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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

NIGERIA'S TALIBAN: ISOLATED OR AL QAEDA LINKED?

The Nigerian government today released more information about Monday's attacks on two police stations in the northern Nigerian state of Borno. The attacks have left six civilians dead. 20 members of the radical Muslim group Al-Sunna wal Jamma, who also claim to be 'Taliban' fighters, attacked the two civilian outposts in towns about 25 miles apart. The approximately 200 member group was also responsible for similar attacks in January of this year, in which the group destroyed several police outposts, killed a policeman, and burned buildings and cars. The group has not commented on the purpose behind the attacks.

So what exactly is going on here? Are these attacks indicative of a growing terrorist base in this oil rich nation, an extension of al Qaeda whose modus operandi is often to work with indigenous Islamic radicals to further the larger movement? Or are they just an isolated extremist group, unconnected with the larger extremist attack on the west? And most importantly for those concerned about oil security, are the attacks a signal that Nigeria's oil infrastructure, like Iraq's, might, become a target of Islamic terrorism?

A couple of facts seem ominous. 12 Nigerian states, including the ones where the attacks have taken place, have adopted Sharia, or Islamic law. The Taliban in Afghanistan were founded precisely in order to impose Sharia there. What's worse, in February 2003 Osama bin Laden mentioned Nigeria along with Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen as a state acting as "a slave to America" and "ready for liberation" by the imposition of Islamic law.

Nigeria's oil infrastructure, of course, has long been the target ethnically-motivated attacks, including sabotage, arson, kidnappings, and killings. Today, in fact, soldiers were deployed throughout Port Harcourt, Nigeria as rival gangs clashed over revenues from stolen oil. In addition, local villagers have often resented the intrusion of the oil industry and feel that they are not being adequately compensated for the social and environmental disruption. However, none of these attacks have been religiously inspired, despite the religious divisions in the country. Nigeria's population of approximately 120 million is roughly split between Muslims in the North and Christians in the South.

This demographic may be one of the main indicators, though, that the oil industry does not yet need to fear that al Qaeda or Al-Sunna wal Jamma. While Nigeria's 2.1 million bbl/d of crude oil comes out of the south-western Niger River Delta and the coastal waters of the Gulf of Guinea, the Nigerian 'Taliban' are located in the far north-eastern corner of the country on the border with Niger. Furthermore, they don't enjoy the slightest bit of popularity among the Muslim population concentrated in the north where they reside. Muslim residents in the cities where the most recent attacks took place came to the aid of the police when they came under fire.

While Al-Sunna wal Jamma might claim the 'Taliban' mantle, there is no sign that any contacts have been made with al Qaeda. Until that happens, they remain little more than one of Nigeria's many criminal groups.

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