SAUDI ATTACKS UNDERLINE GROWING JIHADIST CHALLENGE
Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry said on January 5 that three border guards had been killed in clashes with four attackers near the Iraqi border, close to the town of Arar (Arab News, January 6). A ministry spokesman said that the gunmen attacked and killed two border guards, sparking a fatal shoot-out. When one of the surviving attackers offered to surrender, a senior Saudi officer approached, at which point the militant detonated an explosive belt killing himself and the officer. The attackers, who were all killed during the clash, are believed to have infiltrated from Iraq; their identities are not yet clear.
The attack, the latest in a series of incidents in the kingdom in recent months, underlines that the country is likely to face continuing jihadist pressure throughout the coming year. In the closing months of 2014, Saudi Arabia was hit by a number of small-scale terrorist attacks. These included a shooting attack in the capital Riyadh which wounded a Danish citizen in November. The Saudi government later arrested suspects over the attack, who it said were linked to the Islamic State organization (The National [Abu Dhabi], November 22, 2014). The Saudi government has, however, responded strongly to the uptick in militancy; for instance, on December 7, it announced the arrest of 135 terrorist suspects, including both Saudi nationals and foreigners (al-Arabiya, December 7, 2014).
At the same time, Saudi Arabia is also facing a range of other challenges that are liable to distract the country’s leadership from the growing Islamic State-inspired terrorism problem. Most notably, the country has refused to unilaterally cut oil production in order to support global oil prices, leading to the oil price hitting multi-year lows. Mainly aimed at defending market share and crushing higher-cost shale producers, the move is also hitting the revenues of Saudi Arabia’s allies, such as Bahrain and Kuwait, as well as its opponents like Iran and Iraq, potentially increasing regional political tensions.
Moreover, within the kingdom, tensions with the country’s Shi’a minority remain high, particularly in eastern parts of the country. On December 28, thousands of Shi’as in the town of Awamia attended the funeral of a Shi’a activist who had been killed by the security forces, underlining the significant and persistent Shi’a grievances in the area (Press TV [Tehran], December 28). Adding to the problems facing the government, the country’s ruler King Abdullah was hospitalized with pneumonia and a suspected lung infection on December 31. Although Crown Prince Salman said on January 6 that the king was recovering well, Abdullah’s illness and evident poor health has revived speculation over who will succeed the 90-year-old monarch, casting further doubt over the Kingdom’s medium-term stability (Arab News, January 6).
BOKO HARAM’S VIOLENCE ACCELERATES AHEAD OF NIGERIAN ELECTIONS
Boko Haram’s rampage across northern Nigeria and into neighbouring countries has showed few signs of abating in recent weeks, with its attacks escalating further and spreading into previously untouched areas. On January 8-9, it was reported that the group had carried out a massive series of attacks in previous days on a range of Nigerian towns in the vicinity of Lake Chad, destroying more than 10 villages, displacing hundreds of local people and leaving up to 2,000 people unaccounted for (al-Jazeera, January 8; The Guardian [Lagos], January 9). Other attacks had taken place on January 8 in Yobe State, with Boko Haram militants attacking the village of Katarko, killing 25 and abducting women and children (The Guardian [Lagos], January 8). Days earlier, the group had won a notable victory in its heartland of Borno State, seizing the town of Baga on January 3-4 from a local international military joint taskforce composing troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger (Africa Report, January 5). The fresh violence comes ahead of Nigerian general elections, which are due to take place in February and are currently dominating the thoughts of much of Nigeria’s political elite. Significantly, the outcome of the elections may be determined both by public perceptions of the government’s, so far, ineffectual response to the Boko Haram threat and by sectarian voting patterns. The incumbent People’s Democratic Party is likely to gain most of its votes in the main Christian south of the country, while the main opposition alliance, the All Progressives Congress – led by a former general, Muhammadu Buhari – is liable to attract a large number of Muslim voters.
The past week has also brought increased evidence of Boko Haram’s growing ambitions outside Nigeria. In a YouTube video posted online on January 7, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakr Shekau, for the first time, threatened Cameroon. Addressing the country’s president, Shekau said: “Oh Paul Biya, if you don’t stop this, your evil plot, you will taste what has befallen Nigeria… Your troops cannot do anything to us.”  His statement was apparently issued in response to rapidly escalating fighting between Cameroonian troops and Boko Haram fighters in northern Cameroon (al-Arabiya, January 7). Two days earlier, on January 5, the Cameroonian government promised to protect the country’s borders against Boko Haram attacks, an indication that the government was under increasing public pressure to tackle this growing threat (Leadership [Abuja], January 6). A few days prior to that, on January 1, Boko Haram militants had attacked a bus in northern Cameroon, killing 11 civilians, in one of its most significant attacks in the country. On December 29, Cameroon had meanwhile carried out its first airstrike against the group, bombing the Assighasia military camp that had earlier been captured by the militants (al-Jazeera, December 29). The spread of the conflict into Cameroon also promises to internationalize the conflict in other ways; on December 12, the head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) said that the United States would increase support for Cameroon’s military, saying it would supply equipment and offer logistics training (VOA, December 12).
The above developments – the spread of Boko Haram violence inside Nigeria, the group’s steady expansion into neighboring countries, and the apparent inability of local governments to contain the organization, either militarily or politically – underline that Boko Haram is liable to move up U.S. and international policy maker’s radars throughout 2015. In the shorter term, the outcome of the February general elections could be a key indicator of how the situation in Nigeria is likely to develop in the coming months. In a best case scenario, successful elections could see a renewed political consensus, a strengthening of Nigerian democracy and a fresh determination to tackle Boko Haram. However, in a worst case scenario, ethnically and religiously polarized voting and a contested outcome could actually accentuate religious and ethnic divisions, particularly between northern and southern Nigeria, undermine faith in the Nigerian political system and make the task of tackling Boko Haram immeasurably more difficult.
1. “MESSAGE TO PRESIDENT PAUL BIYA OF CAMEROON,” Jama’atu Ahlus sunnah lidda’wati Wal jahad YouTube page, January 5, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLQeLCt8Zi0&feature=youtu.be.