A boy walks through an area of northeastern Nigeria devastated by battles between the Nigerian army and Boko Haram insurgents.
A recent video by Boko Haram shows that the group is still alive and kicking, and as committed as ever to its ideology. The video is also telling of how extremist groups exploit every opportunity to recruit. Understanding the contents of the video will help policymakers and authorities fighting the ISIS affiliate appreciate how best to deal with the militant group in its current state.
On 2 January, the disputed leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, released a video that he said was intended to greet his brothers in arms all over the world. The 32-minute message, which came after months of a relative lull and amid a surge in attacks by the group, showed Shekau in white clothes and a black turban, with an AK-47 resting on his shoulder, reading what appeared to be his New Year message from a prepared script. He read the first part in Arabic before summarising it in the Hausa language. The video then showed footage of what he said was a recent attack on a military formation.
The recording contained three key messages. Shekau began by reiterating his group’s stance that democracy and conventional education are forbidden; that secular authorities that arrogate lawmaking powers to themselves are anti-Islamic; and that every Muslim who does any of the foregoing is an apostate. He stressed that it is the duty of every Muslim to fight and supplant secular authorities, institutions and those who support them. Shekau concluded this part of his speech by reiterating his group’s resolve to establish “pure monotheism”.
The second message in the tape was an attempt to dispute claims by authorities that Boko Haram has been defeated.
The second message in the tape was an attempt to dispute claims by authorities that Boko Haram has been defeated. Apparently referring to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s New Year speech a day earlier, in which he said, “We have since beaten Boko Haram”, Shekau replied, “We are in good health and nothing has happened to us. . . . Nigerian troops, police and those creating mischief against us can’t do anything against us, and you will gain nothing.”
To support this statement of its continued activity, the group’s leader claimed several attacks that had taken place during the festive season, saying, “We carried out the attacks in Maiduguri, in Gamboru, in Damboa.” Shekau then showed footage of an attack on Christmas Day on a military checkpoint in Molai village, on the outskirts of the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, which the military said was thwarted by troops after a one-hour battle.
Shekau’s third message related to the recent decision by the United States to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy there, which Shekau said vindicated his group. He said Palestinians had not been honest in their claim to protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque, over which the Jordanian government has custodianship. “If they were honest, they wouldn’t just sit and watch a mosque being taken over by someone who does as they like inside it.” He also criticised the Saudis and other Muslim leaders for talking to Jews.
Important lessons can be drawn from all three parts of the video. The first signifies that Boko Haram is still as committed to its ideology as ever.
Important lessons can be drawn from all three parts of the video. The first signifies that Boko Haram is still as committed to its ideology as ever. The group continues to repeat its ideological polemics to keep its army motivated and attract new recruits. This drives home the point that to comprehensively defeat Boko Haram, policymakers need to target its ideology rather its violence alone. Mainstream religious scholars can only incapacitate the group’s ideology by further understanding it and being empowered to proffer articulate counter-narratives.
On the second point, Boko Haram may be correct that it still exists, but its claim that nothing has happened to it is palpably inaccurate. The 2017 Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute for Economics & Peace indicates that Nigeria recorded the biggest improvement in curbing terror-related violence in 2016, with an 80 per cent fall since 2015 in the number of deaths attributed to terrorism. The report also shows that neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger recorded 75 per cent reductions. This demonstrates that Boko Haram has been gravely weakened by the onslaught of the Multinational Joint Task Force mandated with ending the insurgency and by cracks within the group.
However, Boko Haram has recently accelerated its attacks, especially on places of worship and other soft targets. On 21 November 2017, at least 50 people were killed in a suicide attack by a teenage boy in the northeastern town of Mubi, while three soldiers died and half a dozen others were wounded in an ambush some 30 kilometres (19 miles) from Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, five days later. Insurgents also killed scores in coordinated attacks in Borno and Yobe states on New Year’s Eve.
These and other attacks in the last two months indicate a surge in Boko Haram’s attacks after months of relative respite.
These and other attacks in the last two months indicate a surge in Boko Haram’s attacks after months of relative respite. Thus, security agencies should not see any gains they have made as a sign they can relax. As the Global Terrorism Index indicates, Nigeria is still the third most terrorised country in the world. The troops fighting the group must sustain their efforts to consolidate their gains and enhance measures to protect civilians.
Finally, Shekau’s attempt to exploit the situation in the Middle East is an indication that radical groups are ready to use every opportunity to push their extremist agendas. Thus, governments and policymakers should carefully weigh up the possible impacts and implications of their decisions, to avoid playing into the hands of extremist organisations like Boko Haram.