John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


The Different Faces of Boko Haram

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
August 29, 2013

Burnt houses and ashes are pictured in the aftermath of what Nigerian authorities said was heavy fighting between security forces and Islamist militants in Baga, a fishing town on the shores of Lake Chad, adjacent to the Chadian border, April 21, 2013. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs for the Washington D.C.-based think tank, The Jamestown Foundation, and a contributor to the West Point CTC Sentinel.

This August, Nigeria’s Sun News conducted an interview with Nasir Isiaku, who said he was a member of an “Islamic movement” called “Shiite,” which sent members to train in Iran before he joined a Boko Haram cell in Kaduna. Isiaku said he fought Christians and “drank his victims’ blood” so their ghosts would not appear in his dreams.

At first glance, Isiaku’s report seems inconsistent with Boko Haram’s image as a Sunni, salafist-jihadist movement. (It’s possible Isiaku did not even know that “Shiite” refers to the other major Muslim sect). Yet, in June, Boko Haram left behind “various charms and amulets” as members escaped the government offensive in Borno. In abandoned Boko Haram camps, the security forces found bows and arrows, which are used in traditional (and non-Islamic) rite-of-passing ceremonies and to hunt animals, but not in attacks (even though Boko Haram recently killed eighteen civilians for selling non-halal bush meat and playing cards.) Captured Boko Haram members even reported that they turned to cannibalism while hiding in Borno’s forests.

All this indicated that the typology of a typical Boko Haram foot soldier likely differs from expectation. Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau was indeed a radical salafist imam before the insurgency began in 2010. However, Boko Haram has always drawn upon—and even paid—impoverished religiously uneducated youths, like Nasir Isiaku, to carry out church bombings and school burnings. Many “Boko Haram” members are not actually members of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad—the real name of “Boko Haram” in Borno. Boko Haram—meaning “western education is sinful” in Hausa language—is a name that the media and locals created; Shekau always rejected it.

Nasir Isiaku’s interview suggests he was a member of the Shiite and pro-Iranian and pro-Hizbollah, Kaduna-based Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), while he also maintained animistic traditions, similar to Ombatse. The IMN avows non-violence and accepts western education with Islamic education, but is ideologically not too different from Boko Haram. For example, the IMN demonizes the United States as the “Great Satan;” claims Usman dan Fodio’s legacy; condemns his heirs, such as the sultan of Sokoto; exploits sensitive issues to Muslims, such as the U.S.-made “Innocence of Muslims” film; calls the Nigerian government “America’s stooges” and “occupiers” of northern Nigeria; and targets northern Nigeria’s al-majiri youths for membership. In fact, Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf was reportedly a member of the IMN in the 1990s before splitting to join a Saudi-funded salafist group.

Nasir Isiaku may perceive that he was a member of “Boko Haram” and accepted Boko Haram’s ideology, but likely operated within a cell that had separate funding streams and leadership from Shekau in Borno. Given that Isiaku was in Kaduna, his violence was likely connected to Middle Belt violent extremists.

An analysis of the violence in the Middle Belt in 2011 and 2012—including the UN Headquarters bombing, Federal Police headquarters bombing, and more than twelve suicide operations at churches—shows that the suspects tended to be immigrants from Chad or Niger; Muslim Fulani herdsman in conflict with Christians over land; Muslims who experienced the 2011, election violence, which was most deadly in Kaduna; or Nigerian former al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operatives.

Most likely, Nasir Isiaku was caught up in these Middle Belt movements—but not “Boko Haram” as such. There are also likely thousands, if not tens of thousands, of youths like Nasir Isiaku in the Middle Belt, who can be recruited into violent extremist groups—whether or not Boko Haram is defeated or Shekau has been killed.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Chike

    A question.

    How reliable is this news source?

  • Posted by Charles Craig

    The best and most insightful writing on Boko Haram I have seen. Most people go on the simplistic view of radical Islamic groups causing the conflicts in the region. It is much more complex with the mix of poverty and tribal conflicts tossed in.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required