Boko Haram and affiliated Islamic terrorists are poised to form a caliphate in Sub-Saharan Africa, international religious liberty leaders told Baptist Press.
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) member Johnnie Moore and Open Doors CEO David Curry both said conditions are ripe for Boko Haram and associated terrorists to form a caliphate – a monolithic government of strict Sharia law – in the region, with Nigeria proving one of the most dangerous countries there.
USCIRF Commissioner Moore said it’s very reasonable to assert that Islamic terrorists are on the verge of a caliphate in the region.
“I do not think it’s an exaggeration that a certain series of events could result in a portion of a country, or of a few countries in that part of Africa coming under the total control of Islamic terrorists instituting an ISIS-like caliphate,” Moore said. “It is a realistic prospect. Do I think it would last long if it happens? I don’t know. I think probably not. It might force the world to wake up, in the way ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) did. But, I keep finding myself saying, ‘When is the world going to wake up to what’s happening?’”
Both Moore and Curry said the pattern of extremist attacks is alarmingly similar to the pattern of ISIS attacks of a few years ago.
“Without a concentrated effort to counter its spread,” Curry said in an Open Doors press release, “we can only expect the new Islamic State to become more dangerous.”
Open Doors Director of Advocacy Isaac Six said Boko Haram never abandoned its original intent of establishing a caliphate in the region.
“Their level of control and violence, and the outgrowth of that with other groups, is getting to the point that it looks like it’s going to be more of a reality than probably we would have thought in recent years, due to a number of factors,” Six said. “As we mentioned in our release, 90% of the Christians we documented as being killed for their faith last year were in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 74% of those killings were in Nigeria alone. And this is all at the hands of Islamic extremist groups.”
Included in the region are Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and Mozambique, nations which have risen in rank on Open Doors’ World Watch List of the 50 worst countries for Christians. Boko Haram, the Islamic State West Africa Province and other terrorist groups are active there.
“So while the world’s kind of looking in a different direction, especially with COVID … these groups have gotten more violent,” Six said. “They’ve expanded a lot of their territory, and they’re looking closer to actually having a caliphate than I think we’ve seen in years.”
Moore said the fact that USCIRF has named Boko Haram and a handful of other terrorist groups as entities of particular concern (EPC) indicates that they already have some type of territorial control, a requirement for USCIRF’s EPC designation.
“But what’s happening here between Boko Haram and ISIS in West Africa, and other groups like them, we’re seeing a growing segment of that whole part of the continent, where you have these jihadist groups operating with impunity, or these governments not being able to control them,” Moore said. “I’m seeing the emergence of a similar pattern as what I saw in 2014 with ISIS in Iraq and Syria.”
In its 2021 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended U.S. policy changes to counter terrorism in the region. Moore points out the U.S. relationship with Nigeria, which has focused largely on economic and humanitarian concerns including food security.
“And yet, it doesn’t seem like we’ve had a comprehensive approach solving the internal insurgency in the country,” he said. “And unfortunately, what was isolated to the northeast of Nigeria, Boko Haram and other terrorists, we’re now seeing in the northwest of Nigeria. So it has spread. And in the center part of the country, you have certain tribal groups, Fulani tribesmen, who I would say are inspired by the tactics of these terrorists and are now deploying the same tactics.”
Nigerian policy should be a major priority of the Biden Administration, Moore said.
“In my opinion, right now, the president of the United States sitting in the Oval Office, if he has to decide five global issues that are emergency situations that demand his immediate attention, this issue in Western Africa, centralized in Nigeria and Niger and others, is in those top five,” Moore said, “and it may be in the top three, because of what could happen if it isn’t solved.”
While Christians comprise about half of Nigeria’s population, Moore said Christians in the northeast and Middle Belt are particularly vulnerable.
“The Christian community has already been decimated. Countless churches have been burned down, countless people have been killed. Women raped, their children murdered. Pastors beheaded,” Moore said. “An already decimated community could be just totally eliminated, and it’s a huge community.”
Boko Haram has been active in Africa more than 10 years, with persecution watchdogs and other groups estimating Boko Haram has killed between 30,000 and 50,000 people and displaced millions more.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)