Boko Haram: The Islamic State of West Africa?

Boko Haram: The Islamic State of West Africa?

Boko Haram: The Islamic State of West Africa?


4 min read

This summer has seen the declaration of an Islamic caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, and of the application of Islamic law in parts of northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau announced on 24 August that towns in northeastern Nigeria were now "part of an Islamic state... and have nothing to do with Nigeria anymore." Combined with Shekau's statement of support for ISIS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi in July and Boko Haram's capture of several towns in northeastern Nigeria's Borno state in September, there is growing potential Boko Haram could become the ISIS of West Africa.

Boko Haram's own Islamic state would not stop in Borno state, as its operations to take over towns in neighbouring Yobe and Adamawa states and northern Cameroon attest. Nigerian intelligence reports state that Boko Haram's recent bombings in Jos, Kaduna, Abuja and Kano are part of a "destabilisation campaign" to pave the way for a "blitz" from northern Nigeria toward Nigeria's Middle Belt. This would mirror ISIS's years-long campaign of bombings in Iraq's "Sunni Triangle" before ISIS raced into cities like Fallujah and Tikrit after taking Mosul and expelling Christians and Shi'as in July 2014.

Like ISIS, which uses the Syria-Iraq border region as a safe-haven, Boko Haram takes advantage of the remoteness of the Nigeria-Cameroon-Niger-Chad four-country border region to maintain bases, training camps and logistics networks. Boko Haram regards the national borders dividing this region as "illegitimate" in the same way ISIS does not recognize the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which divided the Middle East.

Boko Haram founder Muhammed Yusuf lamented to his followers in the mid-2000s that, "Europeans cut off Niger and Chad and amalgamated [Borno] to the infidels." Now Boko Haram, much like ISIS, is seeking to deconstruct these colonial borders in the form of a new caliphate. Shekau (Yusuf's successor) also showed interest in ISIS's predecessors, such as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) from the first day he declared "jihad"against the Nigerian government and the United States in July 2010. In Shekau's first statement, he issued "glad tidings" to ISI before al-Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi. ISI and AQIM were also the first two groups to issue "condolences" to Boko Haram after Nigerian security forces killed Yusuf and one thousand other suspected members in clashes in July 2009 (the only other group to do so was al-Shabaab in Somalia).

Shekau has also been influenced by ideologues such as Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, who informed ISIS's own theology. In particular, Shekau has adopted al-Zarqawi's takfiri ideology—a term that is based on the root word kafir (infidel) and most closely means the "act of labeling another person an infidel". From al-Zarqawi's and Shekau's perspectives, anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim, including Christians and Shi'a Muslims, are "infidels" and must pay a tax, or jizya, to Muslim rulers or face death or expulsion.

Boko Haram is seeking to deconstruct colonial borders to form a new caliphate

Boko Haram has used takfiri ideology to justify the assassinations of leading Muslim leaders in northern Nigeria and "acquired" their wives and occupied their palaces. Like ISIS, which documents its killings of anyone who works for the "infidel" Iraqi or Syrian governments, Boko Haram believes most Nigerian Muslim leaders are kafir and kills them. Yusuf, for example, preached from his ibn Taymiyya compound (named after the "forefather of takfirism") in Maiduguri that Nigeria's foremost religious authority, the sultan of Sokoto, was an "infidel". Yusuf said the sultan should only be called a "tribal chief"–not a sultan or other religious label–because he allowed the mixing of Islam with "infidel" doctrines, such as secularism, Western education, science and democracy.

In contrast to the sultan, Yusuf believed Muslims should only "follow the ideology of the salafists and any fatwa issued by a salafist Islamic scholar... All Islamic scholars that undermine ibn Taymiyya, Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Bana and Osama bin Laden are not authentic Islamic scholars." When Shekau replaced Yusuf as leader and announced "jihad", Boko Haram embarked on a campaign of assassinating Muslim leaders who cooperated with the Nigerian state, including suicide bombings in Sokoto in 2012.

Boko Haram, unlike AQIM and al-Shabaab, has never formally affiliated itself with al-Qaeda. One potential block on a formal al-Qaeda affiliation for Boko Haram was its acceptance of mass Muslim casualties in attacks, which might further tarnish al-Qaeda's brand. This was the same concern al-Zawahiri had with ISIS. As a result, AQIM, which long sought a Nigerian zone of operations, used its Nigerian members to form Ansaru in 2012, which criticized Boko Haram's "inhumanity" for killing uninvolved Muslims, but still cooperated with Boko Haram on kidnapping foreigners.

The one Sahelian militant who has explicitly announced support for ISIS is the Mauritanian Hamadou al-Kheiry. He was the justice minister in Gao, Mali, when AQIM and other Islamist militants, including some Ansaru members, controlled northern Mali in 2012. Shekau's recent praise of al-Baghdadi as well as Boko Haram's recent tactics show that Shekau, or a possible successor (Shekau or another commander who claimed to be him was reportedly killed in September 2014) could follow al-Kheiry's lead and make a more formal declaration of support to ISIS. Whether his overtures are accepted is a separate matter.

Boko Haram and ISIS are separated by nearly 2,500 kilometers geographically, but their operational and ideological similarities are highly inter-connected. Thus far, direct links between the two groups have not been documented, but Boko Haram's verbal support for ISIS and its modeling aspects of the insurgency in Nigeria on ISIS's strategy in Iraq and Syria suggests a potential ambition of Boko Haram for a closer relationship–possibly even direct collaboration.

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