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Revisiting Boko Haram 

By Sohum Tripathi '24

The conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian state has been going on
since 2009, displacing about two million people and impacting the lives of far more
because of decreased agricultural productivity, food insecurity, and destruction of many
systems that provide necessities such as water, electricity, and proper shelter. This
ongoing conflict has left the northern states, such a Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, in dire
need of both military and humanitarian aid, and has put an enormous strain on the
Nigerian economy and populace. In June 2021, the United Nations reported that the
death toll from all Boko Haram attacks that had occurred since the violence began was
350,000 people.


Founded by Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram aims to reject all aspects of a
secular Nigerian society and embrace Islamic law under Sharia principles. The
organization— dubbed by many as the ‘Nigerian Taliban’—is widely known for its 2014
kidnappings of more than three hundred schoolgirls, which kick-started the movement to
bring down Boko Haram and stop its activity. No significant activity by Boko Haram has
been reported since the group split in 2018, and its strategy apparently has shifted from
an offensive expansionist policy to a defensive terroristic one.


How the narrative has changed from a story of attacks, atrocities, and violence to
a seemingly isolationist policy has to do with three major factors. These factors are the
recent split of Boko Haram, the amount of recognition and attention that Boko Haram
has received from global media, and the increased successes of the Nigerian military
against the terrorist organization, which are partly the result of the split.


According to a report written by the CCPA and Aljazeera, in 2011 and 2012, a
group from the Boko Haram Shura council sent letters to the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the
Maghreb which criticized the leadership of Abuakbar Shekau (who was the leader of
Boko Haram in 2015) and his stances on extremism. Gradually, more people started to
leave Boko Haram and support other factions instead, causing the differences between
Shekau and his topmost generals to become more pronounced. This led to the
formation of a new faction called Ansaru, which distanced itself from Boko Haram and
aligned itself with Al-Qaeda. Shekau was left with no option other than to appeal to Al-

Qaeda’s biggest rival, the Islamic State (IS). In 2015, Abubakar Shekau pledged
allegiance to Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, and IS responded
by naming Shekau the leader of the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP).


The factors that led to the split can be summarized by three objectives that
Shekau wanted to achieve with Boko Haram which did not resonate with Ansaru’s Al-
Qaeda values. The first aspect that was unique to Shekau’s leadership was that he
frequently made important decisions without consulting his Shura council, thus
alienating himself from his advisors and distancing himself from the reality at hand. The
second aspect was that Shekau believed that any person, Muslim or not, who was not
willing to live under Boko Haram rule and abide by total Sharia law could be
“excommunicated” and that Boko Haram had full authority to attack the civilians,
irrespective of nationality or religious adherence. This also did not sit well with Ansaru
because the idea of ex-communication was the cause of a raging debate within Al-
Qaeda, in which Ansaru was firmly against the idea. Finally, Shekau’s massive strategic
failures and subsequent loss of nearly all the territory it had gained saw Boko Haram
resort to guerilla tactics and acts of terrorism, such as suicide bombings. These attacks
mainly targeted markets and security checkpoints, which discouraged radical Islamists
from associating with Boko Haram. This combination factors plus the formidability of the
Nigerian government resulted in Boko Haram’s becoming a secondary or tertiary Islamic
force in the West African Sahel.


The military setbacks combined with the group’s recent split rendered Boko
Haram a very weak force in the region. In addition, its allegiance to the Islamic State
and the fact that Boko Haram’s most competent generals and most of their forces had
left to join Ansaru meant that Boko Haram was effectively a puppet of the Islamic State,
acting only on the orders of the caliph and being prevented from making major military
incursions or advances into Nigeria. For this reason, Boko Haram’s activity dropped
significantly after 2018. However, the reason so much attention was given to combating
Boko Haram was that the effort to end the violence propagated by Boko Haram became
popular after the 2014 Chibok kidnapping in which 276 girls were kidnapped, according
to BBC news. This was one of Boko Haram’s biggest gestures and was by far the most
publicized. Following news coverage of the event, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls was
trending on Twitter and other social media platforms.


The hashtag campaign was kick-started by Michelle Obama, who was then the
first lady of the United States, and within several days President Obama joined in just as
the campaign was being supported by more than a million people. Women’s rights icons
such as Malala Yousafzai and celebrities like Angelina Jolie supported the cause,
furthering public awareness and a desire for action. Major political figures such as David

Cameron and Jim Yong Kim have also donated money or set up foundations enabling
people and governments to contribute to the cause. President Obama sent drones to
aid the rescue effort; but in the end, the U.S. military didn’t do very much to rescue the
girls. Ultimately, Boko Haram themselves released 176 of the 276 girls, with 100
remaining in captivity. Still, it is important to note that the political pressure exerted by
wealthy and influential individuals backed by millions of people on various platforms
forced governments to try to free the schoolgirls.


The public attention that this specific event received has caused many individuals
in all walks of life to pay attention to other atrocities committed by Boko Haram. The
sheer magnitude of attention and call to action by the Nigerian public and the
international community was one of the decisive factors for the Nigerian military in
creating a strategy to fight and beat Boko Haram to a level where it would no longer be
a threat in the region. Therefore, in a way, publicizing the various atrocities and attacks
committed by Boko Haram was instrumental in shaping the narrative we see today, as
the call to action forced the Nigerian government’s hand in fighting Boko Haram.
Without the publicity that followed the Chibok kidnappings, the narrative could be very
different. Boko Haram might be stronger, might control more territory, and might even
be getting dangerously close to the capital. The effect of publicizing Boko Haram’s
terrorist attacks has been so profound that one could argue it was the most important
and impactful of the three factors that contributed to the current Boko Haram narrative.
The Nigerian military’s campaigns in the northern regions of the country and
consistent public support for these campaigns have caused the victories on the
military’s part to grow both in frequency and in magnitude. According to Vanguard
News, the army chief of Nigeria has outlined in his latest military budget proposal new
measures and technologies that will be implemented to combat the Islam State and
Boko Haram. The army chief wishes to continue the past successes against Boko
Haram into 2022 and beyond using innovative tactics and technologies that will be
acquired with the budget he is presenting. The constant onslaught of Nigerian forces
has forced Boko Haram to remain confined within its borders and prevented its
expansion; but Boko Haram must be contained, or else the situation will deteriorate to a
level where its members can commit mass kidnappings and executions. Even if the
army chief’s new budget proposal is not passed, more funding will go to the military,
harming Boko Haram anyway.


In conclusion, the narrative of Boko Haram from 2016 to now has changed
dramatically. It is no longer an independent organization, with its recent allegiance to
the Islamic State. It is no longer able to lay low on the public scene because the
#BringBackOurGirls hashtag has made the entire developed world aware of the

situation. It no longer has the military advantage over the Nigerian government because
of the factional split and the fact that many of Boko Haram’s most competent generals
and senior officers have moved to Ansaru. Boko Haram is no longer the most serious
Islamic terrorist organization in the West African Sahel, but it still has 100 girls from the
Chibok kidnappings and still strikes fear in the hearts of many families living on the
northern frontier. Therefore, while Boko Haram is in a much weaker position than it was
just a few years ago, the organization is still dangerous and should not be forgotten
about.

 


The Author’s Take
I hope that you enjoyed reading this article and that you learned about the
current narrative of Boko Haram and the factors that led to it. That having been said, I
would like to provide a viewpoint from the perspective of someone who is currently living
in Abuja, Nigeria. Two months ago, I moved to Nigeria with my immediate family
because of my father’s reassignment as a World Bank specialist. I arrived with a very
one-sided perspective of the country and the situation, thinking that Boko Haram was
everywhere and that it was harming or affecting many more people than it is. After living
in the country for two months, I realized that people lived their lives without being in
constant fear of becoming the next victim of a Boko Haram attack; however, because of
the organization’s recent shift in strategy from a militaristic effort to a terroristic effort,
more and more of these attacks, thefts, and kidnappings happen in the countryside or
rural towns, most commonly in the northern states.


I finally realized that the various restrictions and suggestions that were reiterated
time and time again to my family by the World Bank upon our arrival made sense. We
were not allowed to go to certain “restricted neighborhoods,” we were not allowed to
drive outside the city limits, and we were not allowed to visit any of the northern states
under any circumstances because of Boko Haram. I have spent many hours
considering the possibilities and implications of an attack on my city and how that could
impact my life and my perception of the organization and the country in general. Overall,
I still stand by my claims that Boko Haram is a lot less dangerous than it once was;
however, in its absence, a new organization with more expansionist ideas could
potentially fill the void and cause harm and destruction to more parts of the country and
even to my family and me.