Prevent the rise of another Taliban

October 19, 2004|By Princeton Lyman and Scott Allan

WASHINGTON - Buried deep in news reports are signs that trouble is brewing in Nigeria. It may seem insignificant that an extremist Islamic militia attacked two Nigerian police stations Sept. 20, killing five. But whether the United States cares to notice may have dire consequences for our country.

In September 1991, a decade before 9/11, 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 Mr. 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-Qaida terrorists.

Similar warnings, both explicit and implicit, are being voiced about the current 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.

And one West African country that should seriously concern Washington is 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 marginalized in the political framework of the country 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 Islamic legal system, or Sharia, penal code, to popular acclaim. In this atmosphere, Islamic extremists have begun to link northern frustrations to the United States and our policies in the war on terrorism.

The Islamic militants that 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. Recent violence in the delta region of Nigeria added to pressures increasing worldwide oil prices. 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. A threatened war on the industry and the multinational companies helped push oil past $50 a barrel in world trading.

Washington cannot afford to confront another entrenched Taliban-type movement or other sources of terrorism in Nigeria. Should Nigeria, or even a part of it, become more open to this or a similar movement, it could provide an enormous, resource-rich haven for al-Qaida. 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 mid-level officers. Moreover, 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, on which an educated diplomatic effort relies, has dropped significantly since the Cold War.

Washington must ensure that the State Department, the Agency for International Development and the intelligence community, among others, have the resources to monitor and creatively confront this rising threat.

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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