swift success?

What does the fall of Afghanistan mean to Nigeria’s Islamists?

Taliban fighters stand guard on their side while people wait to cross at a border crossing point between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Torkham, in Khyber district, Pakistan, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad)

After two decades of war and thousands of lives lost in US-led efforts to enthrone democracy in Afghanistan, the Taliban is back in power. Behind the horrific scenes of thousands trying to flee Taliban rule, there are growing questions - and concerns - on what the return of the rebels could mean for Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) extremists, now well established in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. A morale boost? Or something more?

After they were supposedly crushed by US-led forces in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a stronger Taliban re-emerged and took back Afghanistan in just 10 days, vowing to restore an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan.

As Taliban fighters took over Kabul and the presidential palace that had been abandoned by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari sounded the alarm. “Though some believe the war on terror winds down with the US departure from Afghanistan, the threat it was supposed to address burns fiercely on my continent,” he said.

Buhari’s concerns are valid, say analysts.

Boko Haram

In Nigeria, extremist rebels have been around for over two decades. They have mounted an insurgency that has lasted over a decade, costing the country thousands of lives, billions of dollars and displacing livelihood for millions.

First founded in 2002 by Muhammed Yusuf in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram – whose official Arabic name is ‘Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad’ (which loosely translates to ‘people committed to propagating the prophet’s teachings and Jihad’) – was formed to oppose western education and culture.

Its members also claimed they were out to uproot the corruption, injustice and government neglect in Nigeria, all of which it blamed on western countries. Seven years after it was formed, the extremists launched military operations in 2009 in their bid to create an Islamic state out of Nigeria and avenge the death of its leader. In 2014, the extremists declared a caliphate in areas it controlled in Africa’s most populous country.

Although the insurgents have been dealt several blows by Nigeria’s security agencies, especially in recent years, the death of Abubakar Shekau – Boko Haram’s leader – appeared to have emboldened them; with reports of the Islamic State now fortifying its position in Lake Chad.

The Taliban, on the other hand, sprang up in 1994 and ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 as a fundamentalist Islamic force inspired by the desire to restore order in the turmoil that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.

Morale boost?

As Islamist rebels in Nigeria watch the takeover of Afghanistan by a group that they share a common enemy with in the West, the swift success of the Taliban would be an “elixir” to Boko Haram and other fundamentalist Islamist groups worldwide whose “resilience, doggedness and measured patience for opportunity in time could yield such success”, Saleh Bala – a retired army general who runs the Abuja-based White Ink Consult defence and security firm – tells The Africa Report.

Daniel Eizenga from the Africa Center for Strategic also sees some impact of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on operations of terror groups in Nigeria and elsewhere, although only in terms of “a public relations win”.

Despite reports of Taliban freeing thousands of prisoners, including Islamic State fighters, Eizenga rules out any form of support for extremists in Nigeria in the aftermath of the Taliban rule.

“Given the Taliban’s poor relations with Islamic State groups generally, it seems very unlikely that there would be any kind of coordination between ISWAP and the Taliban. Instead, I expect that local dynamics will continue to dictate how the conflict in the region evolves,” he says.

Like the Taliban, local support could keep Boko Haram’s dreams alive.

We have a lot of Taliban sympathisers in this country.”

The Taliban returned to an economy it used to run with as much as $1.5bn raked in annually, mostly through drug sales. CNN reports how some residents in Kabul posed for photos with the extremists.

In his opinion piece, Buhari warned that “military means alone” cannot defeat terrorists, and that if there is any lesson to be learned from Afghanistan, it is that “although sheer force can blunt terror, its removal can cause the threat to return.”

Nigeria’s information minister Lai Mohammed, who ruled out any chance of the West African nation ending up like Afghanistan, agrees with the country’s president. Mohammed told journalists in Washington that the lesson from Afghanistan is that “when you are fighting an insurgency or movement driven by ideology, it is always difficult to overcome and you must be resourceful, deploying both kinetic and non-kinetic approaches.”

As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace once noted, the Taliban “have made clever use of ethnic tensions, the rejection of foreign forces by the Afghan people, and the lack of local administration to gain support in the population.”

“An ideology cannot be defeated with guns and bullets,” says Senator Iroegbu, an Abuja-based security expert, of the war against Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.

“Terrorism will continue to thrive in an environment where it enjoys local support,” Iroegbu, the founder of the Global Sentinel security-focused magazine tells The Africa Report, before admitting that “we have a lot of Taliban sympathisers in this country.”

His words re-echo concerns raised in the past by reports of some residents acting as informants to Boko Haram insurgents and going as far as harbouring them in their houses.

As the United States Institute of Peace pointed out in 2014, unemployment and poverty in northern Nigeria – just as Afghanistan has experienced over the years – “make youth vulnerable to radicalisation.” Children’s alienation from home and society provides “the cognitive opening that extremist ideologues exploit in the process of recruitment and radicalisation”, the institute had said.

The way forward

“The ruling class have a lot [to do],” Iroegbu says, in reference to how Nigeria can ward off the Afghan scenario. He adds that Nigeria’s leaders must create a society “where all Nigerians feel that they belong to this country and their future and those of their children are well catered to.”

Eizenga Africa Center for Strategic argues that Nigeria must invest in the institutional strength of its armed forces to defeat the threat posed by militant Islamist groups like Boko Haram and ISWA.

“Without this in place, groups like ISWA and Boko Haram find ways to persist while the defense and security forces deteriorate and suffer from ineffectiveness, which can stall such conflicts over long periods of time in the favor of militant Islamist groups,” he says.