Boko Haram: #BringBackOurRules, by Charlotte Payen

July 01, 2014 0 Comments


Photo of the abducted Nigerian school girls
Photo from International Business Times
Though active for more than 10 years, Boko Haram has significantly stepped up its terrorist activities since the early 2010s and is now an international threat. Mid-April 2014, the abduction of 300 Nigerian girls on their way back from school in Chibok, located in Northeast Nigeria, and of 20 other women early June, triggered an unprecedented online mobilization in political, humanitarian and even Hollywood circles. Besides becoming an international Islamist threat, Boko Haram faces another opposition, from Al-Qaeda. Indeed, the Nigerian movement and its actions are far from endorsed by Al-Qaeda’s current leadership and offshoots such as AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) despite what has been claimed.

Founded in 2002 by Muhammad Yusuf, Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sin”, was initially an ultra-conservative movement of well-educated Muslim students standing against the tyrannical authority of a small, non-Islamic elite in the impoverished North of Nigeria. Becoming overtly political over time, its members exploited the anger generated by poverty in the region. They recruited unemployed, idle youths and by late 2003 launched their first offensives against governmental forces, which were regularly blamed for humiliation and abuse. At the time, by avoiding civilian casualties, the movement generated significant local support.

The violent turning point in Boko Haram’s actions and intentions occurred in July 2009 when its activists attacked a mosque and a police station in the city of Bauchi. The following clashes with the Nigerian security forces lasted five days, resulting in the death of 700 people, which included 300 from Boko Haram and it's leader Muhammad Yusuf. After this bloodshed, most of the remaining members fled to other African countries where they reportedly developed ties and received support and training from Al-Qaeda’s local affiliates, mainly al Shabaab in Somalia or AQIM in Algeria.
Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau
Photo from the BBC

Yet, this did not quite trigger the attention of the West, who was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan.  Their inattention actually helped to facilitate the development of Boko Haram. In July 2010, members who fled the previous year returned to the country. Abubakar Shekau claimed leadership and immediately expressed his admiration for Al-Qaeda, specifically Osama bin Laden. Better equipped and sophisticated, Boko Haram ignited in an escalation of violence, from gas bombs and grenades to assassinations. At the time, their modus operandi was gunfire from motorcycles or pick-ups mounted with artillery. It rapidly evolved to more indiscriminate violence, with the purpose of demonstrating the incapacity of the Nigerian state apparatus, and targeting the international establishment, by attacking the UN headquarters in Abuja in August 2011.

Nigerians Protesting in the #BringBackOurGirls Campaign
Photo taken from the New York Times
Since 2013, the situation has deteriorated. Nigerian authorities declared a state of emergency in the Northern provinces and the army repeatedly bombed villages suspected of hiding Boko Haram members, who in turn assaulted entire neighborhoods accused of connivance with the army. In addition, the group frequently bombed public places, such as a soccer stadium in Jos or a mall in Abuja, which respectively killed 40 and 21 people in May and June 2014. Since April, the faction began kidnapping Nigerian citizens- it was already involved in the abduction of foreigners in Cameroun. If it wasn't for the appeal launched on Twitter by Oby Ezekwesili, the Nigerian vice-president of the World Bank in Africa, the first wave of abductions would not have captured significant attention. The now famous #BringBackOurGirls made the mobilization global, resulting in widespread concern and daily rallies.

Interestingly, another campaign has emerged. Sustained by “traditional” Al-Qaeda members, it castigates the extent of the #BringBackOurGirls, a campaign that “taint[s] the image of the mujahideens” by emphasizing Boko Haram’s violence[1]. How Al-Qaeda’s central leadership has handled these extremist elements illustrates the disparity in actual networks of Islamic militancy. Boko Haram is a perfect example of an offshoot that Al-Qaeda could have done without.

Indeed, Boko Haram's actions do not correspond to the standards established by Al-Qaeda. The kidnapping and killing of Muslims does not correlate with strategies.  In the same vein, Al-Qaeda has in fact broke its ties with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq due to the excessive brutality of its members against Sunni populations out of fear of alienating potential supporters. Yet, the code of conduct remains fragile, as they keep on supporting the Somalian al Shabaab, which does not refrain from killing Muslims.

Furthermore, Boko Haram’s aims remain quite local. The faction calls for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Nigeria, and is mainly driven by domestic factors. Its leader rarely mentions global jihad and when he refers to Al-Qaeda, it seems to be in line with his admiration. This “wannabe” stance is growing among extreme and brutal groups and is today one of Al-Qaeda’s main challenge, as it is unable to control the phenomenon. Another difference is the messianic element in Boko Haram’s rhetoric. Its leader claims, on released videos, to speak with God and demands its adherents to surrender all their possessions to the group.[2]

In spite of blatant existing ties and an assumed inclination to violence, Islamism and hostility against the West, Boko Haram is not an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor, never publicly mentioned Boko Haram. His concerns about targeting civilians confirm his unease regarding kidnappings and Boko Haram’s reputation for carrying out mass murders of civilians. Boko Haram is not an AQIM offshoot. Though the latter provided some training and funds to the Nigerian faction in the past, the French operation in Mali, Operation Serval, broke many of these ties. Furthermore, AQIM wishes to remain more focused on strategies sanctioned by Al-Qaeda, namely the taking of Western hostages or attacks against sites such as the gas plant in Algeria in January 2013. If rival groups occasionally labeled themselves “Al-Qaeda”, it rather falls under communication tactics or an alliance of convenience.

Currently, the solution is to improve the domestic government’s capacities, in an effort to make security forces more effective and improve intelligence gathering. Yet, it does not weigh against corruption, military abuses or the long running ethnic and religious cleavages. Regional cooperation must be fostered as it can eventually prevent the deepening of rivalries. The Nigerian national army would be among the first to benefit from coordination with its neighbors, who are both accountable and collateral victims of the recent regional development. This issue was addressed in late May during the Nigeria +4 (Cameroun, Chad, Niger, Benin) mini-summit held in Paris, under the auspices of the French President François Hollande. The United States and the international community provided some help but, regionally, it does not seem to have gone further than an official declaration. 

The emergence of new Islamist militant groups attests to the recent atomization of Al-Qaeda into small and largely autonomous entities. Though inspired by Al-Qaeda’s ideology, it appears that many are in fact even more radicalized than their iconic model. Yet, each movement maintains a proper identity; the consequent lack of generalization makes tracking their movements more complex. As a result, states are powerless to curb their activities. Whether these terrorist groups act locally or internationally may no longer be an indicator of a limited threat. Porous borders, transnational ties and external events can at any moment tip the balance of their action in favor of more global ambitions.


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