Five Questions on...Boko Haram
24 Jun 2014
Amid reports that Boko Haram has kidnapped a further 60 women and children in Borno, Nigeria, and the continuing inability of the Nigerian government to provide an effective counter to the militant group, Jacob Zenn explains who they are, what they believe, and where they might go from here.
1. What is Boko Haram?
2. Who is the group's leader?
3. What is the group's structure?
4. What links do they have to al-Qaeda?
5. Is negotiated settlement possible?
Boko Haram is a militant group in northeastern Nigeria whose real name is 'Jama'at Ahl al-Sunna li al-Da'awat wa al-Jihad' which means Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad. The group was founded around 2002, largely to preach an Islamist ideology based on the doctrines of the Taliban as well as groups such as al-Qaeda. It sought to disassociate itself from the Nigerian state and form a community only of its followers. At the same time it did likely believe that a confrontation with the Nigerian state was inevitable due to the fact that it did not follow any state obligations and tried to create a quasi-state of its own followers in northeastern Nigeria.
In 2009 it engaged in clashes with the Nigerian state as per its expectations. After that, around 2010, it remerged with a new leader because its founder was killed during the 2009 clashes, and since 2010 it has been engaged in violent battles with the Nigerian state. It has targeted Christian communities in northeastern Nigeria as well as Muslim traditional leaders who object to the group's violent tactics or ideology.
The group's leader Abubakar Shekau is from northeastern Nigeria and is an ethnic Kanuri who speaks Kanuri language as well as Hausa, Arabic and a decent level of English. This suggests that he does have some level of education beyond primary school otherwise he would not be so versed in these languages. He ascribes to a Takfirist ideology, which means that he labels other people as infidels and believes that as a result they should be targeted violently.
Shekau has emerged as the only face of Boko Haram in its videos and statements.
He was the deputy from 2002-9 of Boko Haram's founder Mohammed Yusuf, and since 2010 he emerged as Boko Haram's leaders after winning power struggles with others who had similar but somewhat contrasting ideologies. He largely won this power struggle through ruthlessness and getting rid of all those who attempted to rival his power or challenge his leadership. He has also emerged as the only face of Boko Haram in its videos and statements, and has consistently threatened not only the Nigerian president and population as a whole, but also Western countries ranging from the US to the UK and France and also the United Nations.
There are various factions within Boko Haram, and debates about whether Boko Haram is a loosely knit group of various cells or whether it has a controlled command structure. I tend to believe that it is somewhat controlled, despite the fact that there are many cells who might operate independently. One reason why I suggest this is that despite having various disparate cells throughout northeastern Nigeria and some neighboring countries, they tend to follow a similar operational methodology, they tend to be able to bring together many cells for coordinated attacks, and for example they never went into Cameroon until a certain period of time where they likely received an order to do so. To me this suggests that there was a leader who was able to provide orders to various cells to go into Cameroon, which happened around February 2013, despite the fact that the group had previously operated there as a rear base for operations.
Certain factions appear less interested in waging a war against Nigeria.
There may also be certain leaders of the group who function somewhat as a board, who are in northern Nigeria or in other countries, that provide guidance to Boko Haram about where and when it should attack. That being said there are different types of factions that have emerged; some factions have criticized Boko Haram for targeting innocent civilians, particularly Muslims. There have been certain factions that appear less interested in waging a war against Nigeria, but more interested in waging a war against international targets in Nigeria, such as foreign workers in the country, the UN building and so forth. So it can be considered a complex group but I wouldn't underestimate the extent to which these disparate factions with somewhat contrasting ideologies come together and coordinate attacks and other types of operations when it is in the interest of all factions.
There are various assertions that Boko Haram is linked to al-Qaeda. Notably al-Qaeda has never formally recognised Boko Haram as an affiliate as it has al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or al-Shabaab in Somalia. Nonetheless the operational linkages between higher-level Boko Haram members and the al-Qaeda network are very clear. Many of the masterminds of major Boko Haram attacks, whether on Christian Day in Jos in December 2010, or on the UN headquarters in August 2011, or the kidnappings of foreigners in various northern Nigerian states, all appear to have been led by Nigerians who trained with various al-Qaeda groups, whether AQIM in countries such as Mauritania, Northern Mali and Algeria, or al-Shabaab in countries such as Sudan and Somalia.
Moreover, there appears to be some financing that was provided to Boko Haram from either al-Qaeda at its base in Pakistan or from AQIM as a sort of investment in Boko Haram in order to enable it to carry out kidnappings, the profits of which would go back to AQIM. There are also local factors that contributed to Boko Haram but it is likely these international networks to al-Qaeda and other militant groups that enabled Boko Haram to become so lethal so quickly.
Other factions would likely target factions negotiating with the government.
There are likely several factions within Boko Haram and current members of the group that have certain grievances based on the clashes with the government in 2009 or with other officials that can be resolved through discussion and negotiation. This would be challenging because other factions would likely target these factions negotiating with the government and apply pressure on them in order to cease such negotiations. However, if those negotiations are carried out sincerely and in confidentiality, it could lead to certain successes that would take out some of the light of Boko Haram and isolate some of the more extreme elements.
For those extreme elements that have demands that are inconsistent with democracy, pluralism and all conceptions of tolerance, it will be very hard, if not impossible, to negotiate with them. One of the methods of dealing with them could be to take away some of the less ideological members in these factions and provide them with alternative opportunities in life, try to acquire intelligence from them, leaving only a relatively isolated extreme leadership to the group.
At that level, kinetic operations militarily to put pressure on them or eliminate them might be the only final option. That in itself would likely require coordination between governments, not only of Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger which all border each other in the Lake Chad region, but possibly other governments outside of the region in order to really find out where these leaders are, who is directing them, where their networks are, and how to eliminate them.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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