January 26, 2010

al-Qaeda's Future Front: Nigeria

Images from Jos aren’t for the faint hearted. In contrast to the blasted out, charcoaled landscape of modern warfare, riots leave a grotesque imprint on the body and mind. News from Nigeria progresses in horror as the death toll rises, criminal rings emerge, corruption allegations leak out, and religious, ethnic, geopolitical tensions refuse to dissipate.

This is not where we find the real story.

Somewhere in Saudi Arabia lies the root, in the hospital or retreat where Nigerian president President Umaru Yar'Adua has allegedly received treatment for a heart condition for the past two months. A Federal High Court ruled that his cabinet must decide whether he’s fit for office in the coming week.

Nigerians have been worried since early December and are reaching a panic. Protests have become a common occurrence. Count White House and Pentagon officials among those biting their fingernails over Adua’s future.

Nigeria would make an ideal future front for al-Qaeda and Adua’s absence could open the door.

Al-Qaeda already operates in West and North Africa to recruit and smuggle arms and drugs into Europe, and it’s looking for new spots in case President Obama invades Yemen and Somalia. But Nigeria, a substantial country with a massive population, offers a mixed bag to al-Qaeda.

Nigerian officials reacted harshly to US airport security put in place after failed Chistmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Authorities will fully cooperate with America in its war against al-Qaeda, they pledge, while they defend Nigerians as peaceful and pro-American. Indiscriminately profiling 150 million of them is no way to repay their loyalty and kindness.

Abnormally pro-American, Nigerians are the only African people that believe US troops play a positive role in the Middle East. Their enthusiasm is barely limited by the fact that America is the leading exporter of Nigerian oil and thus indirectly contributes to the Niger Delta conflict.

al-Qaeda faces a formidable barrier if it’s to enter Nigeria, a rare destabilized state that likes America. The question is whether it can counter this disadvantage by taking advantage of Nigeria’s many weaknesses.

We're observing an unhealthy state, one too tempting for al-Qaeda to pass up. No one problem lures al-Qaeda - the sum of Nigeria’s chaos transcends the hotspots.

Riots in Jos, perpetuated by land feuds and political discrimination and infused with religious undertones, show no signs of ending. More than 300 suspects were rounded up after rioting left 400 people dead, many of them jailed in the 2008 riots. Federal authorities are worried of a repeat in this pattern.

Jos will remain unstable until significant political reform can be enacted regardless of the legal outcome to a specific riot.

The Niger River Delta is in no better condition. Having reached a dead-end in negotiations, MEND renounced its ceasefire and is again operating a war against all oil companies operating in Nigeria and the government for supporting them. MEND, one of the world’s strongest insurgencies, is said to take inspiration from the Taliban.

President Adua’s absence has crippled efforts to these solve these problems. Proper negotiations with MEND and other militant groups and a political response to Jos cannot be formulated. Nigeria is a poor country in general, which doesn’t help the situation, nor did a Nigerian’s failed attempt to blow up a US airplane.

Up to 95% of Nigerians believe their government doesn’t respond to them.

The outbreak in Jos was merely the symptom of a weak state, one that can be exploited by al-Qaeda and that America would have a hard time defending without its lofty popularity. Obama must to take advantage of that favor and provide diplomatic assistance to mediate a political resolution.

Here's an opportunity to deploy political and diplomatic power within a comprehensive, global strategy and without military operations.

Letting Adua paralyze Nigeria for the next months or years is almost certain to lure al-Qaeda to Nigeria. The break-in has already begun, but popular revolt could create a distraction to enter en masse. Nigeria is big and there must be enough anti-American Nigerians to support sleeper cells.

If Nigeria keeps to its present course, al-Qaeda just might find sanctuary in mangroves and huts in the Plateau State in the future.

[Update: This is not what we mean.]

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