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The Role of Nigeria’s ‘Boko Haram’ in Informing Politics and Security at the Local and Regional Levels – Professor Yehudit Ronen

August 29, 2014


The Role of Nigeria’s ‘Boko Haram’ in Informing Politics and Security at the Local and Regional Levels 

By Yehudit Ronen

Department of Political Science, Bar-Ilan University, Israel

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 2 (2014), Number 9 (August 2014)


This study focuses on Nigeria’s religious-political schism and its most explicitly militant representative phenomenon – Boko Haram. Since its inception in 2002, Boko Haram has inflicted increasing bloodshed and havoc upon Nigeria and its society. Further to a discussion of Boko Haram’s origins and ‘breeding ground’ and its terrorist trademark on the local level, this study also investigates the organization’s transnational links with other Jihadist organizations at the regional level, exploring the lesser-known aspects of the ideological, strategic and military interactions between the organizations thriving in Nigeria’s geo-strategic expanses, which pose new challenges and threats for state order and security in the African Sahel and the broader Maghreb.

Keywords: Boko Haram; Terrorism; Nigeria’s Economy; Local and Regional Security; Jihadist organizations in the African Sahel and Maghreb

Introduction: The African Background of al-Qaeda’s ramified Jihad Networks

Late 2013 – early 2014, when this study on the religious-political militancy and the violent modus operandi of the Nigerian-based Boko Haram organization was completed – has seen a significant increase in the scope and essence of the activities of the Jihadist organizations roaming the vast expanses of the desolate African Sahel deserts and their broader geostrategic Middle Eastern and African environs. In fact, it was during the first decade of the twenty-first century that organizations ideologically affiliated or tactically allied with the global Jihad community began to thrive in Africa, where they played a pivotal role in undermining the state order, fuelling violence and wanton destruction, destabilizing politics and security, in some cases even challenging the state’s territorial integrity.

The Jihadist organizations have launched an intensive series of attacks on targets identified with the state’s political and economic symbols and sources of power in order to eventually eradicate the ‘old’ and ‘apostate’ political regimes and ascend to power in their stead, and to reinstate a Sharia-based legal system and thus turn their country into a full-fledged Islamic state, freeing their societies of ‘infidel,’ ‘corrupt,’ and ‘degenerating’ Western-style local leaderships and values. Being unequivocally committed to their ideological and religious platform, these Jihadist organizations resort to whatever terrorist measures they believe serve their supreme goal: to gain political power and win their all-out religious ‘sacred war.’

An especially influential Jihadist power broker in Africa, mainly in the Sahel, is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an organization of Algerian origin, which since 2007 has based itself just beyond Algeria’s southern border, in geostrategic proximity to Mali, Niger and Nigeria. Yet another actor in the Sahel expanses is Ansar al-Din, one of the most recent emergent global Jihad offshoots, which has targeted the huge no man’s land of northern Mali for its activities since 2012 onwards. Among other Jihadist groups to gain prominence on the African scene is the Ansar al-Sharia Brigades, which had a hand in Libya’s violent ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in 2011-2014 (including the bloody attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in September 2012); and the Shabab al-Mujahidin Movement, which was established in the failed state of Somalia in 2006 and swore full allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012.

Whatever the differences between these groups’ various political agendas, military strength, terrorist profile, ideological nuances and geostrategic collaborations, the Nigerian-based Boko Haram organization, which was established in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri in the northern state of Borno in 2002, has certainly earned ‘a place of honour’ among the numerous Jihadist organizations active throughout Africa. While this study will not systematically map out and provide a full inventory of all the many Jihadist groups currently active in Africa or analyze each individual group’s Jihadist narrative, political agenda, level of terrorism and contribution to the undermining of the various states’ internal order and human fabrics, it will however focus on the multifaceted reality of oil-rich Nigeria – the focus of Boko Haram. This study will shed light on the organization and its transnational strategic and military links with other Jihadist organizations thriving in Nigeria’s geostrategic environment, mainly in the areas of Niger, Mali and in the vicinity of Algeria, as well as in Nigeria’s north-eastern regions, in Cameroon, Chad and the Sudan and even in Somalia in the Horn of Africa. It will point to the transnational and often transactional nature of these collaborations between the Jihadist organizations, whether in the context of ad hoc military missions or in order to accomplish financial transactions, most of which are explicitly consistent with the activities of organized crime and corruption.

The increasing belligerence of these organizations and their growing spheres of influence throughout Africa are posing new threats and challenges for states and societies in the continent, and further away, in the Middle East, while also adversely affecting global security, politics and economics. With each of these arenas of Jihadist-terrorism contributing its own share of political-religious violence and insecurity, the discussion of Boko Haram also carries an added value for the international political and economic community in view of the fact that Nigeria is a major exporter of oil and gas to the United States and the European Union.

Since its independence in 1960, Nigeria has been chronically plagued by deepening gaps in numerous areas, primarily between the rich and poor, and between Muslims living mainly in the chronically underdeveloped and deprived northern regions, and the Christians living mainly in south Nigeria, with the allocation of government revenues per capita in the north being about half for the south. Also noteworthy are the high levels of political and economic corruption on the public and official levels, the deepening ethnic schisms and chronic violence. These scourges, and especially Boko Haram’s ever-present terrorism, pose a constant threat to the core of Nigeria’s political stability, socio-economic life and unity as a nation.

  1. Nigeria as a breeding ground for terror: The emergence and aggrandizement of Boko Haram

When analyzing the rise and aggrandizement of Boko Haram’s terrorism, the following factors – all deeply ingrained in the reality of Nigeria and its society – should be noted:

  1. 2. The Impact of Globalization and the Global Jihad

Al-Qaeda’s bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on 7 August 1998 were followed by an exponential growth in the outbreak of Jihadist-terrorist attacks across Africa. The United States soon retaliated for these deadly blasts, which killed 301 people, with American cruise missile strikes aimed at suspected training camps in Afghanistan run by Usama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which the United States suspected of manufacturing nerve agents for Bin Laden. This series of dramatic events clearly attested to the fact that Africa has become an active staging ground for global Jihadist activities. Al-Qaeda’s subsequent threat ‘to kill the Americans and their allies, both civilian and military’ wherever possible, (Kramer 2001) including Africa, was loudly reverberating among the Islamist militants elsewhere in Africa including Northern Nigeria. The inherent hostility towards the West was clearly embodied in the name Boko Haram, which means in the Hausa language “Western education is forbidden,”

When analyzing the relationships between the global terrorist networks, the major role assumed by the Mujahidin, also known as the ‘Arab and African Afghans,’ should be highlighted. These ‘Jihad fighters’ first streamed to Afghanistan from various Arab and African Muslim states and societies in order to strengthen the local Afghani Muslims in their war against the Soviet army, which had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. These Mujahidin turned what was a historically collective Jihad obligation into an individual one, while disconnecting the ‘sacred mission’ from specifically defined territories. After their role there ended in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s military debacle and consequent withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, many of them returned to their home states in the Middle East and Africa, galvanizing disaffected Muslim populations to adopt the Jihad struggle and fight for an alternative political-religious state order as the sole way to save themselves from their chronically desperate hardships in all facets of life. Although many of the Mujahidin had merely remained in training camps in Pakistan outside the active fighting Afghani war zone, (Filiu 2009) the persistent pervasion of the Jihadist militant zeal, combined with acquired military skills and the high-quality weapons, infused them with an especially ardent militancy and powerful sense of invincibility. The new media technologies, which disseminated the Jihadist messages in a trans-border diffusion of information, further boosted the image of the Jihadist movement as ‘a credible popular force’ (Coker 2002).

Globalization also engendered alarming inequities between the rich and the poor, with the increasing inequalities fostering new forms of socio-economic and political outrage among dispossessed groups particularly in northern Nigeria, generating growing numbers of desperate young, educated and unemployed urban youth (Ukeje 2012) – providing the manpower for a potential army of ‘fighters of Jihad.’ If an explicit example of this globalization effect on Nigeria is needed, then the swelling number of over 9.5 million Almajiris – itinerant Muslim youths who attended traditional Koranic schools in the Muslim-populated north of Nigeria (Muhammed 2011) – clearly provides one. This phenomenon of the Almajiris, who were the potential cannon fodder for Boko Haram’s terrorist activities, was ‘imported’ from the Afghani reality, where the koranic Madrasa system produced the massive cadres of the Taliban Jihadist-terrorist fighters.

  1. 3. New Media and Telecommunications Technologies

The impact of the worldwide web, the internet, mobile telephony and the less innovative yet highly effective satellite television channels all played a crucial role in changing the traditional mindset in Nigeria, effectively disseminating Jihadist propaganda and calls for recruitment and socialization into the organizations’ theology of death. The Jihadist community’s variety of internet forums, with its websites Shumoukh al-Islam (the summit of Islam), Minbar al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (The Jihad Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad), Ansar al-Mujahidin (followers of the Mujahidin) and al-Fida (the sacrifice for the sake of Allah) being especially popular, inflamed the Muslim masses via sermons, religious rulings and inflammatory calls to devotedly adhere to all-out Jihad and to resort to whatever terrorism was required to crown the ‘battle of Jihad’ with success. These new media technologies were significant in helping al-Qaeda and its affiliated Boko Haram organization to easily disseminate their philosophy and propaganda, coordinate their terrorist activities and co-operations with other regional Jihadist organizations, raise funds, acquire weapons and supplies and mobilize and train recruits.

  1. 4. A Legacy and Culture of Political Violence

The American journalist Robert D. Kaplan identified West Africa as early as 1994 as the precursor of a future of chaos, claiming that this region was becoming ‘the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental and societal stress in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real strategic danger.’ Kaplan made oblique references to Nigeria ‘as one of those countries destined to fail, envisaging that terrorist groups and criminal bandits were likely to fill the political Nigerian vacuum that would emerge (Kaplan 1994). Less than a decade after Kaplan’s assessment, Boko Haram ignited a blazing inferno of lawlessness and terrorism in Nigeria. Although intentionally abstaining here from comprehensively surveying Boko Haram’s chronology of terrorist actions, it is worthwhile mentioning, however, that Boko Haram had registered a new peak in terrorism in 2013-2014. An indication of the horrible dimension of the organization’s terrorist activities may be traced during a one month alone as follows: it kidnapped a French family – including four children – in North Cameroon in mid-February 2013;[1] launched a failed plot to shoot down the plane of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan on 7 March 2013, while he was flying to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the birthplace of Boko Haram; attacked the prison in Gwoza in the Maiduguri district and the release of all its prisoners including members of Boko Haram on 14 March; carried out a suicide car bomb, which exploded in Kano’s Christian neighbourhood, its busiest commercial centre, on 18 March 2013; and killed nine employees of a government polio-vaccination program in Kano during that same month.[2] The counter-security crackdown operations launched by the authorities added their share to the massive death toll. In mid-May 2013, for example, the Nigerian army launched a bloody comprehensive military crackdown, known as ‘Operation Restore Order,’ in three states in northern Nigeria, striving to inflict a fatal blow on Boko Haram while restoring governability in these states. After declaring the organization’s activities ‘illegal’ and ‘terrorist’ and continuing its efforts to crush the organization, which continued its endeavours and counter-attacked civilian and military targets, including churches and schools, the Nigerian government secretly initiated ‘peace talks’ with Boko Haram, which came however to naught.

In fact, violence has been endemic to Nigerian politics since the end of British colonial rule in 1960, replete with assassinations, coups d’état and ultimately, the outbreak of a civil war in 1967-1970 (the Biafra war).[3] This pattern of violence has been evident in the long historic succession of the Nigerian Nation State, which, as correctly noted by Ikechukwu Umejesi, “was purely British-driven and followed a top-down colonial approach.” This in turn injected a lot of grievance dynamics and conflicts between the nation state and former sovereignties in Nigeria.[4] Political violence has had a rather long path-dependent trajectory in Nigeria (Watson 2003; Sani 2007), with traditions of democratic politics being marked by electoral violence and intermittent bloodletting between rival political parties. Moreover, succeeding governments, whether civilian or military, have sometimes engaged in what can only be defined as ‘state terrorism’ (Anifowoshe 1981; Agbu 2004; Dike 2003).

  1. 5. Poverty, Corruption and Youth Unemployment

Chronic economic crisis, underdevelopment, misallocation of government resources, poverty, political opacity and deprivation, particularly when accompanied by endemic corruption, described by Emmanuel Obuah as “a persistent cancerous phenomenon” bedevilling Nigeria, and reinforced by the absence of free political expression, have been the key elements in exacerbating militant socio-economic grievances and political violence in the Nigerian state. Africa’s largest country in terms of demographics, with a population of over 170 million and a GDP of US$415.5 billion in 2012, Nigeria is the second largest economy on the African continent after South Africa, holding the record for being the largest oil producer on the continent, the sixth in OPEC and the fifth oil supplier of the United States.[5] Despite the state’s economic growth, the percentage of Nigerians who live in abject poverty according to the national bureau of statistics rose to 60.9% in 2010, as compared with 54.7% in 2004 (Brock 2010). Although the per capita income has improved in recent years to about US$2,700 in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), more than 70% of the people live below the poverty line, which is $1 per day. Concurrently, income inequalities are also widening, with an estimated Gini ratio of 43.7%. The national average unemployment is 24%, with an estimated 54% of the younger population jobless, and 10.8% inflation rate. A World Bank study in 2009 depicted the country’s development trajectory in terms of ‘jobless growth.[6] Another negative is represented by the fact that three-quarters of the government budget goes towards recurrent expenditures, including salaries.[7] Corruption is rampant in public life, while the flight of capital from the country is an endemic feature of the political economy. Corruption in Nigeria is so pervasive that for many, it has turned public service into a kind of criminal enterprise.[8] These adverse characterizations have in turn further contributed to alienation and despair, ultimately escalating religious radicalization and political violence (Kukah and Falola 1996).

  1. 6. Climate Change, Land and Water Crisis

Natural disasters, particularly desertification and dwindling water resources, have endangered rural livelihoods in Nigeria, and among the worst hit are the Muslim-populated communities in rural Borno and in the northeast of the country.[9] The northern part of Nigeria – Boko Haram’s breeding ground and main focus of action – is endowed with a large expanse of arable land – a vital resource for agriculture and other economic activities. Yet, the Sahara desert is advancing southwards at the rate of 6% per a year, causing the loss of about 350,000 hectares of land every year to desert encroachment. This has led to demographic displacements in villages across 11 states in the north. It is estimated that Nigeria loses about $5.1 billion every year owing to the rapid encroachment of drought and desert in most parts of the north.[10] The dwindling resources reinforce violent ethno-political rivalries over basic resources of existence. Academic scholars have explicitly pointed to the fostering effect of the extreme degradation, drought, desertification and consequent human misery on the kindling of intra-state armed conflicts, which often deteriorate into inter-state conflicts (Bachler 1998; Bachler and Spillman 1996; Kahl 2006). To these turmoil-fuelling sources, one may add sociological factors deriving from rapid demographic growth and consequent urbanization, concurrent with the failure of the state and society to successfully cope with the accelerated Western-style modernization.

  1. 7. State Failure and Escalating Ethnic and Regional Rivalries

State failure explicitly invites political violence and grievance dynamics, the weakening of law enforcement and the rule of law, causing organized crime and corruption to thrive, especially drug trafficking from South America en route to Europe, money laundering, embezzlement, bribes and other crime transgressions. Home to West Africa’s largest economy and security forces, Nigeria is also ‘home to the region’s most extensive trafficking networks’ of transnational criminality, with drug trafficking, especially of cocaine, a significant element (Vanda and Forest 2012; Kirschke 2008). Armed political groups, such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – one of West Africa’s largest and most active groups – play a major role in these organized crime activities, siphoning off oil from the pipelines and selling it to local crime syndicates, who then transport the stolen oil to world markets.[11]

The most critical areas of state failure relate to the inability to provide a wide range of public goods, especially in terms of law and order, security, provision of economic and communication infrastructures and the supply of basic welfare services (Ghani and Lockhart). Nigeria has been featured as exhibiting the following symptoms, indicating that it has relapsed into the category of failed states: outbreaks of gratuitous, nihilistic violence; the widespread practice of cultism among members of the ruling elites; the government’s inability to provide stable electricity for its people, which has created in turn the phenomenon of portable and other improvised generators with its horrific consequences for health and the environment;[12] the dangerous state of the infrastructures; the failure of an oil-rich state to build and maintain oil refineries, resulting in its being a net importer of refined petroleum;[13] the state’s inability to effectively patrol its borders; the failure to control corruption; the high prevalence of armed crime; the enormous carnage on its highways; and the hopeless failure to maintain the common peace and secure the lives and property of its citizens. Millions of youths wonder the streets with no hope on the horizon, many of whom seek relief in cultism, prostitution, kidnapping, robbery and other forms of violent crime.

Additional significant factors that have accelerated Nigeria’s fall down the slippery violent slope of dysfunctionality have been the lack of national cohesion, politics of competitive ethnicity and the dynamics of inter-group relations within the Nigerian Federation. This geometry of power has placed excessive power in the hands of the federal centre, making the Presidency the most desired political prize of all. This is a zero-sum game in which the winners view state power as an opportunity to exploit the nation’s wealth for themselves and their followers.[14]

Nigerian politics is increasingly taking on ethno-regional and religious dimensions. Ethno-sectarian conflicts have also plagued the political landscape and drawn the state into a maelstrom of dysfunctionality (Suberu 2001). Examples include the conflicts between Ife and Modakeke in the west to the Aguleri-Umuleri conflict in the east (Onwuzuruigboarticle 2013) and the fighting between Tiv and the Jukun in Taraba (Asuni 1999). In the northern part of the country, the outbreak of the Maitatsine riots in Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi and Yola in 1980s were the precursors of many kinds of violent unrest based on religious millenarianism, as well as of the sort of rampant violence that has turned the North into what the Nigerian social activist Shehu Sani has described as ‘the killing fields’ (Sani 2007). One of the most troubling of these conflicts was the Zangon-Kataf crisis between the Kataf people and the Hausa-Fulani in May 1992 (Philips 2003). While it was fundamentally about land rights, it was equally about a sense of historic injustice as a result of being ruled under an emirate system by people they perceived as alien minorities. These bloody ‘religious riots’ took the lives of about 35,000 Nigerians in 1999-2011.[15]

  1. 8. Growing Conflict and Violence over the Imposition of Sharia Law

Nigeria’s population is divided more or less equally between Muslims – concentrated mainly in the north of the country (mostly Sunni, with a Shia minority) – and Christians – concentrated mainly in the south. Nigerian Islam was rifted by doctrinal debates between the Sufis and the Salafists (led by the charismatic Sheik Abubakar Gumi until his death in 1992), unaware of the fact that Christians were heavily proselytizing throughout the country, especially in the region of the Middle Belt. The growth of Christianity was reflected in the 1999 election of Olusegun Obasanjo (re-elected in 2003) and the continued southern Christian domination by Goodluck Jonathan (successor to the brief Muslim presidency of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua Yar’Adua in 2010).

The Muslims’ response to the Christian political ascendancy was their move in 2000-2003 to impose Sharia law in 12 of the northern states in which they predominated (Peters 2003). Yet, it appeared that Islamic radicals in Northern Nigeria, such as the members of the Shiite community and the Jamaat Izalat al Bidaa wa Iqamat as-Sunna (Society for the Removal of Innovation and the Reestablishment of the Sunna), better known as the Izala or Yan Izala,[16] opposed the imposition of Sharia law in Nigeria. These communities and organizations insisted that Sharia law may only be implemented when the political leaders fully operate as part of an Islamic republic, thus further complicating the already convoluted religious-political Nigerian mosaic. In contrast, armed Islamist vigilantes known as the Hisba have taken it upon themselves to oversee the implementation of Sharia Islamic Law in Northern Nigeria. The Hisba has functioned as an extra-state religious police and enforcement force that suppresses ‘a variety of crime and social behavior’ that its members view as ‘inconsistent with Sharia or as socially undesirable, and can reprimand, arrest, or even beat Nigerians caught violating the law’ (Felbab and Forest 2012).

One of the latest denominations to make an entry into the religious-political landscape of Northern Nigeria is militant Shiite Islam. Following the Iranian revolution of 1979, Nigerian students went to study in Iran and returned as Shiite adherents and proselytizers. Furthermore, members of the Shiite community in Nigeria, backed by Iran, established a terror cell that plotted to assassinate Nigerian officials and attack Israeli and American targets in Nigeria, as uncovered in February 2013 (Neriah 2013).

For much of Nigeria’s history since independence, northern elites have made expedient use of religion as a means to consolidate their power and ensure their ascendancy over the peoples of the Middle Belt (Kukah 1994). As far back as the 1980s, the Northern regions fell under the influence of the violently political Muslim Maitatsine sect.[17] Thousands were killed and a great deal of property and infrastructures were destroyed during months of mayhem perpetrated by Maitatsine followers.[18] The reintroduction of Sharia law in several of the northern states during 2000-2001 once again provoked widespread unrest in the northern states. Protests by minority Christian communities over the renewed imposition of Sharia law led to bloody confrontations. Nevertheless, Sharia law has become increasingly entrenched and has effectively divided Nigeria into two separate legal jurisdictions: one governed by Islamic Sharia and the other by common-law tradition (Peters 2001; Ostien 1999).

  1. The Origins of Boko Haram and its Ideology

The roots of Boko Haram lie in the Islamic history of Northern Nigeria, in which for some 800 years powerful sultanates ruled in the Hausa cities close to Kano and the sultanate of Borno. These sultanates were challenged by the Jihad of Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (1802-1812),[19] who created a unified caliphate stretching across Northern Nigeria into the neighbouring countries. Dan Fodio’s legacy of Jihad is one that is viewed as quite normative by most northern Nigerian Muslims. The caliphate was conquered by the British in 1905, and upon independence in 1960, Muslim Northern Nigeria was federated with largely Christian southern Nigeria.

The contemporary origins of the Boko Haram go back to 2002 when a Muslim cleric, Mohammed Ali, succeeded in attracting a large following in his mosque in the north eastern city of Maiduguri. He later left it for the neighbouring Yobe State because he found Maiduguri to be too decadent and corrupt. A short while later, the group was involved in violent activities, which led to a shootout and the death of its leader Known as the ‘Nigerian Taliban. The group later moved back to Maiduguri under the inspiration of its new leader, a charismatic young man who was a trained Salafist by the name of Mohammed Yusuf (Aliyu 2009). The group established a new mosque there – ‘the Ibn Taymiyyah Masjid’ in honor of the medieval Arab theologian and scholar and staunch defender of Sunni Islam, Sheik Taqi ad-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328). Following the example set by Dan Fodio, the group withdrew from society and established small camps and schools in the remote regions of the Borno and Yobe states in 2002-2005. As police pressure against this group began to mount toward the end of that period, the group changed into more of an urban phenomenon, practicing al-amr bi-l-maruf wa-l-nahy an al-munkar (enjoining the good and forbidding the evil) (Cook 2011).

Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam that makes it haram (forbidden) for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society, including voting in elections and receiving a secular education. As far as Boko Haram is concerned, Nigeria was run by non-believers, described as ‘dagu,’ namely evil, even when the country had a Muslim president. The roots of the resistance of Nigerian Muslims to Western education are deeply entrenched in the Sokoto caliphate, which was founded in 1804 and whose territory today includes Northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon. It was against this background that the charismatic Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf set up a religious complex and formed Boko Haram in Maiduguri in 2002. This included an Islamic school in which many poor Muslim families from all across Nigeria, as well as from neighbouring countries, enrolled their children. However, Boko Haram is not interested only in education; its ultimate aim is to gain power in order to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria.

  1. Boko Haram’s Jihadist Trademark

Since its inception, Boko Haram has been involved in an increasing number of murderous and destructive operations, which have become the organization’s clearly recognizable trademark. Methodological considerations, however, make it difficult to present a systematic and comprehensive survey of the successive – and excessively – violent actions unleashed so far by Boko Haram. Nevertheless, its relentless terrorist nature justifies at least a reference to the past years’ milestones along its terrorist road, including the assassination – in a mosque – in Kano of rival clerics who were praying at the Ndimi Mosque in Maiduguri on the eve of the 2007 presidential elections; the armed attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Maiduguri in 2009, which resulted in shootouts in the streets and the killing of hundreds of Boko Haram supporters. This spate of terror caused thousands of residents to flee from the city and led to the storming of Boko Haram’s headquarters by the security forces and the capture and killing of the organization’s leader Mohammed Yusuf along with an estimated 500 Boko Haram activists in July 2009 (Tanchum 2012). Yet, the organization’s survivors soon regrouped under a new charismatic leader, Abubakar bin Muhammed Shekau, previously Mohammad Yusuf’s right-hand man. Instrumental in enabling Boko Haram to rebuild itself after the 2009 security crackdown was the Jihadist AQIM organization, which provided it with shelter, renewed doses of fighting spirit and logistic resources. Wearing a headdress and framed by an AK-47 and a stack of religious books, Shekau pledged vengeance in a classic al-Qaeda-style video, in which he said: ‘Do not think Jihad is over: Rather Jihad has just begun’ (Tattersall and Maclean 2010).

Boko Haram’s trademark has been the use of gunmen on motorcycles to kill policemen and other government officials, politicians, military patrols and clerics of other Muslim traditions, which Boko Haram considers apostates, and of course, Christian citizens and preachers. In any discussion of Boko Haram’s terrorist milestones towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, about a decade after Boko Haram’s inception, the following events should be mentioned: an attack on a large prison in Bauchi and the freeing of an estimated 800 prisoners, ‘including at least 120 Boko Haram members in fall 2010;’[20] a triple bomb blast in the city of Jos, which killed an estimated 80 people in December 2010; the attack on military barracks on the outskirts of Abuja and in the north-eastern city of Damaturu in 2011; the explosions around the time of President Goodluck Jonathan’s inauguration in May of that year; and the suicide car bombing of the police General Headquarters and the UN headquarters building in Abuja – the first attack against a Western target.[21] Another prominent event in Boko Haram’s intensive series of terrorist attacks was the October 2010 Eagle Square bombings in Abuja, when world leaders had gathered at the place to celebrate Nigeria’s 50th Independence Day. In 2012-early 2013, the organization also engaged in the kidnapping of Europeans, the murder of locals and launched a series of suicide bombings in Borno, Damaturu, Yobe, and in Madalla. Boko Haram’s terrorism further tided in 2013 (see above) and further increased in the first months of 2014, attested, among others, by the abduction of between 100 to 200 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno state, and by a bombing attack in Abuja’s largest car park and buses station, killing 75 people, both in mid-April 2014.

  1. The Strengthening of Boko Haram and Other Jihadist Organizations in Nigeria’s Sahel: The Post-Qaddafi Effect

In addition to the Nigerian-based Boko Haram, in January 2012, a new international Jihadist cell of Nigerian origin known as the ‘Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa (Jamaatu Ansarul Muslimmina fi Biladis Sudan)’ – and in its abbreviated version, Ansaru – appeared on the Nigerian geostrategic scene. The group’s motto is ‘Jihad fi Sabil Allah,’ meaning that it fights and is willing to sacrifice for Allah’s cause. This is further illustrated by the group’s logo: the Qur’an at the centre, with a gun on each side; attached to the guns are black flags with the inscription: ‘There is no deity but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.’ Abu Usamata al-Ansari claimed to be the group’s leader, yet others, such as Khalid al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur – Nur was known as number three in Boko Haram – have also made this claim.[22] Ansaru’s split from the Boko Haram mother-organization came as a result of an ideological feud, personal rivalries and dissent over the organization’s modus operandi, particularly regarding actions the Ansaru perceived as violating the ‘dignity of Muslims in black Africa.’[23] The splinter group, which was active in Nigeria and in its neighbouring environs, also argued that its terrorist activities came in response to ‘transgressions and atrocities’ performed against Islam in Afghanistan and Mali and other locations, thus emphasizing its adoption of the ideological narrative of the global community of Jihad.[24] The breakaway faction was involved in killings and kidnappings, the most prominent being the kidnapping of a French citizen near the border with Niger in December 2012 and the abduction of seven foreign workers from the offices of a construction company in Bauchi State in February 2013. This group was allegedly involved in the abduction of the French family in north Cameroon and its transfer to the area of Maiduguri in Nigeria in February 2013 – an action for which Boko Haram also claimed responsibility.[25] The ambiguity regarding those responsible for the operation could be due to a possible collaboration between the two organizations, or because of technical difficulties in disseminating precise information in real time, with each of the organizations striving to boost its prestige at the local, regional and global circles of Jihad.

Whoever was responsible or took part in the abduction operations, the roots of Ansaru and its regional networking were involved in the violent confrontations between the Nigerian security authorities and Boko Haram in 2009. Following this devastating clash, many of Boko Haram’s followers escaped to various African countries, where they found shelter and were provided with supplies, training and military assistance, as well as with a supportive network of associate Jihadist-terrorist organizations (de Montclos 2013). For example, Mamman Nur found shelter far away in Somalia among al-Shabab al-Mujahidin militants for nine months before returning to Nigeria, where he became a major contributor to the escalating political violence in Northern Nigeria and the neighbouring Sahel. Furthermore, as alleged by Western sources, the growing military and financial collaborations between Boko Haram, AQIM and al-Shabab al-Mujahidin resulted in the notorious 26 Aug 2011 attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja – the first terrorist action Boko Haram launched against an explicit Western target in Nigeria.[26] As it had alleged already in 2012, not only AQIM and the Somali Shabab al-Mujahidin trained and financed Boko al-Haram, but the Nigerian organization also received funds from al-Qaeda.[27] Becoming an ultra-violent, revenge-seeking organization determined to settle accounts with Nigeria, and particularly with its police and army (Adesoji 2010), Boko Haram steadily intensified its violent attacks on political leaders, police stations and prisons, local non-Muslims and foreigners.

Since the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime on 20 August 2011, verbal Jihadist-terrorist overtures and tactical linkages – particularly between Boko Haram and AQIM, notwithstanding their differences on numerous levels – have gathered momentum. The toppling of Qaddafi’s regime and the consequent disintegration of Libya’s security system and state order, hitherto effectively albeit artificially held together by Qaddafi (who took power in 1969), were soon followed by unprecedented anarchy and violence in Libya and its Sahelian region. The dominant role played by the Libyan armed militias, especially those of the Salafi-Jihadist affiliation, accelerated the state’s deterioration into violent chaos, including the cruel harassment by vengeful Libyan ex-rebel armed militias of the Tuareg soldiers, who had served in the Libyan army for years and devotedly fought alongside Qaddafi’s regime until its last day in power. Fearing for their lives, thousands of professional Tuareg warriors returned home to northern Mali in late 2011-early 2012. Upon their departure, the Tuareg soldiers took with them huge quantities of the most up-to-date weapons from the Libyan arsenals. This plethora of sophisticated arms, which has become easy prey for the Jihadist organizations in Libya and beyond it, have precipitated a militant crisis and havoc in the area and armed the bellicose Tuareg returnees in Mali to the teeth. It was not long before northern Mali became inflamed with rebellion and secession dynamics, leading the Tuareg to form closer ties with the Jihadist organizations, especially AQIM and Ansar al-Din.[28]

The threats to the political stability, security and national cohesion of the state and society in Nigeria and in its African environs as a result of the growing ties between the various Jihadi-terrorist organizations were clearly echoed in the warning released by the American Army General Carter Ham, Head of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), already in December 2011. Assigned with the task of combating violent religious extremism and organized crime, particularly the trafficking of weapons, people and narcotics in West Africa, the head of AFRICOM noted that AQIM was financing Boko Haram and that the two Jihadist-terrorist groups also shared training and fighters (Cassata 2013). AQIM, being the wealthiest affiliate of al-Qaeda on the African scene thanks to its huge revenues from kidnapping ransoms, drug and human trafficking and trade in stolen merchandise, played a major role in encouraging Boko Haram and other Jihadist-terrorist groups in the region to seek out AQIM’s affinity. A report from March 2013 pointed to the free movement of Jihadists between Nigeria and the northern-Mali war zone (despite France’s ongoing two-month military operation there at that time), and to the supply of weapons by AQIM to Boko Haram.[29]

The desolate areas of northern Mali near the border with Algeria, Mauritania and particularly the Adrar des Ifoghas rocky barren mountains, as well as the porous territory of Niger – the sixth largest producer of uranium ore in the world – (Wiegmann 2013) with their less than effective security control, have become major focal areas for the activities of Jihadist-terrorist organizations, including Boko Haram. Serving either as front or rear bases for training and arming, as well as launching pads for terrorist actions in the wider African environs, as far as Cameroon, Sudan and Chad (which sent 2,200 troops to join the French troops in its war in Mali against AQIM and Ansar al-Din in early 2013), increased the transnational character of the Jihadist activities.

Laurent Castelli, a scholar at the Institute de Relations Internationals et Stratégiques (IRIS) claimed that AQIM had trained more than 100 Nigerian members of Boko Haram,[30] who in return, moved to Gao in northern Mali where they took part in the kidnapping of seven employees of the Algerian Consulate on 5 April 2012. The same source estimated that the 100 Nigerian Jihadists were still involved in the fighting in Mali in early 2013 (Castelli 2013). In fact, a deputy from northern Mali, Abdou Sidibé, declared on April 2012 that Boko Haram is no longer concealing its activities in Mali and is openly participating in terrorist activities (Sidibe 2012). All in all, the growing political violence and terrorism in the African Sahel and in its broader neighbouring environs have turned the region into a powder keg, and there are fears of the Balkanization of the Sahel, with hundreds of members of the Boko Haram organization taking refuge in Niger and Chad (Leymarie 2012). Moreover, a report released by a committee of the United States House of Representatives in September 2013 linked Boko Haram to the Somali-based al-Shabab al-Mujahidin – the terrorist movement that carried out on 21 September the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya.[31]

  1. Conclusion

AFRICOM Chief General Carter Ham noted in late March 2013 that while the threats imposed by the Jihadist-terrorist organizations in Africa do not match those posed by al-Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan, he found it important to offer a word of caution: ‘The trend [in Africa] is not good,’ he warned, adding that ‘some elements of Boko Haram are looking to attack beyond Africa to Europe and the United States.’[32]

Boko Haram, which first burst onto the scene in the religiously and ethnically diverse and militantly rifted Nigeria in 2002, a decade later has become one of the most powerful Jihadist-terrorist organizations active in western-central Africa. This organization, which since its inception has steadily gathered strength and intensified its onslaughts of devastating terrorism, has successfully built a formidable network of devoted followers, while drawing mass support from both Muslim elites and masses, as it effectively functions as a ‘state within a state’ (Walter 2012). Boko Haram has allegedly already infiltrated the military, police, security services and even the Presidency, and has steadily strengthened its military capabilities, thus fostering a growing potential for the escalation of political-religious conflict and socio-economic turmoil in the oil- and gas-rich Nigeria. The ‘iron fist’ crackdowns launched by the state’s security and military authorities in order to suppress Boko Haram’s terrorism have taken their own toll and have drawn the Nigerian state and society into a vicious cycle of violence, which has spilled over into the wider geostrategic region, beyond Nigeria’s borders.

Although it did not create but rather represented the victim of the endemic corruption, poverty, lawlessness, socio-economic inequalities, political violence, inefficient governmental system, ethnic and religious conflicts and lack of security at both the state and the personal levels, Boko Haram has harnessed the extant circumstances to promote its vision to undermine the existence of the political-religious agenda and to turn Nigeria into a fully Islamic state. It would be a mistake, however, to view Boko Haram’s interests and terrorist activities from a purely religious perspective. The question of ‘how much does religion really matter’ in Jihadist insurgencies, as Daniel Byman has formulated in his illuminating article (Byman 2013), is very much relevant in the case study of Boko Haram. ‘Religion interacts with politics on multiple levels,’ Jonathan Fox replied partially in one of his studies, while intertwining the role of religion in the broader context of politics, society and state (Fox 2012). Further relating to the complex, yet explicit, interplay between religion, political power and other forces generating state and societal dynamics, Roger Finke and Jaime Dean Harris contributed their observations to this discussion by noting that ‘Religion has the capacity to fuel social action’ and that ‘drawing on divine imperative and committed followers, religion is both the opiate and amphetamine of social change.’ (Finke and Harris 2012). Coming back to the Nigerian case of the Jihadist-terrorist Boko Haram, its violent struggle offers an obvious indication of the complexity and the blurred borders that exist between politically and religiously driven conflicts, particularly in weakened or failed states in the broader African Sahel region. These hotbeds of terror in Africa (and beyond) are the powerful engines that generate the political-religious raison d’être for terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram.


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[1]TNV, The Nigerian Voice, March 19, 2013, [accessed on March 23, 2013]; France 24, International News, March 1, 2013. http://www. [accessed on March 24, 2013]. According to some claims, this specific action was launched by a new Jihadist-terrorist group of Nigerian origin, the Ansaru.

[2]Jide Ajani, Kingsley Omonobi and Ndahi Marama, Sunday Vanguard (Lagos), March 10, 2013; TNV, The Nigerian Voice, March 15, 2013, http://www. [accessed on March 23, 2013]; and Salisu Rabiu and Yinka Ibukun, Associated Press, March 19, 2013, ABC News; and CNN Staff, ‘Boko Haram offshoot claims responsibility in Nigerian kidnapping,’ February 18, 2013, [accessed on March 23, 2013].

[3] For further information on the civil war, see: [accessed on January 30, 2013].

[4] Ikechukwu Umejesi, “The Nation State, Resource Conflict, and the Challenges of ‘Former Sovereignties’ in Nigeria,” African Studies Quarterly, Vol.13, Issue 3, Summer 2012, pp. 47-66.

[5]For Obuah’s definition of corruption and for an excellent discussion of the causes and scope of corruption in Nigeria, see Emmanuel Obuah, “Combating Corruption in Nigeria: The Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes (EFCC),” African Studies Quarterly, Vol. 12, Issue 1, Fall 2010, pp. 17-33. For the data, see CIA, The World Factbook, 2012 Estimation,, [accessed on February 20, 2013]; African Development Bank. 2012. African Economic Outlook,’ Tunis. The International Monetary Fund, IMF Executive Board Concludes 2011 Article IV Consultation With Nigeria, Washington DC.,28 February, 2012; See the Revised 2011 estimates for q1- q3, 2012, gross domestic product for Nigeria, [accessed on February 20, 2013].

[6] The World Bank. November 2009. Nigeria: Employment and Growth Study. Washington DC.

[7] ‘Nigeria’s Prospects: A Man and a Morass,’ The Economist, May 28, 2011, 27. [accessed on February 20, 2013].

[8] Human Rights Watch August 25, 2011. Corruption on Trial: The Nigerian’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, 2. [accessed on February 20, 2013].

[9] Funmilola Fausat Ahmed. 2012. Income Diversification Determinants among Farming Households in Konduga, Borno State. Academic Research International. Vol. 2, No. 2, March 555-561.

[10]Hugo Odiogor. May, 3 2010. The Sun Eats Our Land. Special Report on Desertification in Nigeria, Vanguard. [accessed on January 31, 2013].

[11] Ibid, 792.

[12] Given the irregular or outright failure to supply power in the country by the regulator, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, many have opted for an alternative means of power supply using generators of different kinds. Almost every home in urban areas is identified with a generating set. Abubakar Jimoh, “Rising Deaths From Generating Fumes,” [accessed on January 14, 2013].

[13] The paradox – The country’s refined oil import volume in 2010 was over 100 million tons. International oil companies operating in Nigeria export about 480 million barrels of crude oil per annum. [accessed on January 31, 2013].

[14] These patterns, among others, explain the repeated cycles of military coups in African states. See Samuel Decalo.1976. Coups and Army Rule in Africa: Studies in Military Style. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[15] See Global Terrorism Data base (GTD) at: HARAM [accessed on April 4, 2013].

[16] The movement of Izala or Yan Izala was founded in Jos by Sheikh Ismaila Idris in 1978 with the objective of fighting what is conceived of as innovation, as practiced by the Sufi Brotherhoods, especially Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya. The Izala is an anti-Sufi-movement, being the largest Islamic movement not only in Northern Nigeria, but also in the entire country and even in neighbouring Niger and Chad. Izala is active in the propagation of Islam and particularly in education.

[17] Maitatsine was the nickname of Mohammed Marwa (d. 1980), a controversial Islamic scholar in Nigeria. Maitatsine is a Hausa word meaning ‘the one who damns’ and refers to his harsh public diatribes against the Nigerian state.

[18]For more details, see: Eyene Okpanachi, Ethno-religious Identity and Conflict in Northern Nigeria, CETRI, Le Centre Tricontinental, January 10,2012,, [accessed on April 8, 2013]; Elizabeth Isichei. 1987. The Maitatsine Risings in Nigeria 1980-1985: A Revolt of the Disinherited. Journal of Religion in Africa, 17 (3): 194–208.

[19]For further information on the most influential Islamic scholar in the history of Islam in West Africa, see: [accessed on April 4, 2013].

[20] Amnesty International, Annual Report 2011, Nigeria, [accessed on April 8, 2013].

[21] ‘Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists Bombed Abuja Police HQ,’ BBC, June 17, 2011; ‘Nigeria UN Bomb: Al-Qaeda-Linked Man Named as Suspect,’ BBC, August 31, 2011 [Accessed April 16, 2013]. For more terrorist activities launched by Boko Haram, see the study of Vanda Felbab-Brown and James J. F. Forest, 792.

[22] Abu Usmatul al-Ansari announces Boko Haram breakaway faction, Militant Leadership Monitor (MLM), Vol. 3, No. 6, June 30, 2012. [Accessed April 16, 2013]. Video announcement: (

[23] ‘Rift in Boko Haram, Ansaru Splinter Group Emerges, Calls BH Inhuman to Muslims,’ Sahara Reporters, New- York, January 31, 2012 [Accessed April 16, 2013].

[24] ‘Boko Haram: Splinter group, Ansaru emerges,’ Vanguard, February 1, 2012. [accessed on March 23, 2013];See also ‘Ansaru: A Profile of Nigeria’s Newest Jihadist Movement,’ Jacob Zenn in Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 11, Jamestown Foundation 1, January 10, 2013, [accessed on March 23, 2013].

[25] Aude Mazoué, Prise d’otages au Cameroun: Il pourrait s’agir d’une cellule autonome de Boko Haram, 26 February 2013, France 24, [accessed on March 23, 2013]. See also CNN Staff, ‘Boko Haram offshoot claims responsibility in Nigeria kidnapping,’ February 18, 2013, [accessed on March 23, 2013].

[26] David Francis Christian, ‘Is Nigeria’s Boko Haram Group Really Tied to Al Qaeda?,’ Christian Science Monitor, a report from Abuja, Nigeria September 22, 2011 [accessed on March 23, 2013]; Gabe Joselow, ‘Boko Haram Seen Linked to Other African Terror Groups,’ Voice of America News, 27 Dec. 2011–136260858/150015.html, [accessed on March 28, 2013].

[27] Kimeng Hilton Ndukong, ‘Nigeria: Boko Haram’s Funding Sources Uncovered,’ All Africa Com, February 14, 2012.

[28]Since this issue is not directly connected to Boko Haram, I have chosen not to enter into the details of the political and military circumstances in Mali, including France’s military intervention in that country in 2013.

[29]Jon Gambrell, ‘US: Islamic Extremists Move Between Nigeria, Mali,’ The Associated Press from Lagos, March 14, 2013, [accessed on March 28, 2013].

[30]United Nations: Security Council, « Rapport de la mission d’évaluation des incidences de la crise libyenne sur la région du Sahel, » 7-23 December 2011, 15. [accessed April 3, 2013].

[31] Emma Anya and Dayo Oketola, “Boko Haram linked to Group behind Kenya mall attack,” 27 September 2013,

[32]Army General Carter Ham, quoted by Donna Cassata, The Associated Press, March 23, 2013.

  1. Gregory A. Obanado permalink

    Really commendable work. I will add that while Boko Haram is view from the prism of the social economic situation in Nigeria. The violent Nigerian Islam started with the Jihad of usman dan Fodio. It will be okay to see its ascendancy from the argument of whether to accept (Boko) Western Education or not. Many groups have waged wars because of this from the time of the british colonial adventure. The former leader of Boko haram who was killed by the Nigerian troops, before the Shekau had a different vision form the boko haram of today. The attendant diabolic violence that has become the trade mark of Boko haram today is directly borrowed from the modern fanatical Islam. There is however no proof that Nigerian Muslims took part in the Afghan war with the Russians or even the American war. There is however some evidence that they began to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan long after President Bush declared victory.
    There may be many reasons for the existence of boko haram, but their main reason is the long standing argument among Muslims of northern Nigeria weather to accept western Education of not.

  2. Dr. Isaac Degani permalink

    Dr. Isaac Degani, a political scientist, Israel:
    The a/m article offers an outstanding analysis of the Internal security recent grave problems in Nigeria and it’s repercussions on the Sahel sub continent region. This essay describes a process
    by which a federal republic like Nigeria is on its way towards a political regime factorization and as
    a result Nigeria will become a faled state. It is recommended that Nigerian leaders, Diplomates,
    Military commanders and state politicians will learn the lessons studeid during recent years in Nigeria and in the rest of West Africa. Without developing a strategy against Boko Haram, I suspect,
    A country of 170 million citizens, as Nigeria is today,. will become a prey for the predators.
    Thanks and appreciation to prof. Yehudit Ronen for her endravors and precision.

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