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by Brenda Brown Schoonover

Nigeria’s current population is more than 170 million. Not only does that make it the most populous nation in Africa, but it has the potential of being the largest domestic market in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the largest oil-producing nation in Africa and the twelfth largest in the world.The country’s strategic location, sheer numbers, and vibrant population make Nigeria a dominant actor on the continent and an important player in the world’s economic and political arena.

It has more than 250 ethnic groups. Although English is Nigeria’s official language, there are as many as 500 indigenous languages. The religious composition of the population is a little more than fifty percent Muslim, mostly concentrated in the north; slightly more than forty percent Christian mostly located in the south.The rest are members of indigenous beliefs.

Such an ethnic and religious mix poses enormous challenges to achieving national harmony. In particular, some segments of the Muslim population view and support Islamic extremism as a way of ridding the country of the vestiges of European colonialism and today’s Western culture, which they consider a negative influence on the Islamic way of life and corruptive to Muslim youth. Some resist Western education.

Numerous factors have been attributed to the Muslim community’s discontent and the growth of Islamic extremism in Nigeria. The list includes historic grievances and grudges such as: the more pervasive poverty in the north as compared to the oil-producing south; a sense of alienation from the Christian south; government corruption at the national and local levels; and strong-armed, sometimes brutal security measures imposed by the army and the police. These wedge issues and perceptions make the Muslim community vulnerable to extremists promoting their radical agendas as means of connecting with and recruiting members.

For more than a decade, there has been a tremendous rise in insurgent-related incidents in the country. Islamic extremist groups are growing in numbers and strength and are suspected of receiving external monetary and training support.

Hezbollah (Shi’te)

According to an article in the 2013 fall issue of  The Journal of Counter Terrorism, “Hezbollah is one of a small number of active terrorist groups that has a truly global reach.”  It has a history of violence throughout the world and is present in an estimated forty countries on five continents. And, it is “the most technically-and militarily-capable terrorist organization in the world.”  Furthermore, Hezbollah is known to receive backing from Iran in the form of training, weapons, explosives,and political, diplomatic and monetary aid estimated anywhere from $60 to $200 million. In exchange, its members act as proxy for Iran’s extraterritorial unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The U.S. considers Hezbollah a terrorist state. However, no African country has declared it as such.

In May 2013, Nigerian authorities reported evidence of a Hezbollah connection in northern Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano. Between May 16 and 28, security officials detained three suspects, residents of Nigeria of Lebanese origin and subsequently arrested a fourth on suspicion of ties to Hezbollah. The State Security Services (SSS) raided the home of one of the suspects and announced the discovery of a large stash of high-powered weapons hidden in a cement bunker under the master bedroom. One official described the compound as hosting a terrorist cell tied to the powerful Lebanese Shia movement, Hezbollah. A police spokesperson listed the contents as anti-tank and anti-mine devices, rocket-propelled guns and other arms and ammunition and indicated they were intended for facilities of Israeli and Western interests in Nigeria. There was no mention of specific targets.

The significant Lebanese presence in West Africa dates back for more than a century; many are Shiites. Nigeria has a large Lebanese business community — including a sizeable number in Kano, Northern Nigeria’s commercial center.

In a CNN Special on June 14, 2013, entitled, “Nigeria’s Hezbollah Problem”, Dawit Giorgis, visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, shared his views on the May arms seizure and arrests. Giorgis foresees an increasing threat from Hezbollah in Nigeria and predicts that even if the Lebanese residents are found guilty, “other nodes may well remain in Nigeria. The truth is that despite the thousands of miles that separate Nigeria from Lebanon, the country faces a growing threat from Hezbollah doppelganger.”


Giorgis calls attention to the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a thriving organization headquartered in the northern city of Zaria. Mr.Giorgis informs that IMN has strong support among the Shia Muslims residing in the country, estimated to be about five million.

He traces the Movement’s beginnings back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution when  members of the Nigerian Muslim Student Society traveled to Iran for the purpose of acquiring training to emulate such a revolution in their own country. Thus, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria was born. According to Giorgis, IMN has flourished because of funding, training and support from Iran.

At the helm of the IMN is its founder Sheikh lbraham (Ibraheem) al-Zakzaky, whom Giorgis calls “a firebrand Sunni turned Shia religious extremist.” Dawit Giorgis explains that initially Zakzaky was influenced by the works of the intellectual force behind Eqypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology is based on al Qaeda today; but later according to Giorgis, Zakzaky switched to Shia Islam as a result of Iranian backing and influence.

Described as the patriarchal leader of the Shiites in Nigeria, Zakzaky is frequently seen delivering his messages with a prominent picture of Iranian Ayatola Komeni in the background. IMN has a thriving daily newspaper, al-Mizan. Giorgis likens the group’s propaganda style as well as its military training techniques to that of Hezbollah. He notes that under Zakzaky’s leadership, the organization provides military training to hundreds of Nigerians in camps throughout northern Nigeria. Therefore,Giorgis concludes that “although the group has yet to launch an attack, it is surely not unreasonable to expect an attempt at some point.”

On at least two recent occasions on the official website of IMN, Ibrahim Usman defended IMN and took exception to Dawit Giorgis’ analysis and speculations and denied any violent intentions on the part of his organization. Expressing suspicion about the validity of the May arms discovery, he accuses the Nigerian authorities of staging the “alleged discovery of weapons” as an excuse “to go for the jugular of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria” and as a means of ingratiating themselves with the West. He confirmed that IMN does has strong admiration for Iran and Hezbollah, which he said is “not a global sin.”

Almost a year before Giorgis’ observations, BBC reporter Mark Lobel expressed similar concerns about IMN being a potential threat in his May 9, 2012 article, entitled,“Sheikh Zakzaky: “Why Nigeria Could Fear an Attack on Iran.” Reporting from Kaduna, Nigeria, Lobel wrote, “While the Sunni Islamist group Boko Haram makes headlines in Nigeria, a Shia group is also causing some anxiety in some quarters.” He noted growing momentum of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria,  its pro-Iranian and extremely anti-American stance, plus external connections to entities that hate the West. However, in Lobel’s assessment, the movement did not seem to be an eminent threat to the Nigerian Government or its people.


(AKA: Jamaatu Ahlis-Sunna Liddaawati Wal Jihad;
AKA:People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad)

In addition, Boka Haram is also known as Jama’atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da’awati wal-Jihad (JASDJ), the Group of the Sunni People Calling for Jihad and the Nigerian Taliban. There are also other translations and variations on its title.  For example, Boko Harem means “Western Education is Forbidden.” Its stated goal is to spread Sharia law throughout the entire country. Sharia law currently exists in 12 out of Nigeria’s 36 states.

Dawit Giorgis and Mark Lobel both focus on the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, its growing numbers and its affiliation with Hezbollah and Iran as matters of concern. While IMN is definitely not to be ignored nor dismissed as a formidable movement, the dominant Jihadist group currently receiving the most attention in Nigeria and causing the most havoc for the last few years is the violent Boko Haram. Identified as Sunni affiliated, Boko Haram uses guerilla tactics and terrorism in its efforts to create an Islamic state in Nigeria. The sect’s violent activities reportedly have cost more than 3000 lives since its resurgence in 2010.

Believed to have been founded in the in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, in 2002 by a religious study group, it was transformed into an insurgent group when young charismatic Nigerian civil servant employee Mohammed Yusef assumed control. The group called themselves “the Nigerian Taliban,” and adopted a “live-off-the-land” lifestyle, establishing a camp in a remote location in northeastern Nigeria which members referred to as “Afghanistan.” Boko Haram works out of Maiduguri near the border with Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Its traditional targets are police stations, army barracks, banks, churches, markets, universities and occasionally beer-drinking and card-playing establishments. Members identify targets they perceive to be involved in “un-Islamic” activities. Boko Haram’s earlier modus operandi had been drive-by shooting and bombings from motorcycles and attacks with simple weapons such as poisoned arrows and machetes.

The group’s notorious founder and leader Mohommed Yusef was captured and executed on August 9, 2009 in the northern city of Maidugeri by the Nigerian security forces. In addition, more than a hundred Boko Haram supporters were killed during the four day-battle that ensued. The authorities chose to broadcast a video of the execution on television, which only served to help elevate Yusef to martyrdom and make his death Boko Haram’s raison d’etre for all-out vengeance. It was a turning point for the sect, forcing members to go underground and some to flee the country. However, in 2010, the group emerged as a stronger threat, graduating from simple to more sophisticated lethal weapons and ammunition and deadlier tactics. Boko Haram’s possible external affiliations, frequent attacks and increased arms strength have heightened global concern of its capability to strike Western targets in Nigeria and elsewhere.

In November, 2011 the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence released a report entitled: “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland”, labeling it as an Islamist terrorist group in Nigeria with possible ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM).

The report cited one of Boko Haram’s most ruthless acts, the attack on the United Nations Headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja on August 26, 2011 when a suicide bomber drove a vehicle into the UN headquarters killing 23 and injuring 80 people. A member of the group labeled the United Nations as a “forum for all global evil” and claimed the attack was “designed to send a message to the U.S. President and other infidels.”

On November 24, 2011, a Boko Harem spokesperson admitted that the sect is connected to and receives assistance from al Qaeda, presumably AQIM, stating, “It is true that we have links with al Qaeda. They assist us and we assist them.”

Some analysts have determined that Boko Harem’s main focus is to perpetuate their slain leader Mohammed Yusef’s legacy and avenge the killing of its members, Others see it as a grassroots insurgency that emerged from the Muslim community’s social and economic grievances and frustrations. Regardless of its goals and driving force, so far, violence had been its main thrust and shows little indication of abating in the near future.

Ansaru, Vanguard for the Protection of Black Lands, Nigeria’s Newest Jihadist Movement
(AKA: Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimma Fi Biladis Sudan;
AKA: the Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa)

Yet another active Islamic militant group gaining prominence in Nigeria is the recently-formed Ansaru based in north central Nigeria in Kano state. Its motto is “Jihad Fi Sabilillah, Struggle for the Cause of Allah.” Founded in January 2012, Ansaru is said to be a splinter of Boko Haram, but with a more international focus and avoidance of violence to the Muslim victims except in self defense. It stated aim is to defend the interest of Islam and Muslims not just in Nigeria but throughout Africa and to restore the lost dignity of the 1804 Sokoto Caliphate, which ruled what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon until British control in 1903.

Ansaru’s leader is Kalid al-Barnawi (SP), whom officials believe has close ties to al Qaeda’s AQIM.

In the short time of its existence, Ansaru has been very active on the violence front, claiming responsibility for a number of incidents: a prison break in Abuja in November 2012, an attack on a Nigerian troop convoy in January 2013 and several dramatic kidnappings and executions of Westerners in Nigeria.

On May 15, 2013, Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Southern Christian, elected in 2011, declared a state of emergency in three of the 36 Nigerian states. They are: Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. In June, Jonathan placed Boko Haram and Ansaru on Nigeria’s list of proscribed terrorist groups.

Nigerian leaders face daunting challenges in their efforts to combat internal terrorist elements and deal with local insurgents. Authorities have their work cut out for them for years to come. Seriously addressing the country’s political, social, and economic woes such as poverty, particularly in the most affected north; plus, unemployment, corruption and law enforcement conduct would be a step in the right direction. However, the country is a long way from finding balanced solutions that would, on the one hand, appease the religious zealots resolute on dramatically changing the way of life of the whole nation, and, on the other hand, be acceptable to the rest of the population.

At the same time leaders are competing with encroaching external influences, extremist elements with a vested interest in fueling and spreading the fires of disconnect.End.


1. U.S. State Department, 2013 Investment Climate – Nigeria, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, February, 2013.

2. Central Intelligence Agency, World Factbook, July 2013.

3. “The A-Team: Hezbollah in Latin America”, by Luke Bencie, David Rosen and Elizabeth Gomez, The Journal of Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security International , Fall 2013.

4.” Nigeria claims discovery of ‘Hezbolloh cell,” The Express Tribune with the International Herald Tribune, 31 May 2013 by AFP.

5. “Nigeria: Hezbollah armoury discovered in Kano city,” BBS News Africa, 30 May 2013.

6. “Nigeria arrests trio over Hezbollah cell”, Aljazeera, 31 May 2013.

7.  “Nigeria Hezbollah’s Problem,” by Dawit Giorgis, CNN Special, 14 June 2013.

8. “Sheikh Zakzaky: Why Nigeria could fear an attack on Iran,” by Mark Lobel, BBC Africa, 9 May 2012.

9. “Analysis:West Africa Attractive Hezbollah Destination, Voice of America (VOA) News, 13 June 2013.

10. Islamic Movement of Nigeria blog, Ibraham Usman , 2013.

11.”Analysis: The Rise of Hezbollah in Africa,” The Jerusalem Post, by Benjamin Weinthal , 11 July 2013.

12. Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?”, by Farouk Chothia, BBC African Service, 11 January 2012.

13. November, 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence released a report entitled: “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the U.S. Homeland.”

14. “Africa’s Islamist Militants’ Co-ordinate efforts”, by Mark Doyle, BBC News, Africa, 26 June 2012.

15. Profile” “Who are Nigeria’s Ansuru Islamists?”, by Farouk Chothia, BBC Africa, 11 March 2013.

16. “New Threat in Nigeria as Militants Split Off,” by Adam Nossiter, The New York Times, 23, April 2013.

17. “Jonathan bans Boko Haram, Ansaru,” Vanguard reporters, Vanguard, 5 June 2013.

18. ” Cooperation or Competition: Boko Haram and Ansaru After Mali Intervention”, CTC Sentinel, from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 27 March 2013.

Related Readings

“Why Nigeriia Matters,” by Peter Pham, created 4 June 2011, published on The Atlantic Council (

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms, 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa by Steve Kemper, W.W. Norton paperback 2013.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Brenda Brown Schoonover
Brenda Brown Schoonover

Brenda Brown Schoonover, a native of Maryland, retired from the U. S. State Department Foreign Service in 2004 after more than 30 years of U.S. Government service. In addition to her volunteer assignment, she was also on the Peace Corps Staff in Washington and in Tanzania. There, she met her late husband of forty years, Foreign Service Officer Richard (Dick) Schoonover.  She accompanied Dick on his tours with the United States Information Agency in Nigeria and Tunisia. After Brenda joined the State Department, the couple had tandem assignments in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Belgium. Brenda was also U.S. Ambassador to Togo in West Africa. She currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and is on the advisory boards of the University of North Carolina’s Global Education, the International Affairs Council in the Research Triangle, IntraHealth International and Carolina Friends of the Foreign Service. She is President of American Diplomacy Publishers.


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