By James H. Barnett
February 09, 2018
In December 2015, newly elected Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari declared that the terrorist group Boko Haram had been “technically defeated” after intensive military efforts. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a consortium of military units from Benin, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, had vastly reduced Boko Haram’s territorial footprint and Buhari assured his countrymen that full security would soon return to the countryside.
Chalk that up as yet another empty promise from a Nigerian politician. Two years have passed since Buhari’s “Mission Accomplished” moment and Boko Haram’s terror shows little prospect of abating. The Salafist preaching movement that once focused on parochial cultural debates in Nigeria’s Borno state is now a transnational affiliate of ISIS and one of the world’s deadliest insurgencies. Victims of Boko Haram are overwhelmingly Muslim civilians, the suicide bombers frequently women or children. (The group is perhaps best known abroad for its kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in 2014.) Although they are jihadists, Boko Haram members make almost no effort to implement Sharia in the communities they occupy, and their long-time leader, Abubakar Shekau, addresses propaganda videos to Abraham Lincoln and once threatened to sell Barack Obama as a slave. This is not a particularly easy phenomenon to wrap one’s head around.
Fortunately, we now have what may well become the definitive work on the group in the form of Alexander Thurston’s superbly detailed new book. The characters in Boko Haram’s story are no strangers to Thurston, an assistant professor of African studies at Georgetown whose first book profiled the leading figures in Nigerian Salafism. Beginning with the life and times of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, Thurston takes the reader step by step through the group’s evolution, carefully dissecting the local political developments and global trends in jihadist ideology that shaped the group along the way.
Although the book’s focus is Boko Haram, Thurston also discusses Salafist ideology more broadly. Pundits often proclaim that jihadist terrorism has nothing to with Islam but is instead the result of purely political or economic grievances. Another version of this is that African Jihadism has nothing to do with African Islam, the former being a product of the “radical” Muslims in the Middle East that has been tragically imported into the “moderate” societies of Africa by nefarious sheikhs. It is, of course, crucial to distinguish between violent radicals and the rest of a billion-plus-people faith community, but simplistic caricatures merely distort the complex phenomenon of radicalization. No serious analysis of an African jihadist movement can extricate Islam, and particularly the multifarious African interpretations of Islam, from the equation. Thurston convincingly debunks theories of Boko Haram that would deny its uniquely Nigerian nature or suppose that its leaders are not engaging in what they consider proper religious practice.
While virtually every Nigerian imam began denouncing Boko Haram’s violence in the early stages of the insurgency, the movement’s strong rejection of Western culture is rooted in Salafist traditions that stretch back decades in north-eastern Nigeria. Indeed, Boko Haram gained supporters in the pre-insurgency years by capitalizing on popular frustration with the apparent reluctance of local officials to implement Sharia in the state of Borno. Mohammed Yusuf (1970-2009) had an appreciation for the history of pre-colonial Islamic conquest in West Africa, and his particular religiosity was further shaped by the Quranic exegesis of prominent medieval Muslim jurists and by the preaching of Jordanian cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (a onetime mentor of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Abu Musab al Zarqawi). Yet still, the Nigerian state has frequently claimed that Yusuf was religiously illiterate.
Similarly, while Wahhabist influence from the Gulf has certainly helped shape Nigerian Islam (many prominent Salafists in Borno attended the Islamic University of Medina), those who look for the Saudi bogeyman behind every unfortunate development in the Muslim world will be disappointed by Thurston’s assessment that Boko Haram is ultimately an indigenous product of north-eastern Nigeria—a movement set apart from more conventional Nigerian Salafism by its violence and exclusivism rather than its rejection of Western culture.
Similarly, Thurston sets straight those who think Boko Haram is primarily an extension of jihadist operations from elsewhere into West Africa. He reviews the existing evidence of coordination between Boko Haram and various jihadist outfits—including the original al Qaeda central leadership, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Shabaab, and ISIS, to which Shekau pledged Bay’ah (allegiance) in 2015. Thurston concludes that Boko Haram’s relationships with these groups are primarily about branding and solidarity and that the relationship with ISIS has proven operationally negligible. The seemingly improvised nature of Boko Haram’s violence leads Thurston to suggest that its commanders have not surrendered their operational independence to the ISIS leadership.
Still, Thurston is perhaps too quick to minimize the significance of Shekau’s Bay’ah to ISIS. The pledge deepened existing divisions within the movement and accelerated a leadership crisis that still rages on.
When, if ever, will Boko Haram actually be “technically defeated,” as Buhari claimed back in late 2015? The MNJTF cannot shoot its way out of this insurgency, and the economic-development initiatives championed by Western donors are alone insufficient to counter radicalization in Nigeria, or anywhere else for that matter (none of the 9/11 hijackers ever knew anything like the poverty experienced by most Boko Haram militants). In Thurston’s view, if Boko Haram is to be defeated, what is needed is a reintroduction of politics to north-eastern Nigeria. This means a process of negotiations and reconciliation; it means some members of Boko Haram may receive government stipends or even stand in local elections; and it means accepting local governance that will probably be less liberal and secular than Nigeria’s Western partners are comfortable supporting.
This proposal is bold and compelling. The rot in Nigeria’s politics is deep, and a post-conflict reversion to the status quo would simply leave an opening for some new violent Islamist movement to succeed Boko Haram. But if there is a weakness in Thurston’s book, it is that insofar as he is forward-looking, his prescriptions ignore some critical realities of counterinsurgency. The political settlement he describes can only take place once a modicum of security has been restored to the region, yet he disparages the MNJTF’s efforts thus far and is sceptical of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
In no small measure, Nigeria’s security services are guilty of horrific abuses against civilians. This inevitably creates blowback that benefits Boko Haram. Major reform within the Nigerian security sector is a sine qua non of an effective reintroduction of politics.
But the fact remains that the Nigerian government is not yet in a position to persuade a critical mass of militants to disarm and enter into a political accommodation. Our own nation’s experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq suggest that when insurgents believe a respite from the enemy’s attacks is in the offing, they refuse to talk, instead holding out for total victory. While the MNJTF has made substantial progress since 2014, Boko Haram’s operational presence in four countries and the ease with which it continues to terrorize civilians and security forces belie any notion that the group has been degraded to the point where it would accept a compromise. It is hard to imagine any progress without the continuation of kinetic operations—a wonkish way of saying “killing terrorists”—into the near future. Such is the unfortunate nature of war.
Those of us who disagree with Thurston’s criticisms can still learn a great deal from his book, and we can all appreciate his warnings about a militarization of U.S. policy in West Africa. Boko Haram is a symptom of a Nigerian state weakened by political patronage, corrupt and abusive security forces, unchecked urbanization, and the erosion of traditional religious authority—among other challenges—just as much as it is a terrifying manifestation of a virulent strain of contemporary Islamism. An exclusively martial approach to the insurgency that fails to address the underlying and converging crises of Nigerian society will yield only transient victories.
James H. Barnett is a Public Interest Fellow in Washington, D.C.