Center for Strategic Communication

Another piece on Boko, this one that I had been working on with Sofia long before the Chibok girls kidnapping, but lands now for my Institute’s magazine publication RUSI Newsbrief. For those eager to see me talking about foreign fighters, I participated in a debate on BBC’s Newsnight last night that can be found here (though only for 6 more days from May 20 2014) and separately I did an interview with the Press Association around the anniversary of the Woolwich attack last year.

The ‘Franchising’ of Boko Haram

RUSI Newsbrief, 19 May 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci

On 14 April, a bomb went off at a bus station on the outskirts of Abuja, reportedly killing seventy-five. On the same day, more than 200 girls were abducted from a school in Borno State. Both acts were claimed by Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terror network that has become a household name around the world. Yet whilst the kidnap of the girls in particular has served to enhance the group’s notoriety, the nature of its structure and membership – as well as the extent to which acts attributed to it are directed by the central command – is increasingly opaque. For foreign observers concerned about the rise of Salafi-jihadism (a short-hand term to characterise extreme Islamist-inspired violence) in West Africa, the issue is important in determining what kind of threat the group may pose in the future.

During a press briefing in the wake of the girls’ kidnap, spokesperson of the Nigerian State Security Service Marilyn Ogar characterised Boko Haram as ‘a franchise’, which ‘anybody can assume and lay claim to.’ This is a useful means of conceptualising the group, with some cells clearly connected to the leadership, others seeming to act more autonomously and others carrying out criminal activity while masquerading as (or being mistaken for) Boko Haram. Indeed, the term ‘franchise’ may help to explain the many faces of violence in northern Nigeria, and to demonstrate the lack of clarity around the nature of the current organisation. Today’s Boko Haram – although still representative of the ideology forged by founder Mohammed Yusuf – has become a multifaceted, cellular group, seemingly encompassing terrorists, insurgents and criminals, in a manner that is hard to understand or contain.

At the same time, northern Nigeria has long been a dangerous part of the world beset by ethnic violence, criminality, draconian government responses, and longstanding tension with the south. The ‘franchising’ framework offers analysts a means of defining an increasingly nebulous organisation and region – helping in turn to identify ways of dealing with the various factions. It also highlights how the ambiguous nature of Boko Haram makes it an increasingly dangerous organisation.

The confusion surrounding Boko Haram relates to a range of factors. First, there is an absence of accurate and reliable information about incidents; the challenges faced by external actors in gaining access to the area make it difficult to independently verify reports. Given that reporting is often fragmentary or contradictory, it is very difficult to know whether violent incidents are being properly attributed and which sources are credible.

This relates to a second point, which is that it is not always clear where the line of responsibility for these incidents can actually be drawn. For example, the regular tempo of inter-ethnic violence in the region is sometimes wrongly attributed to Boko Haram. In March, journalists wrongly blamed an attack in Katsina State on Boko Haram that was actually carried out by Fulani herdsmen (a Muslim ethnic community resident in the north).

Likewise, criminal acts – such as kidnappings and bank robberies – are commonplace in the north, and the extent to which Boko Haram is connected to such incidents is often unclear. Boko Haram has relied on criminal activity to raise money in the past – a bank robbery in Yobe attributed to the group in April 2013 resulted in currency worth over $50,000 being stolen and twenty-five being killed. Yet, to paraphrase the viewpoint of SOAS Nigeria expert Bala Liman, it is not uncommon for people to rob a bank and come out shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is great’), prompting witnesses to report the incident as connected to Boko Haram based on little evidence beyond this.

Northern Nigeria is also afflicted by violence apparently linked to local ruling elites. Some of this can be attributed to such power-brokers’ support – for personal or ideological reasons – for Boko Haram, but much of it is simply a reflection of local politics. The spikes in violence during election campaigns, for example, are linked in part to groups like Boko Haram, but also to people settling political scores and hiding it in the chaos.

The final element in this violent picture concerns events that are actually claimed by Boko Haram. Yet even these claims often prove difficult to assess due to the opaque structure of the organisation and the indistinct nature of its affiliates and splinter groups. Mohammed Yusuf’s deputy – Abubakar Shekau – succeeded Yusuf as leader after his death in August 2009. His position as head of the organisation is well known and accepted, yet numerous others have posed as leaders and spokesmen in recent years. Mallam Sanni Umaru emerged immediately after Yusuf’s death, issuing a written statement to the Nigerian press describing himself as ‘acting leader’ and outlining the group’s cause, mission and targets. However, nothing has been heard from him since.

Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulaziz then emerged in late 2012, declaring himself Shekau’s direct spokesman. In an interview with The Guardian, he claimed that the group was in peace discussions with the government. Speaking to the press in English rather than Hausa, however, served to raise doubts, and with peace not achieved, Abdulaziz’s involvement with the group seems as ambiguous as his comments, with local people with inside information also discounting this link.

A similar figure was Mohammed Marwan, who claimed to be second-in-command to Shekau. In April 2013, he declared that the group was becoming more moderate (in stark contrast to its activity). Even though Nigeria’s Minister of Special Duties Kabiru Turaki confirmed that Marwan was his main interlocutor, hopes of an accord were dashed in July 2013, when Shekau released a video reassuring his supporters that ‘we will not enter into any truce with these infidels’. Shekau underscored this by claiming responsibility for recent, brutal attacks on secondary schools in Mamudo (where, on 6 July, militants had butchered forty-two children and their teachers) and in Damaturu (where, on 16 June, Boko Haram members opened fire, killing thirteen). As Shekau put it, ‘we … warned that we are going to burn all schools. They are schools purposely built to fight Islam.’ Indeed, the group has specialised in these grim school massacres, seemingly living up to the loose translation of its name, ‘Western education is forbidden’. This approach, and the emergence of questionable interlocutors, is now playing out again with the kidnap of the girls in Borno, where it is unclear whether those offering themselves up as negotiators actually have any link to the group itself.

Whether these are instances of fracturing or merely reflective of a lack of clarity around the group is uncertain. Seemingly clearer, and of greater concern to Western strategists, was the formation of the group Ansaru in January 2012. Claiming to want to conduct more targeted attacks focused on figures of authority and international targets in line with globalist jihadist aims like those of Al-Qa’ida, rather than the wanton destruction directed by Shekau, Ansaru’s emergence has been interpreted in different ways. Age-old ethnic divisions between Fulani and Kanuri are one possible explanation, while others focus on the links between elements in Ansaru and Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the main Sahelian jihadist group. Indeed, aside from individual connections, Ansaru’s rhetorical preference for limiting Muslim casualties seems to resonate more with AQIM’s approach of trying to win over local populations than with Shekau’s brutal razed-earth approach. Ansaru’s kidnapping and killing of foreigners is also reminiscent of former AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, famous for masterminding the January 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria.

Having claimed responsibility for attacks in areas traditionally dominated by Boko Haram whilst operating under a different name and ideology, Ansaru has further complicated Western efforts to gain an insight into the psyche of Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria. Beyond this, the broader explosion in violent activity across northern Nigeria since 2012 reinforces the notion that Boko Haram has developed into a brand whose ‘franchise’ has been adopted by all sorts of other organisations. This makes an understanding of Boko Haram even more complicated, with the already opaque nature of the group lending itself well to an umbrella organisation to which anyone can attribute their actions.

Finally, while 2014 has seen extreme levels of violence claimed by the group, including the Abuja bombing and Borno kidnapping, these acts, while not too far from Boko Haram’s previous activity, do strike a new pattern. Previously, the group largely kept to launching attacks in the northeastern provinces, with earlier kidnap operations far more limited in scale. Yet the international coverage that this kidnap, in particular, has generated suggests a new, more ambitious tempo of activity that the group is likely to continue to pursue. This will further complicate attempts to predict the future actions of the group and its splinters.

For external observers, this is particularly worrying, suggesting that the grim bill of violence in northern Nigeria is unlikely to subside any time soon. Meanwhile, the fracturing and ‘franchising’ of Boko Haram complicates any attempt by the government to resolve the situation peacefully (or even to establish who to begin to talk to).

So far, the Nigerian government has taken a hard-line approach, with reports of mass detentions, collective punishments, torture and extra-judicial killing, which may serve to further alienate local populations. Some of these may ultimately take an anti-Western stand: although attacks on Western interests have so far been conducted primarily by Ansaru (with only the 2011 attack on the UN offices in Abuja claimed by Boko Haram), an increasingly fractured organisation may produce groups or cells seeking to distinguish themselves or connect with other African jihadist organisations such as AQIM or its many splinters.

Meanwhile, the concerns of the West, as well as those of the Nigerian government, are not limited to the security threat. The growing chaos caused by the proliferation of instability in Nigeria will only further undermine the country’s burgeoning (but still inefficient) economy. This will have substantial repercussions on external interests in West Africa, and on the continent as a whole.

Raffaello Pantucci and Sofia Patel

Senior Research Fellow and Research Assistant, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci, @laramimi