Busting Myths on Global Jihadism in Nigeria

Editors Note: In the upcoming months, TAJ will be featuring contributions from analysts and scholars in the field of (counter-)terrorism research who I’ve come to learn from and highly respect. This presents a fantastic opportunity to diversify levels of engagement and participation as well as introduce unique perspectives and analyses by some of the top minds addressing various issues regarding terrorism on the African continent. This month’s article is by Jacob Zenn (@Bokowatch on Twitter), a senior fellow on African and Central Asian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC and adjunct assistant professor on African Armed Movements at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. Jacob Zenn is an expert on Boko Haram, whose work I’ve relied on over the years for my own understanding of the group, particularly when it came to my inquiry into Boko Haram’s links to international jihadist groups which I began to explore in my article last year on the group’s “Al-Qaeda-Islamic State Nexus“. In this regard I think Jacob’s upcoming book couldn’t have come at a better time and will be a valuable contribution to an emerging school of thought that in Africa, Jihad is Not Local.

I would like to thank Brenda for the invitation and opportunity to write a guest post on her blog, whose monthly content has been provocative and scholarly. I look forward to her forthcoming research on al-Shabaab and encourage everyone to follow her as well!

The purpose of this post is to introduce my book, Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria, which is headed to press and will be available in e-book and hardcover by late April or early May. Should the coronavirus crisis (hopefully) settle by the end of summer, I will hold a book talk or two, but, if not, podcasting may be the way to go for presenting key findings.

Among other reasons, the book was motivated by the need to provide a broader, more panoramic perspective on “Boko Haram” that acknowledges that not only local, but also international, factors contributed to “Boko Haram’s” emergence and rise. This issue has become controversial because of the assertion by Moaveni, among others, that portraying “Boko Haram” as a “franchise of the global al-Qaeda or [Islamic State]” is “warmongering” and Orientalist and “could hurt many more innocent people and exacerbate a grievous humanitarian emergency.” [1]

If we accept the above assertion as correct (which I do not), then it raises the issue of whether scholars should pretend that “Boko Haram” (or specifically Islamic State in West Africa Province—ISWAP) is not part of the “Islamic State franchise,” even though it actually is. For, who would want to suggest ISWAP is an “Islamic State franchise” if that suggestion could hurt many innocent people? (Whether “Boko Haram,” or specifically Jamaat Ahlussunnah lid-Dawa wal-Jihad, was part of the “al-Qaeda franchise” is a separate debate and is assessed in my book).

More broadly, Moaveni’s assertion relates to academic freedom: if a true finding may allegedly lead to an undesirable social result (hurting many innocent people, for example), should academics still publish the finding? How should academics weigh the costs and benefits of producing truthful findings? In my book I opted for truthful analysis and presented evidence of how ISWAP is most certainly part of the “Islamic State franchise.”

In this blog, I will share three of the key findings from my book. The book’s sources are also posted on the book’s companion website so that all of the sources, including interview videos, audios, and transcripts, can be transparently reviewed by other scholars. Interviews, especially in foreign languages, are often so open to interpretation that it becomes necessary, or at least very helpful, for scholars to reveal how questions were asked and answered. For example, there have been a number of studies that determine that “Boko Haram” members joined “because of poverty” without any methodological explanation of how questions were asked and how answers were interpreted, or even how it was determined the interviewee was actually a “Boko Haram” member in the first place.

Transparency helps alleviate such concerns. Of course, the interviewees gave me their permission to record their interviews and their names are anonymized in the book. In addition, due to social media censorship, it has become harder to find older jihadists videos and documents, so dozens of them, including not only for “Boko Haram,” but also for al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are stored on the book’s companion website.

The first key finding in my book challenges Thurston’s argument that “Boko Haram” was motivated to join the Islamic State in March 2015 due to the former’s “weakness.” [2] Authors of another book on “Boko Haram” published earlier this year in 2020 also reiterated Thurston’s claim and asserted Islamic State “couldn’t be bothered” with ISWAP until Islamic State began losing territories in Iraq and Syria in 2019 and “Boko Haram” and ISWAP’s ties to AQIM and Islamic State were “cosmetic…to make it seem like it was well-connected” (18:20). However, my book proves based on among other sources, one translated by Aymenn al-Tamimi, that ISWAP’s leaders already desired to pledge loyalty to Islamic State by November 2014, which was weeks before the Nigerian army launched its offensive in January 2015. One of the reasons why what I term the “local school” downplays and exaggerates the Islamic State-ISWAP relationship as being merely “cosmetic” is that ISWAP’s loyalty to a foreign jihadist group like Islamic State tends to undermine, or present a disconnect with, the theory that ISWAP is fighting because of poverty and corruption in Nigeria. But to continue to deny reality is a disservice for those seeking to understand the group.

Moreover, although the final agreement among all key leaders to pledge loyalty to Abubakar al-Baghdadi was concluded on February 9, 2015, there are absolutely no documents, audios, videos, or other histories that suggest ISWAP viewed the pledge to Islamic State as a decoy to distract from military setbacks or that ISWAP was motivated by “weakness.” Therefore, claims that ISWAP was motivated by “weakness” or sought to distract attention from alleged military setbacks are based only on speculation and without any evidence, except for the somewhat coincidental timing between Nigeria’s January 2015 military offensive and the March 2015 pledge. As I have argued elsewhere, if the pledge was motivated by “weakness,” why does ISWAP still maintain loyalty to Islamic State despite ISWAP being strong and Islamic State being weakened.?

The existing sources, both internal and external, indicate ISWAP leaders genuinely believed Abubakar al-Baghdadi was a caliph before making the loyalty pledge to him. There was, however, deception involved in ISWAP’s pledge to the Islamic State, just not in the way most people think. My book explains this other deception in detail utilizing, among other sources, a letter from Tunisian AQIM shura council member, Abu Iyad al-Tunisi, to several African jihadist leaders, including “Boko Haram” leader Abubakar Shekau, in 2014.

Second, “Boko Haram” is almost always said to have been founded in 2002 or 2003. My book, however, argues that “Boko Haram’s” origins date to 1994 when the first Algerian jihadists arrived in Nigeria and first Nigerians began traveling to Sudan. Some scholars wonder how “Boko Haram” became a movement ascribing to global jihad if it was originally a “local” movement. My book argues the core driving force in “Boko Haram” has always been toward to the idea of global jihad, including since 1994, and, therefore, it should not be surprising that even ISWAP’s new locally targeted Hausa magazine includes information about Burkina Faso and other countries. The group’s worldview is global. Among the key sources for researching “Boko Haram’s” origins from 1994 were three Hausa interviews with the “Boko Haram” founder Muhammed Ali’s companion conducted in 2017, 2018, and 2019 and one of several AQIM accounts mentioning Nigerian jihadism’s origins.

Third, the Nigerian group Ansaru has often been portrayed as “Boko Haram’s” al-Qaeda-loyal internationalist offshoot. This is rightly so—to an extent—because its founding members had fought with AQIM (or its predecessors) as early as the mid-1990s and mid-2000s. However, what my book argues is that from the announcement of Ansaru’s founding in January 2012 until January 2013, Ansaru was mostly devoid of any al-Qaeda or internationalist messaging and, if anything, its narratives were about “defending” Muslims in Nigeria and opposing Abubakar Shekau, albeit initially without mentioning him by name. My book finds the reason why Ansaru began to finally emphasize al-Qaeda and internationalist themes only in 2013 was that, first, Ansaru members began returning to Nigeria from Mali that year and, second, Ansaru connected with a global jihadist media outlet in 2013 instead of using the local Kaduna State-based outlet that it used in 2012.

In this regard, I have to critique other scholars who have cited me in the past to argue Ansaru was “internationalist”; they likely relied on my authority—a logical fallacy (“appeal to authority”)—but they did not check the primary sources themselves. This demonstrates the importance of not simply citing to what other academics say, but also to checking the actual primary sources and interpreting them. Compare for example, how Ansaru’s June 2012 videos and Ansaru’s 2013 Eid al-Fitr statement differed regarding Ansaru’s relationship to al-Qaeda, albeit with the former two videos in English and Hausa and the latter statement in Arabic. As a result of viewing these primary sources more closely, I had to revise my understanding of Ansaru: it became internationalist but was not necessarily initially that way in early 2012.

My book’s introduction is available open-access at the publisher’s webpage for the book. If interested, I encourage you to read the book and contact me if you have any questions. I hope the book contributes to understanding and resolving the “Boko Haram phenomenon.”

Thanks again to Brenda for all the great work she is doing and for hosting me on her blog.

Featured Image Source: Thread by Robert Postings (2019): ISWAP photos released for Eid al-Adha, https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1161651231816859648.html

[1] See my formal response to Moaveni at: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/boko-haram-al-qaeda/

[2] Thurston, Alexander. Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, Pg. 272, Ch. 5.

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