The Power of Boko Haram: Local Roots, International Jihad


The Power of Boko Haram: Local Roots, International Jihad

Jacob Zenn

06 Feb 2015

Africa's largest country is being destabilised by the violence of Boko Haram. The group's power results from its use of ideology and ethnicity, as well as its links to other jihadi groups, writes Jacob Zenn.

Boko Haram is likely to remain a powerful source of instability and violence in Nigeria. This is due to three important strengths. The first is ideology. Boko Haram draws ideological legitimacy from the Quran and Islamic scholars as well as more recent rhetorical support for ISIS. This attracts a large pool of barely literate recruits who are easily indoctrinated, while Muslims from Nigeria and neighboring countries can be attracted by the call for a new caliphate and the promise of justice. The second strength is ethnicity. Boko Haram has used traditional tribal governance structures to foster close connections with the local Kanuri ethnic group in the Lake Chad region, Boko Haram's stronghold. The third strength is international training. Other jihadi groups in Africa train and support Boko Haram members, enhancing their ability to execute sophisticated attacks.

Boko Haram draws on deep Nigerian, African and increasingly international Islamist roots.

Boko Haram's ideology draws on deep Nigerian, African and increasingly international Islamist roots. This includes the local Izala movement from which Boko Haram founder, Mohammed Yusuf, splintered in the 1990s, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood thought leader Sayyid Qutb and contemporary jihadis such as Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A number of Boko Haram leaders may have international experience, a deep knowledge of religious history and multiple languages. The current leader, Abubakar Shekau, speaks Arabic, Hausa, Kanuri and English, suggesting a Western education, while Mohammed Yusuf travelled to Saudi Arabia several times and met with religious scholars there. Both frequently cited the Quran to justify their interpretation of Islam and use Salafi-jihadi doctrine to justify their 'revolution'.

Boko Haram views itself as the successor to Usman Dan Fodio, an ethnic Fulani who founded the Sokoto Caliphate in northern Nigeria, southern Niger and northern Cameroon in 1804, promoting a reformed form of Islam. Today, the Fulani-Hausa Sokoto Caliphate dominates northern Nigeria's Muslim leadership (except in Borno state, which it never conquered and where Boko Haram was founded and is strongest). Boko Haram has declared the Fulani sultan of Sokoto unfit to lead Nigeria's Muslims. The militant group alleges that the sultan is too closely associated with the Christian president Goodluck Jonathan and secular democracy, and is mixing traditional religious practices with Islam. Boko Haram instead wants to claim the mantle of religious legitimacy as Dan Fodio did but centre Nigerian Muslim power in the Kanuri-dominated northeast of Nigeria as opposed to Sokoto state and the northwest. This could also lead to the moral and economic empowerment of Kanuris, Boko Haram's main support base.

Ironically, despite Boko Haram's Salafi proclamations, many of its foot soldiers reportedly use drugs, charms and amulets and have low levels of religious education. Many are al-majirai: boys coming to the cities to receive an Islamic education, paid for through begging. Usually, this 'education' consists of rote memorisation of the Quran in Arabic, a language they do not understand. The illiteracy of the al-majirai makes them susceptible to Boko Haram's manipulations of religion and history. They teach that 'jihad' means only Holy War and that Western-educated Muslims 'brainwashed' Muslims to believe jihad could also mean 'self-discipline'. They argue that Borno state's poverty is the result of the corruption of the Sokoto Caliphate and democratic government.

When Boko Haram was founded in 2002, the aim of its leaders was to establish a community called 'Afghanistan', modeled on the Taliban and independent from the Nigerian government. From 2003-2004 it briefly succeeded before the security forces moved in. Today, Boko Haram seeks to remove the government from villages in Borno and has expanded operations and influence to parts of Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe states, and the border region of Cameroon. This expansion escalated in August 2014 when, potentially copying ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Shekau declared that the towns under Boko Haram control in the northeast constituted an Islamic caliphate and would be ruled by sharia.

Rather than establish bureaucratic administrative structures, like al-Shabaab in Somalia or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Mali, Boko Haram shows little capacity to govern areas it appropriates. It has reportedly only allowed Chadian Arabic-speakers to administer sharia punishment in areas under its control in Borno state. They also may allow local village leaders to solve disputes and apportion scarce resources according to local custom, likely based on Kanuri tribal mediation.

Boko Haram seeks to remove the government from villages in Nigeria. 

Despite an increase in the complexity and intensity of Boko Haram's attacks each year since 2009, its operations have not expanded beyond traditional Kanuri areas. Approximately 55 per cent of Boko Haram attacks are in Borno state, for example. This suggests that Boko Haram's ambitions continue to center on northeast Nigeria and the surrounding areas, and potentially that even in the face of Boko Haram violence in the northeast, there remains some tacit support from Kanuri elders who resent the Fulani-Hausa control of the Muslim religious leadership in northern Nigeria. Indeed, while Boko Haram claims to represent all Muslims in Nigeria, its leaders and most of its members are ethnic Kanuris. Shekau's efforts to connect to the Kanuri community are exemplified by the fact he often summarises his Hausa-language sermons or videos with remarks in Kanuri.

Furthermore, most of the politicians who have been accused of harbouring or financing Boko Haram members have been Kanuris from Borno state, including Senators Mohammed Ali Ndume and Ahmed Kalifa Zanna and former commissioner of police Zakari Biu. In addition, Boko Haram may have connections to Kanuri leaders in Kano state where Boko Haram carried out a widespread assault on January 20, 2012. However, on January 26, 2012 Kano became the base for the Boko Haram break-away group Ansaru. Ansaru rejected Boko Haram's killing of Muslim civilians and attracted defectors from Boko Haram, often non-Kanuris. Non-Kanuris have also defected from Boko Haram because of Shekau's favouritism of Kanuris and preference of non-Kanuris for suicide operations.

Boko Haram's attacks have increased in complexity since 2009 enhanced by training and operational support from international jihadi networks. For example, Boko Haram's second-in-command, Mamman Nur, trained in Somalia with al-Shabaab and with AQIM. These connections enabled him to mastermind the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Abuja on August 26, 2011. Kidnappings of foreigners suggest that other leaders have trained with the Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who specialises in kidnapping and attacking foreign workers and tourists. Boko Haram's mid-level militants also frequently train in using heavy weaponry in Niger and use Cameroon as a rear base for carrying out attacks in Nigeria. The group appears to be expanding its area of influence beyond Nigeria's borders, and recent changes in rhetoric and messaging from the group indicates that it is increasingly trying to tie itself to the international jihadi landscape.

With these three strengths Boko Haram will remain a formidable ideological movement and militant group in Nigeria for the foreseeable future, with the potential to become a ruling authority in parts of northeast Nigeria.

This commentary was originally published on 24 June 2014. It was updated on 6 February 2015.


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