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Wednesday, December 9th 2015


Isis and it Expansion, part 6

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Happy to be done with this project (if, indeed I am)

This entry is the straightforward continuation of what I posted just a few minutes ago (part 5). It won’t make any sense without reading that entry first. (I don’t know that it will with it, but I know it won’t without it. :)  I will provide further formatting in a little while. 

The Early Situation in General

After a period away from large population Boko Haram established itself in Maiduguri, the capital city of the state of Borno. Its adherents probably came primarily from Muslims in northern Nigeria, who perceived that their condition in life, frequently abject poverty, was due to having to live in a non-Muslim (many would say “anti-Muslim”) society. However, as Cook astutely points out (2014, 5-6), if so, it would still be an unwarranted stretch to ascribe rampant poverty as the cause or raison d'être for Boko Haram as an organization. The means for recruiting members frequently do not dovetail with the overall goals of a group. I don't know to what extent Yusuf used this strategy intentionally, but it is certainly often easier to rally people together under the hatred of a common perceived enemy than under a common cause to attain a positive goal. 

Ever since 2002 Boko Haram carried out armed raids, frequently in order to obtain weapons as spoils in order to arm themselves and to bolster their often-meagre finances, but also to create fear among the population as they destroyed products of "Western Learning," such as schools, churches, medical facilities, medical storage sites, and, yes, quite a few mosques.

Inadequate Responses

Inside of Nigeria resistance was provided almost entirely by the Nigerian police, aka Security Forces, and occasionally vigilante groups (Cook, 2014, 14). Because Boko Haram frequently crossed the borders into Chad and Niger, either for raids or to seek concealment, the governments of those two countries used their armies to keep Boko Haram out of their land and hair. But they could not have an effect in stopping Boko Haram's advances in northern Nigeria. The intended goal of the establishment of northern Nigeria (at a minimum) as a separate Islamic state was slowly starting to take on reality. Only one crucial military unit, in fact, the most essential one, did not get involved, and that is--no, with all due respect, not the United States Marines--the army of Nigeria itself.

Cook points out some apparently inexplicable aspects in this set of events. One such was the fact that the Nigerian government did not act to protect schools.

What is most interesting for the outside observer is that there does not appear to have been any serious security measures in place in any of these locations. For Boko Haram’s attacks to be defeated, there needs to be a system for guarding and alarm for isolated schools. It is unclear, when Boko Haram has set educational institutions as its target, why the Nigerian government and military have not responded with setting up the appropriate security measures (Cook, 2014, 12).

However, the most glaring enigma is the more general one included in the above quotation, that the Nigerian government just did not get involved in earnest until finally in the spring of 2015, i.e. this year. Cook asserts in 2014 that “the track record of the Nigerian military to counter Boko Haram has been a miserable one” (2014, 14), and I’m afraid that he made a vast understatement when he wrote those lines.

The news agency al-Jazeera carried an article recounting the experience of a captain in the Nigerian army who had been sent out with about thirty men to rid a town of about 200 Boko Haram recruits. They received their orders and weapons (mortars/grenade launchers) with little notice and headed out to carry out their mission. When they were sufficiently entrenched and the combat commenced, the Nigerian soldiers to a man realized that their equipment was broken and the ammunition was out of date and spoiled. On the other hand, the Boko Haram fighters were relatively well-equipped and definitely trained in the use of modern weaponry. (I'll come back to that point below.) Somehow Captain X and his men prevailed by using their handguns and actually receiving reinforcements in response to their plea. However, that's as far as the Nigerian military was willing to take their mission, a few pro forma interventions here and there, but no significant effort, while the police and foreign military fought to contain Boko Haram as much as they were able. Cook describes the period from about 2010 to 2014 as a civil war in which only one side was fighting (2014, 29).

Some Significant Events

I am not going to detail the many inhumane acts carried out by the group over the last few years. Please see Cook's papers and other various articles on and off line. I must seriously caution you that if you're prone to physical reactions from descriptions of torture and other violations, such as the abduction of hundreds of 10-12 year old girls and their subsequent ordeals, you should not pursue the events in a lot of detail. Still, reality is what it is, and I do need to highlight a couple of occurrences over the years.

2009: The Execution of Muhammad Yusuf

The original leader of Boko Haram, as mentioned, was one Muhammad Yusuf. It became an open secret that, whereas he was expecting all of his followers to live a highly frugal existence, he enjoyed a life of luxury and indulgence (another enigma, but one that is widespread across many different cultures and religions). On July 25, 2009, the federal police in Maiduguri captured members of Boko Haram, which enabled them to track and arrest Yusuf. Cook (2011, 11-12) provides a translated excerpt of his interrogation in the police headquarters, which reads almost like a segment from Abbot and Costello. Yusuf was manipulative, mendacious, and verging on being insolent in his initial responses. Predictably, though not excusably, his captors reacted with increased anger. They humiliated and intimidated him, and eventually simply killed him without any further process of justice. A video of what happened is posted on YouTube, but I'm not going to link to it. There’s no need for us to get desensitized to brutality. If you really need to see it, e.g. for writing a term paper, it’s easy enough to find.

Needless to say, the execution of Yusuf caused a short pause in Boko Haram's activities, only to be renewed with increased vigor and a sizable increase in membership 2010 under the leadership of one Abubakar Shekau, a person who has made up for his apparent lack of knowledge both inside and outside of Islam by displaying unparalleled cruelty in word and deed.

Sidelight: It is interesting to me now that  in early November of 2009 I had a short conversation with a Nigerian Senator that touched on religion in his country. At the time I had no idea of what had happed a few months earlier, and my new acquaintance, clearly a serious Christian, obviously saw no need to bring it up. I attach no significance to that fact, except that I now realize how close I was to someone whose opinion I would have valued, had I only known about the situation and been tactless enough to ask.

Declaring a Caliphate

“Boko Haram” has always been a nickname, though its members and leaders used it themselves. However, in 2014, they changed their official designation to ISWA, Islamic State of West Africa, and stated that from that time on they constituted a caliphate. When I first read about that announcement, I tried to figure out whether it meant that ISWA was establishing its own caliphate under Shekau or aligning itself with the caliphate of Caliph Ibrahim of ISIS. Then I realized that much of the rest of the world also did not know what this new claim entailed either. I suspect that initially Shekau may have thought of himself as the ideal candidate, but since then ISWA has extended a request to ISIS to become a part of its team, and ISIS has accepted the offer.

Sidelight: One can find a number of good articles debunking the idea that the office of "caliph" truly has the great significance that many Muslims and Western analysts tend to ascribe to the term. From my standpoint as a scholar interested in precision, I appreciate such corrections; as a scholar interested in the role of religions in the contemporary world, once again I need to fall back on the fact that perceptions are frequently more important than theoretical accuracy in understanding the actions of people. (See, for example, Madawi al-Rasheed, Carool Kersten, & Marat Shterin, eds., Demystifying the Caliphate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

A Bit of Fresh Air

In the short report on his studies of Boko Haram in the aforementioned alumni magazine, Professor David Cook, has finally felt free to sound a hopeful, if not optimistic note. After the elections on March 25 of this year, the government finally authorized the military to carry out a full-scale mission against Boko Haram, and has succeeded more so than many people had hoped for. To be more specific, as I understand it, the organization, which by that point was establishing territorial control over parts of northern Nigeria has been driven underground again. "Boko Haram's reign of terror is coming to a close at this time, thanks to a decisive response just in the nick of time," Cook rejoices and adds a little later that "it has been profoundly satisfying to hear that Boko Haram is finally on the run." Given the horrendous state prior to army intervention, one cannot help but to share his joy. Much oppression has been ended, and captives--particularly some of the abducted girls and women--have been returned, though bearing serious scars.

But Cook realizes that the hostilities are not over for good, and that Boko Haram still exists. Just as I thought about writing on this topic, I came across a report of a Boko Haram sponsored bombing in northern Cameroon. Furthermore, the Wikipedia article on the group contains a rather lengthy list of acts of terror ascribed to them this year, so after the momentary joy of some success, I'm afraid that we need to be more sober (it not somber) again.

Going Further

Writing in the context of exploring the options in American foreign policy in reaction to the events of Nigeria, Cook has suggested a rather cautious approach (2011, 23ff, & 2014, 24ff). Since clearly my opinion is far less informed than Prof. Cook’s, the fact that I concur may not carry a whole lot of weight. Our military resources are limited, and we do not have sufficient national interest in the fate of Nigeria as a political entity to get involved in one of their civil wars, even if we find one side quite repugnant. We cannot be the policeman of the world. A veritable crusade to West Africa to right all wrongs and establish a permanent Western-style government and economy would, without a doubt, wind up as disastrous as its counterparts in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, there are some very good reasons to keep a close eye on what is going to happen in Nigeria in the near future.

1. Boko Haram, now ISWA, still exists, not just as an idea, but as a group of people who continue to pursue their goal, as made clear by the ongoing acts of terror.

2. Anti-government armies in Africa often are made up of a large number of mercenaries who move from country to country, offering their services to various causes. They provide experience in war in addition to bolstering the numbers of insurgent combatants who are capable with modern weaponry. The experience of Captain X, according to the article I mentioned above, is an apparent case in point. Thus, at least theoretically, the number of potential warriors on behalf of ISWA could actually exceed the number of Nigerian members of the group. Given sufficient inducement, ISWA could make a large-scale comeback, in which case the United States may have to get involved simply to continue the “war on terror.” Obviously, I have to leave it with “could” and “may.” Despite the statements of our country’s highest leader in foreign policy, we have yet to neutralize al-Qaeda, making it meaningless to say that we’re going to “do” ISIS in a shorter time frame. Any statements concerning ISWA suffer from even greater uncertainty.

3. We have begun to feel the impact of ISIS in the Western world, including even on our shores. I began this lengthy essay with the observation that ISIS is at the moment territorially restrained, but that it is also still expanding and increasing its influence (and President Obama recognizes both points, at least implicitly). Hopefully you may now be able to see one key to understand this conundrum. ISIS is expanding geographically because other jihadi organizations may (explicitly or implicitly) seek to make common cause with them.

I have tried to give an intelligible account of how this method has worked out in one West African country, and there's no good reason to expect it to end soon if it turns out that potentially new members of the intended global IS are receiving benefits from claiming affiliation with ISIS.

4. In the meantime, ISIS definitely gains from such expressions of support. Let me clarify.

The most effective strategy for guerilla warfare consists of spending much time in hiding, launching surprise attacks on the enemy so as to inflict maximum damage in a minimal amount of time, and returning to concealment quickly enough that the enemy has little chance to respond. To do so, one must have bases from which one can launch these sorties, and groups such as Boko Haram, even with few facilities, can provide just that kind of opportunity.

Is Boko Haram, given its recent losses, going to carry out terrorist attacks in Western Europe or the United States in the foreseeable future? Probably not. In contrast to ISIS, they appear to be short on resources and often look for financial support by means of plain old bank robbery.  

However, if they remain a viable, albeit underground, organization, they can still be of great assistance to ISIS, which has now displayed its capability for destruction on a world-wide level.

In short, in my debatable opinion Boko Haram/ISWA considered by itself should not be seen a threat to us here in the U.S. However, since they are probably once again at a point of desperation and presumably continuing to crave a role on the world stage, we need to take it seriously as a relatively new arm of the movement towards a world-wide Islamic State, as currently led by ISIS. Given the rhetoric of the last six or more years, they may very well be available to ISIS as a second-ranked group that is willing to do virtually anything in order to receive acceptance among other Islamic militant groups.

Do I mean, then, that the U.S. should send troops along with drones and bombs to Nigeria in order to root out what remains of Boko Haram? Of course not. I don't see where we could contribute anything other than creating a lot of bad will among all concerned parties—governments and insurgents alike—with only a minimal probability of success. If I can make a suggestion, it would only be the obvious one of keeping a close eye on northern Nigeria with a view towards exposing, if possible, significant contacts with other Neo-Kharijite and jihadi groups or a visible influx of potential mercenaries.

All of those prognostications aside, my overall purpose here has not been to advise what should be done, but merely to explain one means by which ISIS can increase its power as a global threat. I hope my efforts towards providing a little bit of further understanding have not been entirely in vain. 

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