This article was first published by Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
As attacks grow more shocking and dramatic, the size of their audience increases accordingly. While most observers are terrified and outraged by such violence, a small minority become inspired enough to plan attacks of their own. This is how extremist movements grow. This is how they seek to bend the world to their will.
Social media has dramatically increased the effectiveness of spectacular acts of terror. In 2014, ISIS militants used the viral executions of two American hostages to declare war on the United States. They were rewarded with an exponential increase in Western media coverage and tens of thousands of recruits from more than 100 countries. In 2019, a New Zealand-based white supremacist livestreamed his murder of 51 Muslim congregants in the city of Christchurch. His actions prompted numerous copycat attacks and a global resurgence of white ethno-nationalism.
Yet the media impact and symbolic power of these attacks are dwarfed by the events of January 6, 2021, during which far-right extremists stormed and occupied the U.S. Capitol at the encouragement of President Trump. Several carried firearms. Others reportedly planted improvised explosive devices. In less than two hours, they overwhelmed federal police and forced the Congress to flee. They breached the seat of American government that had stood inviolate for 211 years. It was a violent, extraordinary, unthinkable victory; one whose images and videos captivated the world.
This was the most spectacular domestic extremist attack in American history. The individuals who perpetrated this attack will be mythologized as heroes among future extremists. A generation of far-right recruits too young to have participated will spend their lives dreaming of again seizing the U.S. Capitol. In the words of writer Osita Nwanevu, this will become the “Woodstock” of the far-right — the victory and spectacle by which all future actions are measured.
Many of the individuals who directly participated in this action have undergone years of radicalization in extremist online communities and developed a unique culture steeped in ironic violence. They have come to venerate street fighting as the ultimate form of political expression and can name various skirmishes — the 2017 U.S. presidential inauguration, protests in Berkeley and Portland, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the deadly counter-protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin — as a veteran might count battles. Their ranks have swelled in recent months thanks to the popularity of the QAnon delusion and baseless claims of voter fraud that have been aggressively amplified by Trump and his allies.
In some ways, the attack on the U.S. Capitol was the culmination of this violent and conspiratorial movement of pro-Trump communities. Yet because the attack was so catastrophically effective, it also represents the birth of the post-Trump extremist movement. As casual Trump supporters peel away from the network in the weeks to come, they will be replaced by a new cadre who are less politically engaged but far more likely to undertake acts of violence. So it has been with the evolution of extremist movements around the world; so it will now be in the United States.
Two factors will make this post-Trump extremist movement uniquely dangerous. The first is the transition to anti-state violence. Participants in the January 6 attack routinely assaulted U.S. Capitol Police (often, ironically, while carrying pro-police paraphernalia). Following the killing of one female participant by law enforcement, online supporters of the attack darkly speculated that the police had been infiltrated by antifa “terrorists.” The woman was quickly recast as a martyr, one whose death might be the spark of a bloody revolution.
Previous far-right, anti-state movements have struggled to gain traction under the Trump presidency. The most successful of these — the so-called “Boogaloo” movement — hid its overt anti-state violence under layers of subtext and irony. When Boogaloo supporters did engage in acts of anti-state terrorism, as with the murder of two California security officers in June 2020, they sapped the movement of popular support. Under a Biden administration, however, this cognitive dissonance will no longer be an issue. If state authorities are seen to be corrupt and working at the behest of a Democratic administration, they will be targets.
The second factor is the mainstream popularity of the far-right extremist movement in the United States. For years, Trump has conditioned Republican voters to support violence as a means of settling political disputes. From the podium, Trump has regularly encouraged assaults on journalists and dehumanized racial and ethnic minorities. This rhetoric has carried terrible consequences. According to a January 6 YouGov poll, 45 percent of Republican voters supported the storming of the U.S. Capitol, seeing it as just another kind of political expression.
This means that a post-Trump extremist movement — even one that routinely engages in violence — may benefit from a level of political support not seen since that of the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction-era American South. And so long as the movement remains politically popular, there will be politicians who seek to court it. As much could already be seen when the U.S. Congress reconvened early in the morning of January 7. In their remarks, several Republican legislators sought to trivialize or excuse the attack that had forced them from their chamber. Congressman Matt Gaetz (FL-1) went so far as to blame antifa activists, whom he alleged — without evidence — had initiated the attack to give Trump supporters a bad name.
The violent extremist movement inspired by the events of January 6 will rank as one of the great challenges of the Biden presidency. Diminishing the strength of this movement will require disentangling isolated, angry Trump supporters from the much smaller core of extremists who seek to do Americans harm. It will require sapping the January 6 attack of its myth-making potential and to ensure that it is viewed, rightly, as a national embarrassment. Most of all, it will require confronting the pundits and conspiracy theorists who will seek to boost the far-right extremist movement in a grasping bid to retain their relevancy.
This work must begin immediately. The stakes were high before. They are higher now.
The DFRLab team in Cape Town works in partnership with Code for Africa.
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What #LindaKatiba Is, and Why It Matters
The BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament and to a parasitic model of government.
Linda Katiba is a citizen’s voluntary initiative that is determined to resist the government-led move to unconstitutionally cannibalise and overthrow the will of the people of Kenya encapsulated in the 2010 constitution. It is a collective movement of Kenyans who believe that our constitution holds great promise for the Kenyan people and when fully implemented will bring about the transformative changes envisioned by its framers and the Kenyans who voted for it. Linda Katiba is therefore an effort to help citizens sift through the falsehoods being peddled by the proponents of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and make informed decisions.
The most powerful feature of the 2010 constitution is that it places citizens (Wanjiku) at the centre of governance, providing them with the tools and the power to demand participation, inclusion, accountability, and transparency in governance processes. Where this is not complied with, the constitution further provides for interventions such as through the courts and people power.
This shift of power is what has put the political class in a direct collision course with the citizens amidst the recent misguided calls for constitutional reforms by a section of the political class. It is the reason why we must constantly remind ourselves that this constitution was negotiated by Kenyans over two decades with the objective of transforming Kenya by constitutionally overthrowing the old order that represented a parasitic model of government, where the political elite and top civil servants, despite earning hefty salaries, allowances and other perks (including multiple top of the range motor vehicles) on the peoples sweat, continuously ignored and failed to prioritise the critical needs of the people.
At its core, the BBI initiative is about defending this untenable parasitic model and that is why it is being led and defended not just by a section of the political elite, but also by top civil servants who by law are prohibited from participating in active politics. This nostalgia for a powerful past is probably the reason why BBI is being forced down our throats through bribery, threats and all manner of intimidation.
It is a life and death matter for a sizeable number of the political elite to defend undeserved and unearned privilege at the expense of underprivileged Kenyans whose right of access to critical government services such as health, education, water and sanitation, to housing and adequate food as guaranteed by Article 43 of the constitution has all but been ignored. The right to and provision of these basic needs is among the key reasons why protecting the tenets of the 2010 constitution matters.
Aware that Kenyans hold devolution dear, the political elite are using the promises of more money to the counties—a whopping 35 per cent compared to the current 15 per cent—as the bait to lure citizens to support the BBI project. This promise is coming from an administration that has for the last nine years been reluctant to disburse in a timely manner the 15 per cent, the minimum provided for by the constitution. Given that the constitution does not set a ceiling for the maximum amount that the National government may allocate to the counties, nothing is preventing the current administration and the BBI brothers, who jointly wield a majority in parliament, from implementing the budget increase coming June budget. There cannot be a better way for the BBI brothers to demonstrate good faith than to allocate the 35 per cent in this last year of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency. I suspect that this administration will not actualise this promise because they know it is mission impossible in the prevailing economic situation.
Our country is reeling under a debt burden that is almost at ten trillion shillings, a debt that we are experiencing difficulties servicing, forcing the government to seek a six-month moratorium from its creditors. Much of our revenue is going towards servicing the debt leaving us with little or no money for development and recurrent expenditure including salaries. This is the context in which the BBI proponents are saying to us that we should prioritise the expansion of parliament and the executive over our health needs, our livelihoods and our children’s education. Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBI project prioritises political deal making over the lives of Kenyans. The government is telling us that it will take us up to three years for only 30 per cent of the population to access COVID-19 vaccines.
We are not helpless. We need to make our voices count. We must rise up and tell the BBI brothers that our lives matter, that our needs matter and that they must be prioritised above all else.
From where I stand, the BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament. It is a gateway to a bloated parliament and an expanded executive. It is a return to political intolerance spearheaded by the state. We are back to labelling people with divergent opinions as “enemies of state”. Teargassing of perceived opponents of BBI is now the preferred weapon of the state. The political environment is toxic and does not favour rational discussion of the BBI project by citizens. Moreover, the Jubilee administration is split down the middle, with divisions even within the presidency. It is time to tell the BBI brothers: “prophet heal thyself”. Let them heal the divisions within their ranks which are threatening to burn the country. Let the BBI project cease fomenting intolerance.
Sold by its proponents as a people’s initiative, the BBI project has illegally spent and continues to spend scarce taxpayer’s money. No disclosures are made on what the money has so far been spent and how much more is expected to be splashed in these times of scarcity and a looming food crisis. MCAs countrywide have given the BBI project a nod in exchange for car grants. There has been little or with no public participation and nor has the public been provided with copies of the proposed constitutional amendments.
As citizens, we must not give up. It is time for Kenyans of goodwill to reclaim their voices individually and collectively and speak truth to power. We must refuse to be intimidated or silenced by a political elite and senior civil servants who number less than four thousand while over twenty million Kenyan voters are waiting to be informed and persuaded. All we need is the courage of our convictions to galvanise the country by word of mouth to say no to enslavement through the BBI project.
Let us be reminded that the independence constitution was eroded bit by bit until it became unrecognisable thus necessitating a fresh start. We should be wary of opening the door to a similar cannibalisation of our constitution even before we have implemented it.
To President Uhuru, you have time to stop this. Do not let your legacy be that of the president who destroyed our democratic gains. Live up to your oath of office to uphold and defend the constitution.
This is what is at the heart of the Linda Katiba resistance and defense of the constitution. It matters because it is easier to defend our democratic gains than to lose them and attempt to reclaim them later with no guarantee that it will be possible. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Let us all join hands to Linda Katiba.
Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It
Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. Now, a student movement could slowly transform society.
“Nan lara an sara! Nan lara an sara!”: A crowd of roughly 300 students throngs the “freedom square” and chants defiantly, clenched fists in the air. The scene is the campus of Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, in Ouagadougou. The students are members of Deux Heures pour Nous, Deux Heures pour Kamita (Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita; referred to here as DHK). “Kamita” is an Afrocentric term, designating the continent. The group is a throwback: A radical student organization dedicated to ideology and analysis, that intends to break from the complacency that has taken hold on African campuses in recent years.
As the meeting builds, a young man roars in the middle of the circle, a megaphone in his right hand, his left hand following the rhythm of the crowd: “nan lara!” (if we lie down!). The crowd responds “an sara!” (we are dead!). After several minutes of call and response, the young man opens the meeting. “Comrades, welcome! Thank you for dedicating two hours today for our beloved Kamita. Today, we seek wisdom from one another in addressing the topic before us: the presence of French military on the free and independent land of Burkina Faso.” He proceeds to lay out the agenda of the day, and the modalities for taking the floor.
Meetings like this one, which I attended in August 2019, take place every day, from 1 to 3 pm, on the campus. They have continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic which compelled attendees to wear facemasks; I have kept in touch with members and interviewed leaders as well as occasional attendees. The meetings are arranged in an open space and amplified with loudspeakers. No position is invalid. No topic is taboo. The group emphasizes innovative radical thinking about democracy, social change, and liberation. But weak arguments are booed, while carefully crafted ones are applauded—especially when they are considered ideologically sound, in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or Thomas Sankara.
Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. As older student organizations become ossified and discredited, emerging ones seek credibility by leaning toward pan-African ideologies. The country and its politics offer a particularly fertile scene for the youth to develop ideological and political organizations that aim to transform society. Slogans such as “Plus rien se sera comme avant!” (Nothing will be as before!) and “Nan lara an sara!” signal such a desire for change and willingness to act. DHK represents a new militancy, with power and potential—but also contradictions and challenges.
DHK formed in 2013, a time when social discontent was growing in Burkina Faso. Workers’ strikes paralyzed many sectors, including higher education. Civil society groups and opposition parties were engaged in a power struggle against then-President Blaise Compaoré, who was attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his rule. The academic community was caught in this malaise. It was in this context that students at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University chose to experiment with a new form of participatory democracy by creating a performative venue on campus.
Over the years, DHK has become prominent among the burgeoning youth movements in Burkina Faso. Beyond the boastful, intellectual verbiage and rhetorical skills that its members show, the organization has built a reputation as a leftist movement that focuses on social justice, political emancipation, and environmental stewardship—both at the national and international levels. In February 2019, for instance, the organization sent a delegate to Venezuela “to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle against imperialism,” a post on its Facebook page reads.
Developing and sustaining a pan-African ideology on a campus where student conferences and intellectual exchange outside the curriculum are almost non-existent is a challenging task. Yet DHK has managed to establish a respected forum where uncensored conversations take place every day, gathering up to several hundred attendees. Every week, a series of discussion topics is chosen and published on Facebook. Often, they respond to the news of the day. At other times, the reflection is oriented toward historical events. There are guest speakers, such as Kemi Seba, the Franco-Beninese activist, or Yacouba Sawadogo, a Burkinabe farmer known as “the man who stopped the desert” for successfully bringing to life a 40-hectare forest on a barren land.
The daily gatherings constitute moments of deliberation, healing, strategizing, and planning. On the day that I attended, social media abounded with polemical information about the alleged opening of a new French military base in Djibo, a small northern town 45 kilometers from the border with Mali. The meeting was an opportunity to condemn the base and discuss the role of France’s counterterrorism activities in the region. Participants equated France’s current presence with its 19th-century pacification doctrine that justified colonialism. “We are inviting France to the school of civilization. We invite her to finally learn to be a nation that respects the sovereignty of other nations,” one man said.
Sometimes, the organization brings speakers who do not have formal education, such as farmers and small craft traders, challenging the perception of what constitutes knowledge in a university setting. This initiative is “an uninhibited approach to learning by uninhibited students who have conscience that development is homemade,” Bayala Lianhoue Imhotep, secretary general of DHK, told me. “No one has the monopoly of imagination. Our farmers are an inexhaustible source of knowledge if we cared to listen to them.”
At first, campus authorities rejected DHK for its radical positions concerning the university and student life. They sought to shut it down and push it off campus. Now, civil society movements beyond campus including Balai Citoyen seek them out. They constitute a force that can mobilize adherents, an antidote to the general fatigue among youth following the 2014 popular revolution.
DHK represents in many ways a revival.
Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo has a tradition of being a center of social movements, with student strikes that often led to a general paralysis of the capital city. The roots of Burkinabè student militancy go back to student unions in the 1950s in Dakar and in France, where Burkinabè and other francophone Africans went to study. Those unions were an avant-garde in political mobilization, a breeding ground of activists in the late colonial period and after independence.
In the early post-independence era, student activism aligned ideologically with the emerging political tendencies in the country. In 1966 the Voltaic Student Union supported the popular insurrection that ousted President Maurice Yameogo. The successive military regimes did not favor the emergence of a strong student unionism. However, during the Sankara years (1984-1987), college students mobilized to support the revolution. In the following two decades, student activism became progressively belligerent toward the Compaore regime. In the 1990s when the Structural Adjustment Programs compelled the government to adopt a much more democratic attitude, granting civil liberties, student militancy reclaimed a momentum. While student militancy never ceased to exist, it suffered in its vivacity since internal divisions and state repression weakened toward the end of the 1990s.
Recent renewal of political consciousness among Burkinabè youth took form through events such as the assassination of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, long worker strikes in 2011 and 2015, student protests leading to violent confrontations with police, and the closing of the university for over three months in 2008 and 2011. Other contributing factors were changes in Franco-African political dynamics following French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, along with a persistent perception that the international community is hypocritical. Along the way, the memory of Thomas Sankara and his political discourse have re-emerged in popular music and activist rallies.
What is the potential of this revival? On one hand, student militancy today has inherited unresolved structural problems and grievances from their predecessors: deficient infrastructures, mismanaged academic calendar, deteriorated social services, etc. On the other hand, however, the ideological foundation behind student militancy is much more profound. Student activists are not only seeking to resolve their immediate needs, but they question the root causes of their predicament. While their struggle is locally rooted, it is open to other currents from the South. They often extrapolate their perception of inequalities at home with the struggles of other peoples elsewhere such as in Palestine, Venezuela, and Taiwan. They adhere to an Afro-centric understanding of history in their attempt to take control of their destinies as young Burkinabè.
For groups such as DHK, the traditional student associations and unions have become irrelevant, not because they lack grievances to address, but because they do not propose any sound ideology to solve them. DHK positions itself as an anti-imperialist movement, but also one that is opened to the struggles of other contemporary Black liberation movements. At the August 2019 meeting where attendees discussed French counterterrorism in the Sahel, some participants pointed out that the French could easily rid the Sahel of its insurgent groups if France really wanted to—peddling some conspiracy theories that were already circulating in the social media.
DHK is a promising unconventional revival activist group that promotes intellectual and democratic debates. Since its creation seven years ago, it has grown in membership and its ability to mobilize for action. At times however, it can be provocative in its ideas and approach when it connects with controversial figures such as Kemi Seba or when it takes side in some global issues without expertise in their historical complexity such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, this revival is taking place under the radar of most scholars and media attention, who often gloss over it as “growing anti-French sentiment.”
In Ouagadougou, university student militancy is the last stronghold of students’ civil discourse. It is one that still grapples with its own issues, but nonetheless is ideologically promising. As foggy and muddy as some of their thoughts and ideas may be, the youth of DHK are informed by their quotidian reality. It is an ideology rooted in a Sankarist ideology that is daring and even risky at times. But this discourse still represents the clearer demarcation line between civil discourse and what is perceived as growing radical or fundamental discourse in Burkina Faso. Unlike the growing non-state armed movements that are terrorizing the country, student ideological militancy is disruptive, but it is still organized within the limits of free speech and freedom of association guaranteed by the constitution.
Today, the days of grand pan-African reveries espoused by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara seem far behind. The dominant neoliberal economic systems that African nations have adopted and the persistence of neocolonial meddling in the post-colony blunted Afrocentric idealism. Even in academic research, we talk about it in the past and we do not envision it in the present. Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita gives us a compelling case study to rethink that position.
Nigeria’s Strategy and Boko Haram: Any End in Sight?
The Nigerian government must achieve an understanding of the conflict and of Boko Haram to avoid eventual state collapse, with catastrophic implications for West Africa and the continent.
On the 29th of November 2020, 43 rice farmers had their throats slit by Boko Haram terrorists at Zabamari in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state. Following this attack, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity blamed the deceased for not having received clearance from the military to harvest their crops. The military stated that though they had defeated Boko Haram, terrorists remained embedded in local communities and there was little they could do when civilians refused to provide intelligence. President Buhari issued his usual response, the operative phrase being that he “condemned the killing of our hardworking farmers”.
2020 was not done with showing just how precarious Nigerian state stability is. On the 11th of December last year, More than 300 students were kidnapped from their government school at Kankara, a two-hour drive from President Buhari’s hometown where he was vacationing at the time. Boko Haram claimed responsibility; the government denied this. Eventually, the students were released in a still obscure deal involving the Fulani ethnic Miyetti Allah group which has been accused of fomenting the Boko Haram-unrelated farmer-herdsmen crisis in central Nigeria. The Nigerian government then engaged in a shameful and ridiculous attempt to spin this fiasco.
In response, activists have trended the hashtags #ZabamariMassacre #FreeKankaraBoys #SackBuhari and #SecureNorth. Viewed through any one of several internal security lenses, the brutal, clear-eyed reality is that Nigeria is a scene of carnage and chaos related—directly or not—to the challenge posed by Boko Haram.
Successive governments have been hobbled by this Islamist sect which started a campaign of terror in 2009. Well over 37,000 people have been killed, with millions displaced to Internally Displaced Persons’ and refugee camps. The conflict is internationalised, localised as it is around Lake Chad which Nigeria shares with three French-speaking countries—Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The threat profile of Boko Haram that is unfolding in these hyper-connected times is far more scalable than any 20th century conflict. Ending the Boko Haram conflict is crucial to shoring up state stability in Nigeria and West Africa. Yet, Nigeria’s strategic engagement with this existential problem leaves much to be desired and is a cause for concern.
At the centre of all conflict resolution approaches is identifying the conflict and, in the case of Boko Haram, this remains blurry. What is clear is that the conflict was kick-started by the murder of the leader of the Boko Haram sect, Muhammad Yusuf, by officers of the Nigerian state. A charismatic preacher and adherent of Salafi revanchist ideology, Yusuf had taken over leadership of the group in 2002 and quickly gathered an immense local following. He then lent his popularity to local politicians uncertain of their legitimacy, until he fell out with them, leading to his death in 2009. The sect then came to be led by the choleric and belligerent Abubakar Shekau, who would go on to plug his group into the international jihadi mainstream with a 2015 pledge to al-Baghdadi’s then territorial Islamic State (IS). It now comprises an indeterminate number of factions sharing a narrative that the secular Nigerian state ought to be replaced with an Islamist one, and a willingness to exact an appalling human cost on soft targets and security forces alike. In these axioms, Boko Haram has been single-minded.
Georgetown University professor Jacob Zenn provides compelling research on Boko Haram in his 2020 book Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria. Zenn’s thesis sets out and explores Islamist jihadism as an international network of ideas within which Boko Haram has positioned itself, even if its initial concerns were far more localised. At the centre of this network of ideas is Saudi Arabia’s decades-long project to balance out Iranian influence by indoctrinating moderate Muslim clerics and making generous petrodollar grants to spread the Kingdom’s ultraconservative Wahhabi Islam. While Mohamed bin Salman continues to try to scale down his country’s polarisation of the Middle East through rapprochement with Israel, for example, nothing is likely to be done by the Kingdom to scale back the effect of decades of state support for fundamentalist Islam and virulent extremism in Africa.
This fundamentalism underscored al-Qaeda, which exerted extremist influence on regions farther away, changing Islam forever in societies like the heterogeneous and heterodox ones of Nigeria, which found themselves faced with a new crisis of identity, of political economy, and of state stability. That there will be no help from the Saud who opened the basket of vipers is a given. That defeating Boko Haram requires a holistic, all-of-government strategic engagement by the government of Nigeria is obvious. That Nigeria’s state apparatus is currently engaged in chasing after indicators while disregarding the larger syndrome, is a reality rooted in an absence of a common understanding of the Boko Haram problem.
The importance of Dr Jacob Zenn’s Unmasking Boko Haram lies in its methodology for clarifying the Boko Haram reality. Zenn comes to his analysis from a position of expertise in jihadism and Boko Haram, facility with Hausa and Arabic languages and familiarity with the interconnections between points in the African web of armed non-state actors ranging from AQIM to al-Shabaab. To this he adds copious amounts of research stretching back fifty years, organising this in demonstrably objective ways. His expertise, rigour and creativity weave a narrative of Boko Haram’s early influence by bin Laden’s deputies in Sudan and the general context, tracing a line of international influences—including by the Shia—that created its peculiar syncretism. Unmasking then sets out the conflict between Boko Haram and mainstream Salafi scholarship, and the fracturing of the group into several factions, giving detailed descriptions of ideological differences. I do not expect that the government of Nigeria will adopt Zenn’s conclusions but there can be no doubt that a common understanding of the Boko Haram group is needed and that, eleven years on, it remains lacking.
The first thing to be exploded is the idea that Boko Haram’s actions, reprehensible as they are, are senseless. Boko Haram’s foundational dissent against mainstream Western ideas—such as Darwinism, allegiance to a secular state, mixed-gender education, for example—in favour of Sharia and the supremacy of the Quran are not particularly special. Revivalist movements within religions, especially Islam, Christianity and Judaism, are commonplace. The group should thus be approached as a sociological attempt to recalibrate society, no different from any of the other -isms academics, intellectuals and ideologues foment, even if misguided. This done, the underlying logic—one which devalues human life and disregards social cooperation and diversity—can be contradicted by floating counter-ideologies or changing society to accommodate or undercut the raison d’être of groups like Boko Haram.
Thought to have been founded in 1995, Boko Haram is rooted in a Borno-based jihadist community whose leaders had spent time abroad—particularly in the Sudan and Saudi Arabia—from the 90s right up to 9/11 and believed that postcolonial states were illegitimate. It merged with Saudi-backed Salafi groups which seek to emulate Arab Muslims of the 7th century, are strictly literalist in terms of Islamic tenets—thus rejecting all “innovation”—and believe that there exists a universal Islamic brotherhood of faith to which all else is in opposition. The synthesis of these two strands of ideology led to the defining character of Boko Haram—the certainty that they can declare other Muslims as apostates and wage violence against them and against non-Muslims who are, of course, infidels, precisely because they are either secular or simply non-Muslim.
Abubakar Shekau’s leadership of the sect would go on to fully test this minting of new apostates while designating infidels very broadly. He soon turned on the Salafi groups when it was clear they had no stomach for actual violence and had opted for state capture—by participating in politics—instead. The Salafi groups retaliated by mobilising what state resources they had under their influence against Boko Haram, which responded in kind. This, of course, was happening against the backdrop of Saudi backpedaling of Salafi association with jihadists following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Saudis had greatly incentivised local Salafis following the Gulf War in 1990-1991—a period proximate to the coming to the fore of foreign-exposed or foreign-influenced local jihadists, such as the founders of Boko Haram. This is the loop within which the insurgency exists.
An examination of the Nigerian government’s strategic response to Boko Haram starts from it failing at its primary role as a state, which is providing people-centred development through managing identity and guaranteeing the security of its citizens. Today, the northeast has a 76 per cent poverty rate, with its quality of life and internally generated revenue profiles placing it amongst the poorest regions in the world. All this was achieved over decades of neglect and public sector corruption, precisely the sort of boko behavior Boko Haram uses to argue for a return to simpler times from fourteen centuries ago.
Nigeria’s initial reaction to Boko Haram absolutely ignored the interrelated local socioeconomic factors and the international environment that shaped the sect. Hence the assumption that the extrajudicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf would put paid to the sect, which turned out to be grossly incorrect. The initial response also seemed ignorant of the prior twenty years of evolution of armed non-state actors such as al-Qaeda employing a diffused command and control structure which has been described as “cell-like” and more sophisticated than hierarchical state structures. The Nigerian Police, widely known for human rights abuses and thought of as both incompetent and corrupt, quickly proved inadequate in addressing the insurgency and the military was drafted in for what was essentially an internal security issue.
The earliest military response included blanket arrests and disappearances which alienated local communities in the northeast and guaranteed little cooperation. These actions in fact gained sympathy for the insurgents, who soon began to seize territory. Determined military pushback has now seen the insurgency evolve into a low-intensity conflict with control of some territory routinely changing hands at the cost of military and civilian lives. Attacks have been frequent, especially by the ISWA (Islamic State of West Africa) faction of Boko Haram. A 2019 shift in military strategy saw the creation of “super-camps” and garrison towns which had the effect of leaving the countryside to the insurgents. In these territories, Boko Haram factions have proceeded to levy taxes and duties on economic activity, such as farming and harvesting. It is instructive that Abubakar Shekau, in claiming responsibility for the killing of the rice farmers in Zabamari, said it was done in revenge against the farmers for having arrested an insurgent and cooperated with the military.
It is quite clear that the Nigerian government’s response has not been proactive and preemptive, and has failed to emphasise building intelligence networks with local community buy-in that can disrupt Boko Haram. Nor has it denied Boko Haram factions the ability to recruit and replenish their ranks. The terror unleashed by Boko Haram results from these failures and the insurgents’ demonstrated ability to finance themselves.
It is over a decade since the Boko Haram insurgency started and the lack of strategic coherence on the part of the government of Nigeria is of great concern. Beyond documents and statements, proof of strategy is action and results.
It is important to go back to the drawing board and this starts with the government of Nigeria achieving a common understanding of the conflict and the opposing party—Boko Haram. This is a blind spot that researchers such as the American Dr Jacob Zenn amply illuminate, alongside the thinking of Nigerian academics and researchers who have done rigorous work on Boko Haram. The danger with not doing this is that the conflict will continue, with the usual victims of terror suffering in horrific ways, and after a decade or two, the state will collapse not because it could not save itself and regenerate its vitality, and definitely not because of a superior enemy, but simply out of sheer inertia. This would have catastrophic implications for West Africa and the continent at large.
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