Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency

Boko Haram is Nigeria’s notorious Jihadist insurgency group. It has plagued the country for years and with its kidnapping of over 200 school girls in 2013 it came into focus of the international public. In March Boko Haram officially joined the Islamic State. Recently, it was dubbed the “world’s deadliest terrorist organization”. Mostly active in the north of Nigeria and adjacent countries, the organization has remained a cipher. Recently, many analysts have tried to tackle it. One of them is Virginia Comolli*, Research Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Her book “Boko Haram. Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency” is a comprehensive discussion of the group, the implications of its rise and the government’s struggle to deal with it.


Comolli grounds her work in the pre-colonization history of the region. We learn about city-states and Islamic revolutionaries. And crucially we learn that socio-economic grievances have often been framed through Islamist groups and networks. This helps us understand the cyclical nature of insurgencies in the North that channel those grievances.

Reading this book one comes to appreciate the difficulty of acquiring reliable information about Boko Haram. Comolli herself makes sure to spell out and describe contradictions. Consequently, she does not offer a definitive narrative of Boko Haram’s birth. Instead she discusses competing stories. Many of these versions share aspects, places and persons but the chronology is varied and in different version different people play different roles.

Hence, the origins of the group stay a bit mystical in Comolli’s account. The group or its predecessors appeared in the 1990s or early 2000s and initially existed as a non-violent social movement that nevertheless was involved in some kind of violent conflict with the government. Undisputed is that charismatic Mohamed Yusuf became the group’s leader once he entered the stage and was able to attract new followers. It is also noteworthy that the term Boko Haram (often translates as western education is a sin) is not used by the group itself but was originally introduced by the media and others. Indeed Boko Haram not only rejects western education but also western civilisation as a whole.

In 2007 Yusuf returned from Saudi Arabia where he had studied. He set up a system of informal social welfare and was quickly seen not only as a preacher but also as a provider. There was even a short episode in which state authorities tried to co-opt the movement. However, in 2009 a somewhat silly incident over a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets sparked a violent confrontation between Boko Haram supporters and security forces in the states of Borno, Kano, Katina and Yobe. 700 to 800 Boko Haram sympathizers were killed and its leadership arrested. Mohamed Yusuf was killed in custody. After some uncertainty Abubakar Shekau became the group leader, a much more radical and erratic character.

Shekau is elusive and information about him is hard to come by. Nigerian authorities have declared him dead several times, which has never been true. Under him the movement has turned extremely violent, targeting security forces as well as civilian targets. From 2011 forward it has used suicide attacks that for a long time had been considered “un-Nigerian” by many, first the police headquarters in Abuja were hit later the UN compound.

It is noteworthy that Boko Haram is not a monolithic movement. After 2009 some members that had fled abroad and gotten into contact with the al-Qaida network formed the group Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan [Supporters of the Muslims in Black Africa], known as Ansaru. While the two groups disagree over tactics, viciousness and areas of operation they still cooperate. Also, it is not the only faction of Boko Haram.

When it comes to recruitment it has long been claimed that Boko Haram members are often former poor former students of Quranic schools in the north. However, Comolli notes that while ideology might be the overall driver for the organization’s members there is also a lot of evidence indicating that financial, personal and political interests are important to explain the violence on an individual level.

Internationally, Boko Haram until recently was only active in adjacent countries and has in particular affected Cameroon. Nevertheless, there is evidence that suggests a relationship with al-Qaida at least since 2006. The crisis in Mali has changed that trajectory to a certain degree. Reports say Boko Haram members fought there. Especially Ansaru has a quite close relationship with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and seem to have taken the tactic of kidnappings from them.

Initially, the Nigerian government had been badly prepared to react to an insurgency. Its military was set up to fight state-to-state conflicts. Its counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism efforts did improve to a certain degree over time but never overly satisfyingly. The government went back and forth on negotiations and amnesties. When it finally engaged in negotiations with Boko Haram this was unsuccessful. The group’s leadership renounced several supposed agreements and the talks remained controversial in the wider public.

In May 2013 a new state of emergency was declared and military captured 1000 alleged Boko Haram members. However, there is evidence that those rounded up were mostly innocent young men and most Boko Haram forces had fled to neighbouring countries. The security operation had an overall negative impact on the human security situation in the north because soldiers saw locals as potential fighters and treated them accordingly. In addition the conflict gave rise to a local anti-Boko Haram vigilantes (“Civilian JTF”). After some initial hesitation authorities began to support those groups. In reaction Boko Haram began to target its members.

In August 2013 the military took over the fight again Boko Haram from the original multi-agency Joint Task Force Operation Restore Order. Comolli is quite critical of this move saying the troops could record few successes. Because they committed human rights abuses soldiers did deprive themselves of necessary intelligence. Many locals said the military was not much better than Boko Haram, beating up people, extorting money.

The broken justice system with a massive case backlog did exacerbate the situation with scores of people dying in custody.  Pre-trail detention sometimes lasts up to three year. This might encourage some police officers to simply kill their detainees rather than putting them in prison, says Comolli. In March 2014 Boko Haram attacked Giwa prison a particularly appalling detention centre.

Nevertheless, Nigeria has tried to formulate and roll out a more comprehensive strategy against Boko Haram that includes aspects of radicalization prevention, as well as public diplomacy to conflicts with the general public over military operations.

Overall, what we learn from this book is that the situation is a bit more difficult than just an insurgency fighting against a state. Boko Haram is intertwined with the social realities of Nigeria’s northern states. Comolli characterizes the group as a “hybrid security challenge”. Making it necessary to employ military as well as civil means. She emphasises the necessity to work on economic development and education as a long-term measure. The human rights situation needs to be improved and the judicial system revamped. Comolli concludes: « Unless structural and societal issues are addressed, no state of emergency military deployment or even foreign intervention will grant lasting stability to Nigeria. Even if the military is successful in crushing the current manifestation of Boko Haram, a new version will most likely present itself sooner or later, feeding on unresolved grievances and inequality ».

Her analysis is convincing and comprehensive painting a differentiated picture of what is actually going on in Nigeria, beyond a simplified narrative that pits Boko Haram against the government.

The only real critique I have to offer is probably more aimed at the editor than the author. There are details: The book occasionally uses two different ways of spelling the name of Boko Haram’s current leader Shekau. But also overall problems: Comolli sometimes writes long, complicated sentences overburdened with information that deprive the text of its punch. One example:

« Regarding Mohamed Yusuf and Boko Haram for instance, Mohammed notes that in the early days of his leadership – which, according to Mohammed, Ustaz Yusuf seized in a coup of sorts, from the original Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Lawan, who had left to further his Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia – Yusuf, after coercing support from senior clerics of the sect through « corruption allegations », began to reshape and re-mold the movement in line with his ideology of mulling the idea of waging a jihad (religious war) »

Nevertheless, the book has drawn deserved positive acknowledgements. Comolli presented her book at the UN headquarters in New York in summer and was greeted by much praise including – and that might be a bit surprising – by representatives of the Nigerian government. If the biggest problem is that everyone agrees with you, you are lucky.

Jan Raudszus. Independent journalist. 

* Full disclosure: Virginia once was my boss at IISS and I still do work for the institute.

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