Before 2011, Boko Haram was a little understood, dangerous but parochial Islamic sect believed to be in decline after a purge by Nigerian security forces in 2009. Now, with the year drawing to a close, it is clear that Boko Haram remains little understood and has evolved into Nigeria’s most serious security threat, one which shows no sign of abating in spite of the repeated government line that it is solving the problem.
Boko Haram has been blamed for 100 deaths last month alone and is thought to be behind 361 killings this year, a figure predicted to increase by the year’s end. In May it launched a series of attacks on the day of Goodluck Jonathan’s inauguration which stoked the endemic fear of sectarian violence splitting Nigeria – the inauguration was a sour moment for many northern Muslims aggrieved at a perceived breaching of the PDP “zoning pact” and the electoral loss of the widely respected Muhammadu Buhari, who claimed the government rigged the presidential election. It then grabbed national news headlines once again with an attack on the Nigerian police headquarters in Abuja in June, before demonstrating heightened ambition with the bombing of the UN building in Abuja, its first international target.
In line with Boko Haram’s surge in activity, the Nigerian government is finally taking the sect seriously, while US attention has also been drawn. "Security" featured prominently in the recently announced government budget; a former Nigerian president – Olusegun Obasanjo – attempted to open dialogue with the sect; a presidential committee has investigated it; a sect “spokesman” has been jailed; a ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) senator is standing trial for disclosing the phone numbers of prominent politicians and public officers who were later threatened and providing logistics to Boko Haram; and a US Congressional report is recommending diplomatic engagement, military and intelligence support for Nigeria, and the classification of Boko Haram as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” on the basis that the group is an “emerging threat” to the US homeland.
Boko Haram’s name – “the book [Western education] is prohibited” – is a local moniker derived from the group’s abhorrence of Western education: former leader Mohammed Yusuf said education “spoils the belief in one God”. The sect – full name Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad ("People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad") – seeks to create an Islamic state governed by Sharia law in Nigeria by, seemingly, whatever means it has at its disposal and at whatever human cost it deems necessary.
The sect is thought by some to have its roots in the Sahaba group, which Mohammed Yusuf came to lead in the late 1990s before reorienting the group as Boko Haram. Yusuf was a favourite student of prominent Nigerian Islamic scholar Sheikh Jafar Mahmud Adam. It has been reported that the two fell out over Yusuf’s extremist positions, with Boko Haram, then known by some as the Yusufiyya sect, moving from Kano State to Yusuf’s hometown of Maidaguri, in Borno State, in 2004. Jafar was murdered in 2007. Kano clerics have alleged that Yusuf loyalists, who reportedly interrupted Jafar’s sermons after their falling out, were behind the murder.
Most of what is known about Boko Haram comes from its bloody emergence in 2009. The sect was thought to be behind attacks in Yobe State in 2004, but the deaths of some 700 people in Bauchi, Maiduguri and towns in nearby Kano and Yobe states, in a series of coordinated attacks on police stations, military barracks and churches over five days in 2009 catapulted it into the national spotlight. The response of the state was fast and brutal. On July 29, police stormed Boko Haram’s base in Maiduguri. Days later, Mohammed Yusuf was dead. At first, police claimed he had died in a shoot-out. Then that he had died while trying to escape. Now, with policemen on trial for his murder – widely suspected by journalists at the time – it seems clearer than ever that Yusuf, along with his father, senior sect member Alhaji Buji Foi and a group of young Boko Haram foot soldiers, were probably summarily executed by police.
Had warnings about the sect been heeded, things could have been different. A local imam claimed that the government failed to listen to and act on advice: "A lot of imams tried to draw the attention of the government … we used to call the government and security agents to say that these people must be stopped from what they are doing because it must bring a lot of trouble." There were also allegations that the reluctance to monitor and tackle leading militants was due to connections with powerful families linked to government. "People believe the government didn't want to crack down on these people because their parents would get angry," said one journalist working in the area. Alhaji Buji Foi was a former Borno State commissioner for religious affairs, while there was much speculation that other sponsors included religious leaders and businessmen.
After the purging of the sect in 2009, many thought the group would dissipate. Government spokesman Sunday Dare argued he did not foresee a swelling in the group’s ranks. Academic Patrick Wilmot claimed the group only need to be monitored and did not need to be taken seriously because it is seen as “crazy” by mainstream Muslims. However, Nigerian Islamic scholar Hussein Zakaria warned it was only a matter of time until a new leader would emerge to replace the “martyred” Yusuf.
What is known is that Boko Haram is evolving, both in its ideology and the scope and scale of its attacks. Its targeting of Abuja, especially the UN, shows a new level of coordination, expertise with explosives – semtex or a similar military-grade explosive was used in Abuja, leading to theories of links with other terrorist groups – and, critically, a new choice of international target which the sect claims is the “forum of all the global evil”.
Also indicative of Boko Haram’s change in tack is its posting of video messages, which conform to an al-Qaeda, international jihadi “style”, and a new online presence - a tactic taken to a new level by al-Shabaab this month with its launch on Twitter. In the aftermath of the UN embassy bombing, Agence France Presse obtained a video in which Mohammed Abul Barra, a 27-year-old from Maiduguri, explains his reason for driving an explosive-laden car into the UN. Another video from this year indicates that the sect’s leader is Abubakar bin Muhammad Shekau, thought to be the former deputy of Yusuf. While claiming to “defend our religion” and be persecuted by the state, Shekau rejects claims of an attack on a beer parlour being targeted at random drinkers. “You people should know that we do not kill those who drink alcohol,” he is reported to say. “It is mere propaganda that we attacked a beer parlour. We had heard that it was purely soldiers who gathered there to drink, and we confirmed it, that was why we went there and killed them.”
It also seems that there may have been a split in Boko Haram, although this is denied on the sect's website. In July, the Yusufiya Islamic Movement, which claims to have been founded by Mohammed Yusuf and, as with Boko Haram, likely draws a lineage from the Yusufiyya sect, distributed leaflets in Maiduguri distancing itself from Boko Haram. It is thought that the split comes from Shekau’s more extreme ideology and tactics – the move from targeting individuals in northern Nigeria to targeting the UN and the posting of video messages would support such a notion. “We are concerned that some people with evil motives have infiltrated our genuine struggle with a false Holy War that is outright un-Islamic,” the leaflet said. “We call [on] this evil group to desist, failing which we shall have no option than to expose and hunt them.”
Key to understanding Boko Haram is understanding its forebears. Reactionary attempts to threaten the secularism constitutionally enshrined in the post-colonial Nigerian state are not new, while during the colonial era a revolutionary Mahdism which received little elite support but attracted “radical clerics, disgruntled peasants and fugitive slaves” sought unsuccessfully to overthrow the British colonial regime which controlled the Sokoto Caliphate founded after the jihad of Usman Dan Fodio. With stark resonance to today, northern Muslim elites made a pact with the British colonialists that they would rule indirectly in return for British education not being imposed on the protectorate.
The “Maitatsine” uprisings of the early 1980s, inspired by Cameroonian dissident preacher Muhammadu Marwa, catalysed by massive socio-economic inequality and, following on from constitutional debates in 1977 which polarised the country, were the first incidence of Islamic fundamentalist agitation against the secular state. At around the same time, two other Islamic fundamentalist groups emerged, Jama’atu Izalatil Bidi’a Wa’iqamatic Sunna (“Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna”), founded 1978 in Jos and known as “Izala”, and The Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a Shiite movement led by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, funded by Iran and in which Yusuf was thought to be a “major player” - exactly how and when Yusuf was involved and how this related to his links with Sheikh Jafar is unclear.
Both groups have been associated with Boko Haram’s modern incarnation, a link both deny. In 2009, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria rebutted claims that El-Zakzaky was the founder of Boko Haram, arguing it could never be so against Western education when it owns 300 schools in Nigeria which teach a mixture of Islamic and Western education. Izala threatened legal action against publishers of pictures of its members labelled as Boko Haram footsoldiers.
What is clear is that the combination of constitutional debates in the 1970s, military rule under successive despots – including the jailing of El-Zakzaky by Sani Abacha’s regime – and entrenched poverty in the areas in northern Nigeria where such groups are active have all been grist to the fundamentalists’ mill. Many Islamists were not satisfied by the adoption of Sharia law in 12 northern states between 1999 and 2001, either believing it to be too watered down a form of Sharia or that the whole Nigerian state must abandon secularism for an Islamic state. And in the democratic, post-1999 Fourth Republic of Nigeria it has been perceived that an imported system of government based on “Western values” has resulted in ostensible corruption, poverty, unemployment and the continued suppression of “true” Islam. Perhaps symptomatic of the hypocrisy seen by such groups in putatively liberal democratic government is the state’s reaction to Boko Haram in 2009: Nigeria has admitted that it was “overzealous”, while its use of extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances and unlawful arrests escalated Muslims’ grievances against the state and were condemned by Amnesty International and the influential Sultan of Sokoto.
The linking of Boko Haram to non-Nigerian terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabaab ensures the sect will now be in the international spotlight.
At the end of November, a US House of Representatives subcommittee submitted a report on the sect, headlined “Boko Haram: Emerging Threat to the US Homeland”. The report found that the sect has “quickly evolved”, “has the intent and may be developing capability to coordinate on a rhetorical and operational level” with AQIM and al-Shabaab, that the “the environment is ripe for recruitment” and that the US should work with Nigeria “to build counterterrorism and intelligence capability to effectively counter Boko Haram”.
Nigeria has increased budgetary spending on security, ushered in a Terrorism (Prevention) Act, increased its military presence in northern states, tightened border controls with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and is rumoured to have dispatched soldiers to the US for counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and bomb disposal training in order to combat Boko Haram. However, there remains little progress in tackling the underlying conditions that catalyse Boko Haram’s appeal to impoverished, alienated, jobless northern Muslims who feel that the south of the country benefits at their expense: a life devoid of hope and economic opportunity, shaped by politicians reaping the huge economic dividends of office under an imported system intended to represent the voices of those who it seemingly expropriates. US Ambassador Terrence McCulley told Reuters in an interview about the sect that, “It’s important for the government to look at how to redress these social-economic indicators in the north. Pick any one you want, whether it be health, literacy or access to clean water, the situation is really appalling”. In reference to McCulley’s comments, the US report argues that “such pressure should continue”.
Indeed, the positioning of Boko Haram within a “civilisational clash” discourse and asserting that it represents an “attack on Christianity” are, at best, ill-informed. Boko Haram's grievance is against the state and the secularism constitutionally enshrined in it. While the group is undoubtedly fundamentalist to its core and influenced by the rise of groups such as al-Qaeda – early 1980s militancy was influenced by the Iranian revolution of 1979 – of equal influence in fuelling the sect and its ability to recruit is the prevailing situation of “economic dislocation” which it has been argued exceeds that which sustained the Maitatsine riots of some 20 years ago.
The trial of PDP senator Ali Ndume and rumours that the sect received funding from “brothers inside Nigeria” only serves to illustrate the depth of the Boko Haram problem for the Jonathan government. And although calls for dialogue over all-out confrontation with a group prepared to fight to the death are being heeded, the re-orienting of Boko Haram under Shekau gives little cause for hope that dialogue will bear fruit – after Obasanjo’s visit to Maidaguri, the representative of Yusuf’s family who hosted Obasanjo was killed.
Facing such a situation, it is evident that the government must focus on what is achievable and is indeed its responsibility: change the socio-economic injustice and political corruption that creates a supply line of willing Boko Haram adherents.
“The emergence of Boko Haram signifies the maturation of long festering extremist impulses that run deep in the social reality of Northern Nigeria,” argues analyst Chris Ngwodo. “But the group itself is an effect and not a cause; it is a symptom of decades of failed government and elite delinquency finally ripening into social chaos.”
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