Five suicide bombings conducted within a short time frame in the relatively peaceful extreme northern region of Cameroon have shaken the Central African country, serving as a painful reminder that it is not immune to the threat of radical Islam.
Although no group has taken responsibility for these attacks, as well as for several subsequent attempts to dispatch suicide bombers to the same region, Nigeria-based Islamist sect Boko Haram is likely the culprit. The group previously launched several attacks in Cameroon, ranging from kidnapping foreigners for ransom, assassinations, robberies, and targeting the Cameroonian military.
However, this recent shift to adopting the deadly tactic of suicide bombings, which killed dozens of people in northern towns of Fotokol and Maroua, highlight the group’s readiness to adopt such methods beyond its core theatre of operations, further pointing to the willingness to transform into a regional threat.
The spill-over of Nigerian-based Boko Haram activity into Cameroon has its roots in historical affinities between the two countries. Boko Haram ideology originated from the Maitatsine doctrine, a radical form of Islam, which rejects Western education and Western aspects of life due to their perceived corruptive nature.
The doctrine is believed to have been founded by Muhammad Marwa, a North Cameroonian radical Muslim preacher, who moved to Nigeria in order to establish an Islamic society according to his fundamental vision of the world. In the same way as Marwa, perceived as a threat by Cameroonian authorities, was forced to relocate east to Nigeria several decades ago, his radical version of Islam found its way back to Cameroon from the west, infiltrating the country through its porous, vulnerable borders.
While the Jihadist threat came to Cameroon from external sources, the country’s complex geostrategic and socio-economic dynamics provided it with a fertile ground to thrive. Cameroon is considered one of the Africa’s most stable countries, despite the fact that its population of 21 million consists of more than 250 various ethnic groups, with 40% of them Christians, 30% Muslims, and another 30% espouseing traditional African beliefs.
This diversity is a result of the 1893 agreement between two colonial powers, Germany and Great Britain, which split between Nigeria and Cameroon with no respect for ethnic boundaries. This has created a breeding ground for the exploitation of certain groups and the spread of radical ideas, which were quick to come. Moreover, as many Muslims opposed post-independence secular regimes in Cameroon, the ethnic-religious conflicts provided a favourable environment for recruitment activities of Jihadist elements seeking to gain a greater foothold in the country.
Consequently, taking advantage of its local supporters, Boko Haram has traditionally recruited Cameroonians to its ranks, including for conducting suicide attacks. While is possible that the perpetrators of the bombings orchestrated by Boko Haram were remotely detonated against their will, as one of the arrested bombers claimed to receive a payment for putting a bag with explosives in a crowded market in Maroua, these attacks demonstrate the group’s existing operational infrastructure on Cameroonian soil.
Similarly, the group’s outstanding ability to gather intelligence regarding its targets in Cameroon’s urban centres, including the Extreme Northern Region’s capital Maroua, serves as further evidence of its significant influence in the region.
In this manner, Boko Haram, which has recently lost many of its strongholds in north-eastern Nigeria due to the joint counterinsurgency offensive waged by Nigerian, Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian forces, may be desperately looking for a new base for its activities. Given its geographical proximity, as well as the group’s former familiarity with the region (many group’s members fled into Cameroon during a massive Nigerian military offensive in 2009), the country may prove again as a comfortable place for Boko Haram to re-group.
The group’s well-established presence near Lake Chad, which serves Boko Haram an operational hub, as well as the lack of experience among those tasked with combating the Islamist insurgency, may also facilitate the Extreme Northern Region’s rapid conversion to an Islamist safe haven.
As the multiple territorial losses of Boko Haram in Nigeria have significantly undermined its image, these suicide attacks may be an attempt to create a perception of strength and to improve its image as a regional threat. This intention to demonstrate the group’s power by inflicting a serious blow to Cameroonian targets is especially relevant in light of a newly formed alliance between Boko Haram and “Islamic State”.
The Nigerian Islamist sect, which swore allegiance to “Islamic State’s” leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in April and is currently referred to as “Islamic State’s” West Africa Province (ISWA), has always had an ability to strike in Cameroon. However, this recent intensification of attacks against countries associated with large-scale anti-terrorism operation across Africa, including a suicide bombing in Chad’s capital N’Djamena on 15 June, which killed at least 27 people, may indicate Boko Haram’s willingness to extend operations beyond its core theatre of operations in order to position itself as a credible part of the global jihad being waged by its powerful patron.
It is worth noting that Boko Haram has already demonstrated its high operational capacity of conducting well-coordinated suicide bombings, which became a common mode of operation for many Jihadist organisations. Following the rumours of close ties with the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is believed to provide the group with necessary knowledge and sufficient operational capabilities, the Nigerian sect conducted its first suicide attack against a police station in the Nigerian capital Abuja on 16 June 2011.
The group, however, gained prominence by its second suicide bombing against the United Nations headquarters in Abuja on 26 August 2011, which quickly presented Boko Haram as a new threat to Western targets, and demonstrated its ability to use cars loaded with explosives. By striking Cameroon with this effective and deadly method, Boko Haram further proved its willingness to transform from a domestic Nigerian problem to a far more dangerous threat affiliated with global jihad.
Thus, in light of these developments, as well as the historical and ethnic affinities, it is within the realm of possibility that Boko Haram will work to strengthen its existing footholds in Cameroon in the near term.
Despite several steps to curb the growing Islamist threat, including the deployment of 8,500 Cameroonian soldiers along the border with Nigeria, a ban on the full-face Islamic veil, the repatriation of 2,000 illegal Nigerian nationals from Cameroon, and closure of mosques and Islamic schools, the battle against the Boko Haram challenge in Cameroon is yet to reach its peak. Thus far, regardless of the winner of this fight, the Cameroonian oasis of peace and stability seems to have been irrevocably lost.
Olga Bogorad is an Africa intelligence analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm based in the Middle East.