Founded in 2001 by flat-worlder Mohammad Yusuf, the Salafist group Boko Haram (“Western education is sinful”) morphed into a Jihadist entity and, under Abubakar Shekau‘s guidance, launched their wave of violence against Northern Nigeria circa 2009/10. Assaults have predominately targeted government staff and politicians, security personnel, Christian communities, and even Muslim religious leaders. Although initially a local insurgency concentrated in Borno State, from 2011 Boko Haram have forged international ties with a number of jihadist militias outside Nigeria including Mali, Somalia, and the Sahel — the 1,000 km biogeographic transitional belt between the Sahara desert and the Sudanian Savannas. Boko Haram’s “rapid progression from a machete-wielding mob” to a serious military contender, have seen the group accused of up to 10,000 deaths in West Africa from 2009 to date. Although claims of being a direct al-Qaeda subsidiary are disputed, Boko Haram has arguably surpassed the operational capabilities of many ‘certified’ al-Qaeda affiliates, whilst successfully applying their Salafi jihadi prognosis to local grievances and pre-existing sentiment pools.
Today, Boko Haram’s links to the militants of Mali, the Sahel, and wider afield have allowed it to obtain and dispatch regular assistance to other regional Islamists. Consequentially Boko Haram are capable of existing far beyond their original operational hub, even if the Nigerian security forces drive out influential figures like Shekau. The utility of al-Qaeda modelled pretexts by Boko Haram, to rationalise and exploit anti-government and anti-Western opinion in perimeter provinces of Northern Nigeria, have allowed them to justify their existence and ensure their longevity, whilst effectively radicalising and mobilising new recruits. This blurring of both national and convocational boundaries has been a shrewd move.
The world has seen the devastating result of itinerant Islamists militia sweeping in on the coattails of Tuareg fighters returning home from fighting for Colonel Gaddafi. The mobility of Boko Haram across the Sahel is not an encouraging sign. Nigeria’s troubles could well become the concern of other West African nations, such as Mali, Niger, perhaps even the smaller, less equipped, Muslim majority countries of Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, or Senegal. Most of these countries have woefully inadequate schooling and low educational attainment, meagre employment opportunities, high economic deprivation, artificial national boundaries, brittle democracies, and entrenched ethnic divisions. They have often experienced brutal Islamist incursions and witnessed their own people travel to Mali to join the jihad.
Although the ethnic composition of many of these countries may differ to Nigeria, Boko Haram could represent a dangerous regional rubric, or even act as the catalyst for emulative West African copycat groups to follow suit. During an awkward period in which the al-Qaeda franchise has been arguably diluted, Islamists may no longer have to join the jihadist monopoly, they may simply need to dabble in a spot of ideological property theft, get mobile, and go freelance. Figuratively and literally jumping on the bandwagon!
Photo Credit: Marxchivist