Breitbart News had the exclusive opportunity to sit down with Lt. Col. Rudy Atallah, former head of African counterterrorism for the Pentagon to discuss Boko Haram and Islamist movements in Africa.
Breitbart News: Why has it been difficult to counter Boko Haram?
Rudy Atallah: Boko Haram is split into several factions run by different leaders. Also, Boko Haram has been used as a pawn in Nigerian politics. Three days ago there was a Nigerian internal investigation of nine generals and senior military officers all suspected of aiding and abetting Boko Haram.
The officers were suspected of giving them weapons, access to the armories, and information on government tactics and targeting. It is very difficult to counter an organization when internally, within the Nigerian structure, there are political, militarily, and logistical issues.
Nigeria is considered a leader in the region. They’ve led ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) missions, they are part of the African Union community, they do peacekeeping missions all over the place. Nigeria is a powerful country. There is also a national pride element when you have such events occur on your own soil.
The Nigerians historically have been more hesitant on taking external support and more bent on saying, “We can take care of this issue ourselves.” Boko Haram is resilient because they operate across national borders. When the Nigerian military comes in, Boko Haram tends to move over to countries such as Cameroon and Niger, so that makes it especially difficult to target them.
Breitbart News: Tell us about Boko Haram’s leadership structure under Abubakar Shekau.
Rudy Atallah: Several years ago it was understood that Boko Haram had a Shura council made up of 13 members. Above that Shura council was Shekau as the main leader, and the Shura council members all operated independently in separate areas. The leaders’ communications were very discreet and each ran their own cell. The Nigerians claimed at one point that they had killed Shekau, but then he resurfaced. There are also reports that Shekau was previously wounded. Because of the various reports, it remains unclear how Boko Haram is currently re-structured.
Some believe that there are three main leaders. Shekau is seen as one of them, although there are some that argue Shekau may have been pushed to the outside. There is the possibility Shekau may independently run his own group or cell of Boko Haram. There are other individuals that are also running their own branches of Boko Haram. They merge together in order to do one operation and then they will separate and go their own ways.
There’s no real solid evidence to narrow down Boko Haram’s current structure. The intelligence coming from the area where Boko Haram actually operates is miniscule. A lot of the information comes from prior kidnap victims, from NGOs that operate in the area, and from people that were attackedby Boko Haram.
Jacob Zenn, whom I respect and consider to be a very a good resource, just wrote a piece where he claimed that several Boko Haram factions come together in a federation for major attacks such as the recent kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls. This leads me to believe that these guys are now branched off. While they used to be one solid Shura council, right now that may be in question.
Breitbart News: What is stopping the Nigerian forces from rescuing the kidnapped schoolgirls?
Rudy Atallah: It’s the complexity of the potential rescue. Its now understood that the schoolgirls have been split up in different areas. You can’t mount a rescue operation of one group of schoolgirls and potentially put the rest of them in danger in another location. By not engaging in an all-encompassing strategy, the result could end in tragedy.
A rescue operation for the girls should have occurred immediately after they were kidnapped in mid-April, but that never happened. Nobody started talking about a potential rescue operation until weeks afterwards, which is way too late.
Breitbart News: Does the United States have a role to play in the rescue operation?
Rudy Atallah: The United States is trying to gather information and put together a precise picture. There isn’t real viable intelligence of what the schoolgirls’ exact location is. Nigeria is saying one thing, but AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) doesn’t think the Nigerians have it right. Our guys are running ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) platforms right now and trying to gather intelligence.
They are trying to find the actual location of the girls, how they’re broken up, and who’s guarding what. When those three objectives are accomplished, we then can put together a plan that can work. A rescue operation must simultaneously free all the girls in each location where they’re being held or else Boko Haram may kill many of them. Such an operation is very complex and not advisable unless a favorable situation presents itself to the special operators.
We can offer up our intelligence to the Nigerians. However, there’s a big issue with that. As I said earlier, the Nigerian internal military structure is infiltrated by Boko Haram. Anything we share with the Nigerians will potentially be compromised and leaked over to Boko Haram, alerting them of a potential rescue operation. The smart thing to do is to focus on the top tier leadership of Boko Haram. We can get back to the girls, but the priority should be to focus on taking away Boko Haram’s leadership. Doing so will weaken the group in the long-run.
Breitbart News: What is Boko Haram’s primary motivating ideology?
Rudy Atallah: Boko Haram’s ideology is deep-rooted in AQ (Al Qaeda) ideology. Their core values are in line with Ibn Taymiyyah, a 14th century Islamic scholar.
They want a region that is purely Islamic, they want an Ummah (Islamic nation) under the banner of the House of Islam. They have declared war on anybody that doesn’t believe what they do and consider these people un-Islamic. This includes fellow Muslims in the North that attend western schools and follow western principles.
Boko Haram believes this education is corrupting their mindset. However, they do use the western media to their advantage, and they use western science to fabricate bombs and carry out advanced attacks. While they learn from the West for their attacks, Boko Haram opposes anything that takes away or is contradictory to core Islam. Their ideology is a skewed view of Islam and it puts them right in line with Al Qaeda’s ideology.
Breitbart News: You mentioned that Boko Haram sees themselves in the House of Islam. What is the difference between the House of Islam and the House of War?
Rudy Atallah: The House of Islam–Dar al Islam–is the home of submission, all the things that fall under Islamic control in the days of the prophet when the Ummah was established, all Muslims congregrated together and had a specific way of living life. Under the House of War–Dar al Harb–territories that are not yet under Islamic control, the people who are faithful to Islam are allowed to wage war against people who would contradict Islam or would demean Islam. In Dar al Harb, it is fair to wage war against these individuals in order to purify and make room for the true believers.
Breitbart News: Does Boko Haram pose a threat to American interests?
Rudy Atallah: Personally, I think that in time Boko Haram can pose a concern for American interest. Number one, because in the southern part of Nigeria we rely heavily upon oil platforms and the oil and gas industry. If Boko Haram chooses in the future to expand and become more regional, there is concern that they will begin to target areas where American industry is operating.
Secondly, if Boko Haram begins to work more and more with the Sahel branches of terror groups like AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), that can also pose a threat for any places where there is American interest in the region. We have American companies with investments across Africa, and in some of these Sahelian countries, Boko Haram can expand and employ attacks on western and American targets.
Breitbart News: Why weren’t we paying attention to Boko Haram along with the various Islamist movements in Africa?
Rudy Atallah: The biggest issue that we’re missing is that we tend to be reactive versus proactive over the long term, I think it’s inherently a weakness on our part. The second, working with African militaries. This was an issue that came up after the Islamists took over much of Mali. Local governments tend to mislabel individuals as terrorists and cause bigger issues.
For example, the Mali military considered the Tuareg in the north as terrorists, but they are not, they are far from it. There are some Tuareg individuals that support AQ, but its purely for survival purposes. When you are training an African military, instead of them targeting the bad guys, such as AQIM, they tend to focus on the ethnic dynamics within their country. It makes problems even more inflamed, and this needs to be addressed in our long term counterterrorism strategy.
We are seeing a radical shift in Sub-Saharan Africa. Until recently, it was unknown to see suicide bombers, people killing themselves in the name of Allah. Now all of a sudden we’ve seen this drastic shift. Mali and Somalia are perfect examples of where local ethnic sub-saharans are actually strapping explosives to their bodies and blowing themselves up with no prior history of such behavior.
If this trend is allowed to continue, this is going to come back and bite us in the long-run. These are the pools and pockets in which terror groups like Boko Haram and AQIM are recruiting. This is the ideology that is being pushed. In the long-term, American investments in the continent may take a hit because of this shift in behavior.
Six out of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. Africa’s middle class population is now at 350 million people, that’s a 60% increase from a decade ago. We are seeing a lot of economic growth in Africa. However, we are seeing the further separation of the haves and have-nots. Add the terrorist dimension, where desperate people end up siding with extremist elements, and it creates a recipe for disaster.
Rudolph Atallah is the former Africa Counterterrorism Director for the Department of Defense. He retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel after 21 years of service in the United States Air Force. Atallah is now a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council & CEO of White Mountain Research.