Who are Boko Haram?

Its obsession with threatening education distinguishes Boko Haram from other salafi-jihadist organisations, writes Jonathan Russell.

Its obsession with threatening education distinguishes Boko Haram from other salafi-jihadist organisations, writes Jonathan Russell

Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video released yesterday that the 276 girls the Nigerian Islamist extremist group kidnapped three weeks ago in Borno should not have been in school in the first place; they should have been married.

Motorcycles are a trademark mode of transport for Boko Haram

This might seem a strange announcement to come from a group affiliated with Al Qaeda, part of a transnational jihadist network normally known for spectacular bombings and the insistent call for a global Islamist state. However, a fierce disdain for education is central to this group’s ideology; indeed, ‘Boko Haram’ is Hausa (the majority language in Nigeria) for ‘Western education is sinful’.

With this as its foundation, it has aimed to create an Islamist state in northern Nigeria, pursuing three main strategies.

The first is formed of attacks on domestic and international targets to gain territory and pose a threat to foreigners; second, it conducts systematic attacks on non-Islamic schools, as part of an attempt to Islamise society; and third, it has launched waves of kidnapping to attract concessions from the Nigerian state in order to fund the group’s operations.

Last month’s kidnapping is as a combination of these three aspects.

Boko Haram has been connected with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in the Sahel, through its splinter organisation Ansaru. It has further international links through one of its leaders, Mamman Nur, who has key Al Qaeda contacts in AQIM, Al Shabab, and Al Qaeda core.

This international networking is crucial to Boko Haram’s ideology, which calls on the unoriginal blend of Ibn Taymiyya and Abdul Wahhab’s salafism, Qutb’s anti-Westernism, and Al Zarqawi’s brutal sectarianism. Their narratives follow a similarly international trend, with calls for revenge on the ‘crusaders and the United Nations’, retaliation against the French president’s ‘war on Islam’ in Mali, and support for Syrian jihadists against the ‘oppressor Bashar al-Assad.’

Its obsession with threatening education distinguishes Boko Haram from other salafi-jihadist organisations. Literalist interpretations of religious scripture continue to pose problems all around the world, but Boko Haram’s persistent focus on Western education in general, and girls’ education in particular, should trouble us as much as hudud punishments (such as amputation for theft and stoning for adultery) in Afghanistan or Brunei. The effects will be as long-lasting as amputations and continue to feed the misdirected ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm so cherished by jihadists and the far-right alike.

By targeting education in its name and actions, Boko Haram threatens one of the greatest counter-extremism tools available. If successful in achieving its aims, this could ensure a steady flow of recruitment for years to come, for education presents the tools to find a way out of the socioeconomic malaise in northern Nigeria; education allows for the questioning of the narrow, extremist and morally bankrupt exploitation of Islamic scripture and modern history; education provides a connection to the world beyond your immediate environment, to broaden your horizons and to think critically.

This is what Malala’s story teaches us, and it is just as valid in Nigeria as in Pakistan.

Parallels between the Pakistani Taliban and Boko Haram abound. In the same way the Taliban targeted Malala, Boko Haram targeted Chibok Girls’ School because they pose an intellectual and symbolic threat to the group.

Boko Haram aims to monopolise northern Nigeria’s education system. By terrorising those considering a Western style of education, they pave the way for their own indoctrination of young people. Since 2012, we have seen the group’s systematic radicalisation of the illiterate and impoverished al-majirai boys who are dependent on Boko Haram for alms and shelter. In exchange, they end up with lessons in which they learn the Qur’an by rote and are fed Boko Haram’s narrow and aggressive worldview.

In this way, the targeting of education is both a strategy and a tactic for the Nigerian terrorist organisation.

Of course, we must help the Nigerian government to address its often counter-productive counter-terrorism policy and do what we can to boost regional co-operation to allow for the development of a comprehensive regional counter-terrorism strategy.

However, an international effort to defend the right of young people to an education, as enshrined in Article 13 of the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, is of utmost importance, not least because it would undermine Boko Haram’s modus operandi, act as an invaluable counter-extremism tool for generations to come, and reduce the recruitment pool for a group that will otherwise continue to haunt northern Nigeria.

Jonathan Russell is political liaison officer for Quilliam

5 Responses to “Who are Boko Haram?”

  1. Mike Stallard

    What a superb and well resourced article! Well written.

  2. jimmy kerr

    say what you like about them but whiter shade of pale is a great tune

  3. jackryan1985

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that hostility towards Education seperates or distinguishes Boko Haram from other Islamist militant groups.

    I myself witnessed first hand the hostility of the Taliban in Zhari District Kandahar Province Afghanistan towards education during my deployment in 2011.

    During one of my units missions we came across an abandoned school built by the Canadians in 07. The Taliban had burned the school out years ago, but the buildings and perimeter wall were made of concrete and were still standing.

    We came under fire as our lead elements entered the schoolyard through a small breach of the back wall. But the worst part was when one of our soldiers stepped on an IED that the Taliban had planted in the southeast corner of the school yard.

    Clearly the Taliban were very intent on not letting that school ever reopen. It was fortunate because he didn’t die or lose a leg because the Taliban had placed the bomb too deep. But I hate to think what could have happened if a child or aid worker had stepped on it instead of a soldier wearing body armor.

    Boko Haram and the Taliban are cut from the same militant Islamist cloth, they are joined in their hatred of education especially of women and girls. The mass kidnapping of 234 Christian Girls from a secondary school is certainly dramatic but the Taliban has waged its own campaign of terror against educators and students including mysterious gas attacks against girls schools that to this day remain unsolved.

    We do a disservice to the girls who suffer daily under Sharia and have never known a different life when we try to set Boko Haram as somehow seperate or distinct from other militant Islamist outfits like the Taliban who have been responcible for burning out girls schools, killing teachers and threatening students.

    Perhaps my service and personal experience with the Taliban has jaded me but I think trying to stop the Taliban was the proudest moment of my life.

  4. Dave Roberts

    I liked Procol Harem as well, I just don’t see the relevance here.

  5. Dave Roberts

    I think, as an ex military man myself, that if this incident is to be resolved quickly and the situation rolled back it’s going to mean European boots on African soil. That will of course be grist to the Islamist mill but we are going to have to bite the bullet and do it.

    The money can come from the massive aid budget to Africa most of which is stolen. We should deduct at source and spend the money on soldiers and kit. The troops should be under European command and a part of the brief should be training local troops to European standards.

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