Al-Shabaab and the Exploitation of Kenya’s Religious Divide

I assess how al-Shabaab may be attempting to stoke religious tensions in Kenya for the International Peace Institute…Read the original here


Of Caliphates

In recent weeks, I have fielded a number of questions regarding Boko Haram’s declaration of a caliphate and whether the sect’s actions have been inspired by that of the Islamic State in the Levant. I thought I would great to pose some of the more commonly asked questions on my blog and also list the responses I have generally, and perhaps haphazardly so, provided to these quandaries.  I am no expert in Islamic theology, nor do I profess to have more than a very basic understanding of developments within the Levant with specific relation to the Islamic State. That said, I am hoping that my views could potentially answer some nagging questions or perhaps illicit some more informed responses. Here goes nothing….

Is Boko Haram copying or being motivated by the Islamic State (IS) to create a caliphate in north eastern Nigeria?

Boko Haram’s primary goal has always been the creation of an Islamic State (IS) in north eastern Nigeria which the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, believed would be the panacea to the Nigeria’s socio-economics ills which have arisen due to Nigeria’s secular government. In summary, Boko Haram’s ambition to create an Islamic state governed under Sharia Law predates the formation of IS.

Given the declaration of a caliphate, is Boko Haram seeking to join up with IS?

In terms of joining IS, it currently seems unlikely that Boko Haram will do so. While Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau paid tribute to al-Baghdadi and his Islamic State in July, Shekau has not officially pledged an oath of allegiance (known as bayat) to the Islamic State. Indeed, in the same video, Boko Haram similarly pays tribute to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. This is of importance as it indicates that Boko Haram is making explicit its neutrality in the ongoing row between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Also, there is evidence to suggest that Boko Haram has and may continue to be receiving patronage from al-Qaeda’s North African branch, namely al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM’s emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel, has sworn bayat to al-Zawahiri. If Boko Haram had to affirm its allegiance to IS, the sect risks jeopardizing its alleged AQIM patronage.

Has Boko Haram established a caliphate in north eastern Nigeria?

In the purest sense of the term, Boko Haram is unable to declare a caliphate in Nigeria as the sect has not and likely will not meet the requisite criteria to declare a caliphate which will be recognised by the Islamic Ummah. For one, while BH are assimilating and subsequently holding territory, much of what falls under their control is not continuous and therefore cannot be defined as unified territory – i.e. somewhat of an unspoken geographic precondition for the establishment of a caliphate.

Secondly, a caliphate requires a Khalifa. To be recognised as a Khalifa, the individual needs to be from the Quraysh lineage – a precondition which Shekau does not and will not meet.  There are also other qualifications required for the declaration of a caliphate which is based on the Khalifa’s ability to be both a spiritual and political leader to the citizens of the caliphate. Boko Haram, as it stands, lacks the requisite resources, infrastructure and administrative acumen to effectively provide these conditions to communities in areas under their control. In summation, Shekau’s Caliphate is only that in name and nothing else. 

Are there any similarities between Boko Haram and IS?

Akin to IS, Boko Haram is rapidly expanding its operational presence across parts of north eastern Nigeria. At the time of writing, it is claimed that Boko Haram has effectively seized control of a number of towns in Nigeria’s north eastern Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, most notably that of Bama (Borno state), Gwoza (Borno state), Gamboru (Borno state), Buni Yadi (Yobe state) and Madagali (Adamawa state) where the sect are claimed to have raised the Rayat al-Uqab (Black Standard) flags.  A number of other areas with Borno and Yobe state are also being contested by the group and could similarly come under sect control over the short-to-medium term.

Is Boko Haram changing tactics and what could happen next?

The capture and holding of territory presents a significant evolution in Boko Haram’s modus operandi. The group has previously exhibited its operational acumen in an effective guerrilla campaign which was being waged in both urban and non-urban environs across much of northern Nigeria. However, in capturing and defending territory, the sect is also noting that it has the capacity and capabilities to engage in more conventional forms of warfare. It is expected, Boko Haram will continue to launch more offensives in Borno state aimed at capturing and assimilating more territory. A very realistic medium term goal for the sect may be to encircle Borno’s state capital and the sect’s birthplace, i.e. the city of Maiduguri, and possibly capture and control the urban centre in a similar manner to which IS eventually secured control of Mosul.



Alshabaab’s South African expedition

Less than a week after the US government issued a travel warning for Ethiopia, the East African country’s National Intelligence service claimed to have arrested 25 suspected terrorists during a security operation conducted in its south west.  Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal stated that those detained had been trained by the al-Shabaab militant group in Somalia and were planning a series of attacks in the city of Jimma, located some 300km south west of the capital, Addis Ababa, where the arrests were made. Kemal further stated that “a number of weapons” were also seized during the security sweep.

The incident was by no means unprecedented. Ethiopia has and continues to be viewed as a high value target by al-Shabaab due to the former’s ongoing involvement in counterinsurgency operations aimed at uprooting the militant group from Somalia. The al-Shabaab threat is also by no means trivial. The extremist group has demonstrated that it possesses both the intent and operational capacity to execute retaliatory strikes against its enemies outside of Somalia’s borders as witnessed by its terrorist attacks with Uganda, Kenya and, most recently, Djibouti. Aware of the ever-present threat, the Ethiopian government continues to prioritise national security and regularly conducts multi-pronged counter-terrorism operations aimed at curtailing the militant group.

Consequently, the Jimma arrests were pretty much for par for the Ethiopian course, well, barring one rather interesting development. In a separate communiqué released by the Ethiopia’s Federal Police Joint Anti-Terrorism Taskforce on 5 June, it was claimed that the terrorist cells dismantled in Ethiopia’s south west were receiving patronage from sponsors other than those based in Somalia. Interestingly enough, one of these sponsors was alleged to be in our very own South Africa.

This would not be first case that Somalia-based Islamist extremists were linked to South Africa. As international media covered various facets of al-Shabaab’s September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, Kenya, it came to the fore that international fugitive, and suspected al-Shabaab operative, Samantha “WhiteWidow” Lewthwaite had been residing in the Johannesburg suburb of Mayfair for at least two years. Moreover, evidence further indicated that Lewthwaite had entered Kenya on a fraudulent South African passport in 2011 and may have played a role in facilitating the Westgate attack. The incident shone a harsh spotlight on corruption within South Africa’s Home Affairs Department, while also highlighting laxities within the country’s border control agencies. Deficiencies, which some argued, has made South Africa a transit point for various illicit organizations.

What was sorely missing from the discourse, however, was considerations to the growing evidence of an entrenched al-Shabaab presence within South Africa. And the evidence is plentiful. For example, in a confidential intelligence report compiled in the immediate aftermath of the Westgate assault it was documented that Kenyan security forces had disrupted a similar al-Shabaab terrorist plot in Nairobi in December 2011. Organised by alleged mastermind of the Westgate assault, Abdukadir Mohammed Abdukadir (aka Ikrima), the planned attack was claimed to have received both logistical and financial support from a South African-based facilitation network. The same dossier further claimed that in October 2011, Kenyan Intelligence uncovered an al-Shabaab to launch attacks against the OTC bus station and Kwa Mwaura Bar in Nairobi which were to be commissioned by South African-trained al-Shabaab operatives. Both facilities were eventually attacked in October 2011 and March 2012 respectively.

But it is not only on foreign shores that al-Shabaab’s linkages to South Africa have been made explicit. In September 2009, the US government closed its embassy in Pretoria and all related consular representations across South Africa due to an unspecified security threat. A month later, the Weekend Argus claimed that the closure was prompted by US intercepting a communiqué between al-Shabaab operatives in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, and their Mogadishu-based counterparts. The exchange allegedly detailed a plot to attack American diplomatic interests within South Africa, although the timing and nature of the attacks were not disclosed. The publication’s findings were later corroborated by US-based intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) in a confidential briefing detailing the security threats facing South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The Stratfor briefing would later be made public by international whistleblowing organization Wikileaks.


Documented evidence of an al-Shabaab presence in South Africa has also been presented by the Africa-focused security think tank, the Institute of Security Studies (ISS). Speaking to al-Jazeera, senior ISS researcher Anneli Botha stated that she had interviewed an al-Shabaab member who had been sent to South Africa for two years to receive training. “He said he lived and worked here and obtained a South African passport while he was in the country. A South African passport is a nice commodity to have – one can travel anywhere in Africa with it,” said Botha. Further commenting on South Africa’s al-Shabaab quandary, Botha added “this is putting us [South Africa] at risk, first as a safe haven and secondly as a target.”

But how credible is the al-Shabaab threat to South Africa and, more importantly, are we at risk of an imminent attack?  In terms of the latter, current evidence suggests we are not. In a time where nations from all corners of the globe have united against the wave of Islamist terrorism, South Africa’s foreign policy on the issue has been less robust. Yes, major terrorist attacks have been condemned and even the perpetrators thereof denounced by the South African government. But this has not manifested into any tangible policy response which could potentially place our country at risk of retaliatory attacks. In short, South Africa has provided groups such as al-Shabaab with no motivation or incentive to attack our country.  

Moreover, an al-Shabaab attack within South Africa may actually do the Somali extremist group more harm than good. If the evidence is true, al-Shabaab has setup financing and logistical networks within South Africa which are being used to fund and possibly organise high value attacks within Somalia and the wider East African region. However, launching an attack within a non-antagonistic ‘safe haven’ would undoubtedly prompt an intense and sustained backlash by South African authorities, placing the aforementioned channels at a significant risk of being curtailed. An outcome which would be incongruent with al-Shabaab’s primary goal of ridding Somalia of its foreign forces and overthrowing its western-backed government.

Finally, we should also be considered in associating presence with operational capabilities. While al-Shabaab may have indeed setup facilitation networks in South Africa, it’s a far cry to suggest that the group has the operational capacity to actually execute sophisticated and mass casualty attacks. Access to the requisite expertise, bomb making materials and high calibre weaponry, hallmarks of the group’s operations within East Africa, will be less readily available in South Africa. Furthermore, the ability of militants to escape punitive counterterrorism operations, either through melting into local communities or crossing porous borders, will also be severely limited.

Nonetheless, despite the low probability of an al-Shabaab attack within the short-term, the South African government cannot afford to be complacent. The longer al-Shabaab is allowed to operate with relative impunity, the more entrenched they will become within our borders. The more entrenched they are, the higher the chance that they could become a stakeholder in South Africa’s domestic security. Developments such as a change in South Africa’s foreign policy stance, or even the often overlooked xenophobic attacks against Somali communities, could turn a relatively benign threat into one which is far more malicious — a threat which I fear South Africa, like our East African counterparts, may find extremely difficult to contain. 

Assessing the civil war threat in Mozambique

In 2013, Mozambique experienced the worst outbreak of political violence since the country’s civil war, which occurred between 1977 and 1992. Akin to the 15-year-long conflict, hostilities were a result of strained relations between the ruling Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) party.

The recent cycle of violence stems from allegations made by RENAMO’s long-serving leader, Afonso Dhlakama, that the ruling party was undermining Mozambique’s post-war pluralist democracy and was seeking to centralise control over economic revenues garnered via the country’s burgeoning hydrocarbon industry.

Although Dhlakama’s rhetoric was by no means a new development, his October 2012 decision to disengage from electoral politics, and subsequently return to the party’s former rebel encampment within the Gorongosa Mountain Range, delineated the extent to which relations between RENAMO and FRELIMO had worsened. Moreover, Dhlakama’s so-called ‘return to the bush’, which was initially thought to be nothing more than a symbolic gesture, has precipitated a spiral of violent encounters between RENAMO and government forces.

This has subsequently raised concerns of a resumption of civil war in Mozambique. But do such concerns have any merit? Current evidence suggests not. Unlike what was experienced during the Mozambican civil war, RENAMO no longer enjoys the patronage of foreign governments upon which much of the movement’s operational and logistical structures were dependent.

Although the group continues to have access to arms which were not decommissioned in the aftermath of the 1992 peace accord, RENAMO’s fighting force has also dwindled considerably. The group is now dependent on a few hundred ageing guerrilla fighters who, while well-trained and experienced, are incapable of waging a full-scale armed campaign.

Attempts to recruit new fighters will also be stymied by RENAMO’s lack of political relevance among many Mozambicans due to the party’s inability to make the transition from a guerrilla movement to an effective political party with a resonating ideological agenda. Although the Mozambican Armed Forces (FADM) remains relatively small and weak, it is assessed to have the requisite prowess to nullify any attempted armed campaign launched by RENAMO.

Key dates in Renamo's recent insurrection.

Further mitigating the risk of civil war is political expediency. Ultimately a return to conflict favours neither party. From FRELIMO’s perspective, eradicating a movement that poses a minimal political threat may actually reinforce RENAMO’s ‘power-hungry’ narrative of the ruling party. With general elections taking place in October 2014, FRELIMO will be hesitant to undertake any actions that could see the party losing popular support at the ballot.

Moreover, conflict or even the threat thereof will undoubtedly also pose a risk to foreign direct investment which, up until now, has been central to the consolidation of political stability in the post-civil war era. From RENAMO’s perspective, the party is aware that it does not possess the capacity to challenge FRELIMO militarily.

It is also mindful of the fact that any attempts to do so may well catalyse the demise of the party. These factors suggest that a politically achieved resolution to the impasse will remain the primary goal for both parties.

Assessed military capabilities of the Armed Forces of Mozambique (FADM) and RENAMO

FADM: Currently it is assessed that the FADM has a 13,000-strong military, in addition to a fully functional naval and air force. Furthermore, the Mozambican army has access to offensive air, ground and maritime military vehicles, including tanks, attack helicopters and patrol boats.


Nevertheless, should RENAMO become increasingly frustrated in its campaign, and should the diplomatic and political avenues to achieve its objectives remain limited, there is a possibility the group could increasingly resort to violence as a means of pressing FRELIMO into concessions.

To date, much of RENAMO’s rhetoric has been focused on disrupting strategic rail and road infrastructure, specifically the EN1 highway and SENA railway line, which are key in transporting coal supplies from Tete province to the port of Beira. Given that such transport corridors run through RENAMO strongholds in Sofala province, the possibility of these interests being targeted in insurgent assaults will remain a credible threat in 2014.

Jonathan seeks an unlikely savior in al-Qaeda

“Boko Haram is no longer a local terrorist group, it is operating clearly as an Al-Qaeda operation, it is an al-Qaeda of West Africa.” These were the words uttered by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan during a news conference held in the French capital, Paris, on 17 May. The media briefing followed an earlier African security summit, coordinated and hosted by France, where the governments of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Benin and Chad, pledged better regional cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram. In turn, the French government and its UK, US and EU counterparts, committed to provide logistical and technical support to regional initiatives aimed at uprooting the Islamist sect.

The ‘Boko Haram plan of action’ formulated at the summit was by no means earth-shattering or unprecedented. Speaking during a security conference in Abuja in February, French President Francois Hollande similarly promised his country’s support to Nigeria’s armed campaign against Boko Haram. “Your struggle is also our struggle,” President Hollande told delegates, further adding “We will always stand ready not only to provide our political support but our help every time you need it because the struggle against terrorism is also the struggle for democracy.”During the same address, the French president also urged for greater regional cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbouring countries —many of which may already be experiencing contagion from the Boko Haram insurgency.

However, what was unique about the 17 May summit was that it marked one of the first occasions that the Nigerian government had explicitly associated Boko Haram with the transnationalist terrorist al-Qaeda network. In all fairness, such linkages are not without merit. From reports suggesting that sect members trained and even fought alongside al-Qaeda’s North African branch in Mali, to accounts that Boko Haram may have been supported Osama Bin Laden himself, evidence linking the Nigerian militant group to al-Qaeda is plentiful. But such claims are hardly new to the Boko Haram discourse and, one would assume, would have been investigated by the Nigerian government upon first mention. So why would Jonathan only now publically label Boko Haram as an al-Qaeda offshoot? For one, by doing so, he may have potentially earned himself and his government a rather unlikely saviour.

The Chibok kidnapping  has drawn widespread attention to Boko Haram’s near decade-long insurgency against the Nigerian government; an insurgency which has killed at least 2,000 people this year alone.  Moreover, the incident has also placed a rather harsh spotlight on the Jonathan administration and the role it has played in the ensuing carnage. In doing so, a tale of chronic  governmental neglect in north eastern Nigeria ­— Boko Haram’s birthplace and primary area of operation — has come to the fore. Out of Nigeria’s six administrative zones, the country’s north east has the highest unemployment and poverty rates; human development indices which some argue are important indicators for the development of conflict and terrorism by non-state groups.

Prevailing narratives also present the story of an unprofessional and ill-disciplined military who have committed gross human rights abuses in combating the sect. Extortion, extrajudicial killings of civilians and the abduction and subsequent assault of Boko Haram wives and children, have seemingly become part and parcel of the army’s counterinsurgency strategy. In this regard, the army has not only failed to win the trust of local communities, essential to the success of any counterinsurgency campaign, but may have unknowingly aided Boko Haram in its recruitment. Then there are also those accounts which claim that the Islamist insurgency is being used as a pawn in a game of political chess — a perpetual and often ruthless game played between Nigeria’s opposing southern and northern political blocs. A game which has all too often resulted in significant collateral damage.

However, by designating Boko Haram as being northing more than an al-Qaeda proxy, Jonathan has pretty much absolved his beleaguered government of its role in the spiraling conflict. Issues of poor governance, systemic bureaucratic corruption and an ill-disciplined military, which should be central to the Boko Haram discourse, will now be concealed in the shadow cast by the global (and thankfully non-Nigerian) bogeyman. Boko Haram’s actions in the past, present and foreseeable future, will be contextualised to no more than a symptom of al-Qaeda’s global war on a democracy — a war which solely aims to displace democratic governance with a repressive and archaic rule of law which deems western education to be forbidden, commands women to be stoned for adultery and which orders the execution of apostates. A war which the armies of superpowers such as the US, UK and France are struggling to contain.

By telling the world that he is now fighting al-Qaeda and not merely Boko Haram — a global as opposed to a Nigerian enemy —Jonathan may not only be trying to save face. Indeed, he may also be attempting to convince an ever-critical domestic and international audience that his government is actually the unlikely hero in a war which to date has only known victims and villains. 

There are no strangers at this negotiation table

In what has become its preferred means of communication with the outside world, Nigerian-based Islamist extremist group Boko Haram released another video on 12 May detailing for the time first dozens of schoolgirls which the sect had kidnapped from the town of Chibok on 15 April. In the 17-minute long video, in excess of 100 girls can be seen reciting verses out of the Holy Quran, all clad in full-bodied veils which have become symbolic of the modesty expected from women within the Islamic faith. The footage then cuts to Boko Haram’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, who proceeds to reaffirm the group’s responsibility for the mass kidnapping and, perhaps more importantly, sets the terms for the hostages’ release. Speaking in Hausa, the predominant dialect of northern Nigeria, the militant leader scornfully declared “We will never release them [the girls] until after you release our brethren”.

The Boko Haram communiqué came mere hours after presidential adviser, Reuben Abati, made explicit that the Nigerian government would not enter into any negotiations with the militant group. Speaking to Sky News Special Correspondent, Alex Crawford, Abati stated “the government of Nigeria has no intention to pay a ransom or to buy the girls”. He further added “the determination of the [Nigerian] government is to get the girls and to ensure that the impunity that has brought this about is checked and punished.” Abati’s rhetoric echoed that of President Goodluck Jonathan who had also denounced on several previous occasions that his government would enter into any negotiations with Boko Haram — a group which he dismissed as being nothing more than a temporary problem to his administration.

Undoubtedly, the Nigerian government’s stance on this issue conforms to the internationally-professed policy which dictates that sovereign states should under no circumstances negotiate with terrorists. However, in line with the indiscretion at which this policy is implemented, the Nigerian government is seemingly no stranger to meeting Boko Haram at the negotiation table, especially when it entails securing the release of kidnap victims. In one of the sect’s first documented abductions, Boko Haram kidnapped several women and children following an attacked it had launched on a police barracks in the town of Bama . In a video released just days after the Bama incursion, Shekau officially claimed responsibility for the abduction which he cited as a reprisal for the detention of Boko Haram wives and children by the Nigerian military. While the exact circumstances surrounding their release remain unclear, the Bama hostages were eventually freed from captivity on 24 May 2013 — a day after the Nigerian authorities declared that it was releasing a number of detained Boko Harm women and children.

A month prior to the Bama abductions, Boko Haram had also claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a French family in Dabanga, a town located in proximity to Cameroon’s shared border with Nigeria’s insurgent-embattled Borno state. The sect had once again claimed that it had abducted the French nationals in retaliation for the Nigerian and Cameroonian government’s unlawful detention of Boko Haram women and children. The hostages were eventually released on 16 April amid speculation that a cash ransom, estimated to be around USD 3 million, was paid and incarcerated Boko Haram combatants freed in exchange for their release. In November 2013, Boko Haram would strike again in northern Cameroon when it seized French priest, Georges Vandenbeusch, from the border town of Koza. Vandenbeusch was eventually released unharmed a month after his capture amid claims that French authorities had again paid a cash ransom to the group. Both France and Boko Haram denied that a ransom was paid, however, with the Islamists claiming that the priest was freed by Shekau on compassionate grounds. But this account was in turn denied by a Cameroon military source who claimed Vandenbeusch was exchanged for a senior Boko Haram commander who had been detained by Cameroonian authorities.

Although they remain subject to confirmation, the aforementioned incidents highlights that the Nigerian government may have prior experience in negotiating with Boko Haram; experience which may prove to be invaluable in brokering any deal which may result in the safe release of the Chibok hostages. Moreover, these incidents may also delineate that Boko Haram is not only receptive to conciliatory initiatives, but has an established track record of holding its end of the bargain provided its demands are met. That said, both the domestic and international focus on the fate of the Chibok hostages may complicate any current or future negotiation process. Boko Haram’s demands will likely be excessive, knowing very well that the options available to a beleaguered Nigerian government in securing the safe release of the Chibok hostages are limited. The Jonathan administration on the other hand will resist the urge to be strong-armed into ceding to the group’s demands, knowing that doing so would sets extremely dangerous precedent and perhaps catalyse further such mass abductions in the near future. All things considered, any likely negotiation process is expected to be a protracted and highly intricate exercise and it may well be a while before the Nigerian government can indeed bring back its girls from the clutches of Boko Haram.


Nigeria: Shekau takes BH further down Al Qaeda path – By Jacob Zenn

After four years of incessant Boko Haram violence in northern Nigeria and an estimated 8,000 deaths, Nigerians are now protesting what they see as an ineffectual government response to the insurgency. International media is now also paying greater attention to the growing humanitarian crisis in the Nigeria-Niger-Cameroon-Chad border axis. The cause of the latest outrage in Nigeria is Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 230 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno State and the bombing of a motor park outside of Abuja that killed nearly 100 bystanders. Just today there has been another bombing in Abuja, latest reports indicate that 19 people have been killed.

Both the mass-kidnapping and the first of the motor park bombings occurred within a 24-hour span on April 14-15 and were highly foreseeable—and likely preventable.

In video statements since 2013, Boko Haram’s religious leader, Abubakar Shekau, has warned that ‘infidel’ women would become his “slaves” and that he would “sell them in the market.” According to Boko Haram, the girls in Chibok are “infidels” whether or not they are Muslim because they receive Western education – which Boko Haram considers apostasy – instead of Boko Haram-sanctioned Islamic Salafist education. Boko Haram founder Muhammed Yusuf preached that the only “pure” scholars that Muslims should follow are al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Usama bin Laden.

Boko Haram further believes that ‘infidels’ must pay a tax imposed on non-Muslims under Muslim rule, which is called jizyah in the Qur’an, to Boko Haram for protection. But because the girls in Chibok did not pay the tax, Boko Haram is entitled to forcibly marry them as compensation or – as Shekau promised – sell them. Boko Haram already sold several girls as ‘brides’ to Boko Haram members across the border in Cameroon for $12.

Shekau rose to become the second most important imam in Boko Haram before Nigerian security forces killed Muhammed Yusuf in 2009 and was recognized as being a charismatic—albeit chaotic— speaker on Islam. He manipulated the Islamic history of the Borno Empire, which spanned northeastern Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan and Libya, to rally followers to embrace jihad against the Nigerian government and resurrect Borno’s supremacy. It also helps that Shekau speaks Hausa (thelingua franca of northern Nigeria), Kanuri (the native language in Borno), classical Arabic (the language of the Qur’an) and English (the language of Nigeria’s elites). This suggests Shekau himself is a product of ‘Boko’, which roughly translates as ‘Western education’ in Hausa (‘haram’ means ‘forbidden’ to Muslims).

Since Boko Haram became an underground jihadist group after Yusuf’s death, Shekau likely took his cue from al-Qaeda, which Boko Haram contacted as early as 2004, and may have literally read scripts that al-Qaeda provided to him for sermons he taped from his various hideouts. Shekau typically pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda and its affiliates and threatens America in the introductions to his sermons, often with a script in hand, before chaotically “damning” all Christians, politicians and Nigeria’s Islamic leaders in a way similar to Maitatsine in 1980s. This may also explain why Shekau, who is Nigerian, often declares that Boko Haram is “waging a jihad in some African countries called Nigeria,” which makes no sense, and why Boko Haram attacked churches starting in 2010 to raise the spectre of religious war in Nigeria just like al-Qaeda has done in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (Muhammed Yusuf, in contrast, maintained good relations with Christians).

Boko Haram’s first church attacks in Jos, Plateau State on Christmas Day, December 2010 involved five simultaneous bombings and, according to Nigerian security forces, “bore the hallmark of al-Qaeda.” Since 2010, Boko Haram has burned down hundreds of churches and looted Christian communities, which Shekau says is justified under the Qur’anic injunction of “spoils of war,” or ghanima. Yet, even when Boko Haram “conquers” such villages, it refuses to establish any governance mechanisms, suggesting that Boko Haram has learned from other al-Qaeda affiliates in northwest African and Yemen that becoming bound to territory, distracted by bureaucracy, and responsible for imposing an unpopular brand of Islamic Law, is a prescription for failure.

Yet, as Boko Haram’s power has risen, it has become clearer that Shekau’s ban on ‘Boko’, hatred of America, Christianity, secularism, and democracy, and assault on the Nigerian government’s legitimacy are not extreme in the Nigerian context. Millions of Nigerian Muslims follow religious movements with similar attitudes—from the Iranian-backed IMN and Gulf-funded Izala Movement to the animist group Ombatse. Like these movements, Boko Haram also has support from the outside, albeit from a non-state actor in al-Qaeda, which provided it with training, ideological direction, and funding likely through Usama Bin Laden’s ‘External Operations Unit’ commander, Yusuf al-Mauritani, who is now in prison in Mauritania. It is, however, Shekau’s strong domestic ideological currency in “damning” Nigeria’s ills, in particular corruption and impunity, and his ability to convey this in an Islamic and historical context that makes Boko Haram resonate among both the marginalized al-Majiri youths of northern Nigeria and under-employed intellectuals of Nigerian universities.

Nonetheless, Boko Haram’s actions, such as the mass-kidnapping of young girls in Chibok, far exceed what is considered tolerable among mainstream or even other extremist movements in Nigeria. The rise of a faction of Boko Haram in 2012 critical of Shekau (called Ansaru), whose leaders are former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) members and accomplices of Yusuf al-Mauritani, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and other al-Qaeda figures, shows the extent to which Boko Haram deviates from the brand of Islam practiced by Muslims in Nigeria, around the world and even some al-Qaeda members.

Although it would come at great personal risk, since Boko Haram proudly assassinates detractors, including Ansaru membersSalafist clerics, and most recently Sheikh Albani of Kaduna,  religious leaders in Borno and elsewhere in Nigeria must vehemently and frequently call out and delegitimize Boko Haram for its excesses, if not its more conventional ideology.

Establishing that Boko Haram’s actions deviate from the consensus of Muslims would only be one part of the broader battle, however. Boko Haram’s military capabilities and weapons arsenals that reportedly include some tanks (and allegedly helicopters) and rocket launchers likely can only be beaten by overwhelming military force. On this account, the Nigerian military must succeed on three levels:

First, it needs to not only ‘clear’ enclosed areas in Borno, like it did in the Sambisa Forest after President Jonathan announced a State of Emergency in May 2013, but also ‘hold’ such areas so Boko Haram cannot return, like it did in order to capture the girls in Chibok.

Second, it needs to cooperate with neighboring militaries and governments in Niger, where dozens of Boko Haram members are recruited; Chad, where weapons are funneled into Borno across Lake Chad; and Cameroon, where the Chibok girls are being sold and Ansaru has kidnapped more than ten Western tourists and Christian priests and nuns.

Third, it needs to coordinate with other countries in Africa and in the West to learn the lessons of militaries with experience in counter-insurgency and undercut Boko Haram’s ties to al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups. This includes al-Shabab, which provided Boko Haram with the bomb-making skills to carry out the UN Headquarters attack in Abuja in 2011 and likely also the recent Abuja motor park bombings.

The Boko Haram insurgency cannot be wished away as a “temporary crisis.” Elections are scheduled for February 2015, but if Borno and other areas in northern Nigeria are under Boko Haram’s mandate of violence, Shekau will succeed in undermining the democratic process he so despises. Moreover, theories are rampant in majority Christian southern Nigeria that Boko Haram is underwritten by northern Nigerian Muslims to undermine President Jonathan and return political power to the north. But in majority Muslim northern Nigeria, many people believe that President Jonathan and southern politicians are willfully neglecting the Boko Haram crisis to perpetuate the State of Emergency and ensure that elections in 2015 will not be held and that political power – and accompanying oil profits – will stay in the south.

Meanwhile, from a regional perspective, in 2012 it was the UN and ECOWAS seeking Nigeria’s support to combat al-Qaeda and other Islamists occupying northern Mali, but now in 2014 it is Nigeria seeking UN and ECOWAS support to combat Boko Haram and find the abducted girls from Chibok.

Boko Haram is tearing apart the fabric of Nigeria, with consequences for African stability, Muslim-Christian relations in Africa, and the viability of democracy in Nigeria. Until Nigeria cleans its own house and works with its neighbors and other allies to combat this threat, there will be no limit to Boko Haram’s ability to devastate northeastern Nigeria and its borderlands and impose a Taliban and al-Qaeda order in the region.

Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African Affairs and author of “Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram: The Prize in al-Qaeda’s Africa Strategy,” which was published by The Jamestown Foundation.  Read the original piece at African Arguments 

The Chibok kidnapping: An intricate public relations exercise

In a video released to AFP on 5 May, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, confirmed what many had feared – that the Islamist extremist sect was responsible for the 15 April kidnapping of more than 300 female students from the north eastern Nigerian town of Chibok.

In the communique, Shekau stated, ‘I am the one who captured all those girls and will sell all of them. I have a market where I sell human beings because it is Allah that says I should sell human beings. Yes, I will sell women, because I sell women.’

Shekau’s rhetoric seemingly confirmed my initial suggestions that human trafficking may have been a motivation for the Chibok kidnapping. In my blog entry ‘Why have you taken our girls?’ I referenced an extract from a 30 March statement which Shekau had made, threatening the abduction and possible trade of female civilians. ‘In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves and, in due course, we will start taking women away and sell [them] in the market’, Shekau had declared.

But if human trafficking was truly the motivation behind Boko Haram’s abduction of the Chibok students, why would Shekau wait nearly three weeks to claim responsibility for the incident? More importantly, why would Boko Haram make explicit its intentions and possibly risk compromising what would otherwise be a lucrative revenue-generating enterprise? I believe the answer lies in the fact that Boko Haram never intended to sell its hostages, well at least not in the manner in which Shekau’s rhetoric suggested.

Considering the circumstances which surrounded their abduction and that which would surround Boko Haram’s claims of responsibility, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls has been orchestrated as an intricate and well-planned public relations exercise aimed at captivating both a local and international audience. In kidnapping 300 girls mere hours after killing more than 70 people in the Nigerian capital, Boko Haram has nullified any suggestions that it has suffered an operational decline and/or that the government has gained any foothold in its ongoing war against the insurgency. Narratives which the Nigerian government had often forwarded when questioned about the progression of its counterinsurgency campaign.  Furthermore, the timing of Shekau’s most recent communique was also likely a deliberate and considered decision aimed at garnering international attention. It is no coincidence that Boko Haram confirmed its responsibility for the abductions at a time when a social media campaign, using the twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls, had peaked and where associated protest gatherings occurred with a degree of spontaneity in major cities across the world.

However, apart from glorifying its capabilities and highlighting the deficiencies of the Nigerian government, Boko Haram’s need for publicity may also be the most important indicator of the fate of the Chibok hostages. As mentioned, while trafficking was always considered a plausible outcome for the detainees, the sects actions to date seems incongruent with such an undertaking. Instead, it seems more plausible that Boko Haram already are or likely will use the hostages to negotiate some form of concessions from the Nigerian government. This could either see the Chibok girls being exchanged for Boko Haram detainees and/or to extort a ransom payment or other material assets. Any such outcome will not only seek to strengthen the operational capacity of the sect, but do so to the detriment of the Nigerian government. By drawing as much attention to the incident as it has, Boko Haram has placed itself in an extremely strong bargaining position and is pressuring the Goodluck Jonathan regime to act with a decisiveness and rapidity which has been sorely lacking in its response to the insurgency.

Although  Jonathan has denounced that he would enter into ransom negotiations with Boko Haram, his government does not have much of a choice in the matter. A military option aimed at rescuing the hostages is simply not feasible, as any such initiative will undoubtedly significantly risk the well-being of the hostages. Any actions by the Nigerian government which result in harm to any of the hostages would likely be considered the greatest indictment against Jonathan’s already blemished tenure. However, not responding to the situation with the conviction that the Nigerian and international communities are demanding will be equally damaging. Growing claims that Jonathan is losing his grip on the Boko Haram insurgency will only become more audible, should his government fail to secure the immediate release of the Chibok girls. Although Jonathan may consider bargaining with Boko Haram as a sign of weakness, and possibility counter-intuitive to Nigeria’s ongoing fight against the sect, he should perhaps be reminded that when one is standing on the edge of a cliff, taking a step backwards is often the only means of progress.