The Rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria

Sep 26, 2011

On August 26, 2011, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vehicle at a United Nations compound in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, killing at least 21 people. Boko Haram, a militant group based in Nigeria’s northwestern states of Yobe and Borno, claimed responsibility. Boko Haram is the popular title for a group that calls itself Jama`at ahl al-sunna li-da`wa wa-l-qital, and it has operated in Nigeria since 2002-2003. Its popular name connotes “[Western] education is forbidden” as a result of the perception that the group stood against any form of non-Islamic education. It has gained recent notoriety because of its transition from being a local radical Salafist group, which until 2009 had a largely quietist nature, to a Salafi-jihadi group that has demonstrated the capacity to carry out major operations, including suicide attacks in central Nigeria. It is in Boko Haram that one can see the possibility of a homegrown Salafi-jihadi group that could destabilize Nigeria for the foreseeable future (not unlike the more tribal and local nationalistic groups operating in the Niger Delta to the south).

This article chronicles the rise of Boko Haram, identifying the two phases in which the group has passed. It also suggests how the group may proceed in the future.

Boko Haram in Context
The roots of Boko Haram lie in the Islamic history of northern Nigeria, in which for some 800 years powerful sultanates centered around the Hausa cities close to Kano and the sultanate of Borno (roughly the region of the states of Borno and Yobe together with parts of Chad) constituted high Muslim civilizations. These sultanates were challenged by the jihad of Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (that lasted from 1802-1812), who created a unified caliphate stretching across northern Nigeria into the neighboring countries.[1] Dan Fodio’s legacy of jihad is one that is seen as normative by most northern Nigerian Muslims. The caliphate still ruled by his descendants (together with numerous smaller sultanates), however, was conquered by the British in 1905, and in 1960 Muslim northern Nigeria was federated with largely Christian southern Nigeria.

Since independence until 1999, Nigeria was ruled largely by military rulers, a number of whom were northern Muslims (although the longest ruling of them, Yakubu Gwon, was a Christian). During this period, Nigerian Islam was riven with doctrinal debates between the Sufis and the Salafists (led by the charismatic Abu Bakar Gumi until his death in 1992), oblivious to the fact that Christians were heavily proselytizing throughout the country, especially in the region of the Middle Belt. The growth of Christianity was reflected in the 1999 election of Olusegun Obasanjo (re-elected in 2003), and the continued southern Christian domination of Goodluck Jonathan (successor to the brief Muslim presidency of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2010).

The Muslim response to the Christian political ascendency was the move during the period of 2000-2003 to impose Shari`a in 12 of the northern states in which they predominated.[2] For the most part, imposition of Shari`a brought the previously feuding Muslim groups together, and there was no further use of takfir (accusations of being non-Muslim).[3] While the imposition of Shari`a did satisfy the official manifestations of Islam in the north (both Sufi and Salafi), it is clear that radicals who were takfiris doctrinally—such as members of Boko Haram—were left outside.

Boko Haram: Phase I
Relations between Boko Haram and other Nigerian radical groups are unclear. Although most observers state that the group’s name is actually Jama`at ahl al-sunna li-da`wa wa-l-qital, and that it is the descendent of the group that in 2002 was referred to as the Nigerian Taliban,[4] it is not absolutely certain that all of these groups are the same.

What can be stated with certainty is that the charismatic figure of Muhammad Yusuf, who was killed in July 2009, was the one who initiated Boko Haram’s first phase. This phase was mainly focused first upon withdrawal from society—following the example of Dan Fodio—and establishing small camps and schools in the remoter regions of Borno and Yobe states during the years 2002-2005. As police pressure against these smaller jama`at groups began to grow toward the end of that period, the group morphed into more of an urban phenomenon practicing al-amr bi-l-ma`ruf wa-l-nahy `an al-munkar (enjoining the good and forbidding the evil). From such operations, usually against consumption of alcohol and other non-Islamic practices, the group began to shape its identity.[5] Again, the entire methodology is very much according to the example of Dan Fodio. What made Boko Haram stand out among other Nigerian radical groups were its operations against the police that began in 2004.

The last period of Boko Haram, phase I, was direct confrontation with the Nigerian police and military, which culminated in the Nigerian military assault upon Muhammad Yusuf’s compound, associated mosques, and his judicial murder, videotaped by soldiers. Hundreds of members of the group were killed with him, and it is clear that one of the lessons learned by Boko Haram for its second phase was to avoid having an obvious base.

Boko Haram: Phase II
There is no doubt that the suppression operation of 2009, and the killing of Muhammad Yusuf by Nigerian security forces in July of that year, was a turning point for Boko Haram. The group was frequently said at this time to be defunct.[6] In September 2010 (coinciding with Ramadan), however, Boko Haram carried out a prison break (said to have released some 700 prisoners),[7] and the group began operations again. Its major operations since that time can be divided into the following attack categories: 1) military (three operations); 2) police (at least 16 operations); 3) teachers/university (five operations); 4) banks and markets (two operations); 5) carrying out al-amr bi-l-ma`ruf attacks on beer drinkers, card-players, etc. (at least five operations); 6) attacks on Christian preachers and churches (at least three operations); and 7) targeted assassinations (at least five major operations). While the major methodologies of drive-by shootings and bombings from motorcycles have not changed, the group has demonstrated in its second incarnation a considerable range, carrying out operations in Adumawa, Katsina and a number of times in Abuja.

The targeted assassinations are the most revealing, involving political figures, such as Abba Anas bin `Umar (killed in May 2011), the brother of the Shehu of Borno, and secular opposition figures (Modu Fannami Godio, killed in January 2011), but also prominent clerics such as Bashir Kashara, a well-known Wahhabi figure (killed in October 2010), Ibrahim Ahmad Abdullahi, a non-violent preacher (killed in March 2011), and Ibrahim Birkuti, a well-known popular preacher who challenged Boko Haram (killed in June 2011). The shootings of these prominent clerics seem to be in accord with Boko Haram’s purificationist agenda with regard to Islam. It is interesting also that in Boko Haram’s second incarnation there has been no figure who has replaced Muhammad Yusuf as the charismatic leader.

Most dramatic has been the transition of Boko Haram toward the use of suicide attacks, starting with the attack on the police General Headquarters in Abuja on June 16, 2011 and then culminating with the attack on the UN headquarters, also in Abuja, on August 26, 2011.[8] Other than al-Shabab in Somalia and to some extent al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb, no other African radical Muslim group has used suicide attacks. Indeed, there were reports that al-Shabab had trained at least one of the attackers against the UN building.[9] While the attack on the police General Headquarters can be seen as a continuation of Boko Haram’s fixation upon the Nigerian police and army, the United Nations attack is much more in line with other globalist takfiri organizations, and is strongly reminiscent of the suicide attack in Baghdad against the United Nations in August 2003, which was one of the opening blows of the Iraqi insurgency.

Overall, Boko Haram is demonstrating the paradigm of a jama`at group, such as Jemaah Islamiya in Southeast Asia, which had a quietist stage of local amr bi-l-ma`ruf and then transitioned into an activist stage as the result of outside influence. The assassination of the charismatic Muhammad Yusuf seems to have been such a catalyst, and now released from its previous strictures the group is able to expand its field of operations.

Connections and Prospects
Boko Haram has been able to project power over the northeastern section of Nigeria, where the police and army have effectively lost control. They have not, however, succeeded in going beyond their ability to impose terror upon the capital of Borno State, Maiduguri, into actually attempting to assume power. Yet Boko Haram has definitely been able to tap into discontent among northern Muslims, who have not been satisfied with the imposition of Shari`a during the years since 2000 (people expected that the draconian punishments would curtail corruption and crime; Boko Haram offers a more direct and violent solution). There are reports that even northern Muslim soldiers sent to infiltrate the group have joined it. Opposition from major Muslim religious figures in the north suggests that Boko Haram has local opposition that it needs to silence to maintain its control.

Boko Haram’s transition into the use of suicide attacks suggests that the group might have connections to other major Salafi-jihadi organizations. The release of a martyrdom video in September 2011, a media event not associated with regional radical Islamic groups, suggests connections with either AQIM or al-Shabab, both of whom use this methodology. It is interesting, however, that no major ideological statement can be associated with Boko Haram that states the group’s objectives or program.[10] The group, as its name implies, is only defined by what it stands against rather than what it stands for. It is interesting, however, that its targets have been very specific, and that in contradistinction to other Muslim groups Boko Haram has only rarely attacked Christians. The vast majority of its targets have been either obviously official or in line with a purificationist agenda toward Muslims.

Dr. David Cook is associate professor of religious studies at Rice University specializing in Islam. He completed his undergraduate degrees at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2001. His areas of specialization include early Islamic history and development, Muslim apocalyptic literature and movements (classical and contemporary), radical Islam, historical astronomy and Judeo-Arabic literature. His first book, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, was published by Darwin Press in the series Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam. Two further books, Understanding Jihad and Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature were published during 2005, and Martyrdom in Islam as well as Understanding and Addressing Suicide Attacks (with Olivia Allison) have been completed recently.

[1] Mervyn Hiskett, The Sword of Truth: The Life and Times of Shehu `Uthman Dan Fodio (Evanston, Il.: Northwestern University Press, 1994).

[2] Ruud Peters, Islamic Criminal Law in Nigeria (Abuja: Spectrum, 2003).

[3] Personal interview, Ismail Ja`far of the Shari`a Board, Kano, Nigeria, May 12, 2005.

[4] Anna Borzello, “Tracking Down Nigeria’s ‘Taleban’ Sect,” BBC, January 14, 2004.

[5] Murray Last, “Who and What are the Boko Haram,” Royal African Society, July 14, 2011.

[6] Passing through Maiduguri in 2009, one did not sense much fear of the group.

[7] “‘Boko Haram Attack’ Frees Hundreds of Prisoners,” BBC, September 8, 2010.

[8] There are claims that the June 2011 suicide attack was actually a botched bombing. See “Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists ‘Bombed Abuja Police HQ,’” BBC, June 17, 2011.

[9] “Nigeria UN Bomb: ‘Al-Qaeda-Linked’ Man Named as Suspect,” BBC, August 31, 2011.

[10] The so-called “manifesto” from the internet is clearly false. For details, see www.islamizationwatch.blogspot.com/2009/07/nigerian-taliban-boko-haram-manifesto.html.