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Nigeria has potential to be next Afghanistan

- Princeton Lyman & Scott Allan

(Monday, October 25, 2004)

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[ Washington cannot afford to confront an entrenched Taliban-type movement in Nigeria. Should Nigeria, or even part of it, become more open to this or a similar movement, it could provide an enormous, resource-rich haven for al-Qaeda. ]

It may seem insignificant to Americans that an extremist Islamic militia attacked two Nigerian police stations Sept. 20, killing five people. But whether the United States cares to notice may have dire consequences. In September of 1991, the State Department's special envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Peter Tomsen, cabled Washington with a prophetic warning: Afghanistan was ``a receding issue in U.S. global interests'' and American neglect ``would be a blow to U.S. objectives in combating terrorism.'' Unfortunately, the world's attention waned and Tomsen's worries turned into reality when the Taliban regime rose to power and provided Osama bin Laden with a refuge to coordinate and train al-Qaeda terrorists. Similar warnings are being voiced about the situation in Nigeria.

With Washington's focus so heavily centered on Iraq and Afghanistan, it is important not to overlook other regions that could descend into sanctuaries for the next generation of terrorists. In its report, the 9/11 commission called on the U.S. government to take steps in remote regions, such as West Africa, to prevent the rise of future sanctuaries. Indeed, Washington should be seriously concerned about Nigeria, a principal supplier of oil to the United States and Africa's most populous country. Nigeria has about 66 million Muslims (more than Egypt), most of whom have provided a strong center of moderate Islam in West Africa. There is no history of virulent anti-Americanism. But Muslims in northern Nigeria feel politically marginalized and suffer from extreme poverty. Religious fervor offers an outlet for these frustrations: Since 1999, 12 northern Muslim states in the country have adopted the Sharia penal code, to popular acclaim. Islamic extremists have begun to link northern frustrations to the United States and its policies in the war on terrorism.

The Islamic militants who attacked Nigerian police stations last month appear to be aligned with Al-Sunna wal Jamma, which is made up of mostly university students who seek to create a Taliban-style state. Still small, such extremist groups are nevertheless tapping into a wider atmosphere of frustration and feelings of neglect. Nigeria's troubles in the Muslim north are coupled with serious unrest in the oil-rich, largely Christian south, where economic rather than religious grievances are the driving force. Disruptions in the oil industry in Nigeria have been growing in severity over the past year as insurgents have become better armed and more aggressive. For example, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group had to evacuate two offshore oil rigs Sept. 25 because of attacks from a local rebel group, the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force. The violence helped push oil past $50 a barrel in world trading.

Washington cannot afford to confront an entrenched Taliban-type movement in Nigeria. Should Nigeria, or even part of it, become more open to this or a similar movement, it could provide an enormous, resource-rich haven for al-Qaeda. Washington should seek to ``pre-empt'' the rising radicalism, not with military force but through diplomatic and economic engagement.

The State Department fills senior posts in Nigeria with junior or at best midlevel officers. None specializes in Hausa, which is the primary language spoken by Nigeria's Muslims. Aid levels declined in the past four years, and Nigeria's appeals for debt relief have been ignored. Intelligence collection in the region has dropped significantly since the Cold War. As with Afghanistan in the early 1990s, troubling signs are emanating from Nigeria; it is not fair to Nigerians or Americans to again ignore a rising Taliban.

Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Scott Allan was a counsel to the 9/11 commission focusing on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

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