The Origins of Boko Haram—And Why It Matters

Global Challenges Counter-extremism Conflict

The Origins of Boko Haram—And Why It Matters

Posted on: 13th January 2020
Audu Bulama Bukarti
Senior Fellow, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change

Whether Boko Haram started as a home-grown group or as an outlet for the global jihadi movement has for years been hotly debated by researchers and scholars. Drawing on primary evidence from extensive fieldwork on the ground, our analyst Bulama Bukarti sets the record straight on the Kanamma incident, a key moment in Boko Haram's formation story. Read the paper at the Hudson Institute

While Boko Haram continues to wreak bloody havoc, debates over its genesis and links to other so-called jihadi groups continue. These have divided scholars into two broad camps. The first includes those who who see Boko Haram as a “home-grown” group, one that was birthed by systemic and structural local factors while treating the role and influence of al-Qaeda and international jihadism on the group as “marginal” or secondary.

In the other camp are researchers who de-emphasise the importance of local factors and promote the role of international jihadi organisations, principally al-Qaeda, to the rise of Boko Haram. At the heart of this debate is a violent episode that occurred during 2003-4 in Kanamma, a desert village in north-eastern Nigeria. This episode concerned a commune that that would become part of Boko Haram.

Accounts of what happened are profoundly different, indicating a general lack of clarity and knowledge about the incident. Virtually all writers rely on second-hand information—mostly unverified media reports which have, in turn, relied on more second-hand information without critically assessing the sources’ reliability. It is thus a classic case of “little evidence, much confusion.”

Given the ongoing debate and misunderstandings surrounding this episode, it is important to understand this event not only for its academic and historical value, but also because it contributes to an understanding of how Boko Haram began, which has practical policy implications today. Among other things, understanding how Boko Haram began remains vital for the sake of successfully defeating the movement. It is essential, also, for developing our wider understanding of the warning signs to watch out for among other similar groups—and preventing them from becoming the next Boko Haram.

Drawing on primary data, including extensive fieldwork in north-eastern Nigeria and primary internal documents in Hausa, Kanuri and Arabic, this paper re-examines the Kanamma episode with a view to setting the record straight. It finds that the Kanamma commune was not an al-Qaeda training center, as some have speculated, nor was it a pacific religious community, as put forward by others. While this paper contends that there were no operational connections between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in 2003 when the group was founded, there is evidence of an ideological relationship between the groups from the start. Understanding this is important for properly analysing the Boko Haram phenomenon and helping policymakers design effective strategies to deal with the group and the crisis in Nigeria.

Read the full paper at the Hudson Institute


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