Boko Haram- The battle between the world’s deadliest terror organisation and its homeland
On 20 May 2021, Nigerian intelligence confirmed the death of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the infamous Nigeria based terror organisation Boko Haram. Boko Haram, officially known as Jamā'at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da'wah wa'l-Jihād (Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad), is a terrorist organisation founded in 2002, with the objective of “purifying Islam” in northern Nigeria. Starting off as a small organisation, they soon grew increasingly brutal and went on to become one of the world’s deadliest terror groups in the 2010s, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing about 2.3 million from their homes.
With the death of Shekau being confirmed, a new question arises about the leadership and focus of the group in the future: Will the operations continue? If yes, then under whose leadership? Is the government prepared for the chaos that this new development brings about?
Inception and Ideologies
The founder of Boko Haram, Muhammad Yusuf, was heavily inspired by the controversial Islamic preacher, Mohammed Marwa. Marwa, a self-proclaimed prophet, condemned the reading of books other than the Quran. Yusuf went on to found Boko Haram by establishing a religious complex and a school that attracted poor Nigerian families in Borno, a state in northern Nigeria. As a result, majority of the group religiously follows Marwa’s ideologies as well.
Yusuf reportedly used pre-existing infrastructure from the Izala Society, a conservative Islam sect to recruit members. Boko Haram conducted peaceful operations in their first 7 years in order to “develop strength” before waging jihad. The government mostly ignored their activities in their early years and did not pay heed to warnings concerning the banning of Yusuf’s broadcasted preachings. Hence, Yusuf began to be respected by the common people with his arrest elevating his status, making him akin to a hero.
Boko Haram opposes the westernisation of Nigerian society, hence their name, which translates into “Western education is forbidden”. Their major objective is the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria. They believe that western education is the major cause of corruption. Yusuf himself declared in an interview that he did not believe in the theory of a spherical earth or that rain was caused by evaporation. Some of these objectives stem from the economic status of Nigeria, where wealth is concentrated among a very small political elite, especially among the Christian-dominated southern region.
The group has denounced members of the Sufi and Shiite sects as well as Sunni Muslims who refuse to support their movement. The group’s willingness to subject self-professed Muslims to execution is a departure from mainstream Islam.
Conflicts with the Nigerian government
The police began investigating the group’s activities in an operation named Operation Flush in 2008. Security forces arrested nine Boko Haram members and confiscated their weapons.
This led to a series of riots and revenge attacks. A joint military task force was launched in response. Over 700 people were killed and there had been widespread destruction in several places. Yusuf was captured and died in custody, while attempting to escape. The citizens of Nigeria, especially in the northern regions were very displeased with the government’s response to the riots.
He was succeeded by Abubakar Shekau, his second-in-command. Known to be one of the most brutal people of Boko Haram, he went on to transform the organisation to something even more vicious than it had previously been.
Having improved their operational abilities under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram carried out their first operation targeting the West- attacking the UN headquarters in Abuja. This was seen as a public humiliation of the Nigerian government’s capabilities. Despite placing a high bounty on the alleged mastermind behind the attack, the Nigerian forces took time in apprehending the culprits.
In the following years, with their strategy of suicide bombing, which was new to Nigeria, they successfully carried out several assassinations causing unrest in most regions of the country. In 2012, a state of emergency was imposed throughout Nigeria. Throughout this period, Boko Haram kidnapped children for ransom as well as to recruit them as suicide bombers.
Nigeria is plagued by political corruption, economic challenges, and military brutality. Less priority is placed on security and defenc
e. Its poor governance has allowed Boko Haram to gain power and supporters.
In 2016, the group split into two factions due to a disagreement over their leadership. The faction in support of Shekau remained as Boko Haram, and the other faction, which aligned themselves with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, called themselves the ISWAP (Islamic State's West African Province).
The Nigerian Army carried out several raids against Boko Haram and claimed they had killed the leadership of Boko Haram, referring to Shekau, who had survived the raids. Later, they reclaimed their statement. Boko Haram suicide bombers continued to carry out various operations thereby causing suffering in the nation.
On 20 May 2021, Nigerian intelligence officials claimed that Shekau died after he detonated a suicide vest to avoid being captured by rival Islamist militants.
Nigeria against Boko Haram
One of the major motives for Boko Haram’s brutality is the state of poverty and dearth of job opportunities in Nigeria. Many have blamed the Nigerian government for not being able to accept Boko Haram’s legal demands in their early days. The compensations which citizens must receive were denied to them. This dismissal of the suffering of the people culminated into wrath, and allowed for the spread of barbaric ideologies.
Out of all the atrocities carried out, the 2014 Chibok kidnapping gained international attention. 276 schoolgirls had been kidnapped and Shekau announced his intentions to sell them off for slavery. The Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan was met with harsh criticism. This soon turned into a political movement in Nigeria with the campaigners for the 2015 Presidential Elections drawing attention to the kidnapping. The girls were rescued in a string of military operations. However, studies from UNICEF show that girls released from captivity are face social rejection due to the conservative culture that propagates stigma surrounding sexual abuse.
Boko Haram continued carrying out atrocious acts throughout the decade. Studies reveal that numbers of child suicide bombers rose in these years, majorly due to the ostracization by their families and community after being kidnapped.
Shekau’s Death and the Future
Shekau’s death was first announced by rival militants aligned with ISIS, and was neither confirmed by the Nigerian military nor international forces. The announcement came from al-Barnawi, Shekau’s rival, and the leader of ISWAP.
Boko Haram is organised in a hierarchical structure with the leader being at the top. However they also operate as a cell system, with individual cells having 300-500 members. After Yusuf’s death, the group managed to regroup successfully under Shekau’s leadership and plan their operations with even more vigor than earlier. However, with the lack of an absolute leader, its activities may be halted.
Shekau’s death brings about a lot of uncertainty regarding the future of Boko Haram; it does not signify the end of jihadism in West Africa. The ISWAP’s eminence may cause Boko Haram to consider joining them, which would end the fighting between the factions and reduce civilian casualties. However, the Islamic State’s presence in West Africa would receive a major boost.
However, many also seem keen on making amends and reconciling ex-Boko Haram fighters into their communities. Recently, a group of 45 women from towns across northern Nigeria convened at Abuja to discuss the reintegration of reformed ex-Boko Haram members.
Boko Haram’s fighters may also choose to regroup amongst themselves and continue carrying out operations like they did under Shekau’s leadership. There might be conflicts within Boko Haram on whether to join the ISWAP or oppose them like they always have. This might even cause the disintegration of the group itself. Either way, the current situation is grim and chaotic with no foreseeable end for now.
~ Kavyaa Kannan