Since the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, was founded in 2002, the sect has caused havoc in Nigeria, unleashing a wave of attacks on the North-eastern part of the country. The group said it is fighting to overthrow the government and to establish an Islamist state in Nigeria. But what really is behind this unrest and how is it that Boko Haram has been able to rage with impunity across this country. The Coordinator of Counter-terrorism in the Office of the National Security Adviser, General Zaki Yaki Bello, who was the Commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF) between 2007 and 2010 against the militants in the Niger Delta, fields questions from Charles Aniagolu of Arise Television on efforts being made by the federal government to defeat terrorism.
First of all, please tell us who Boko Haram are?
It is a terror group that is ravaging the North-east, and by implication, the northern part of the country and the country as a whole. As we are all aware, it has led to suicide bombings, IED (improvised explosive device) attacks on innocent villages, mosques, churches and the sect is hell bent on Islamising the country. It is waging a formal war against the Nigerian government and the Nigerian government is fighting back to defend its citizens.
How is it that they have come to wield such terror in Nigeria?
From all evidence, Boko Haram is currently waging a war against Nigeria; but it has affiliation with other terror groups that exist in the world, most notably Al-Qaeda in Maghreb, and the main Al-Qaeda. There is also evidence of connection with Al-Shabab and from the various narratives we have heard and the evidence we have gathered, Bok Haram is freely affiliated and you know the problem that is happening in Libya with the arms and ammunition after the fall of Ghaddafi that come through Northern Nigeria to the hands of Boko Haram. So, that is one of the sources of the strength of the sect.
We know, and you know particularly as you were in the army that Boko Haram has evolved over a period of time since 2002. So, how have you allowed them to grow to this point?
Boko Haram existed as a shadowy group with the killing of Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, the sect came out in the open to wage a war against the Nigerian state. But that was not the beginning of the sect. The sect has existed and grown overtime and with the advent of globalisation and information technology and the world coming much closer, we see a lot of the influence of Al-Qaeda.
Where you not monitoring them because they were clearly a threat to the Nigerian state.
Yes, they are clearly a threat to the Nigerian state but not at this level they are now. So like all terrorist groups, they grew up silently to reach the monstrous stage they are in now.
You are right to say a monstrous state because what we hear every day is absolute calamitous attacks across the country. But why I am so worried for Nigeria is the impunity with which they appear to operate. We hear of going into a school and systematically slaughtering students over a period of five hours with no response from the army.
There have been responses. But in selection of targets, Boko Haram, like all terror groups, use a lot of intelligence. They hit what we called soft targets. They identify their targets, they know the military will not be there when they attack and you know it will be impossible for the military to be everywhere. So in selecting targets, Boko Haram really does that very well.
That brings me to the question of intelligence gathering because you talked about Boko Haram having a formidable intelligence network. But you are the army; you are the most powerful army in Black Africa. One would have thought intelligence gathering will be a quintessential part of your operations.
Obviously, it is. Intelligence is key to fighting terrorism; not only Boko Haram, but everywhere in the world. But I must tell you that the Nigerian military has really come a long way. From the moment Boko Haram launched its war against the Nigerian state to the present day, weâ€™ve improved on our intelligence gathering. We are daily improving on it. And to a large extent, a lot of successes that have been achieved against Boko Haram are not made public.
But like all terror groups, they only need one act to still assert that they are available; that they are still around. Like I mentioned, a lot of successes have been achieved against Boko Haram and more successes are being achieved against the sect. But as a terror group, they select their timing. They attack Muslims now. They attack soft targets; they attack hospitals all with the aim of discrediting the Nigerian government. That is what they are doing.
Help us to understand who Boko Haram are. You mentioned when you and I were talking earlier that they are mostly from one ethnic group in Nigeria, but that ethnic group is spread across West Africa.
From available evidence, geographically, Boko Haram is mostly operated in the North-eastern part of the country. We have the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. And if you look at the map of Nigeria, those states have as neighbours Niger Republic, Chad and Cameroun. And most adherents of the sect are of Kanuri extraction and the Kanuri tribe is found in Niger, Chad and Cameroun. So we have this line of membership of the group which really spreads across or along the Sahel region in the North-eastern corridor of Nigeria.
In the last attack that Boko Haram attempted to carry out in Maiduguri, the army was able to contain the offensive in a way that singularly impressed Nigerians. What is it that you are doing now that you were not doing before?
We talked on the issue of intelligence and like I said, intelligence is the key to anything in the world, most especially in fighting terrorism. We must be one step ahead of the terrorists if we really want to succeed. If you donâ€™t want to be reactive, you must be one step ahead of them. So intelligence is the key. We have improved upon all aspects of our intelligence gathering: be it human intelligence or technical intelligence or all aspects of intelligence. Our analysts are better trained than they were before in the last two years. So we are doing a whole lot of work to make sure we protect the populace.
How much cooperation are you getting from the government? We understand that people come from across the border and launch attacks on Nigeria and cross over. Do you have a cooperation agreement with your neighbours such as Chad, Niger Republic and Cameroun and possibly, even Western government?
Yes. In our analysis of the threats of Boko Haram, weâ€™ve come to one realisation that for us to be able to defeat terrorism in the North-eastern part of the country, most especially Boko Haram, cooperation with our neighbours is a must. And so far, so good, the Republic of Niger has been excellent. Chad has been excellent. Cameroun has been very good, but there is still room for improvement from Cameroun. But we believe we will still also get them to the table.
What do you want from Cameroun?
Boko Haram has established bases in Cameroun. There are citizens of Cameroun who are members of Boko Haram. The far north of Cameroun has also been the corridor where arms and ammunition for the sect are coming from southern Libya. We will need more cooperation; we will need Cameroun to enter into an agreement with Nigeria to support efforts to dismantle Boko Haram camps in its territory. To say no, an attack on Nigeria is an attack on Cameroun. This is what we are calling for. We need more cooperation. We are getting part of it now from Cameroun, but we need more; we can do with more.
Letâ€™s talk a bit about what is happening on the political and diplomatic fronts. Boko Haram does not want to talk to you
No. Some elements of Boko Haram, maybe the hard core leaders of the sect. The Nigerian government had set up a dialogue committee, which was mandated to explore avenues for holding dialogue with the sect. They have succeeded. They have submitted their report. They have recommended a continued dialogue committee, which has been approved by the government to reach out to moderate elements in the group and the results from those elements have been encouraging. But like you all know, in a group you donâ€™t get everybody to succumb to a particular course of action. So the Nigerian government is still giving the opportunity to the hard core leadership of Boko Haram to give peace a chance and embrace the path of dialogue with the government.
How much is Boko Haram a multi-headed hydra monster? Is it a largely ideological organisation or are there splinter groups from Boko Haram that have metamorphosed into a possible criminal organisation or possibly into a politically motivated organisation? This is because we hear that some of these people, we donâ€™t know if that is true, are supported by politicians.
Let me talk of the ideological leaning of the group and the kind of splinter they have had. Initially, it was Boko Haram as one solid group. But if you remember, another offshoot came out of the group, which was called Ansar, which advertised itself on the Internet and in the media in the world to say that even though they share the aspiration of Boko Haram, but in tactics, they differ. Ansar group was mostly affiliated to the Al-Qaeda in Maghreb.
But for us, the two groups are still ideologically motivated and dangerous and need to be exterminated. Now you talk of criminal elements and other people who joined the group for various reasons. You canâ€™t rule that out in any organisation. But the most important thing for us is those who provide the umbrella for the criminal groups for all kinds of politically-motivated elements to find a shelter within which to operate, to us, the hard core, those are the important people. At least, they have the leaning; they have the ideological leaning, they have the beliefs and other things that they need to counter and the government of Nigeria is doing everything possible in this regard.
You have launched a new initiative called counter violent extremism. Tell us about it.
The programme, which is the practice all over the world, all over the countries of the world that are encountering terrorism is what we called the soft approach to countering terrorism. Most people think Nigeria is only doing the hard core; the military and the law enforcement aspect of counter terrorism. But we have the understanding that we need a whole societal approach for us to be able to really contain the scourge of terrorism.
Countering terrorism is actually an aspect of our present stream of our counter-terrorism strategy. How do we stop people from getting recruited into Boko Haram ideology? How do we counter the narratives of Boko Haram that they use in recruiting people? The various precursors that gave rise and support to terrorism, how do we counter them? How do we improve the economic empowerment of or the economic situation of the states that are ravaged by the scourge of terrorism? How do we revive nationalism? So all aspects that have not got anything to do with fight or shoot operational aspect of terrorism are packaged under the countering of violent extremism. How do we strategically communicate with communities? How do we have community-based programmes that will really make terrorism not to be attractive to young people? How do we provide employment to the teeming unemployed youths so that they are not taken to terrorism?
But these are a whole lot of questions you are raising, but you donâ€™t have answers for them.
The programme that we have rolled out is addressing all of these issues. To counter terrorism involves many things. We are revamping the criminal justice system and we are revamping the prison system. We are even improving on our techniques of even investigating IED attacks to find out the precursors of the IEDs so we can counter them and weâ€™ve being successful to a large extent.
Are you going to change direction slightly and talk about what people donâ€™t hear about: the humanitarian effects of the crisis. Tell us about that because we have heard from groups such as Oxfam and Christian Aid this talk about one million people displaced in Northern Nigeria. What actually is the story behind the humanitarian problem there?
With the tactics and operational methods adopted by Boko Haram of attacking innocent people, villages that are far away from the society should expect this kind of humanitarian crisis.
What is the fact about over one million people displaced?
Thatâ€™s not true. Our records do not show such number of people.
So what number are we talking about?
We are talking about tens of thousands. Whole villages and communities where Boko Haram go to attack.
It is not only the places that Boko Haram have attacked but there is also fear in places they have not attacked that they are so isolated that if they donâ€™t move away from those places, they might become the next victims.
Still it is in thousands; it is not in millions. I make bold to say the urban centre, such areas like Maiduguri and Damaturu, if you go there, people are living their lives very well only that people have moved from the villages to the urban centres and the rest. Even in the neighbouring countries after the ferocious attacks on Boko Haram camps that led to people fleeing Nigeria, there are not many thousands. In Cameroun, they are not more than 5,000; in Niger Republic, they are not more than 5,000
But the Camerounian authorities say they have over 40,000 people there. That is a Camerounian official saying that.
Maybe that will also include members of Boko Haram because we know many Boko Haram members always melt into the society. They mix with the refugees and say they are also refugees.
Some of the people who have fled have said the reason they ran away was not just because of Boko Haram, they felt the army was not there to protect them; that the army has in fact carried out horrible human rights violations. The United Nations human rights person, Navi Pillay, was here recently, criticising the Nigerian army and the way it handles the Boko Haram crisis. What is your response to that?
I met with her and I never heard such criticism. I had a discussion with her. I was in the military myself and I led operations. I am a barrister and I know human rights observance is a key cardinal part of our training. For over 35 years, Iâ€™ve been in the Nigerian military and human rights observance has been part and parcel of the Nigerian military training. Once you have warfare, you must have collateral damage. That is inevitable. Of recent and in many instances, we have Western forces opening fire on their own soldiers. That one you can never rule out. But the most important thing is that are we able to establish a long term peace in the region? That is the aim and objective of the Nigerian military.
You are the head of counter-terrorism, that is an absolute vital role. Tell us how much the Boko Haram insurgency dominates your agenda?
It dominates my agenda on a daily basis. My job is to understand the dynamics of terrorism. You need coordination and cooperation of everybody. It is one scourge that you need everybody to be on board. You need to bring all elements of national power to come to play in sync without anyone contradicting the other for you to be able to succeed against terrorists. It is an all-societal approach; the local governments, the state governments, the federal government, the ordinary citizens, the civil society organisations and even the media; very important. All of us we have to come to work in sync to be able to defeat terrorism. Terrorists thrive on fuels that try to encourage in all forms; like the media, they thrive on sensationalism. They want to be on the front pages of newspapers. One attack, one spectacular attack, will do the damage they want to inflict fear in ordinary citizens.
In all honesty, are you winning the war against the insurgents?
Yes, we are. I will give you one simple example. If you remember, when Boko Haram started, Abuja was not safe. Nowhere was safe in Nigeria. They even attempted to attack Port Harcourt. But all these are a thing of the past. They are now contained to the North-eastern part of the country. Even the attacks on soft targets, on innocent people, are a sign of desperation. It is a sign that they are being pushed to the wall. As opposed to other terror groups who are winning the hearts and minds in other parts of the world, Boko Haram today that claims to be fighting for the cause of Sharia and Islam are now killing Muslims indiscriminately; killing women and children, something that is unheard of in the Islamic world, Boko Haram is doing that and I believe to the dismay of other terror groups in the world, if I can say that. Therefore, we are really winning. I believe we are winning and we will win.
Look into the future for us and tell us when will this war is going to end.
It is going to be a long war. But I believe in the long term, we will triumph over the evil of Boko Haram. Why I am saying this is that to fight terrorism is not easy. I will quote from a book by Ali Soufan, an FBI agent, who wrote â€˜The Black Bannersâ€™. He said as at 9/11, there were not more than 400 members of Al-Qaeda in the world but they have lasted in the war against the greatest super power in the world, the United States, in a period far longer than the combined periods of the World Wars I and II. Since September 2001, Al-Qaeda is still being fought. So it is going to be a long war but definitely, you can see that there has been progress against Al-Qaeda and for us here in Nigeria, there has been progress against Boko Haram. We will continue to do our job; we will continue to improve in all respect on intelligence gathering, criminal justice reform and many other reforms we are doing in order to be able to meet the challenges of terrorism.