One of the greatest disservices rendered in the fight against Boko Haram and its variations, as well as other categories of internal security threats, is how we speak about and analyse it. I mean the understanding of terror—from the ignorant Nigerian to the average one on to those who ought to know better. Language and messaging have been mainstreamed in the west for at least the last two hundred years. There is little excuse for our not having learnt these here. Yet, pick up any newspaper or listen in to any media programme and you will hear about acts of terror discussed by people in registers and slogans that barely disguise a lack of basic understanding. If journalists and spokespersons alike have no clue, and if experts generally speak an expert-ese language generally incomprehensible, how can regular people understand the terror of which they, to a greater extent than journalists and talking heads, are the premier victims of? Here’s a primer on terror for the man with the folded sleeves at the street corner. Terror, regardless of who uses this tool for whatever purpose, rests on three legs—finance, operations and intelligence.
Years ago, when I was much younger, I would object to the typification of the civil crisis that wracked my hometown, Jos, as “ethno-religious”—arguing instead that the crisis was socio-economic. I had a putative understanding that money—access to it, what who’s got it wants, what it can make happen—was related to the internal displacements I was caught up in, the rise of hate and the burning of villages. Finance is at the top of the triangle of terror. Money is what, in fact, activates the other two legs. Cast your mind back and you will realize that before any of the terror organizations that have impacted regular folk like you went operational, they first of all got a patron who funded their activities—Gadhafi and a wide cast of “activists”, Iraq’s Saddam Hussain and the infamous Abu Nidal (Sabri al-Banna), or the variously flavoured Islamist movements that took root in Nigeria from the 60’s on with Gulf and Iranian funds. The money interest is perhaps the most powerful because it is often the most difficult to understand. The financial interest can be local, regional or even far removed from the conflict. The financial interest is almost always strategic.
The Operations group, which is the second leg of our triangle, tends to be tasked with the maintenance and deployment of foot soldiers. This is a logistics machinery that lubricates the triangle at the tactical level—recruitment, feeding, payroll management, medication, equipment, communications, readiness, these and more fall here. When we speak of a decentralized cell-like structure, for example the Ansaru faction being the hallmark of say al-Qaeda, this is largely in terms of Operations design—a sort of command and control unshackled from the strict hierarchy we see in formal military and civil service organization. From this, Operations are the most visible parts of a terror organization, whether it is militants in the Niger delta or Islamists in the northeast—the blunt face of the hammer to give another image. Consequently, when our gallant soldiers announce that several hundred Boko Haram members have been eliminated in this or that operation, remember that exciting and applaudable as this news is, the killing of low level operatives is always factored into Operations and this setback often has little bearing or impact on the Financial and Intelligence legs of the triad of terror. Intelligence is a critical feeder of terror to my way of thinking. The quality of Intelligence available to non-state Financial + Operations teams interested in deploying terror is always a measure of how healthy a state’s internal security machinery is. If a state has full legitimacy and its government is competently run, any leaks in state secrets will be detected quickly and dealt with in the usual manner. What is often the case is that even when legitimacy is noisily asserted, the administrative machinery of governments is incompetently or simply corruptly run such that failures of Intelligence—which range from incorrect analysis to outright leakage—seem to, in fact, be built into these systems so-called. Without intelligence, a pile of money is just a pile of money and a group of would-be operatives is just a group of would-be operatives. It is this Intelligence that makes the terror equation nimble enough to leverage itself against the legitimate concerns of a state such as the protection of lives and property. Obviously, Intelligence plays a cooperative role in the command and controls with Operations. Intelligence plays a major role in recruitment of the more specialist cadre of operatives through a hybrid selection process that identifies skills needed for maximum terror.
This is the triangle of terror.
Now, putting it all together. Considering the failures of the government and the media as well as experts to articulate terror and the groups that deploy it, I think it is important that citizens who are the primary victims of this terror understand the three ingredients of their greatest fear. Terrorism is the use of terror as a tool for a political or ideological end in a bid to avoid or overthrow the give-and-take of argument. The purpose is to use your fear of loss of life or limb to avoid convincing YOU why a belief or course of action is the correct one. Yet, without conversation and consensus, societies will be led not by the common good but by the interest of the most choleric minority. This is how societies die. Afghanistan under the Taliban is a fresh example. Secondly, and more importantly—terror always comprises three parts: finance, intelligence and operations. Knowing this, the citizen must avoid taking in the nonsense that is any spokesperson, journalist or expert who speaks of only one aspect of this triangle in a TV interview, a newspaper article or something weightier in journals and seminars. Lastly, a counterterrorism regime must comprise responses to these three if it is to have a chance at success. Such a regime can equally be appraised on these three criteria.
So, when you are told that armed insurgents—whether bandits or Boko Haram or whatever—have been eliminated, ask yourself and ask the source what action has been taken regarding the intelligence that directed these oppositional operatives and the financing that kept them motivated. If you are told that so-and-so intelligence officer of such-and-such terror group has been arrested, ask where the funding for such an officer came from and what operatives their intelligence activated. If you are told that a financier of such-and-such a group has been caught (which is very, very, very rare), sharpen your ear to hear where the money went and what it did or else sharpen your tongue and ask questions. Through this, I believe the average Nigerian who is indeed the true victim of terror, can interrogate the media coverage of terror and force an upscaling of competence and capability within the internal security services. This can be done by appraising all information through the lens of financing, operations and intelligence. Else, we are all just marking time and when the sad end comes it will be because we lost and not because “they” won. What a sad day that would be.
Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and of the State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He is also a novelist and a poet. He can be reached at [email protected]