Understanding Boko Haram

Understanding Boko Haram

European Eye on Radicalization was joined by Jacob Zenn, an adjunct assistant professor of the graduate-level course, “Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics”, at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and a senior fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. Zenn has carried out extensive fieldwork in Nigeria and surrounding states, helping him map the organizational structure of Boko Haram.

Publishing regularly in scholarly journals, his most recent book is Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria. Earlier this year, Zenn published a report with EER, “Boko Haram’s Moderate Streak and Nigeria’s Counter-terrorism Conundrum”, looking at the evolution of the group’s internal situation and its security environment. The interview focuses on these dynamics and the developments since that time.

Zenn explains that “Boko Haram” traces its origins to 1994, when Nigerians began joining the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) as it fought its war against the Algerian state, although mostly serving in rear-guard positions in Mali and Niger, and Nigerians in the diaspora, particularly in Saudi Arabia, joined Al-Qaeda.

These two components then returned to Nigeria and began mingling with the local Salafi milieu. After 9/11, with that community electrified, and feeding off some of the government’s counterterrorism responses, the group came together under the leadership of Muhammad Yusuf, who was killed in 2009, the year Boko Haram officially declared its jihad under Abubakar Shekau. In 2015, the group appeared on the international jihadi scene when it joined the Islamic State (ISIS).

The Al-Qaeda link for Boko Haram goes back to the origins in the early 1990s. Al-Qaeda was important in how the group developed and was involved in the first major attack in 2003, which was not, Zenn argues, born from local circumstances at the universities.

The rapid development of suicide bombings as a tactic by Boko Haram clearly did not come from nowhere, and the documentary trail shows the assistance rendered by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Shekau, in one of his last audio messages before his death in May 2021, revealed that he had pledged allegiance (bay’a) to Al-Qaeda.

The nomenclature of Boko Haram—which is not a name the group recognises for itself (it means “Western education is forbidden”)—can be confusing, but Zenn points out that after Shekau’s demise the name essentially refers to the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), and the Shekau breakaway faction, Jamaat Ahl al-Sunnah lid-Da’wa wal-Jihad (JAS), has been left rather isolated and with parts breaking away to ISWAP.

Another important faction is Ansaru, an AQIM extension, which is small but highly proficient, acting as a force multiplier as JAS/ISWAP rose, later taking its distance once Shekau embarked on his ultra-extremist, takfiri course.

Nigeria is split roughly equally between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. Zenn discusses how this sectarian dimension factors into the jihadist strategy.

At the time Zenn finished the report, a more moderate current of ISWAP appeared to be gaining the upper-hand within the group, posing a different and in some ways more tricky problem for the Nigerian state. The more extreme trend seems to be gaining ground, but ISWAP’s reassertion of control makes it unlikely the group will drift back to the level of extremity seen under Shekau, even as it grapples with how to absorb JAS elements who were close to Shekau. Overall, Nigeria is dealing with a much more complicated problem than it had a few years ago.

ISWAP at present is, like all other ISIS wilayats (provinces or branches), directed from the centre in Syria and Iraq, but it does not appear to have close intra-wilayat relations with other ISIS divisions on the African continent like Islamic State’s Central African Province (ISCAP) in the Congo and Mozambique.

The military picture is something of a stalemate in Nigeria, Zenn explains: ISWAP is unable to take major barracks, but the military is unable to suppress the jihadists in the rural areas. This situation is favourable to ISWAP, allowing them to embed, socially and politically, and gain over the long-term a robust hold on these areas.

In terms of international support to Nigeria, Zenn concludes that the willingness of Western and other actors to help Nigeria has receded. “This stalemate is very rigid”, says Zenn, and the main assistance would be needed in a campaign to root ISWAP out of the rural areas in Borno, where the jihadists know the language, terrain, and people better than any outsiders and quite possibly better than the government. It remains unclear what foreign states can actually contribute to this, even as it is important to ask the question.