US vs Boko Haram: The unstated military action

By  Lasisi Olagunju*

Imagine a buzzing umanned machine flying at 25,000 feet equipped with 16-inch guns and laden with deadly missiles in a Nigerian neighbourhood. An average Nigerian would declare the unlikelihood of such a spectacle in Nigeria. But it is now not just an unlikely spectacle. It is a possibility that has become so ominous with the classification last week of three leaders of Boko Haram as global terrorists by the United States.

Abubakar Shekau, who leads the militant group, with Abubakar Adam Kambar and Khalid el Barnawi (both with suspected ties with a branch of al-Qaeda) were listed as terrorists by the United States last week. The document conveying their listing disclosed tersely that the decision meant any assets belonging to the men in the US would be frozen, and US citizens are banned from having any contacts with them. That is all the US State Department said. It did not mention the fact that the classification had made the three men to be regarded as direct enemies of the US and threats to its security. Persons so classified in the past under the same laws have met with a certain fate: a date with drone fired missiles. The Nigerian authorities appear knowledgeable about this fact and are apprehensive of the safety of innocent people who might be caught as collateral victims.

What really is a drone? An expert describes it as “a remotely controlled, pilot-less aerial vehicle” fitted with weapons of war including guns and missile launchers.  So, will the United States deploy drones in Nigeria to hunt these persons so declared as global terrorists? If that question rankled in the realm of speculations before, a letter last week from the Nigerian Embassy in Washington to the US government drove home the point that the American government could be planning such a drastic military action. The letter urged the US government to ensure the safety of neighbours of the targets whatever is done to deal with them.

The letter from the Nigerian Embassy published by The Guardian last week Saturday, reads: “The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria presents its compliments to the United States Department of State and has the honour to acknowledge the news of the implementation of Section 1B Executive Order 13224 by which the State Department declared Abubakar Shekau, Abubakar Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi as specially Designated Global Terrorists. The designation according to the Order, is designed to diminish the capacity of these men who are members of Boko Haram to execute violent attacks.

“While the facts contained in the Order are not in dispute, the Embassy hereby expresses its sadness that the Boko Haram episode has led to such a declaration. The Embassy however wishes to assure that the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is firmly resolved in its determination to bring an end to the destructive activities of this group. We shall continue our efforts in this direction with the active cooperation and assistance of our friends and allies especially our host government.

“The Embassy however wishes to appeal that whatever action that is eventually taken against these individuals, their immediate neighbours who have felt most the impact, but are very much vehemently opposed to the activities of Boko Hararn, should not be affected. The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the United States Department of State the assurances of its highest consideration.”

Analysts point at the paragraph containing the words- “whatever action that is eventually taken against these individuals, their immediate neighbours who have felt most the impact, but are very much vehemently opposed to the activities of Boko Haram, should not be affected-” as suggesting an apprehension in government circles that Northern Nigeria could soon be host to US deadly drones, hence the appeal. It was learnt during the week that Nigeria made the appeal having realised that several persons in other countries similarly classified in recent years as terrorists under Order Section 1B Executive Order 13224 were hunted down by the United States with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles otherwise called Drones. Analysts cite the killing, through drone attacks, of  American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was similarly classified under Order 13224 as a proof that America could have a similar plan up its sleeves.

At about the time the US Department of State announced the classification of the Boko Haram leaders as terrorists, The Guardian of London reported last week that there had been concerns on the huge collateral deaths from drone attacks ordered by the US. For instance, Al Awlaki’s 16 year-old-son was killed along with him when he was attacked by a US drone. In August 2009, a drone attack on leader of the Pakistan Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud not only killed him, it also killed his father-in-law, his mother -in- law, his wife, his uncle and eight others.

“The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which runs a drone-monitoring project, estimates that the US has used drones against targets in Pakistan up to 332 times in the past eight years, with a huge jump in activity under Obama. The Bureau believes up to 800 civilians may have been killed in the attacks. It has also monitored scores of drone attacks in Yemen and Somalia, “ The Guardian of London reported last week (21st June, 2012) on the technology and objectives that drive the “kill programme,” the paper quoted President Barack Obama as saying that it used only “precise, precision strikes against al-Qaida and their affiliates.”

Much of the operations of the drones and their deployment are shrouded in secrecy for obvious reasons. “Whether or not the CIA has the authority to be, or is in fact, directly involved in targeted lethal operations remains classified,” the paper quoted the government as saying in a court filing. It also noted that the New York Times recently published “a story about a ‘kill list’ that the Obama administration maintains.”

Perceived high civilian casualty figures as a result of drone attacks have also drawn the ire of rights groups in the US especially with the realisation that in deploying drones, the US  “considers any male of military age, in a strike zone when a drone hits, to be a militant and thus a legitimate target.”

Infact, an agency report said that a UN investigator this week called on the Obama administration to justify its policy of assassinating rather than capturing terror suspects, increasingly with the use of unmanned drone aircraft that also take civilian lives. Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, according to the agency reports urged Washington to clarify the basis under international law of the policy, in a report issued to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The U.S. military has conducted drone attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, in addition to conventional raids and air strikes, according to Heyns, a South African jurist serving in the Independent Post.

“Disclosure of these killings is critical to ensure accountability, justice and reparation for victims or their families,” he said in a 28-page report adding, “The (U.S.) government should clarify the procedures in place to ensure that any targeted killing complies with international humanitarian law and human rights and indicate the measures or strategies applied to prevent casualties, as well as the measures in place to provide prompt, thorough, effective and independent public investigation of alleged violations.”

Citing figures from the Pakistan Human Rights Commission, he said U.S. drone strikes killed at least, 957 people in Pakistan in 2010 alone. Thousands have been killed in 300 drone strikes there since 2004, 20 per cent of whom are believed to be civilians.

U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, earlier defended Washington’s use of drone strikes, days after one killed one of al Qaeda’s most powerful figures in Pakistan, Libyan-born Abu Yahya al-Libi.

“Although figures vary widely with regard to drone attack estimates, all studies concur on one important point: there has been a dramatic increase in their use over the past three years,” Heyns said.

“While these attacks are directed at individuals believed to be leaders or active members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, in the context of armed conflict (e.g. in Afghanistan), in other instances, civilians have allegedly also perished in the attacks in regions where it is unclear whether there was an armed conflict or not (e.g. in Pakistan),” he said.

Human rights law requires that every effort be made to arrest a suspect, in line with the “principles of necessity and proportionality on the use of force”, the investigator said.

“The Special Rapporteur again requests the government to clarify the rules that it considers to cover targeted killings… (and) reiterates his predecessor’s recommendation that the government specify the bases for decisions to kill rather than capture ‘human targets’ and whether the state in which the killing takes places has given consent,” Heyns said.

Pakistani Ambassador Zamir Akram said that his country consistently maintained that the use of drones was illegal and violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, “not to mention being counter-productive”.

“Thousands of innocent people, including women and children, have been murdered in these indiscriminate attacks,” he said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who made an official visit to Pakistan this month, said in a speech that it was “unclear that all persons targeted are combatants or directly participating in hostilities”. States had an international obligation to ensure that attacks comply with international law and to conduct transparent, credible inquiries, she added.

Commander of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, General Carter Ham, was quoted by Reuters on Monday this week as saying that Boko Haram alongside Al-Shabab in East Africa and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), “is by itself a dangerous and worrisome threat.” He expressed concerns that collaboration in training and logistics between Boko Haram and these other groups posed a potent danger to American interests. “The group (AQIM) was a threat not only to the countries in the region, but also has “a desire and intent to attack Americans as well. So that becomes a real problem,” Ham said.

“What really concerns me are the indications that the three organisations are seeking to coordinate and synchronise their efforts. That is a real problem for us and for African security in general.” He spoke at an African Centre for Strategic Studies seminar for senior military and civilian officials from Africa, the United States and Europe.

Ham said the U.S. military was increasing its operations on the continent as terrorist groups began to work closer together to carry out attacks in the region.

He said the terrorist threat in Africa was growing and that the U.S. forces under his command were focused on al Shabab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram.

In September 2011, Ham spoke with the same alarming urgency with claims that the three groups were threatening to target westerners and had begun to cooperate among themselves. The scenario, he said was a “very worrying” trend that raised concern of a network stretching from Algeria to Nigeria.

According to Reuters, other U.S. defence officials, speaking separately on condition of anonymity, agreed the African Islamist groups cooperate in sometimes alarming ways but played down the likelihood of an overarching grand alliance.

“Each of those three independently, I think, presents a significant threat not only in the nations in which they primarily operate but regionally and … to the United States,” Ham told defence reporters in September 2011, adding that “those three organisations have very explicitly and publicly voiced an intent to target westerners and the U.S. specifically.” He said he questioned whether the groups had the capacity to make good their threats, but had “no questions about their intent to do so, and for me that is very worrying.”

More troubling still, he added, was their interest in more closely collaborating and synchronising their efforts.”We’re seeing this intent voiced most clearly between AQIM and Boko Haram, They’ve expressed an interest in sharing training and operations and those kinds of activities. And that to me is very, very worrying,” “Ham said. He added that closer connections with al Shabaab were “probably more idealistic than realistic at this point, but just the fact that they want to connect is worrying.”

“If left unaddressed, then you could have a network that ranges from East Africa through the centre and into the Sahel (semiarid region) and Maghreb, and I think that would be very, very worrying,” he said.

However, defence officials,  who monitored the African Islamist groups,  according to Reuters, said they were seeing cooperation among them but played down the likelihood of any alliance that would unify them.

“We’ve definitely seen a cross-pollination, certainly of … techniques, tactics and procedures across the organisations,” said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. “One of the best demonstrations is Boko Haram and some of the things that they’ve picked up from AQIM.” But he said there were no signs of a deeper alliance. “As far as … everybody working together in sort of one super group … that’s not something I think we’re seeing right now,” the official said.

A senior US defence official said the groups were primarily focused internally or regionally and cooperation among them amounted to temporary alliances of convenience.

“These groups have more differences in their foundations and their ideologies than they have commonalities,” he said. “But we do know … they do make these temporary alliances of convenience. They have common enemies.”

He said when a group like Boko Haram, which is focused primarily internally, uses “a really well crafted car bomb … where they’re getting that from their al Qaeda neighbours, then obviously you have to take notice as a cause for alarm.”

Ham however, said the best way to deal with the concern was to help regional partners build the capacity to confront the problem themselves. “The Africans are better at addressing this than we are. In some cases, they need some assistance and where we can provide that, we seek to do so,” he said, citing the example of Mali, where the United States provided training and equipment to help them counter AQIM.

But all those concerns voiced last  year by the General appear to be crystalising now into one huge, frightening plot that could explode in the face of not just the African continent, but of the United States and other western powers too. Specifically, how the US and others handle the delicate Boko Haram situation in the coming weeks, especially in Northern Nigeria, remain largely a matter of grave import and concern to “neighbours” of the leaders of the Boko Haram sect.

Agency reports said during the week that two Republican lawmakers, who led the campaign for a broader designation, said the move against the three Boko Haram leaders was insufficient, saying the intelligence community needed every available tool to combat Boko Haram

“Given Boko Haram’s trajectory and intent to carry out terrorist attacks against Western targets, including possibly the Homeland, we must take the growing threat seriously,” Representatives Peter King and Patrick Meehan said in a statement.

Both AQIM and al-Shabaab are already on the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, which makes them key targets in the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign.  Before the latest US action, the State Department had been under pressure to act against Boko Haram for months. In January, Lisa Monaco, the Justice Department’s top national security official, sent a letter to the State Department arguing the Nigerian group met the criteria for a “foreign terrorist” listing because it either engaged in terrorism that threatens the United States or had a capability or intent to do so.

But a group of academic experts on Africa sent a counter letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month urging her not to take the step, saying it could backfire by enhancing the group’s reputation among potential recruits and other militants.

State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said the United States recognised that Boko Haram was a “loosely constructed” organisation encompassing a number of viewpoints and would encourage Abuja’s efforts to broaden dialogue with groups in mainly Muslim Northern Nigeria that had long complained of poor treatment by the central government.

U.S. officials told newsmen that the decision to list individual Boko Haram members, rather than apply the more sweeping “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” label to the group as a whole as some U.S. lawmakers had demanded, reflected a desire not to elevate the group’s profile.

“We took this measure to designate these three because they are clearly kingpins of Boko Haram and clearly all of them have advocated terrorism as a weapon,”. Nuland told a news briefing, adding, “We’re continuing to look at the question of a broader designation.”

Having said all these about Boko Haram, the nation waits with bated breath on whether the US would do what it does regularly against “global terrorists”- send deadly drones to hunt them down.

*Culled from Nigerian Tribune


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