Boko Haram: “We're Not Only In Nigeria Anymore”
09 Feb 2015
Boko Haram's communications strategy appears to be shifting as the group attempts to tie itself to the international jihadi narrative argues Jacob Zenn.
On 7 January 2015, two French Muslim militants killed 12 people in an attack on the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris on behalf of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). On 16 January Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau issued a video statement to praise the event. On the same day, Boko Haram also released a video of Shekau explaining Boko Haram's 'Doctrinal Principles' (the video has since been removed from YouTube). These two public statements from Shekau attempt to tie Boko Haram into the narrative of the Charlie Hebdo attack and other international jihadi discourses. They are a sign that Boko Haram is attempting to evolve beyond being a 'Nigerian movement' as such, to become part-and-parcel with the international jihadi ideological landscape while expanding operations throughout the Sahel region.
Boko Haram is attempting to evolve beyond being a Nigerian movement.
It is important to recognise that Shekau did not claim any connection to the Charlie Hebdo attack. In addition, although a Nigerian was involved in producing the AQAP magazine Inspire, which literally 'inspired' the Paris attack, and a 20-year old AQAP-trained Nigerian, Umar Farouk al-Mutallib attempted to explode an 'underwear bomb' on a Detroit-bound plane in 2009 on behalf of AQAP, there are no clear operational links between AQAP and Boko Haram. Nonetheless, Shekau may be seeking to exploit the Paris attack to raise Boko Haram's profile among international jihadis by responding to it. This, in turn, could open Boko Haram up to a larger regional and international pool of recruits and sponsors, especially from neighbouring countries such as Niger, where several dozen churches were burned down during anti-Charlie Hebdo protests and protestors reportedly flew a Boko Haram banner in support of its ideology.
Despite Shekau's praise of the Paris attack, his statement was lacking in detail on its specifics. He said only, "O people of France, O people of France, know that a person cannot be a Muslim except by renouncing democracy and other such things" and "we in Jama'atu Ahlisunnah Lida'awati Wal-Jihad [the official name of Boko Haram] in an African country called Nigeria were really happy with what happened in France... Allahu Akbar... We were happy French people's blood was spilled in their country".
It is notable that Shekau's statement was released only nine days after the Paris attack. Shekau rarely comments on specific international events and, when he does, it is usually about one month after the fact. Other notable features of the video include Shekau speaking in Arabic, his use of a miswak (a twig that the Prophet Muhammed reportedly used to clean his teeth), and his position in front of an ISIS-style flag. All these features suggest that Shekau is trying to appeal to an international audience.
Alongside the Charlie Hebdo video, Shekau also released the 'Doctrinal Principles' video, which focused not on current events but rather on ideology. Three 'doctrinal principles' stand out from this video.
Shekau said "we are not with the Shites, or with the Zaydis, or with the Naqshbandis". This quote is significant for its castigation of groups with little relevance to Boko Haram's own campaign. The 'Zaydis' probably refer to the Houthis, a prominent movement in Yemen that is fighting Sunni militias including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and recently deposed the president; the Naqshbandis are an Islamic Sufi sect in Iraq that has been involved in some of the recent conflicts there.
"All those who subscribe to democracy are infidels".
Meanwhile, Shekau focused on takfiri ideology in denouncing those who "subscribe to democracy" and accept "man-made laws", placing Boko Haram within the international jihadi discourse of ISIS and al-Qaeda: "Ibn Taymiyah al-Harrani said that we do not engage in takfir [accusing of apostasy] against any Muslim unless he has commited major sins... Imam Muahmmad bin Abd al-Wahhab [founder of the Wahhabi Salafi sect] said that worshipping deities other than God is worse than the cardinal sins and that claiming ignorance is not accepted as an excuse... All those who subscribe to democracy are infidels and those who accept judgment according to man-made laws are infidels. All those who get education in foreign schools are infidels. This is my faith, my brethren. If you did not know me, here I am".
In neither video does Shekau refer to events in Nigeria, which is surprising given that national elections are set to take place on 28 March and Shekau has previously stated opposition to them.
Consistent with the focus on events beyond Nigeria, these two videos came after a video called 'Message to President Biya of Cameroon', released on 5 January, in which Shekau delivered his most explicit threat to Cameroon. In the video Shekau warned Cameroon that it would "taste what has befallen Nigeria". In another video released on 21 January Shekau appeared with other Boko Haram fighters displaying a huge arsenal of weapons taken from the Multi-National Joint Task Force base near Baga, a town on Lake Chad, bordering Niger, Chad and Cameroon. He mocked Cameroonian president Paul Biya for asking for international support because he was "stricken with fear" from Boko Haram. He also threatened Chadian president Idriss Déby for his offer to assist Cameroon, and ridiculed Nigerien president Mahamadou Issoufou for commiserating with France regarding the Charlie Hebdo killings. At the end of the video, Shekau burned a Nigerian flag and replaced it with the ISIS-style flag, saying "Nigeria is dead. The constitution is dead".
The four videos Shekau released in January 2015 show a much higher rate of media appearances than any previous year. He issued, for example, eleven videos in 2014, twelve in 2013, six in 2012 and only two in 2011. Moreover, his increasing regional and international focus shows that Boko Haram is already shifting from the Nigeria-focused movement it once was to a more internationally oriented group. Shekau's pledges of support for ISIS, the use of ISIS nasheeds [religious music] and the copying of ISIS choreography in his videos, in addition to Shekau's declaration of a caliphate in northeast Nigeria in 2014, are therefore being followed-up in 2015 with an increasingly ISIS-style Boko Haram.
It should not be surprising that Boko Haram's new media wing, al-Urwha al-Wuqhta, which was launched in mid-January 2015, referred to Boko Haram as the Islamic State in Africa and used as its logo an image of the Quran over an outline of the African continent.
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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