While the spotlight of the war on terror has remained focused on hotbeds like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, we still need to be apprised of threats stemming from countries where attention has been limited. To that end, Nigeria has become increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attacks for the better part of this year. The Nigerian government and its lucrative oil economy have come under increased attacks by local terrorist organizations bent on expelling foreign oil companies out of the country. Now, it appears that the United States is finally starting to understand that the current situation in Nigeria is becoming increasingly fragile.
As the Houston Chronicle reported, the United States consulate in Lagos, Nigeria issued a warning to all American citizens to be aware of the possibility of terrorist attacks within the country:
Militants in Nigeria are planning a major new wave of attacks and kidnappings in the next few days that could include up to 20 bombings across the country's oil-rich delta region, U.S. diplomats warned Friday...
"The U.S. government has learned that as of late October 2006, a militant Niger Delta group may have finalized its plans for a unified attack against oil facilities in the Niger Delta region," the statement said. "The attacks allegedly will be carried out sometime during the first week of November and will include 10 to 20 simultaneous bombings of land-based targets and a series of separate attacks on oil installations in which expatriate workers will be taken hostage."
While the warning did not specify who would be behind the attacks, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has emerged as the foremost terrorist threat in the Delta region. According to a backgrounder on the group, MEND’s ultimate goal is to expel foreign oil companies and non-indigenous Nigerians from the Niger Delta, which is primarily made up of members of the Ijaw tribe. While most of the people living in the Niger Delta are farmers and fishermen, a number of them have also taken up arms with the MEND. Their main grievance is that the local population continues to live in poverty while the government and foreign oil companies seize all the wealth from the region.
Since February of this year, the MEND has engaged in a number of attacks on oil facilities and workers. In February, the group’s leader Major General Godswill Tamuno declared a total war on all foreign oil entities in the region. Simultaneously, the MEND engaged in its “Dark February” campaign in which it attacked oil pipelines, kidnapped nine oil workers and sabotaged oil fields. These attacks alone reduced the country’s oil exports by 20 percent.
The MEND has received more attention recently after 70 militants attacked a convoy of boats supplying Shell oilfields in October, taking 25 hostages. Additionally, the group overran a navy base in Lagos, taking several troops hostage and occupying a nearby oil facility. Following those attacks, the MEND stated that it had “chosen to react to the military and not instigate any fighting.” However, this recent warning indicates that the MEND may be reneging on its promise to cease aggressive measures.
The potential increase in violence in Nigeria has many strategic implications that the United States should be cognizant of. Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest oil exporter and the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. This year, the MEND’s activities have cut Nigeria’s oil exports by 20-25 percent. If the MEND continues to harass and attack oil targets in the country, oil exports could be damaged even further and the US may indeed begin to feel those effects.
Additionally, the ethno-religious situation in Nigeria has been tenuous at best for the last seven years. Nigeria has experienced a sudden upsurge of Islamic extremism since 1999, primarily in its northern and central regions. Much of the violence has taken the form of murder and arson, notably of Christian churches. Freedom House published a report on Nigeria that stated:
While we are not aware of evidence that terrorist groups allied with Al-Qaeda are operating in Nigeria, the country is experiencing the rapid growth of the type of Islamic extremism from which bin Laden has drawn support, there are indications that this growth is being supported by foreign radical Islamic regimes and organizations, and some foreign radicals have been involved in the violence.
Although the majority of Muslims live in the northern region of Nigeria, the presence of Islamic extremism in the country presents an unsettling possibility that the extremist movement could reach the Niger Delta. If it does, there’s a strong possibility that the MEND may form a temporary alliance with Islamic radicals, if only to receive logistical support or training. This temporary union would most likely take the form of an objective-oriented alignment between radical Muslims and the MEND.
It has long been a goal of al-Qaeda to damage American economic power by attacking oil facilities and targets. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross noted in his article “Al-Qaeda’s Oil Weapon” that in a December, 2004 audiotape, Osama bin Laden stated that “one of the main causes for our enemies' gaining hegemony over our country is their stealing our oil; therefore, you should make every effort in your power to stop the greatest theft in history of the natural resources of both present and future generations.” Moreover, Ayman al-Zawahiri gave an interview in 2005 where he called for the mujahideen to “focus their attacks on the oil wells stolen from the Muslims, because most of the revenues of this oil go to the enemies of Islam.”
If bin Laden and Zawahiri’s dictates weren’t inspiration enough, the MEND’s successes in hurting Nigeria’s oil facilities may provide even more incentive to terrorist groups outside of the country. In the past, there have been a few instances of correlation between increased MEND activity and al-Qaeda plots against Saudi and Yemeni oil facilities. Indeed, al-Qaeda observes strategic trends and this correlation may not be entirely coincidental. However, the more likely possibility is an objective-oriented alignment between foreign terrorist groups and the MEND.
It may be too soon to understand exactly how the situation will develop in Nigeria – but the MEND’s unwavering attacks against oil targets in the Niger Delta and its possible alignment with Islamist terror groups should concern the U.S. and other western countries. The loss of another region to terror threatens not just the people of that region and their prospect for a better life, but the security of free world, as the last five years have so clearly illustrated.
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