Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa’s New History of Itself, Part 2

Find Part 1 here. Let’s resume the notes:

  • p. 35: Here, the authors begin discussing Boko Haram’s reconstitution in the wake of the July 2009 uprising, which naturally leads into a discussion of Abubakar Shekau. It is striking to see how little they know, or at least reveal, about this person. The authors relate what we know of his birthplace – Shekau village in Yobe State, as his name would indicate and as other sources have confirmed – although even they do not seem to know what year he was born. They go on to write, “He had a rough upbringing, not knowing any sort of opulence, nor any semblance of wealth.” He then worked as a farm laborer, which the authors believe left “a bad effect on his soul” and instilled qualities such as “abruptness, stinginess, and coldness” in him. Is there a bit of class contempt here? Not that Yusuf came from the upper crust, but there seems to be a hint that Shekau is low-bred.
  • p. 35: Continuing on Shekau’s biography (or their version of it – let us keep in mind that these are now his enemies), they relate that Shekau studied the Qur’an with various teachers in the northeastern Nigerian countryside before coming to Maiduguri. There, he enrolled in an institution the authors call (in English) “High Islam.” All this would be consistent with other accounts, particularly the more detailed one from International Crisis Group, especially if we interpret “High Islam” to mean the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies (BOCOLIS, now MOGCOLIS). In any case, here it is claimed that Shekau left “High Islam” for ideological reasons (mutabarri’an minhu, i.e. disavowing it) and without earning a degree, after falling under the influence of some Salafi shaykhs and rejecting the Sufi-dominated atmosphere of “High Islam” – which, again, sounds a lot like BOCOLIS. Then he met Yusuf and became one of his early students and devoted supporters. The authors then go on (pp. 35-36) to describe Shekau’s teaching style and overall persona at this time, occasionally slipping in a note of retrospective doubt as to whether his “asceticism” and “piety” were genuine. There is no mention here about Shekau studying in Mauritania, a claim made by Lemine Ould M. Salem but that I do not regard as likely).
  • p. 37: Here is where the account begins to talk about serious contacts with al-Qa’ida, i.e. al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM (and this is when some key correspondence between Shekau and these entities dates from, for example here). In rather vague terms, as in Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi’s 2016 interview, the account relates that Boko Haram fighters began training with AQIM “in the desert” and receiving money and expertise from AQIM. The authors comment, “The tie with them was strong then.” There is not here, however, any mention of AQIM directly helping Boko Haram plan any specific operation. The authors of this book arguably have an incentive to downplay contacts with/help from AQIM, but they do not adopt a polemical tone toward AQIM and it is possible that they are accurately summarizing the overall nature of the relationship.
  • p. 38: Consistent with other anti-Shekau sources from within Boko Haram and its offshoots, the authors write that Shekau began displaying “extremism” at a relatively early point, i.e. around 2011, especially in matters of takfir. The authors further relate that AQIM wrote to Shekau advising him to change his ways (this is again consistent with other sources), but he refused. As a result, the authors continue, Boko Haram split into three factions (I understand them to be describing not official factions at this point in the narrative, but rather tendencies): one that supported Shekau, one that openly opposed him while remaining committed to jihadism, and one that opposed him and in so doing renounced jihadism (and fell into what the authors here term “murji’ism”). The authors frankly state that the majority of the fighters backed Shekau, in part because he successfully blocked his opponents from disseminating their views within the ranks. In this context, his jihadist opponents broke off and formed Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan, better known as Ansaru. The account continues on p. 39, where the authors are full of praise for Ansaru’s knowledge but where they describe Ansaru as being partly dismantled through the deaths and capture of its leaders. The remainder, the authors say, fell into criminality. The authors here do not mention Ansaru reintegrating into Boko Haram as a bloc, again consistent with other sources, although they do allude to some of their individual leaders joining the Islamic State, which I take to mean fighting under Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. Meanwhile, contradictions between different sources remain concerning the identities/status of some key figures, particularly Abu Usama al-Ansari, whom these authors say is dead but whose name was signed to a 2017 Ansaru polemic.
  • p. 41: Here the authors describe Shekau’s control (and, from their perspective) his doctrinal extremism growing amid two developments: the shift from urban to rural combat and the deaths of the remaining key commanders appointed in the time of Muhammad Yusuf. What changed things, the authors say, was the establishment of the Islamic State – at this point, various commanders said that Shekau must pledge allegiance to the Islamic State or be overthrown. “He made the pledge to stay on his throne,” in their telling. Not mentioned here is that the pledge (in March 2015) coincided with major military setbacks for Boko Harm, as its proto-state in northeastern Nigeria crumbled amid a Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian offensive.
  • p. 42: Here the authors are forced to raise and address the obvious, and very sensitive, question: “Why did we refuse to call the group Khawarij before, and now we call them by that name?” In other words, if Ansaru was essentially in the right from these authors’ perspective, back in 2012 or even 2011, why did it take so long for these authors to break with Shekau? The authors explain, rather lamely in my view, that the coming of the Caliphate made Shekau’s group into literal Khawarij (i.e. actual rebels against the “imam,” rather than just extremists) and that Shekau fooled a lot of people for a long time. And here is where I’ll stop, since the text pivots to doctrinal questions after this, although there is a noteworthy passage on p. 45 where they talk about their “sources” for understanding Shekau, which basically come down to their personal experience of him. There are also, I should note, some more narrative passages interspersed in the rest of the book, particularly when it comes to internal conflicts within Boko Haram and the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State – perhaps I’ll post about those later, but again, this is a decent stopping point for now. As I mentioned in the last installment, I may add a part three at some point.

One wonders if anything resembling a decent biography of Shekau will ever emerge. If his own mother does not know much about his own life, if he himself is heavily invested in a certain wild-eyed persona, and if his opponents only know snatches of his early life, then perhaps much of who he was and is will never come to light. It’s striking, really: we live in an age of information saturation, yet the long-time leader of Africa’s most prominent jihadist groups is still hidden, to a significant extent, from almost everyone’s view.

 

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2 thoughts on “Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa’s New History of Itself, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Four Recent Reports/Translations on Boko Haram | Sahel Blog

  2. Pingback: A History of #BokoHaram – According to its Leader’s Sons | Nigerian History Channel

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