The revelation recently of a foiled Boko Haram attack in Ondo State essentially captures the resilience of the Islamist terrorists in the face of an intense military blitz. It is also an indication that no part of the country could be termed safe, yet, until the last traces of the mass murderers have been obliterated. This should therefore be a timely wake-up call for the security agencies to increase their surveillance and alertness, not just in the epicentre of the group’s sanguinary activities in the North-East, but in the entire space of the Nigerian state.
Since the 2009 bloody clashes between government troops and the group in Maiduguri, Borno State, resulting in an estimated 800 deaths, Boko Haram has transformed into a dangerous fighting force, threatening the corporate existence of Nigeria and spreading its horror to neighbouring countries, especially Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Recently, their presence has been noticed in other parts of the country. Within a space of one week, two suspects, Mohammed Bashir and Idris Ibrahim Babawo, were picked up in the Akoko area of Ondo State. The state deserves special attention from the security agencies: it has recently also witnessed a spate of kidnappings, including that of a bridegroom on the way to his wedding. Kidnapping, a major means of funding terrorist activities, and terrorism complement each other.
But beyond these recent arrests, similar attempts to infiltrate other parts of the country deemed to be relatively out of harm’s way have been reported. In Lagos last month, three suspected Boko Haram members were arrested by members of the Hausa community at Ajao Estate, near the Murtala Muhammad International Airport in Lagos, and handed over to the police. Back in August, another report credited to the State Security Service said 12 members of the group were picked up in the city.
The level of infiltration is worrisome. In July, barely a day after a report of a gun duel between members of the group and security forces in Kano, the police reportedly arrested a Boko Haram commander, Seth Yakubu, in Abuja. Not long after, the Governor of Kano State, Abdullahi Ganduje, informed the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, who paid him a courtesy visit, that some top ranking Boko Haram suspects arrested in Kano had been transferred to Abuja.
Although these developments seem strange to many, to keen followers of trends relating to terrorism the world over they are quite normal. It is in the character of terrorists to flee wherever the battle becomes too hot for them. And wherever they may find themselves, they quickly regroup and continue the battle; they never give up. Last year, the military had also warned Nigerians to be on the lookout for fleeing Boko Haram members who were being dislodged from their fortress in the Sambisa Forest.
Quite instructive is the confession of Bashir, who was picked up as he wandered out of their hideout in search of food that he and his yet-to-be arrested colleagues were in Ondo State to cause havoc. It is hard to imagine the effect an attack would have had on the state and its neighbours. The arrest of the two terror kingpins should therefore be seen as a good omen; they should be thoroughly debriefed and information extracted used to smoke out other members from their hideouts within the state.
In previous instances when Boko Haram had been allowed to take root in places outside the North-East, the consequences had been devastating. For instance, in a coordinated gun and bomb attack in Kano in 2012, no fewer than 178 persons were reported killed in what was then the group’s deadliest attack in the country. Similarly, in Kogi State, it took a shootout between the Islamists and the military, which claimed about 12 lives, to dislodge Boko Haram fighters from a mosque in Okene in 2015, which also served as its armoury. Before then, the fundamentalists were also instrumental in two jailbreaks, freeing hundreds of inmates, including their members.
This is a critical period in the counter-insurgency war, when emphasis should shift towards the use of intelligence. Particularly, security agencies should learn to collaborate with civilians to provide information about strange faces that may have infiltrated their communities; they are the ones most likely to come in more close contacts with these Boko Haram suspects. The people have to be enlightened to know what to look out for so that they can report effectively.
Dislodging Boko Haram from its stronghold is just the beginning of another dimension in the fight. The war is both physical and mental; it is an ideology that should also be tackled. This is the same situation with the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. An analyst on the war, Hisham al-Hashem, told the Financial Times of London, “I expect an end to the battle by middle or end of 2018. Then, this will go from military battle to a societal war.” Many of those who escaped with civilians from the onslaught are expected to continue to pose a threat to the rest of the world, especially Europe.
It is much in the same manner that the fleeing Boko Haram fighters should be viewed. Every effort should be harnessed to ensure that they are stopped before they vent their fury on the rest of peace-loving Nigerians. Much of the job lies with security agents and the government that should adequately equip them to make them efficient. But, ultimately, stopping Boko Haram is a collective assignment that should involve everybody.