Terrorism is a devastating trend that our contemporary world has had to grapple with in most recent times. It is both domestic and international and has spread fear into the heart of states - weak and strong alike. However, it has been very difficult to arrive at an objective definition of the term, and even the United Nations (UN) has not been able to agree on a particular definition. It is a fluid and changing term, especially when issues of freedom fighting and self-determination are concerned. However, there seems to be a meeting point between the different views, as terrorism is generally accepted to be propelled by politically driven agendas, deliberate and well-designed violent strategies targeted at civilians and public facilities, with the long-term aim of using fear to achieve goals.(2)
On 25 December 2009, Nigeria made news headlines and was thus associated with global terrorism - at least for a time - after a 23-year old Nigerian attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound Delta airliner. The aftermath of this infamous act was the listing of Nigeria on the United States (US) terror watch list as one of 14 countries of special (security) interest. This article examines terrorism in relation to Nigeria, and analyses factors that can encourage terrorist inclinations within the Nigerian state and the options that the state has. In essence, it looks into the meaning of this trend to the Nigerian polity and the individual citizen vis-à-vis the present terrorist situation in the world.
Nigeria and global terrorism
On 25 December 2009, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab boarded the Delta airliner en route to Detroit with the intention of blowing himself up, along with other passengers. Though unsuccessful in his desire, his actions had serious ramifications for his country. Nigeria was blacklisted on the US terror watch list or among countries of special interest – a saga that rocked the Nigerian political foundation. This compounded the woes of Nigerian travellers to the US and indeed many other parts of the (Western) world, since apart from other ignoble connotations attached to the Nigerian passport, there was a new dimension - terrorism.
Many Nigerian analysts and policy makers blamed the US for blacklisting Nigeria on the terror watch list, arguing that Nigeria is not a terrorist state, simply because of the actions of a single Nigerian. Despite this fact, one cannot ignore the fact that global terror links have gone farther than Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen. Peter Pham notes that Al Qaeda is moving swiftly at taking root in Africa, and soon, Africa will be the new battle field.(3) According to Pham, Al Qaeda has plans to make Africa its new nest for the grooming of more terrorists in the military expedition against infidels, because the continent is a very significant region. This significance is not only because Islam is strong within the continent, but because the continent has become a haven for dangerous activities. The fact that poverty is so predominant, state and governance so corrupt, borders too weak and religious bigotry so widespread makes Africa an easy prey for terrorist groups - especially as they use religion and anti-western ideologies and propaganda to mobilise or lure disillusioned individuals into their network. This is where Nigeria comes in, and as a state that is notorious for weakness,(4) one cannot rule out the possibility of terrorist cells being run - though secretly for now - in the country.
Internal violent uprisings in Nigeria: A recipe for terrorism?
There are a number of issues and environments in Nigeria that can elicit terrorism or create some ominous links with terrorism , and despite denials to the contrary, the persistence of these tendencies could spell a new dawn for the issue of terrorism in Nigeria, especially as Al Qaeda has been quoted as offering to train Islamic militants against their religious opponents in the country.(5) Some of the issues that the Nigerian state has had to grapple with are as follows:
- Religious extremism and northern Nigeria
Religious extremism and fundamentalism in northern Nigeria is one issue that is linkable to terrorism. It is clear that Nigeria is a ‘nation’ of many ethnic groups that all have different approaches to life. It is also proven that the major tools of mobilisation in Nigeria are religion and ethnicity. Indeed, the dynamics of the relationship between these two in the north have accounted for the number of deaths in Nigeria second only to the civil war. Since the return to democracy in May 1999, the number of violent clashes between Christians and Muslims has risen tremendously, and at every slight provocation that has any links with Islam, Christians and Southern settlers in the North become victims of attacks orchestrated in forms of religious bigotry.
Accepting that religion is a major rallying point for people in Nigeria, and considering the fact that more and more carnages have been perpetrated within the region in the name of religion, it becomes easy to conclude that terrorism (as in the cases in the Middle East or even al-shabaab in Somalia) may not be too far from Nigeria if these extremists lay hold on the Muslim community in the north of Nigeria. Indeed, there is widespread anti-Western feeling among Muslim fundamentalists in the north, to the extent that while the world mourned the victims of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, there were reports that in the north - especially in Zamfara state - the news aroused jubilation among the Muslim fold.
- Boko Haram
Boko Haram is an Islamic militant sect in northern Nigeria, thought to be in existence since 1995, and operating in Yobe and Bauchi states. It has engaged in a number of planned attacked on police stations and other public facilities, accounting for thousands of deaths.(6) The group is a fundamentalist group with anti-western ideologies and holds western civilisation to be sinful, while propagating the Islamic culture.
It is recorded that this group has attacked many Government forces and made different locations in Bauchi, Yobe, Kano and Borno states quite inhabitable as it carried out attacks on people and Government agencies alike. Though some militants in this group are not Nigerian, and they come in from outside the country to commit deadly attacks on people and public facilities, it points even more to the vulnerability of the country to terrorist infiltration.
- The Niger delta and the struggle against exploitation
In the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, young men and women are easily recruited to join militant groups. Between the years 1999 and 2003, and 2007 and 2009, Rivers state was the hub of militant activities. Though these violent attacks ensued between two militant groups - Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and Niger Delta Vigilante Force (NDVF), the latter allegedly sponsored by the state, while the former ostensibly fights for the rights of the Niger delta minority groups - they were characterised by wanton bloodshed.
Though there were no incidents of suicide bombing, the fact remained that many innocent people were killed for the cause of the Niger Delta struggle. What the incentives were to join these militant groups then and now may differ, but at the moment, militancy is lucrative where poverty and unemployment is entrenched. Many of these groups have grown powerful and wealthy because of the capital they acquire through stolen oil and political Godfathers and sponsors. Many of them are well grounded with information technology (IT) and have developed networks with other militant groups across the country.(7) These are real threats to national security, and issues of concern within the spheres of global terrorism.
Evaluating terrorist threats in Nigeria
Terrorism in terms of a politically motivated violence targeted at innocent non-combatants by a clandestine group may be too much of a tag to place on Nigeria. However, the rate of corruption in the country, the porosity of its borders, the widely spreading anti-Western feeling among Muslim fundamentalists, and the rate of poverty in the country are loopholes that terrorist groups can build upon to establish terrorist cells in Nigeria - if there are none already in existence. To conclude therefore, Nigeria is not a terrorist state, but these issues demand attention because terrorism in its present stage of evolution may engulf the nation.
(1) Contact Kingsley Orievulu through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict & Terrorism Unit (
(2) Claudia Forster-Towne, 'Terrorism in Africa: The role of women in terrorist groups', 2 August 2010,
(3) Peter Pham, 2007. “Next Front? Evolving United States – African Strategic Relations in the ‘War on Terrorism’ and Beyond, Comparative Strategy, (29), 39- 54, pg.45.
(4) “Weakness” refers to corruption, poor governance, poor border control, internal violent conflicts etc.
(5) ‘Obnoxious offer from al-Qaeda’, Sun News Publishing, 12 February 2010, http://www.sunnewsonline.com.
(6) Akeem Soboyede, 'Between Obama, Abdulmutallab and “Murder Nature”', http://nigeriaworld.com.
(7) Caroline Ifeka, 2010, “War on Terror: AFRICOM, the Kleptocratic State and Underclass Militancy in West Africa-Nigeria’, Bulletin, N˚85.