THE death of Muhammad Yusuf — the founder of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad, commonly referred to as Boko Haram — reportedly in police custody in 2009 transformed what was apparently a preaching group into one of the most lethal terrorist organisations in the world.
Boko Haram (meaning ‘Western education is forbidden’) was established in 2002 as an offshoot of the Salafi movement in the Yobe state of Nigeria. Between 2002 and 2008, the group largely remained dormant but after the death of Yusuf, the outfit morphed into a threatening force comprising between 4,000 and 6,000 militants.
Nigeria’s population is largely tribal and comprises about 350 ethnic groups speaking roughly 520 languages. The country is administratively divided into 36 states out of which 12 are dominated by Muslims and are mostly situated in the northern part of the country.
Just as Al Qaeda helped the Taliban become the brute force that they were, the establishment of linkages with Al Qaeda in 2010 helped the Boko Haram become proficient in making IEDs, training militants and managing the supply of weapons and funds. In fact, the modus operandi of the group bears quite a few striking similarities to the way the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan operated in tribal areas here. The resemblance of their respective flags also reveals a deeper ideological connection.
Nigeria is ranked as the third most terrorism-affected country.
Like the TTP, besides foreign funding, kidnapping for ransom and extortion became the chief sources of operational expenses for the Boko Haram. Similarly, power politics and monetary gains also divided it into several factions over the years.
In 2011, a new group, the Yusufiya Islamic Movement, surfaced, expressing concern over the deaths of civilians and calling for reconciliation with the government.
Then in 2012 another group of dissidents, Jama’atu Ansaril Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan (‘Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa’), commonly called Ansaru, parted ways on the plea that killing locals and the strict implementation of Islamic law would reduce the regional appeal of the Boko Haram. Hence, the Ansaru came to focus more on attacks against foreigners. It became an independent organisation in 2012 and its first high-profile attack involved a prison break in Abuja in 2012 followed by the kidnapping of a French engineer. The group has largely been dormant since 2015.
At present, the Boko Haram is divided into two operational factions: the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi (said to be the son of Muhammad Yusuf) and the original Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad commanded by Yusuf’s deputy Abubakar Shekau.
With time, the Boko Haram’s tactics transitioned from hit-and-run attacks to elaborate ones involving physical control of territory in north-eastern Nigeria and certain parts of Chad, Niger and Cameroon. After assuming control of Nigerian areas of Borno, Kano, Bauchi, Yobe, Kaduna and Adamawa in 2014, the group announced the establishment of a ‘caliphate’ in Mubi. Strengthened by its allegiance to the militant Islamic State group that allowed it to gain space in sub-Saharan Africa, it increased the frequency and intensity of attacks in Nigeria and its environs.
Just as the support of the Mehsud, Afridi, Mohmand and Wazir tribes remained significant for the TTP, the Boko Haram strengthened its ranks with assistance from the Kanuri and Hausa-Fulani tribes. Since the Kanuri tribe is not limited to Nigeria and its members also live in Chad, Niger and Cameroon, the group attracted youth from other countries too.
Between 2014 and 2015, Shekau established control on two-thirds of Borno state and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi. Sharia was enforced in occupied areas and ‘emirs’ were appointed in weakly governed areas of Bama, Gwoza, Damboa and Dikwa — somewhat similar to the tribal areas in Pakistan before military operations. The Boko Haram used the Sambisa forest in Borno state where extremists took refuge and it kept the Chibok schoolgirls.
Again, like the TTP, it first established control in rural areas before moving towards cities. In April 2014 the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok put Boko Haram on the global map of notoriety. Incidentally, in December the same year the TTP would also unleash its savagery at Peshawar’s Army Public School.
The Global Terrorism Index ranks Nigeria as the third most affected country by terrorism, while Pakistan stays at fifth position. The Nigerian counterterrorism strategy seems to exclusively focus on the threat posed by the Boko Haram, overlooking the multidimensional aspects of counterterrorism. The country could learn from efforts in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and review its counterterrorism and counter-extremism strategies for a more holistic response.
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
Published in Dawn, December 24th, 2019