Nigeria’s Terrorist Threats Are Bigger Than Boko Haram
The media and the Nigerian government lump terrorism under one label — but that's misleading and dangerous
If you heard about Nigeria in recent years, chances are that it was in the context of the Boko Haram insurgency that has plunged the northeastern part of the country into mayhem. The Council on Foreign Relations estimates that at least 19,807 people have died in the war.
“Boko Haram” has become a shorthand for the most primitive and brutal form of sectarian violence, in no small part thanks to the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. He has appeared in online videos celebrating the slaughter of civilians, security officers and the abduction of schoolgirls.
Pres. Muhammadu Buhari has made eradicating Boko Haram and eliminating Shekau his administration’s top priority, and since the group has extended its operations into neighboring countries, he can count on the support of a regional task force to do so.
There are some signs that the offensive against Boko Haram is relatively successful, with October seeing 319 deaths, the lowest since December 2012.
But this narrative has problem.
For one, “Boko Haram” does not exist as a group in the way that most people, including the Nigerian government, talk about it. And even as the name of a more abstract phenomenon, it doesn’t capture the entirety of violent religious extremism in Nigeria.
Let’s back up a moment. It’s important to note that Boko Haram is not a single organization. At least five different groups are commonly referred to as “Boko Haram,” although none of them have ever claimed this name for themselves. Rather, they prefer their “proper” Arabic names.
Shekau does lead one of these groups, but they do not share any operational or financial resources. The common denominator between all five groups is an ideology derived from the teachings of Muhammad Yusuf.
Yusuf was a influential and controversial cleric who preached against the corrupting influence — in his view — of “western” ideology. He advocated for a Nigerian government based on an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law and tradition. Nigerian security agents murdered him in custody in 2009.
Of the Yussufia terrorist groups, the Shekau-led faction is the most extreme. Shekau has sworn allegiance to Islamic State, adopting the name “Islamic State’s West Africa Province” for his faction.
In comparison to the other four factions, ISWAP makes extreme use of the concept of takfir, or declaring that Muslims who don’t agree with its extremist and violent interpretation of Islam are apostates who must be persecuted or even killed.
To be clear, Boko Haram’s other four factions — including a splinter group that defected after Shekau pledged allegiance to IS — also advocate war with the Nigerian government and neighboring countries. All support establishing a theocratic society. All groups claim allegiance to the late Yusuf and are guilty of devastating crimes against civilians.
But the oversimplification of the conflict has stood in the way of resolving it, not least because it has given the Nigerian government a convenient way of attributing the violence to a diffuse organization, while ignoring the very real grievances that have let to the development of the violent Yusufiyya ideology in the first place.
Equally bad, a lack of understanding of the various factions and their organisational structure has torpedoed any attempt of a negotiated end to the conflict with at least some elements of the insurgency so far.
The broadness of the label “Boko Haram” poses another danger — it threatens to blind both the government and the media to other threats emanating from radical Islamist groups in Nigeria that share no affiliation with Yussuf. The label also blurs distinctions between those advocating violence and more mainstream Muslims.
Followers of the teachings of Muhammad Yusuf see themselves as part of the Salafi movement, an ultra-orthodox fundamentalist current of Sunni Islam that advocates a return to the “pure” teachings of Mohammed and his earliest followers. Most violent jihadist groups subscribe to Salafism, but the vast majority of Salafis actually denounce violence.
“Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance,” journalist Graeme Wood wrote of these non-violent Salafists in an essay for The Atlantic, “and they believe anything that thwarts those goals — such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship — is forbidden.”
Graeme was referring to non-violent Salafis in contrast to Islamic State, and noted the former present a peaceful alternative to violent radicalism. This holds true in Nigeria as well. The teachings of Muhammad Yusuf are widely rejected by the religious authorities respected by Nigeria’s mainstream Salafis.
“This Yusufiyya doctrine has been refuted by the preachers and teachers of the Salafi Call in Nigeria,” wrote Fulan Nasrullah, a Nigerian blogger who identifies as Salafi.
On Oct. 13, Nigerian security forces stormed a mosque in Okene, Kogi state associated with the As-Sunnah sect. Members of the mosque fired on the soldiers, who discovered an arms cache in the building.
While this story sounds very similar to the daily news out of the areas impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency, Okene is actually 880 kilometers away from the insurgency’s heartland.
Nor does As-Sunnah have any direct affiliation with any of Boko Haram’s factions — and even has a different ideology. But according to Nasrullah, it has in recent years stockpiled large amounts of weapons. Further, As-Sunnah is not the only extremist group that has prepared itself for a violent confrontation with the Nigerian state.
Nigeria’s problems with violent religious extremism go far beyond Boko Haram. The grievances that motivated Muhammad Yusuf and his followers have led to a rise in religious fundamentalism with precedents in Nigeria’s history.
Even as the military can celebrate some successes against the various northeastern insurgencies, Buhari’s administration should not make the mistake of confusing symptom and cause, especially as currently, not even the symptoms are well understood.