A Response to a Review of My Book on Boko Haram

Sam Wilkins, a U.S. Special Forces officer who deployed to Nigeria earlier this year, has written a fairly negative review of my new book on Boko Haram. Most of Wilkins’ review reacts to one section dealing with the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and to a second section discussing how the War on Terror has shaped Nigeria’s responses to the group.

Wilkins makes some good points, but he also attributes positions to me that I do not hold:

  • “Thurston’s treatment of the CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force, the civilian vigilantes] mirrors his treatment of the Nigerian military as a whole. He dismisses the contributions of both groups due to human rights concerns.”
  • “A policy of humanitarian assistance without military assistance, as advocated by Thurston and others…”
  • “[Thurston] posit[s] a false equivalence between the security forces and the insurgency.”

Wilkins misinterprets analytical points as moral judgments. In the book, when dealing with the Nigerian military and the C-JTF, I try to explain unintended consequences. The Nigerian military’s heavy-handed approach exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. The C-JTF partly secured cities but ended up pushing Boko Haram into the countryside, contributing to Boko Haram’s bid to take mass territory in 2014. I suppose there is an implicit moral judgment in those arguments, but the point is to explain what happened. On p. 13, however, I do say that I “unequivocally condem[n] Boko Haram.” The book contains no equivalent statement directed at the Nigerian military or the C-JTF.

Wilkins says that because he’s been in Nigeria, he can determine where my arguments are “theoretical and divorced from the reality on the ground.” But many foreigners have been “on the ground” in Nigeria, and then there are obviously the millions of Nigerians who live in Nigeria and whose perspectives must also be taken seriously. To say the least, all of these people often disagree with one another about how to interpret events. Nigeria is a complicated place.

Wilkins says, “During my time in Nigeria, I learned to see the CJTF as the Nigerians saw it.” This is a red flag. If he feels that “the Nigerians” see anything in just one way, then he is being overconfident about his experience. For what it’s worth, in my fieldwork in Kano for my first book – when I was speaking with people in Hausa and Arabic, when I met leading religious figures, and when I was an independent researcher unaffiliated with any government – I always knew that I had only gotten part of the story. You have to triangulate between your experience and other points of view, and even then you will not get everything right.

Wilkins also, I think accidentally but also revealingly, puts some of Amnesty International’s words in my mouth when he dismisses my writing on the U.S.-Nigeria security relationship. Obviously, I agree with Amnesty and quoted them for that reason (p. 287). But Wilkins’ mistake matters: Amnesty has researchers “on the ground” in Nigeria, so Wilkins’ rhetorical strategy wouldn’t work as well against them. Easier, perhaps, to attribute Amnesty’s words to me, and then dismiss me.

Notably, two pages before, I discuss the Nigerian military’s open hostility toward Amnesty. I write, “The War on Terror has given Nigerian military and political hardliners a set of rhetorical tools with which they can easily rebut and undermine criticism: Boko Haram or ‘the terrorists’ are depicted as purely evil, Nigeria’s government is presented as a heroic participant in a global struggle, and all critics are cast as either deliberately or unwittingly proterrorist.” Is there no relationship between what Wilkins does in his review, where he bristles against criticism of the Nigerian military or the U.S. government, and the way that Nigerian senior military officers castigate Amnesty?

On Wilkins’ other major objection to my book – that I’m not sufficiently alarmed by “Islamic State West Africa” – I have less to say. I take them seriously. I suppose I’m just a bit more cautious than Wilkins about hyping them as a threat, and about reifying their Islamic State ties.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning Wilkins’ plan to defeat Boko Haram (and “ISWA,” if you go for that stark division between the two groups). Here, there is significant common ground between us – we both favor a combination of military and political measures, and Wilkins thoughtfully considers some of the more unattractive but probably necessary political measures I mention, such as amnesties for fighters. But Wilkins emphasizes the military approach more than I do, and he is more optimistic than I am about what will follow military campaigns. Much of the process Wilkins advocates – “a meaningful ‘follow-through’ of governance, pro-government religious messages [seriously?!], and enduring local security” – seems unlikely to happen, or at least to happen cleanly. That’s why I think the government of Nigeria should start, or rather restart, negotiations now, and keep looking for political opportunities even as the military conflict continues. Some of this is already happening, of course, perhaps more in Niger than in Nigeria. The point is that the end of the Boko Haram conflict is probably going to be messy. No one has all the answers, including me.

In any case, I encourage you to read the review. And perhaps read the book as well! There’s a bit more to it than Wilkins lets on.

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Global Observatory Piece on Chad and Its Western Allies

I’m up at Global Observatory with a piece on Chad. Here’s an excerpt:

The Chadian government is also asking Western and African donors for more development funding. Chad will hold a roundtable in Paris in September to seek contributions for its newly adopted national development plan. Potential partners have already shown a willingness to participate: Deby recently hosted the vice president of the African Development Bank, which is financing projects in Chad’s electricity sector; the Bank confirmed that it will attend the Paris roundtable. The adoption of the development plan was one factor in the IMF’s decision to grant a new loan. The IMF did not make any allusion to Chad’s role in regional security, but other actors are clearly aware of the bargaining power that Chad has with donors because of its security role. Meeting the committee organizing the roundtable, France’s ambassador to Chad asked the Chadian government—according to the paraphrase of a Chadian news site—“to avoid playing the security card.” But the card has already been played, and with effect.

I welcome any comments you may have.

IRIN on Boko Haram’s Impact on Diffa, Niger – and a Few Other Resources

IRIN has a new article, well worth a read, on Boko Haram’s impact on Diffa, southeastern Niger. An excerpt:

In the latest attack on 2 July, the jihadists raided the village of Ngalewa, near Kablewa, killing nine and abducting 37 – all of them young girls and adolescent boys. The gunmen, arriving at night, looted food supplies and rustled cattle, before escaping.

[…]

Diffa Governor Dan Dano Mahamadou Lawaly has ordered the transfer of the 16,500 IDPs in Kablewa to a new camp a few kilometres north of Route National 1, the road running to the Chadian border in the east.

South of the highway is seen as vulnerable to attack by Boko Haram, an insurgency originating in Nigeria but believed to be operating in Niger from largely abandoned islands in Lake Chad.

Boko Haram’s strategy appears to be to grab what supplies it can ahead of the rainy season, when rising water levels will make crossing the Komadugu River – which flows along the southern border with Nigeria – all the harder.

Here are a few additional resources on the situation in Diffa:

Recent Journalism on Boko Haram

A few recent journalists’ articles on Boko Haram caught my eye, and probably those of many readers as well. But in case you missed them, here they are.

Sarah Topol, “The Boys from Baga,” New York Times Magazine. An excerpt:

The rhythm of camp life enveloped the new abductees. Activity was concentrated around the palace, everyone working to fortify the heart of the base against the Nigerian military, which periodically probed their defenses, trying to retake Malam Fatori. Boko Haram had declared itself a caliphate and pledged its alliance to ISIS. A tug of war for the arid earth had ensued. Every morning, the deputy emirs, whose units lived in the surrounding villages to protect the center, would come to greet the babban emir, entering his building for a private audience. Directives from Shekau may have been conveyed by satellite phone. There was coordination with the other babban emirs as well, but the boys of Malam Fatori never interacted with neighboring fiefs. Though Boko Haram was hierarchal, it was also fragmented, each division preoccupied with ensuring its own survival.

In the morning, groups set out on patrol in their trucks, checking the areas around Malam Fatori for traces of movement overnight — new tire prints, footsteps or animal tracks. Mustapha would quietly accompany the insurgents on patrol. He wanted to see how everything worked. Throughout the day, women who had been captured from nearby towns cooked food, which the insurgents ate from communal troughs. At night, the boys could sleep in any room in the palace compound, so long as it wasn’t in a room where women were kept. They barely prayed, and no one knew what day it was — only Fridays stood out, because on that day, they were fed rice with meat stew.

Le Monde‘s Joan Tilouine is releasing a five-part series (in French) of reporting from Maiduguri. Here are links for parts one, two, three, and four. I found the first part, about life in Maiduguri, the most interesting. Unfortunately, these reports are paywalled.

A Few Posts Related to My Book “Salafism in Nigeria”

In September, Cambridge University Press published my first book, which is called Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching and Politics. I haven’t written much about the book here on the blog, but I have written a few posts elsewhere that deal with issues covered in the book. The most recent post is a conceptual “introduction” to the book, which went up at the Social Science Research Council’s The Immanent Frame blog yesterday. That post deals with the idea of “canon” – the main argument of the book is that Salafism, in Nigeria and around the world, is animated by a canon of texts that includes not just the Qur’an and the hadith literature, but also a great deal of relatively recent material.

Other posts related to the book include:

  • A post outlining part of the history of (non-jihadi) Salafism in Nigeria, published at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Africa in Transition blog
  • A post on Saudi Arabia’s influence in Nigeria, published in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog
  • A post discussing the Salafi-jihadi thinker Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s influence on Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf, published at Jihadica

I’m hoping to write a bit more here on the blog about the book soon, but these posts treat some of the key themes in the book.