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After Deadly Church Attacks in Nigeria, What Do Boko Haram Extremists Want?

December 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
At least 39 people were killed in Christmas Day attacks on Christian churches in Nigeria. Margaret Warner discusses the bombings and the Boko Haram extremist group that claimed responsibility with Paul Lubeck, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the bombings in Nigeria, we turn to Paul Lubeck, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Global, International and Regional Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was in Northern Nigeria researching Islamist movements this past summer.

And, Professor, thank you for being with us.

PAUL LUBECK, Center for Global, International and Regional Studies: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about this group Boko Haram. What is it they’re seeking?

PAUL LUBECK: Thank you for inviting me.

Boko Haram is a nickname given to this movement by journalists because the leader, Mohammed Yusuf, advocates a strict interpretation of Sharia law and rejects anything that contradicts the Koran.

The movement is made up of a radical splinter group of a larger Salafist movement in northern Nigeria influenced by Saudi Arabia. They had a conflict with the police in July 2009, resulting in the extrajudicial murder of their leaders by the police and the army, a bloodbath. After that, they have become an insurgency group demanding a return to true Sharia law, as they envision it, and a demand for release of their prisoners, a demand for the end of democracy and Westernization in northern Nigeria.

MARGARET WARNER: So, do yesterday’s coordinated bombings represent a step-up in their capabilities?

PAUL LUBECK: It is a continuation of a campaign since 2010 marked by very sophisticated prison release — prison breaks, robbing banks, attacking the police.

It went in several phases. Initially, they attacked the politicians who they held responsible for the bloodbath in 2009. Then they attacked symbolic targets, the national police headquarters and the U.N. headquarters Aug. 26.

MARGARET WARNER: Are they linked to al-Qaida? There’s been some talk of that, but is there real evidence of that?

PAUL LUBECK: There’s no evidence showing operational coordination between the two.

The general that’s head of AFRICOM and others state that there is contact. Every security person I interviewed from the West believes there’s contact between an al-Qaida group called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, in Mali and Algeria.

What’s important is that they are modeling themselves after al-Qaida. They’re engaging in what can only be called terrorist acts. And they are attempting to mobilize unemployed youth and impoverished children and school dropouts who cannot find employment in Nigeria. It’s clear by the ability to elude the national police, the national security and the army for over two years that they have support locally.

And in order to deal with them, there will have to be an economic and social redevelopment issue initiative in northern Nigeria, or else we will have the same conflict, and, if it’s not this group, it’ll be another.

MARGARET WARNER: So, are you saying that, so far, the government’s response has been ineffective, one? Are you saying that? And, two, is it — are you saying it’s been too focused on security measures, rather than going after — you know, trying to bring the north up to some financial level more commensurate with the south?

PAUL LUBECK: Both are true.

The security effort has alienated members of the community. They have — there’s widespread human rights reports of abuse by the police and the military. Everyone agrees that the security forces have been ineffective. The newspapers are full of articles both from Christians and Muslims denouncing and ridiculing the leadership and capacity of the security forces to actually deal with security.

Secondly, this is the most impoverished region of Nigeria. It is experiencing a demographic explosion. Every Muslim woman in this region has 7.4 children, on average. There’s widespread poverty. The streets of the cities are filled with abandoned children, with unemployed youth demanding access to the vast petroleum wealth that’s in Nigeria and has been taken up by the political elite.

This is an attack on the political elite.

MARGARET WARNER: Alright, and that brings me to the United States’ stake here. As you pointed out, this is, one, the most populous country in Africa, but, two, has huge oil reserves.

What’s the U.S. interest here?

PAUL LUBECK: The U.S. has an interest in maintaining the territorial integrity of Nigeria.

If these — if this communal violence continues — and it’s also Christians attacking Muslims in Jos. And if this continues, it threatens the territorial integrity of Nigeria. This is the largest country in Nigeria — in Africa, as you stated. And this is a major source of petroleum and natural gas for international markets, especially for the U.S., because it’s outside the Persian Gulf, it’s close to American refining, and it’s of a particular quality of oil that many gallons of gasoline could be developed from every barrel of oil.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, issued a statement late today saying in fact that the U.S. has been in touch with the Nigerian government about what happened and is going to assist in trying to track down or bring to justice whoever did yesterday’s attacks.

Is there close security cooperation?

PAUL LUBECK: I’ve interviewed leaders in security cooperation.

The U.S. has trained special forces groups there, and the Nigerian army doesn’t take advantage of them, according to my sources. There’s a concern that the Nigerians fear losing control over the territory if American trainers are given wide powers.

There’s a fear that, if American trainers are prominent, it will just stimulate sympathy for the insurgents. There must be a reconciliation, there must be resources to bring about some degree of hope and opportunity for tens of millions of youth. The population is young and very poor.

MARGARET WARNER: Alright.

Alright, well, Professor Paul Lubeck of U.C. Santa Cruz, thank you very much.

PAUL LUBECK: Thank you for inviting me.