that López Obrador's vote total would surpass the 15 million mark, earning him even more support than he received in 2006, when he came within 0.58 percent of winning the presidency.

The #YoSoy132 student movement, which burst onto the scene two months ago to protest against Peña Nieto's authoritarian inclinations and dealings with media companies, will also remain strong. Indeed, the arrival of Peña Nieto may well galvanize the youth to assume an even more important role in national politics. Yesterday's enormous support for López Obrador suggests that millions of people may be willing to take to the streets to accompany the youth in their demand to democratize and assure greater plurality in the media.

If Peña Nieto is finally declared president-elect by Mexico's electoral tribunal, he will have won with the support of less than 40 percent of the voters and will almost certainly face a Congress controlled by the opposition. Mexico is therefore headed toward an historic standoff between the new dinosaurs in charge of the executive and the new institutions and movements that have accompanied the glacial progress of democracy south of the border.

It's difficult to put much faith in Peña Nieto's pledge on Sunday night to embrace a "new form of governing that responds to the demands of Mexico in the 21st century" rather than return "to the past." The good news, though, is that Mexico's emboldened political opposition just might keep this dinosaur true to his word.