A Window Into How Part of the Nigerian Military Views Boko Haram

Earlier this month, Colonel Timothy Antigha, the Chief Military Press Information Officer for the Multi-National Joint Task Force, published an essay entitled “Counter-Insurgency: The Broader Implications of Recent Execution of Boko Haram Commanders.” The essay is a follow-up to earlier analyses Antigha has disseminated, including the December 2017 piece “Boko Haram: State of Counter-Insurgency Operations.”

Antigha’s writings give insight not just into the state of Boko Haram (where some caveats and questions are in order regarding his analysis), but also into how parts of the Nigerian military views Boko Haram. This latter aspect of the writings is most interesting to me.

Antigha’s analyses, I should note at the outset, are more sophisticated and blunter than the typical verbiage one encounters in Nigerian military press releases. Many of those promote a one-dimensional, triumphalist narrative of brave soldiers killing “Boko Haram Terrorists” or surmounting temporary setbacks.

Consider, by way of contrast, this passage from Antigha’s December 2017 piece:

Apart from being religious fundamentalists, Boko Haram is a terrorist social movement.

Like all social movements, it represents groups that are on the margins of society and state, and outside the boundaries of institutional power, Boko Haram seeks to change the system in fundamental ways, through a mix of incendiary religious dogma, unbridled criminality and unmitigated terror.

The strategic end state of the insurgency is the establishment of an Islamic State in the Sahel covering parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, in the likeness of what ISIS envisioned for Iraq and Syria.

Without doubt, 2011 – 2014 was Boko Haram’s most active and successful years.
During this period, the public lost confidence in the ability of the military to defend Nigeria’s territorial integrity.

This is pretty three-dimensional stuff. One might take issue with parts of it, but it’s clear that Antigha is light years beyond the “snuff out all the BHTs” guys.

Now, some of the caveats: Antigha is very positive on the Nigerian military’s performance starting in 2015, i.e. under the current administration of Muhammadu Buhari. One could be forgiven for concluding that politics plays into how he periodizes the counter-insurgency. I agree with him that 2011-2014 (or I would say into early 2015) were Boko Haram’s most successful years, and available data on the numbers of attacks and the extent of territorial control would bear that out. But it’s too neat to just emphasize that “the emergence of a new government and leadership in the Nigerian Army in 2015 resulted in a new operational framework and design for the North East.” For one thing, Boko Haram’s fortunes declined before Buhari took office, amid the Chadian-Nigerien (and then Nigerian) push into Boko Haram-held territory. SInce Buhari took office, moreover, some old problems have continued to plague the Nigerian military, including corruption, brutality, and a weak rural presence. All of this is to say that we must remember, when reading Antigha’s analyses, that he is an information officer working for the Nigerian military and the MNJTF. He is not an independent or disinterested voice.

Now, turning to Antigha’s more recent analysis, a few interesting points stand out:

  • Antigha does not differentiate starkly here, as do so many analysts and reporters, between Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi’s Islamic State West Africa. That is, when discussing the recent reported assassinations of Mamman Nur and Ali Gaga (both of whom are typically identified as having been affiliated with al-Barnawi’s group), Antigha sees the dividing line within Boko Haram not as Shekau vs. al-Barnawi but as “moderates” vs. “radicals.” Antigha sees this divide as one centered on relations with civilians. According to Antigha, Nur and Gaga “were trying to win back the confidence of the people when they met resistance by younger and radical commanders.” Antigha expects further fragmentation, again not along lines determined by global affiliations but along lines determined by strategy: “Commanders and foot soldiers who were loyal to the executed commanders may, subject to their assessment of their chances of survival go their separate ways as terrorists or denounce terrorism and surrender.” Al-Barnawi’s name does not even appear in the text, and Antigha seems to see factional divisions as secondary to this issues of “moderates” versus “radicals.” Antigha writes, “Following the execution [of Nur], Mustapha Kirmimma has succeeded Nur as second in command. Kirmimma is reputed as a Shekau type of terrorist.” Is Antigha saying that both factions now have strong Shekau-like contingents within them – or is he suggesting a different understanding of how Boko Haram is organized? After all, Antigha uses the singular when he argues that Boko Haram is “an organization that has a semblance of core values, is well policed and governed by strict rules and regulations.” The accuracy of any of this is less interesting to me, in this context, than is the insight into how Antigha (and, by extension, at least part of the Nigerian military and the MNTJF) understands Boko Haram’s organizational structure. A number of questions follow – is this analysis based on flawed information? Or information not available to the public? Or is it simply a different reading of what the 2016 split really meant?
  • Antigha is not really concerned at all about external linkages. He writes, “It becomes difficult to ignore the view that Boko Haram has become a highly poisonous brand, which is unattractive to global terror entrepreneurs who are looking for conflicts to invest in. More so, opinion is building among analysts and commentators that Boko Haram could be a liability rather than asset to the Islamic State which it claims affiliation to.” For me, again, this is interesting not because of the question of whether he is right or wrong in his diagnosis, but because his portrayal is a far cry from what we hear/have heard from some other voices within the Nigerian government, past and present. If you want to be ultra-cynical (more cynical than I am willing to be, actually), you could say that when Nigerian officials want to maximize their chances of gaining more external military support, they play up Boko Haram’s transnational ties; and when they want it to appear that the counterinsurgency is working and that Boko Haram is on the back foot, they downplay those ties.
  • Antigha concludes by attempting to manage expectations, in a really interesting way: “Likely fallout of the recent executions could be more Boko Haram skirmishes against defence forces and of course more attacks on soft targets in the area of operation. However, the skirmishes would not be borne out of a desire by Boko Haram to gain any strategic or operational advantage; (the capacity is really not there) rather, the attacks will be driven by the need for some publicity by the radicals who have seized power in Boko Haram. The aim of these attacks, some of which have been reported already, is to hoodwink supporters and sympathizers to believing that Boko Haram is still a viable and reckonable terrorist organization.” Translation: Antigha knows that there will be more attacks, but he wants to portray these attacks as Boko Haram’s last gasps rather than as signs of a continued resurgence by the group. The big question to me, though, is who controls the countryside in Borno and Yobe; many Boko Haram attacks appear, to me, to be not so much about publicity as about preventing the Nigerian military from establishing firm control over rural and remote areas.

In conclusion, read the whole piece. It is the most interesting Nigerian government/military statement that I’ve seen about Boko Haram in quite some time. Again, I don’t agree with all of it, but it does give a window into how *some* top military officials see the jihadist organization. A final question, as with figures in the previous administration who also seemed to have a sophisticated viewpoint, is how much influence such analysts really have – or whether the guys who think in terms of body counts are the dominant figures after all.

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Four Recent Reports/Translations on Boko Haram

So far this month, two important new reports on Boko Haram have caught my eye, as well as two important new translations.

The first report is Fulan Nasrullah‘s “Strategic Thinking Behind Ongoing Insurgent Offensive Operations In Northeast Nigeria- An Analysis.” Here is an excerpt, describing the period after August 2016, when Boko Haram split into two factions led respectively by Abubakar Shekau and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi (who became head of the official “Islamic State West Africa Province” or ISWAP):

At that point in time, with high tempers on both sides of the divided insurgency, there was a fear within ISWAP that Shekau would either deflect pressure from his group (which was weakened by the split and was solely bearing the heat of pressure from the Nigerian and other regional militaries), by negotiating a deal  with the Nigerian authorities to provide them with intelligence to wipe out ISWAP and get Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi/Mamman Nuur(there were extant suspicions and accusations that Ansarul-Muslimeena Fee Bilaadis-Sudan’s urban operations networks and Cameroonian camps had been wiped out by Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities as part of a deal Shekau had made with them), or, he would launch an all out fratricidal war on the nascent group he was regularly denouncing as deviants.

Although spontaneous clashes would erupt between individual units along a very much undefined mix of territory with no clear front line demarcating them, all out war was prevented by ISWAP’s leadership seeking for and holding deconfliction meetings with the Shekau group[6]. While Abubakar Shekau himself was inclined to disregard attempts to deconflict the situation, his Shuraa (the decision making body, or what was left of it after the split) impressed on him the need to avoid intra-insurgent conflict for religious and operational reasons[7].

The whole piece is fascinating. The weakness, as with other writing by Nasrullah, is in the sourcing. Nearly every endnote says something like “conversations had with people with knowledge of these events at the time they occurred, and recently to confirm the details before writing this paper” (that’s the text of endnote 7). So one’s assessment of the report’s credibility essentially comes down to your assessment of Nasrullah’s credibility. You can attempt to fact-check him by comparing his assertions with other sources and accounts, but you cannot fact-check him by accessing and assessing his own sources. When I cited some of Nasrullah’s writing in my book, particularly when it came to discussing Boko Haram’s fight for Damboa, Borno in summer 2014, I tried to deal with this difficulty by saying things like, “According to [Nasrullah]…” In other words I would treat this as a valuable account but I wouldn’t regard it as confirmed.

The second report is from International Crisis Group, entitled “Cameroon’s Far North: A New Chapter in the Fight Against Boko Haram.” An excerpt:

Since 2014, vigilantes, numbering some 14,000 in the Far North, have played an essential role against Boko Haram. They provide critical intelligence to Cameroonian forces, act as scouts and guides, and sometimes confront jihadists directly and protect their villages, especially against suicide attacks. The authorities offer them little support, however. Some have become disillusioned and abandoned the struggle. Vigilante groups also have come in for criticism. Some members were previously cattle thieves, smugglers or bandits, others have been arrested for collaboration with Boko Haram and some are suspected of human rights abuses against captured Boko Haram suspects. As the conflict quietens, plans for their future will become ever more urgent. The absence of such plans could lead groups to fragment, with some vigilantes turning back to crime.

Two important translations have also appeared this month, both from Aymenn al-Tamimi.

One is the account of Tunisian member of Ansar al-Sharia who helped Boko Haram with communications, perhaps some time in 2014-2015, during the period leading up to Boko Haram’s/Abubakar Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015. Vincent Foucher has a short Twitter thread with some analysis here. One passage from the translated text stood out to me, just because it underscores the remoteness even of Boko Haram’s media people, let alone its fighters:

In order [for the Tunisian author’s Nigerian interlocutor] to upload one of the group’s releases, he had to travel to a place some 300 km away from his village, as mobile phone network coverage would be available to upload a release of poor quality on an upload site, and the time for uploading this release, whose size did not exceed 50 MBs, took 9 whole hours. Then he would give me the link to re-upload it on a number of sites with the help of some of the brothers specialized in Rapidleech. Then we would publish it in the forums and on the page of Ifriqiya lil-‘Ilam.

The Tunisian author also claims to have been the key intermediary between Boko Haram’s media people and the Islamic State’s:

Subsequently we tried to establish connection between our brother and our media guy brothers in the beloved Islamic State and the groups supporting it in Africa, and praise be to God, the desired coordination arose months later, and the blessed Mu’assasat al-Urwa al-Wuthqa was established, and a special transmission was achieved in the quality of the releases. May God bless all who facilitated that and strove for that from near and afar. And that was a key to refute the doubts that some of the hyenas and crows strove to publish in the field of West Africa- they got to the point of sending an envoy from them to there in an attempt to convince the group not to give allegiance to the Caliph at all as they did in the Caucasus, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia. And despite that, and by the grace of God the Exalted and Almighty, the group’s leadership, represented in Sheikh Abu Bakr Shekau, decided to give allegiance to the Caliph in order for ranks to be united, the force to be strengthened, and in order for the enemies of God to become enraged.

This makes it sound like the pledge was orchestrated remotely, rather than through any face-to-face negotiations between Islamic State emissaries and Boko Haram. In any case, read Vincent’s thread, as it makes the important point that the Tunisian author manages to both wax enthusiastic about Shekau and the Islamic State, and simultaneously imply that it was Shekau who held back the pledge to the Islamic State for some time. That’s a pretty self-contradictory position to try to hold onto.

The other translation by al-Tamimi is the full version of the text I discussed here and here, namely the anti-Shekau polemic released in June by “Islamic State West Africa” and authored by the “two sons” of Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf.

I am very glad that al-Tamimi has made the full translation available. It is a fantastic resource for understanding (at least from its authors’ perspective) the history of Boko Haram. I do, however, disagree with some of the analysis al-Tamimi has appended to the text. One point al-Tamimi makes is this:

It has been claimed that Shekau’s group and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province represent two rival factions professing loyalty to Baghdadi and competing for recognition as the Islamic State’s wing in the West Africa. In fact, this claim is incorrect. Shekau clearly does not recognize the Islamic State as a legitimate authority whatsoever, and on multiple occasions his group has actually fought the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, which deems Shekau and his followers to be Khawarij.

Based on both evidence and logic, this doesn’t quite add up. In terms of evidence, there have been a few communications from Shekau to the leadership of the Islamic State where he appeals to them against al-Barnawi/ISWAP. If ISWAP calls Shekau a Khariji, Shekau calls ISWAP murji’is – in other words, each faction tries to delegitimize the other on theological grounds. Perhaps Shekau’s attitude toward the Islamic State central leadership has changed in recent months, but for quite some time he maintained that he was simply misunderstood and that al-Barnawi’s people had lied about him to the central leadership. Logically, too, it doesn’t follow that if Shekau attacks al-Barnawi’s group, that means he has completely rejected the authority of the central leadership – it just means that he has rejected al-Barnawi’s authority. Also, who is the intended audience of this (Arabic-language) book? It seems to me that part of the intended audience might be any waverers, including waverers abroad, who are still sympathetic to Shekau and who may not be completely convinced that deposing him as Islamic State “governor” was the right move. Otherwise why write it?

Another point from al-Tamimi is his assertion that one of the book’s most important parts is its

Discussion of the nature of relations between al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ‘Boko Haram’ after Muhammad Yusuf’s death. It should be noted that ‘Boko Haram’ never became a formal affiliate of al-Qa’ida in the manner of AQIM or al-Shabaab in Somalia, but there were very much concrete links and correspondence between AQIM and ‘Boko Haram’.

This idea of “concrete links and correspondence” is not at all new – indeed, the entire book can be seen as a recapitulation and extension of al-Barnawi’s 2016 interview with al-Naba’, available in translation here, where he also briefly discusses these contacts. This issue has now been analyzed to death by Nigeria watchers, including me, and what this new text describes is in line with sources released during 2015-2017, which confirms links and correspondence – the extent and meaning of which can and should be debated, but the existence of which cannot. In fact, other sources, such as this one, are a better bet if you want a detailed portrait of the Boko Haram-AQIM relationship after Muhammad Yusuf’s death.

But from the perspective of this new text’s authors, the relationship with AQIM is a tertiary issue at best, discussed on a handful of pages. This text is above all a theologically-oriented polemic against Shekau, a drama in which the two factions are the central actors, in which the Islamic State is the central love object, and in which AQIM is a minor player.

There are many other interesting passages from the text to highlight, but let’s close with this one. It comes in the context of intra-Boko Haram debates about calling other Muslims unbelievers – when can you call someone an unbeliever? Was someone an unbeliever all along, or did they at some point commit apostasy? This anecdote from the text (and we should bear in mind it is recounted by Shekau’s bitter enemies) is not dated, but perhaps comes from 2015, given remarks a few paragraphs earlier about Shekau forcibly taking concubines and slaves in northeastern Nigerian cities. The discussion is surprising to me in a way because it hints that the election of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 as Nigeria’s president was something that some Boko Haram members had to sort of debate and process, rather than instantly dismissing out of hand. Here is the passage (bracketed additions mine):

One day a brother quarreled with one of the students of al-Sheikawi, regarding the kufr [unbelief] of Muhammadu Buhari- the Taghut [ungodly tyrant] of Nigeria: was he an original disbeliever or a murtadd [apostate]? So the student went to his sheikh and informed him about the dispute that happened between him and the brother, so al-Sheikawi arose raging and thundering, and raised his voice saying: “Disbeliever! Disbeliever! By God a disbeliever! Disbeliever.” So the people gathered around him- of course the people of his centre and we were in attendance- and he began with idle talk and bleating for a period of around two hours, building one and destroying another, making an argument at one moment and then contradicting it in another, until he drew the following result as a conclusion:

That the principle regarding Muhammad Buhari, Ja’afar Mahmoud Adam [the estranged mentor of Muhammad Yusuf, assassinated in 2007] and other noteworthy names of those who claim affiliation to Islam, is that they are original disbelievers. And he said- and the recording of it is available and published: “The one who asserts the apostasy of Bukhari [sic] from Islam is a disbeliever. Yes, asserting that they are apostates is not allowed. They are not apostates but rather original disbelievers.”

This is crazy extreme, obviously. But again, what’s interesting is the extent of debate within Boko Haram – including debate about the events of the outside world.

Finally, it’s worth concluding with a passage from the Tunisian jihadist, which brings us back to the question of audience:

As we know that regrettably most of those who read our long articles are from the disbelievers, apostates and hypocrites, we conclude by challenging to mubahala the disbelievers, apostates, idolaters, secularists, modernists, moderates, adherents of Islam of enlightenment, tolerance, modernism, Qur’anism, America and secularism, the sheikhs of fabrication and falsehood from the ‘ulama of hypocrisy and shoes of authority, those who claim a doctorate, to be thinkers and to be of good understanding and analysis, and imams of damage and preachers of the pulpits of shame.

This is something for us all to keep in mind, I think – here the author himself admits that perhaps he has a bigger readership among his enemies (and among Western analysts?) than among his intended audience. All these texts, then, whether individually or in the aggregate, are only a partial window into what jihadists think and do.

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.

 

Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa’s New History of Itself, Part 1

Last month, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province released a book by “the two brothers, the two sons of the Shaykh Abu Yusuf al-Barnawi.” This “al-Barnawi” (the name just means “from Borno”) is Muhammad Yusuf, who is widely considered the founder of Boko Haram. The book, available in .pdf at Jihadology, is entitled Khadh’ al-Waram min al-Khawarij al-Shikawiyya bi-Bay’at Ahl al-Karam, or “Taking Out the Tumor of Shekau’s Khawarij Through Pledging Alliance to the People of Benevolence.” As the title indicates, it’s a polemic against Abubakar Shekau, who succeeded Yusuf as Boko Haram’s leader in 2009. Shekau now heads a faction of the group, the “Islamic State West Africa Province” being a fancy name for the other main faction.

To me, from an intellectual standpoint, the main interest of the text is in what it says about Boko Haram’s early years; part one is an auto-history from the anti-Shekau perspective. In many ways, what appears here is not new, but it does lend weight to some of the claims made in other sources – see below. The text’s silences, or the places it contradicts other sources from/about Boko Haram, are also interesting.

The second part, the polemic against Shekau, is less interesting to me. Maybe this is merely a sign of boredom on my part with this whole topic, but it may also be a sign of Boko Haram’s overall intellectual/doctrinal stagnation. Even amid the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 (under Shekau), and the factional split in 2016 (between Shekau and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, who appears to be one of the “two sons” who authored this book), I had a sense that Boko Haram’s most energetic thinking was behind it. The differences between Shekau and al-Barnawi may be real enough, as spelled out from al-Barnawi’s perspective here (.pdf), but the core issues by now are very familiar and the arguments are somewhat repetitive.

In a way, once Salafi-jihadis or even just Salafis or even just Sunnis in general start debating each other over how far to go with takfir (calling other Muslims non-believers), the conversation often devolves into more or less sophisticated versions of the ultra-hardliners calling the hardliners murji’a (i.e., too soft), and the hardliners calling the ultra-hardliners khawarij (i.e., too extreme). Either way, such intra-Salafi or even intra-Sunni debates often devolve into people accusing each other of leaving the theological fold, given that the murji’a and the khawarij were both early Islamic sects not considered part of the Sunni mainstream. Ironically, of course, many Sunnis, including many non-jihadi Salafis, love to accuse all Salafi-jihadis of being khawarij, so it’s ironic to see someone such as al-Barnawi (whom many Sunnis who call a Khariji) calling Shekau a Khariji.

I don’t really like using a “right-left” spectrum to describe Islamist or jihadist movements, but it’s too tempting to pass up here. One could even formulate a theorem: “Any given Salafi, when pressed, will call someone significantly to their ‘right’ on takfir a khariji, and anyone significantly to their ‘left’ on takfir a murji’i.” Daniel Lav’s book is, obviously, quite relevant to cite here.

In any case, here are a few of the interesting parts from the historical section. This post has gotten a bit long, so here in part 1 I’ll summarize some passages connected to the lifetime of Muhammad Yusuf, and in part 2, tomorrow, I’ll summarize some passages connected to Shekau. I may add a part 3 at some point, but likely not this week.

  • p. 9: The basic biographical information given here about Muhammad Yusuf (born in January 1970 in Jakusko to a Tijani Sufi father, etc.) lines up with what most other sources say and with what Yusuf said about himself.
  • p. 10: The book confirms what various other sources have claimed, namely that Yusuf belonged to Ibrahim al-Zakzaky’s “Muslim Brothers” until 1994, when he “noticed portents of rejectionism and Iranian Shi’anization” and left the movement. That Yusuf belonged to the movement is plausible – that it took him until 1994 to detect Iranian influence seems very hard to believe. It seems to me, then, that the hagiographers are here trying to acknowledge a widely known reality (that Yusuf was once Shi’i-leaning, an accusation his critics leveled at him), but then spin it to try to preserve his Salafi bonafides. The book then goes on to describe his affiliation with the Salafi sect Izala, an affiliation also widely reported in other sources. It puts the date of his break with Izala as 2002, a plausible date and the year widely cited as that of Boko Haram’s founding. (Elsewhere I have seen dates ranging from 2000 to 2003 as years when Yusuf began to distance himself from/become unwelcome in Izala circles).
  • p. 11: Here the writers, as in other Boko Haram sources, emphasize the impact of 9/11 on Yusuf’s thinking. Stating that he was on hajj at the time, the writers say, “Among the effects of this blessed raid was that it awakened in his spirit that which had been passive (khamidan).” The writers go on to quote from one of Yusuf’s lectures on how he became outraged over events in Nigeria such as the interreligious clashes in Kafanchan (1987) and elsewhere – essentially, the writers paint a portrait of someone radicalized by both domestic and foreign events. The authors describe the year 2001/2002 (1422 hijri) as the start of his strident preaching, particularly against “the democrats and their devil-scholars,” and they put the year of his complete break with democracy and his call for “monotheism and jihad (al-tawhid wa-l-jihad)” in 2003/2004 (1424 hijri).
  • p. 16: Here is an interesting and detailed overview of Yusuf’s mosques/centers/teaching sites, including the well-known Ibn Taymiyya Markaz and Al-Ta’ifa al-Mansura Mosque but also two sites that are new to me, namely the lessons he gave in Lawan Bor neighborhood and the Abu Hurayra Mosque in Gomari Airport neighborhood.
  • pp. 24-25: This is the fullest glimpse that I have seen into Boko Haram’s administrative structure in the time of Muhammad Yusuf. it contains details about Yusuf’s various committees, including a Hisba force charged with “commanding right and forbidding wrong,” for example by trying to close shops that remained open during Friday prayer time. He also had a military committee, initially responsible for guarding the movement’s leaders and sites, but that developed into something stronger over time.
  • pp. 21-22, p. 26, etc.: Boko Haram is still very angry at the Salafi and Salafi-leaning scholars who debated and denounced Yusuf during his lifetime – figures such as Ja’far Mahmud Adam and Isa Pantami.
  • p. 23, pp. 26-28: These passages essentially confirm the now widespread account of how Boko Haram came into increasing conflict with authorities, particularly in Borno, during the years leading up to the July 2009 uprising. These passages add new (at least to me) details, such as disputes between Boko Haram and the Borno State government over the timing of Eid al-Fitr (perhaps 2008, since Yusuf was dead by the time of Eid al-Fitr 2009?). But essentially the events are the ones we already knew, particularly the conflicts between the Borno State Government’s “Operation Flush” and Boko Haram. One notable section (p. 23) describes how Yusuf was  imprisoned on “false accusations with no basis: they imprisoned him once on the charge that he had connections with ‘the al-Qa’ida Organization’ and that he had a link with the ‘Taliban of Kanamma’ group, which was headed by the so-called Muhammad Ali, and which killed Ja’far Mahmud Adam, the taghut of the murji’a.” I suppose one could draw various conclusions from this passage, but to me there are two: (a) Yusuf had only very weak if not non-existent ties to al-Qa’ida, a conclusion supported by other sources; and (b) ISWAP, or whatever we call it, still has an odd relationship with the Kanamma group. It is known that Yusuf did have some ties to them, since he himself said that they had studied with him. So it’s odd that ISWAP would imply that there was no relationship whatsoever between Yusuf and Ali, or that the mainstream of Boko Haram had nothing to do with killing Adam (in 2007). If you’re not familiar with the events at/around Kanamma (the meaning of which is still heavily debated), here is one contemporary account and here is a scholarly analysis that I don’t fully accept.
  • p. 29: This section describes Boko Haram’s preparations for war under Yusuf, who ordered his followers to sell their belongings and arm themselves with the proceeds. He delegated a man named Abu ‘Amir al-Barnawi (who would die during the fighting) as head of the army, with three commanders under him, four leaders under each of them, and a thousand fighters under each of them (obviously that last part sounds wildly aspirational – Boko Haram may never, even at its height, have had 12,000 fighters). The account goes on to say that Nigerian customs intercepted some of the weapons that were smuggled in, and that this helped precipitate Nigerian forces’ strike on Yusuf’s Ibn Taymiyya Markaz. The account of the preparations and the battle, which goes on until p. 33, does not mention where the weapons came from, nor does it mention al-Qa’ida here.

Overall, one thing that stood out to me was that in reconstructing Yusuf’s life and thought, the authors rely very heavily on his publicly available videos and writings. I find it credible that the authors are indeed his sons, but that status wouldn’t necessarily mean that they have privileged information about their father or about events that occurred when they were children, teenagers, and very young men. At times I had the impression that they were following the same kinds of techniques that a Western analysts would in generating this account; one wonders how much first-hand knowledge about Yusuf really remains within Boko Haram’s ranks, and particularly within the ranks of “Islamic State West Africa.” After all, the guy has now been dead for nine years.

Quick Thoughts on the VOA Interview with Abubakar Shekau’s Mother

Recently Voice of America’s Chika Oduah found the mother of Abubakar Shekau, the long-time leader of Boko Haram who continues to act as head of one of its two principal factions (here is a photo of Oduah and Shekau’s mother together).

A quick note on surnames in northern Nigeria might be useful – many surnames are either the person’s father’s name (i.e. Muhammad Yusuf was most likely, “Muhammed, son of Yusuf”) or the place where the person is from. Shekau’s surname is the latter – “Abubakar, from Shekau.” So VOA found his mother, or a person claiming to be his mother, in – you guessed it – the village of Shekau, which is located in Yobe State, northeastern Nigeria. To an extent I am surprised that it took journalists this long to speak with her; and one hopes that Nigerian authorities had thought, long before, to interview her as well…

The interview does not shed much light on Shekau’s biography, perhaps because his parents lost track of him some fifteen years ago. And the few details in the interview raise many unanswered questions. For example, his father was “a local district imam before passing away a few years ago” – although, as is so often the case, it is hard to know what journalists (or their interlocutors) mean by “imam.” Was he the imam of a mosque? Or just a man with some religious learning? Did he have a school?

We read further that Shekau “left Shekau [village] as a boy to continue his Islamic education in Maiduguri, a center of religious studies for hundreds of years.” Crisis Group (.pdf, p. 19) places Shekau (the man) in Maiduguri’s Mafoni Ward as of 1990, when he was in his teens or early twenties (I’ve seen estimated birth dates for Shekau that range between 1967 and 1976). Shekau’s mother told Oduah that the turning point in his life was meeting Muhammad Yusuf, who is widely considered the founder of Boko Haram. Various analysts (including me) believe that by 2009, when Yusuf was killed by security forces in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s mass uprising that summer, Shekau was more hardline than Yusuf – but in the beginning it seems plausible that Yusuf heavily influenced Shekau. It would be extremely interesting, of course, to know exactly when the two men met – again, in Crisis Group’s account, Shekau enrolled in the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies in the 1990s, met Mamman Nur (another future Boko Haram leader) there, and then met Yusuf through Nur. But the meeting could have occurred at any point in the 1990s or even in the early 2000s.

Being a student at the College, of course, meant that Shekau was exposed to some degree to the very “boko” (Western-style education) that Boko Haram later declared haram. The College was meant to be a bridge for people coming from a classical Qur’an school background and seeking to enter into formalized study in the state system and from there to enter the salaried economy. I have never found confirmation of how long Shekau attended or whether he attained a degree there.

At Premium Times, Oduah provides more details about Shekau’s mother’s life in recent years – including how Boko Haram’s attacks have forced her to repeatedly relocate. Of course I’m always hungry for more information, but I should say that I’m really impressed by how Oduah speaks about this woman – Oduah displays an exemplary sensitivity to the complexities of her life and her context.

As for why Ms Oduah wanted to get the story, she told PREMIUM TIMES, “It is important to know that members of Boko Haram come from somewhere. They have parents and siblings and hometowns. This woman’s voice is crucial in understanding the man who plays a major role in this insurgency, which is entering ten years.

On a final note, I’m reminded of the story (I can’t remember where I read it, possibly in Lemine Ould M. Salem’s book on Mokhtar Belmokhtar) that Algerian authorities somehow set up a meeting between Belmokhtar and his mother, who had not seen him for many years. According to the account, Belmokhtar wept when he saw her and said her would leave armed jihadism – but then, after the meeting, went back to his ways.

Chad: A Suicide Bombing and Its Response [Updated]

On June 15, four suicide bombers killed twenty-seven* people and wounded 101 others at the Central Police Station and the National Police School in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. Chadian authorities (French, .pdf) and most observers attribute responsibility to Boko Haram, the Nigerian-born jihadi group. Boko Haram has motive. Starting in January, Chadian soldiers helped to dislodge Boko Haram from territory it controlled in northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram has long had the habit of conducting reprisals against those it considers enemies, and the sect’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has been threatening and criticizing Chadian President Idriss Deby for months. Deby even said (French) that he was “not surprised” by the incident. The attacks in N’Djamena also occurred in a context where Boko Haram, reacting to the loss of its territory, is increasing its suicide attacks in and around northeastern Nigeria. This is, however, the first suicide bombing in N’Djamena, and the first major attack by Boko Haram in Chad.

The Chadian government’s reaction has been multi-faceted but, in my view, problematic. Since the attacks, the government has bombed suspected Boko Haram camps in Nigeria. The actual military effects of the bombing will be hard to assess, though Chadian authorities have been quick to claim a major success. Politically, the bombings seem to be a predictable step, one that governments in similar positions often take. The effects in that sphere are also hard to assess. The retaliatory bombings have generated some irritation among Nigerians, directed both at Chadian authorities (for potentially violating Nigerian sovereignty) and at Nigerian authorities (for “sleeping”). Meanwhile, Chad does not seem to have an end-game strategy beyond killing everyone in Boko Haram – which may prove impossible. In the long term, Chad may already be facing the dilemma that its very efficacy against Boko Haram draws it further into violent conflict with the sect.

More controversially, and for me unadvisedly, the Chadian government has also banned full-face veils for Muslim women (the BBC and the Chadian government say “burqa,” but I think they also mean the niqab, which I suspect is more common in Chad). The government’s rationale is that such clothing could be used to conceal identities and weapons, but the attackers on Monday seem to have come on motorbikes and it is unclear whether they were men or women. In any case, to me, such a ban represents a dangerous conflation of jihadism and (what label should one use?) other interpretations of Islam, including non-jihadi Salafism. If a woman wears a niqab, does it mean she is in league with Boko Haram? Of course not. And if you start telling Muslim women what they can wear, and telling Muslim men how their wives should dress, you risk antagonizing people. I don’t think that Chadians will pick up weapons or join Boko Haram over this issue, but in the long term, it is problematic to use incidents of terrorism as a reason to pick sides within non-violent, intra-Muslim struggles. Again, I don’t think non-jihadi Salafis in Chad are going to fight the government over this, but – especially in a context of pre-existing issues of potential government bias against Salafis – it’s possible that the Chadian government is sowing the seeds of future non-cooperation among a significant segment of its Muslim population.

Finally, Chad’s Prime Minister Kalzeubé Payimi Deubet has called (French) on religious leaders to tell their audiences to cooperate with the security forces and to denounce suspicious persons. This seems like a wise step to me, although context and tone matter – if audiences get the impression that religious leaders are being co-opted or intimidated by the government, those leaders’ credibility will suffer alongside that of the government itself. Here too, I think the niqab/burqa ban will work against the government’s other goals.

I do not envy the position in which the Chadian government finds itself. Boko Haram is a genuine threat to Chad, as the suicide bombings show. The challenge is, and will remain, how to respond to that threat without exacerbating it, and without needlessly elevating internal social and political tensions that may, in the long run, have little to do with Boko Haram except where they intersect with the violence almost by accident. Ultimately, much may depend – as it already has – on Deby’s relationship with the new government in Nigeria, because Chad’s ability to strike and bomb Boko Haram will mean less if the governments of the region, working together, cannot develop a strategy for ending the threat of Boko Haram completely. That endeavor will require more than bombs.

*I’ve also seen twenty-eight and thirty-three as counts of those killed.

[Update June 19]: Two reactions from religious bodies:

  • Chad’s Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs has endorsed the burqa/niqab ban, telling the BBC “the hijab is recommended, but wearing a burka is not part of the Chadian culture.”
  • Nigeria’s Jama’at Izalat al-Bida wa-Iqamat al-Sunna (The Society for the Removal of Heresy and the Establishment of the Sunna, better known as Izala), a Salafi organization, has denounced the ban (Hausa), asking, “if [a government bans niqab], where is democracy?”

Africa News Roundup: The UNSC and Mali, HRW on Boko Haram, Abyei, Somali Oil, and More

The United Nations, from yesterday:

Citing the threat to regional peace from terrorists and Islamic militants in rebel-held northern Mali, the United Nations Security Council today held out the possibility of endorsing, within the next 45 days, an international military force to restore the unity of the West African country.

In a unanimously adopted resolution, the 15-member body called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to provide, at once, military and security planners to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union (AU) and other partners to help frame a response to a request by Mali’s transitional authorities for such a force, and to report back within 45 days.

Upon receipt of the report, and acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Council said it was ready “to respond to the request of the Transitional authorities of Mali regarding an international military force assisting the Malian Armed Forces in recovering the occupied regions in the north of Mali.”

Human Rights Watch released a new report on Thursday entitled “Spiraling Violence: Boko Haram Attacks and Security Force Abuses in Nigeria.” From the summary:

This 98-page report catalogues atrocities for which Boko Haram has claimed responsibility. It also explores the role of Nigeria’s security forces, whose own alleged abuses contravene international human rights law and might also constitute crimes against humanity. The violence, which first erupted in 2009, has claimed more than 2,800 lives.

Governor Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu of Nigeria’s Niger State speaks about Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.

VOA:

The long term success of an oil and security deal between Sudan and South Sudan could depend on the much disputed Abyei border region.

That’s why Princeton Lyman, the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, says Abyei’s exclusion from the agreement between presidents Omar al-Bashir and Salva Kiir is “a big, big loss.”

Abyei is a territory claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. The residents of Abyei were supposed to hold a referendum in 2011 to determine which country they would join, but the referendum was postponed indefinitely due to disagreements over who was eligible to vote. Some are still proposing that Abyei hold a referendum, but Sudan’s government opposes the idea. More from VOA:

The Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman, Al-Obeid Ahmed Marawah, says his government prefers a political agreement over a plebiscite because “the referendum would end by attributing Abyei to one of the two countries.

“And this will not satisfy the other party. Therefore, this could cause a new conflict between the two people [ Messriyah and Ngok Dinkas] of Abyei and it might extend to between the two countries,” Marawah says.

And that, in turn, threatens the new deal over the sharing of oil-revenue, which Ambassador Lyman says “holds tremendous potential benefits for the people of both countries, particularly in South Sudan where there has been serious rises in food prices, shortages of fuel, and insecurity on the border.”

In addition to French President Francois Hollande’s trip to Senegal yesterday and his stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today, two other noteworthy visits to the Sahel by foreign officials: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Senegal for Thursday and Friday, while Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights María Otero will be in Mauritania from October 15-17 and France from October 18-19.

In Mauritania, Under Secretary Otero will meet with government officials, including President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, representatives from civil society, UN agencies and youth groups to discuss political and democratic developments in the country, electoral processes, refugees and humanitarian assistance and combating trafficking in persons. This is the most senior-level U.S. State Department visit to Mauritania in five years.

Somalia’s new government “does not plan to nullify oil and gas exploration contracts made in recent years in favour of those that were signed prior to the toppling of the government in 1991, a senior state official said on Friday.”

Fatal flooding continues in Niger.

What else is happening?