The tragic murder on March 8 of two kidnapping victims, a British and an Italian engineer, during a Nigerian rescue effort supported by the British raises questions. In a video, UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated that he authorized British participation in the rescue attempt. He identified the perpetrators as “terrorists.” President Goodluck Jonathan’s spokesman has said that the perpetrators were Boko Haram. Richard Dowden reports that a group calling itself ’al-Qaeda in the Land Beyond the Sahel’ claims responsibility and that it asserts that it is part of Boko Haram. However, another "spokesman" for Boko Haram denies that the movement was involved.
These murders once again raise questions about what ‘Boko Haram’ is. Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, published March 9 a careful analysis, “Nigeria: Boko Haram – More Complicated than You Think.” Dowden and others have pointed out that ‘Boko Haram’ can be, among other things, a cover for purely criminal activity. It can also reflect the alienation of many in the North from the government in Abuja. Its support is also driven by the rough methods of the Nigerian police and security services.
The murdered hostages were kidnapped almost a year ago, on May 10, 2011. There was an immediate demand for a ransom of 150 million Naira, slightly less that US$1,000,000. The size of the ransom raises the possibility that this was an example of kidnapping for profit, as has occurred elsewhere in the Sahel and in the Niger Delta. The identity of ‘al-Qaeda in the Land Beyond the Sahel’ is unclear. It cannot even be certain that this was the group that carried out the kidnapping. In the Sahel and elsewhere, it is not uncommon for kidnappers to sell their victims to another criminal syndicate to raise cash quickly.
European, especially British, press coverage of this episode has focused on the alleged British lack of consultation with the Italian government. Perhaps a more important focus should be on Westerners in northern Nigeria. Cameron referred to the kidnappers as “terrorists,” not Boko Haram. Nevertheless, he is visibly and personally now identified with the Jonathan government and the British were directly involved with the Nigerian army and the State Security Service, both widely hated in the North. Elements of ‘Boko Haram’ however defined appear to have in common an implacable hatred of Jonathan. Following the adage that the friend of my enemy is my enemy, it should not be surprising if there are more attacks on British and other Westerners.