Boko Haram et al: How to fish for terrorists, by Richard Ali


Having a natural aversion for swimming, I nonetheless have a fascination with fisherfolk. The image of a person balanced on a canoe throwing a net unto a water body—lake, river, sea even—is idyllic in my mind. So, I have read a lot about methods of fishing ranging from angling to cast netting to trawling and more. I have learned, for example, that nets can be illegal depending on how they are used, the size of the mesh and the water body you’re fishing in. The trick to responsible fishing lies in knowing your river, getting the right type of netting and having the right technique.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism and terror, especially in the context of the United States’ retaliatory “war on terror”, has been on everyone’s lips. The reality of al-Qaeda and its various al-Qaedalettes as well as the Daesh aka Islamic State has made terrorism a cause of concern not just for the political leadership and every government department. It has also become something not understood yet viscerally feared by regular people. This is because terror attacks happen when least expected.

There is never any certainty on where these new sorts of guerillas will hit, as we can see in the northeast and the northwest. A terror attack causes loss of life and destruction of facilities but also wider public panic, deepens misunderstanding and heightens fear. But terror is not a thing, no more than joy or sadness are things. All are in the same category of psychological states that can be induced. . . and manipulated. Terror’s purpose is to force the concession of people to an ideological point of view by leveraging their fear of the loss of their lives and property.

There are two types of conditions in which countries can experience terrorism threats and both can become closely related to each other. We can think of these as two types of water bodies—rivers if you like. There is the international environment and there is the immediate domestic environment. An example of the international environment would be the use of bombings and plane hijackings by the Palestinian factions from the 1950’s on to force political concessions from the Israeli state and the West. The issue of Palestine is of no real interest to say Uganda, yet in the famous Entebbe standoff, it was drawn into an international environment where that country’s territorial integrity was violated by Israeli special forces, with Ugandan national property and personnel destroyed. A local environment condition for terrorism would be our own Yusufiya sect aka Boko Haram, which seems to have started as a result of the belief amongst a certain class in society that the Nigerian state ought to be Islamic and was not sufficiently so, hence the resort to Islamism by “jihad”. This jihad involved the whole gamut, from preaching to seclusion of a dissident community, to the ongoing phase of the use of terror attacks on hard and soft targets alike.

The ways in which both the international and the domestic environments (aka rivers) intersect is perfectly exemplified by the current Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) which saw the Yusufiya under Shekau pledge loyalty to the late al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) thus internationalizing a domestic condition. ISWAP’s current leader is its third, Ba Idrissa aka Abdullah ibn Umar al-Barnawi, who seems to have been a follower of the Yusufiya sect founder and supporter of his son, Abu Musab, before taking over command. In addressing terrorism as wielded by insurgents, it is important to know exactly what sort of river you are fishing in. You must know exactly which fish is which. Package-dealing everyone as “Boko Haram” when it is possible there are several different factions active in Nigeria is an example of not knowing what sort of river one is fishing in. It is not helpful in the security space. It is not helpful in the media space where perceptions are shaped.

Regardless of source, the implications of terrorist threats on national security are always negative. Accordingly, nations take quick actions against perceived or real terrorist threats. But how does a nation take such a quick action? By continually adapting its administrative and legal frameworks to match the new threat profile. In terms of administrative systems, it is enough to restate what I have said in this column on several occasions—a networked systems approach that mirrors the insurgents diffused command-and-control must become operative in the government of Nigeria. A something hundreds thousand Nigerian Police Force that insists on being incapable of establishing civil authority in areas liberated by the military is not the problem. Such a Police-ing reality is merely an administrative systems thermometer reading. And we must keep our eye on the real problem. The necessity of profiling achieved through an intermesh of our hundreds-odd internal security services, of tracking, of modelling for each and every actor and preempting the ways they influence and interfere with each other, is the hallmark of a modern network-minded security regime. We do not seem in danger of achieving this in Nigeria anytime soon.

Now, putting it all together. As with the example from fishing: if we have failed to get ahead of the Boko Haram insurgency by denying them both the ability to recruit and the use of terror as a tool, as their continued attacks would seem to indicate, it is because we have a nexus of failure between our context, our tools and our technique. What sort of river are we in? Which sort of net are we using? Are there holes in it, can we stitch them? Or is the meshing selected one that allows all manner of bad fish through, so that what we are doing is in fact just faffing around? What is our technique, is it working? Are we trawling the riverbed or the ocean floor to sweep up the expendable trash of the insurgents, by which I mean the double-victims who we can kill by the hundreds for photo-ops, while the ideological masterminds and crisis entrepreneurs who animate the animus are not in danger of such a technique so-called? When we say we are reforming this and that, we fail when we make rocket science of the mundane. Our “challenges” are not unique, not only have they been solved by other people in similar situations from which we can adapt, we have solved similar problems in the past which our lack of institutional memory denies us knowledge of. The effect of all this? Every geopolitical zone in this country is restive and citizens are in terror for the loss of their lives.

The thing with fishing for terrorists and insurgents is that you can re-adapt your net and your technique. What decides victory, in this case the survival of the Nigerian state, will be how fast we can do this, how fast we can adapt over and over again to a dynamic threat. Chinua Achebe reminds us of a famous bird interested in its survival in a forest where hunters shoot without missing. Nziza the bird was on point. As my contribution to this hoped-for dynamism in this fishing business, I will write about the legal and policy frameworks of counterterrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism in Nigeria over the coming weeks, with a mind to having you, regular Nigerians, understand them in layman’s terms while, hopefully, showing the places where our netting can be adjusted to catch the bad fish and where our technique can be improved on to put an end to the state of peril and fear that has become the lot of the Nigerian people for far too long.

Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]

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