In the fast-changing world of violent Sunni Muslim activism, it is reassuring to find that some things remain the same. Every militant group that has emerged in recent decades has shared key elements and the Nigerian Boko Haram group is no exception.
First, in Nigeria — as in Afghanistan, Algeria, Pakistan and the Philippines — there is a long history of religious violence. Then there is a more recent aggravation of sectarian tensions against the background of the ‘9/11 wars” of the last decade. Muslim communities in northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram operates, see themselves as increasingly threatened by the strident Christianity that dominates the south.
Boko Haram means ‘no to Western education” and aptly sums up the group’s cultural message. This plays into the widespread belief that Muslims are under attack from a belligerent West and its local proxies.
Then, of course, there are the broad social, political and economic factors. Northern elites resent the dominance of the south. Demographics, again shared with much of the Islamic world, have created a ‘youth bulge” of millions of young men with few prospects.
The death of Boko Haram’s charismatic leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2009 has led to a new phase of extremism as his successors try to maintain momentum. The group first struck an international target when it attacked the United Nations headquarters in Abuja last year. Now analysts are seeking to establish whether Boko Haram has links to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, or its affiliates and whether it is a threat to the West.
For local leaders, blaming al-Qaeda deflects blame both from their own inefficiency and venality and potentially unlocks considerable financial, diplomatic and security assistance from the West.
For militant groups, claims of al-Qaeda membership bring credibility and kudos and therefore funds and recruits. But we should be wary of taking the supposed links to al-Qaeda too seriously.
Claims that Boko Haram leaders met al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia during the pilgrimage to Mecca should not be dismissed outright. But it is unclear whether it was an encounter with Saudi Arabian militants — of whom there are very few these days — or with figures from ‘al-Qaeda central”, who would have taken an enormous risk by travelling. Both scenarios are theoretically possible.
The conventional wisdom in intelligence circles is that Boko Haram has received cash from the al-Qaeda affiliate in the Maghreb. The latter group is fragmented but tenacious and is also believed to have provided Boko Haram with training in contemporary urban terrorism, particularly suicide attacks. However, the Nigerian group remains a local phenomenon that does not pose an international threat, British and other officials say.
The fact that it appears to be boasting of links with al-Qaeda, which has suffered significant losses in recent years, does, however, indicate that the brand created by the late Osama bin Laden may remain more attractive and durable than some analysts have thought. —