In the fast-changing world of violent Sunni Muslim activism, it is reassuring to find that some things remain the same. Every militant group that has emerged in recent decades has shared key elements, and the Nigerian Boko Haram group is no exception.
First, in Nigeria – as in Afghanistan, Algeria, Pakistan and the Philippines – there is a long history of religious violence going back to colonial times and beyond. Then there is a more recent aggravation of sectarian tensions against the tense background of the “9/11 wars” of the last decade. Muslim communities in the north of Nigeria, where Boko Haram operates, see themselves as increasingly threatened by the strident Christianity that dominates the south.
Boko Haram means “no to western education” and aptly sums up its cultural message. This plays into the widespread belief that Muslims are under attack from a belligerent west and its local proxies. Like other similar groups, Muslims who do not share their hardline stance are equally – if not more – a target.
Then, of course, there are the broad social, political and economic factors. It is relative, not absolute deprivation, that is key. Most Nigerians are poor – but three times as many northern Muslims as southern Christians. Northern elites resent the dominance of the south. Demographics, again shared with much of the Islamic world, have created a “youth bulge” of millions of young men with few prospects or skills.
As elsewhere, it was a single charismatic leader – in this case Mohammed Yusuf – who welded a disparate network of groups with a variety of grievances into something more coherent. And, also as elsewhere, the death of that leader (in 2009) has led to a new phase of extremism as successors try to maintain momentum and unity.
The group first struck international targets when it attacked the UN headquarters in Abuja last year, taking a step on the path trodden by many militant groups which have grafted a global dimension onto their otherwise very local agenda over recent decades. Now, of course, analysts are seeking to establish whether Boko Haram has links to the al-Qaida senior leadership or affiliates and if it is a threat to the west.
As ever, these are highly politicised questions. For local leaders, blaming al-Qaida both deflects blame from their own inefficiency and venality as well as potentially unlocking considerable financial, diplomatic and security assistance from the west.
For militant groups, claims of al-Qaida membership bring the temporary boost of credibility and kudos, and therefore of funds and recruits. But we should be wary of taking the supposed links to al-Qaida too seriously. Claims that Boko Haram leaders met al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia during the pilgrimage to Mecca should not be dismissed outright. But it is unclear whether it was an encounter with Saudi Arabian militants – of whom there are very few these days – or with figures from “al-Qaida central”, who would have taken an enormous risk by travelling. Both scenarios are theoretically possible.
The conventional wisdom in intelligence circles is that Boko Haram has received cash, possibly large sums of euros paid to criminal “jihadi” factions in the Sahel, from the al-Qaida affiliate al-Qaida in the Maghreb. The latter group is fragmented but tenacious, and is also believed to have provided Boko Haram with training in contemporary urban terrorism, particularly suicide attacks. However, the Nigerian group remains a local phenomenon that does not pose an international threat, British and other officials say.
The fact that it appears to be boasting of links with al-Qaida – which has suffered significant losses in recent years – does, however, indicate that the brand created by the late Osama bin Laden may remain more attractive and durable than some analysts have thought.