With its violence, its ritualized executions, its mixture of the utterly archaic with AK-47s and YouTube videos, its behavior modeling based on a nineteenth century interpretation of an obscure medieval Islamic theologian—Boko Haram is hard for us to get our minds around.
Therefore, many of us fall back on seeing it as a form of al-Qaeda and a part of its international terrorist movement, rather than the product of populist rage against a corrupt government that has marginalized northeast Nigeria.
In terms of understanding Boko Haram, Alex Perry has done a service for the educated, non-specialist reader. A journalist now at Newsweek and the former Time editor for Africa, he published a long article, entitled “Boko Haram: Terror’s Insidious New Face,” in last week’s Newsweek. He also recently published an e-book, The Hunt for Boko Haram: Investigating the Terror Tearing Nigeria Apart. He appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air on July 16, where he gave a long interview to Terry Gross. A full recording and transcript are available online.
Taken altogether, there is a trove of rich understanding here, and his style is very plain speaking—he characterizes the Nigerian army as the country’s “biggest criminal enterprise,” for example. There is so much here that for a blog post I will take only an example or two. In all three of his works, he highlights the paradox of the international (and Nigerian) “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign. Meant primarily to provoke a strong government response, the campaign has instead provided Boko Haram with previously unimaginable notoriety. So from Boko Haram’s perspective, it worked.
I do not agree with everything Perry says. I do not think that Shekau is mad, and I think Boko Haram is much more than ignorant, inarticulate, and nihilistic teenagers. But he has written so much that is illuminating that I hope he has a wide audience. He is absolutely policy relevant.
For example, he writes that Islamist radicalization is spreading across the Sahel, stating “that’s an extremely alarming analysis but I think it’s fairly alarmist as well. There is no doubt that these groups have some sort of communication and occasionally share personnel. But the idea that they’re in any way operating as a coordinated group—well there is no evidence for that at all.” He goes on to emphasize the local focus of the various groups and their lack of capacity for international operations.
On that point we agree. Seeing Boko Haram as the new front of the war on international terrorism, with echoes of 9/11 and the Twin Towers, does not help.