The voice echoing through the speaker on my phone was deep, halting, and offensive.
The message lasted a full minute and eighteen seconds. It included derogatory and racist insults directed at me and my family.
I could barely stand to listen. The voicemail which arrived amid a virtual barrage of attacks by phone, email, and through social media left me rattled.
What was my offence to become the target of such vitriol?
On Oct. 4, I published an op-ed titled U.S. ignores small African terrorist group IPOB at its peril.
The article called for the inclusion of a militant, separatist group in Nigeria, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.
It was hardly a radical proposal. The group meets all the definitional criteria for terror listing and their malign efforts to coerce and intimidate those that oppose their political and social goals are legendary.
My assessment ran in the print edition of The Washington Times a day later, earning a spotlight by BBCNews (in Igbo) shortly thereafter.
Contrary to claims that IPOB is a “nonviolent” movement with only “peaceful” intentions, the Eastern Security Network (ESN) – the group’s 50,000 strong paramilitary wing – have engaged in a series of escalatory attacks on Nigerian security forces and civilians in recent months.
Their global network of supporters is equally uncivil.
Within hours of publication, I found myself in the movement’s crosshairs – the latest target of a coordinated take-down operation designed to bully me into backing down from my policy prescription, local and federal law enforcement took notice.
My work as a counterterrorism scholar makes me accustomed to criticism. I have researched and written about rogue actors and repressive regimes on hundreds of occasions in dozens of outlets. The work has taken me around the globe and behind enemy lines.
But the combination of racism, ethnic superiority, religious bigotry, and falsities displayed by IPOB activists and Biafra’s sympathizers was unique – even for someone that covers militant substate actors.
I was tagged in thousands of social media posts that coupled disinformation with ad hominem attacks intended to silence me.
Threats were directed not only at me but also at my family. My phone rang day and night. Hundreds of emails flooded my inbox. My home address was circulated on social media. So too was my spouse’s work address.
I was derided as a “fake professor,” despite being easily identifiable as a tenured scholar that leads a nationally-ranked school of public and international affairs.
IPOB supporters were publicly encouraged to complain to university officials about my article and given scripts to follow.
The harassment was extensive.
I was falsely pronounced a Muslim as if it were a crime. My national origin was questioned. My wife – a Black woman from Botswana – was incorrectly cast as Fulani, a naked reference to an ethnic group scattered across West Africa and the Sahel that has long challenged Igbo dominance in Nigeria.
And, without a shred of evidence, I was repeatedly accused of accepting bribes from Nigerian authorities – some going so far as to manufacture sensationalist details in the form of cash-filled envelopes.
Scores of complaints were lodged with the Offices of the President and Provost at my university. Human Resources also took angry calls from IPOB supporters insisting on my removal.
When The Washington Times ignored calls to retract my commentary, IPOB supporters falsely claimed the article had been taken down. BBCNews corrected the disinformation – in Igbo, no less.
The only substantive criticism I received came from an individual whose signature identified him as a Foreign Agent acting at IPOB’s behest.
That IPOB supports a virtual army of paid hands that collect lucrative fees for peddling the group’s propaganda speaks volumes.
To be clear, the abusive tactics employed by IPOB militants, and their global network of sympathizers, are not new. And I am just one of many targets.
Biafra’s self-appointed leader and charlatan in chief, Nnamdi Kanu, once in exile and now under detention following his arrest by Interpol, has trafficked in incendiary rhetoric and division for so long that he has given rise to a generation of cultish followers.
Expecting supporters of Biafra’s imagined Republic to value academic freedom or support free speech may be a bridge too far. But bullying American scholars or intimidating U.S. officials is unlikely to earn them allies.
The Biden administration would be wise to support Nigeria’s efforts to keep the country united by turning up the heat on IPOB secessionists. Doing so would free resources that could be better leveraged against the principal threat of concern to both Washington and Abuja – Boko Haram in North-East Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.
In remarks to the U.N. General Assembly, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari prioritized efforts to address the growing presence of transnational terrorists with global connections on the African continent, noting that:
Nigeria will continue to work closely with U.N. counter-terrorism bodies and entities with a view to bringing this scourge to an end… Nigeria has spared no effort in addressing the challenges of terrorism posed by the activities of Boko Haram.
Over the twelve months, Boko Haram has regained operational strength. The same is true of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups across the volatile Sahel region. That the African continent is quickly becoming a haven for global terrorism should worry U.S. officials.
Long a partner on counterterrorism operations in West Africa, U.S. officials can back Nigeria’s priorities to dismantle the terrorist group by rejecting IPOB’s malevolent influence operations, secessionist agenda, and incendiary intimidation campaigns.
Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan
Culled from ibtimes