When is a terrorist group not a terrorist group?

Ya gotta feel for Nigeria. This West African country is, and has been for some time, beset with all forms of violence, from organised crime to ethnic clashes to jihadi terrorism. In the latter category we have Boko Haram (BH), an Al Qaeda affiliate wannabe that has been very active since the late 2000s largely in Borno State in the northern part of the country – although there have been recent incursions into Cameroon as well – and an Islamic State affiliate which bills itself as IS in West Africa (ISWA). Both groups have been responsible for thousands of deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

In response, the Nigerian government and armed forces have been very busy trying to prevent attacks and whittle away at both groups’ strengths, while at the same time trying to protect the local population from the horrors of death, rape and destruction. The government has been particularly optimistic that an end is nigh, stating every Christmas that BH has almost suffered total defeat. Alas, every new year the group carries out more and more attacks.

You would think that with all this on their plate Nigerians would not want to create more problems for themselves. Yet this appears to be exactly what they are doing with a Shia Muslim group that may soon (if not already) be declared a terrorist organisation. A Nigerian court has granted the government permission to label the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) a terrorist outfit, members of whom have been marching in the capital Abuja calling for the release of their leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky, who has been in detention since 2015 despite a court order to release him. Not surprisingly, some of the protests have have often violent.

I have been loosely following the activities of the IMN, although I am far from an expert on the group, but despite my lack of depth on who they are what I do know strongly suggests that the IMN is not a terrorist group. An analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, a thinktank I think very highly of for the record, agrees with me. There may be a lot more here than meets the eye.

I wonder whether there is some relationship between the fact that the IMN is Shia in nature and the current – and longstanding – demonisation of Iran as the world’s greatest ‘sponsor of terrorism’: Iran is a largely Shia state so that could be a factor here. And yes there are historical ties between the IMN and Iran, although these appear to have dwindled. What seems clear, at least to me on the surface, is that the IMN is NOT an Iranian proxy and is nothing at all like Hizballh, a real Shia terrorist group with close ties to Iran.

The question remains then: why is Nigeria doing this? Why would they list the IMN as a terrorist entity? Is it possible that there is outside influence at play (i.e. the US and Israel, both of whom have done everything possible to get the world to sign up to the belief that Iran and Shia Islamist extremism is the greatest threat to the planet, rather than the true foe, Saudi-inspired Sunni Islamist extremism)? I am loath to go down the conspiracy theory road but the timing strikes me as odd given that the IMN has been active for quite some time.

In the end it is not obvious, at least to me, why Nigeria is making this move now. It is not as if they don’t have enough challenges to face. A sober second though might be in order.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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