By Okhai Akhigbe
Talk about escaping by a whisker! I was in the UN mission hours before the explosion. My cousin, staff of the UN, was caught up in the blast but survived; his office assistant was not so fortunate – he was blown to pieces.
The pictures of the gruesome attack floated across the world via the media flagging up Nigeria as an unsafe nation once again. And the comments from many, expressing shock and wondering how we ever got to this position. But we should have seen this coming, it has a history, there are remote causes. Truth is, sometimes to go forward; you have to go back in time. For too long we have been in denial about the ‘State of Security’ in the country.
In 1997, I was a lieutenant and part of a special task force sent to investigate sectarian violence in Delta state. We were fired upon as we navigated the creeks, trying to access some of the coastal villages. Our team was led by a Lieutenant Colonel who insisted that we berth at one of the villages, in spite of the warning gunfire.
A group of elders eventually welcomed us into their town hall constructed with raffia and wooden posts. We were offered local gin (Ogogoro) in a single glass which was passed round till it got back to the elders. A youth leader spoke on behalf of the community and gave us a message to pass to the existing military government. It was a simple message expressed with a lot of emotion: ‘We are fishermen, but because of oil spillage we no longer have a means of livelihood. The government needs to help us...’ The rest was left unsaid.
The rest of our investigation out in the creeks and the mainland revealed that the youth in Delta then, were acquiring arms in support of their political agenda. The facts stared us in the face, but they were hard to accept: did these rag tag groups hope to take on a trained, better equipped, and disciplined armed forces? We sent our report to the Presidency but it received a lukewarm response. Who would ever think that a group of ‘novices’ could take on the armed forces? That was in 1997.
By 2003 and in proceeding years, the threat of the Niger Delta militants was no longer a joke. In fact it was no longer a threat. Their attacks against the Oil and Gas infrastructure had crippled oil production rates and were costing the nation millions of dollars per day. Global oil prices were soaring. By 2010, the Federal Government was ready to negotiate as a means of restoring peace and former production rates. The official term for the negotiation was named ‘Amnesty’.
This is 2011 and Nigeria has a new monster: Boko Haram, and like the Niger Delta militants, this monster was born years ago. Their focus of attack has not being infrastructure though that sometimes constitutes part of the collateral damage. They prefer to target individuals or groups. Their modus operandi, of sorts, has been drive-by shootings on motorcycles, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and more recently a car bomb used in a sensational attack on the Police HQ, Abuja (which they claimed responsibility for). Interestingly media reports indicate that the Boko Haram group would like to strike Lagos.
One of the most challenging aspects of security will be responding to new threats. As a Lieutenant back there in ’97 I found it difficult to believe that former fishermen had the audacity to take up arms against the ‘invincible’ members of the armed forces.
The reality of emerging threats however is that 19 determined, trained, and prepared Arabs took on the might of the US, with all of its well funded, well armed agencies (CIA, FBI et al) and drove Mr Bush into a secure hideout. With the benefit of postgraduate study (and research) in Terrorism and the related fields (Criminology, Psychology, Politics etc) my approach to tackling current terrorist campaigns is ‘more informed’.
This is a different ‘war’. The current Chief of Army Staff is quoted as saying that, ‘The operation of Boko Haram is new to us in the sense that the terrorists live with the people. They live among the people. Sometimes they may not keep the weapons in their houses.’ (Vanguard Newspaper dated 29th June 2011)
The use of terrorism as a means of political change is not new, but that is talk for another day. What is of interest at this point is the approach to countering it, especially with present developments across Nigeria. I have distilled some of the larger volumes of literature out there to produce some basic guidelines that can be applied to countering terrorism in its present state, considering that this is an ever changing phenomenon.
It may be worth mentioning that most of the terrorist activity witnessed globally in the last 40 years is a result of post colonial rule, as nation states attempt to develop or consolidate their political structure in a post colonial dispensation.
As the Federal Government continues to intensify efforts to counter the Boko Haram sect, here are some guidelines for combating terrorism:
1. Prepare for a long battle. US President George Bush declared the ‘War against Terrorism’ in 2001 and his successor Barrack Obama is still fighting that war ten years after. Politicians make that common mistake of reassuring the electorate that ‘the terrorists will be wiped out in a few weeks’. This is far from the fact because terrorists have strong will and psychological prowess; that is the battle that they fight, they are usually prepared for wars of attrition. They take away the usual freedoms by making life unsafe and unpredictable, to the point where the electorate will pressure the government to negotiate or give in to their political agenda.
It is better to make the electorate understand that the intention of the terrorist is to create fear and rob the citizen of the dividends of a democratic government and that it could take some time to overcome the threats but it would be worth defending. It is always better to prepare for a long battle that is won in the short term rather than vice versa.
2. Have a detailed Information Management Plan. There terrorist stereotype is some crazed fanatic devoid of intelligence and strategy.
This is usually so far from being the case as studies have shown that terrorist groups have shown adeptness in managing information to the general public via the mass media. While government are constantly bickering and fighting personality and policy wars in the media, terrorist groups use the media to show how confident and daring they can be. Former British Prime Minister identified that the media was the ‘oxygen’ of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Terrorist groups also use the symbiotic relationship with the media as a means of luring adventure seeking youth.
3. Gather enough evidence. This may come as a surprise but the fact remains that ‘alleged terrorists’ can be difficult to convict in a court of law, because the evidence was insufficient to do so. This is more of a law enforcement task. It includes whatever means will be required to provide this evidence: covert operations, wire tapping, filming, forensics, etc and in accordance with existing laws on evidence and terrorism. The eventual release of terrorist suspects released from the US Guantanamo Bay detention facility (for lack of evidence) is a good example of this.
4. Run an efficient Intelligence Cycle. Information is different from Intelligence. Intelligence is information (a raw product) which has to be processed to enable a counter terrorist organisation take action; either to prevent or disrupt an attack; or to apprehend terrorists. The cycle begins in the field where information is gathered, passed on to analysts who understand terrorist methods, and the particular traits of the terrorist groups, then on to the combat ready groups which may be law enforcement or military troops, depending on the circumstances.
In situations where intelligence cannot prevent attacks, it can help to arrest perpetuators and bring them to justice. In the 9/11 bombings, though the intelligence could not forestall the attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was able to identify the group responsible for the attacks and the 19 personalities involved.
5. Treat each terrorist group differently. Every terrorist group is created out of its own peculiar circumstances so it could be a costly mistake to presume that tactics that worked against one group would be immediately effective against another. There are general traits related to terrorist groups but most times their methodologies are variable. Some groups may clone strategies used successfully by other groups within the same region or elsewhere around the world. It is a plus if the counter terrorist is able to identify tactics patterned after other groups.
6. Hearts and Minds campaign. Terrorism is basically a psychological war. A seemingly random bombing is all integrated into a psychological battle that spirals into rumours, conspiracy theories, cracks in government, and vulnerability of the law enforcement and military. Citizens should be involved in the psychological battle. It is essential to have regular media briefing were facts are put on the table and non classified areas of ongoing operations are shared with the general public.
The public has to be won over and not taken for granted. Ensure that they do not suffer more loss due to terrorist action. If citizens cannot have essential services, security, then the war is being lost already. They will pass on important information if they have the assurance that they will not be compromised.
7. Limit military operations. The common government response to terrorist attacks is to ‘roll out the troops’ and this has repercussions. It usually falls into the terrorist agenda as the traditional military approach is to set up endless checkpoints and carry out ‘search and arrest’ operations which creates discontentment with the citizens. There will be unavoidable incidents between these troops and the civilian public such as accidental shootings in innocent citizens which will be exploited by the terrorist group. In a shootout with members of the Boko Haram in 2009, security forces killed about 100 alleged members of the sect at a mosque in Maiduguri. Human rights groups allege that innocent youngsters were among those killed in the raid (source: Foxnew.com on 30th July 2009).
8. One clear policy. Government must have a clear and definite policy on terrorism. It becomes very confusing and negating for field officers when there are variations in the governments stand on terrorism. It throws up a lot of sentiment which will only work in favour of the terrorists and also confuse the general public.
9. Watch out for the Fifth Columnist. It may sound a little paranoid but terrorist groups enjoy sympathy from various quarters: the government, security agencies, and the general public. There has to be a periodic audit of persons especially where operations have failed and leaks are becoming obvious.
10. Explore political solutions. Even in a ‘no negotiations with terrorists’ policy the government can take the bite out of the terrorists arguments by exploring political solutions to the existing situations.
•Akhigbe is an international security consultant, CEO, South Atlantic Consulting, UK.