On August 23, 2016 the Nigerian air force claimed that it had successfully targeted several senior Boko Haram leaders including the senior-most leader of the terrorist organization ‘Abubakar Shekau’. The Boko Haram leader reportedly suffered fatal wounds in his shoulder as a result of the air strike, and some of the media outlets went as far as to state that he was killed.
About 15,000 have been killed by the Boko Haram militants in their quest for an Islamic caliphate ever since the organization set up bases in the Northwest Borno region of Nigeria seven years ago.
The words Boko Haram translate into “Western education is sin”. The name was bestowed on the terror organization given the group’s stance against Western education.
Mr. Shekau have previously been declared dead, only to resurface later in video tapes.
The ordeal of the missing Chibok girls
On August 14, 2016 Boko Haram published an eleven minute video on their social networks reminding the world that 218 school girls are still under Boko Haram’s captivity in Nigeria. The abduction of 276 female school children from a school in Chibok Nigeria in April 2014 by Boko Haram is one of the most spectacular acts of terrorism, which is still unresolved. The girls were targeted by Boko Haram for pursuing “Western education”, which the militant organization considers as a “sin”.
On the day of the kidnapping, 57 of the school girls escaped, one of the girls fled a year later, with her newborn baby in her arms. In the latest video, the young girls are seen wearing head scarfs or hijabs and abayas; some of them crying, one was seen carrying a child. One girl is asked to confirm that she had actually been kidnapped, while her captor — one of the Boko Haram militants, visibly getting agitated as he probes the girl in front of the camera.
The militants explained in the video that 40 of the girls have been married, potentially to their captors, “with the permission of God”, and that some of them had been killed by bombings of the “infidels”, referring to a Nigerian government air strike couple of weeks ago. The video shows close-up shots of dead bodies of some of the girls.
This is the second video released by the militants showing the abducted school girls. Exact timing and location of the video is not yet confirmed, but several of the girls have been identified by their relatives.
Local grievances, international terror tactics
Just like the Islamic State (“IS”) terror network, Boko Haram has shown mastery of video messaging to propagate terror. On March 2015 Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the IS. The kidnapping of such a large number of school children helped them to draw international attentions as a terrorist organization.
Boko Haram is constituted by a variety of factions around the Chad Lake region of Nigeria. The militant organization wants to establish an Islamic state run by Sharia laws in Nigeria. The group is not hierarchical, it is rather highly decentralized, and fairly diverse. For example, Boko Haram members from various regions of Nigeria do not necessarily follow the same Salafist doctrine followed by its leader Shekau. Some of the militants are Shiite Muslims, while the others are Sunnis.
The organization started out as a non-violent and passive resistance force against the corrupt Nigerian government, but later started to be engaged in militancy and terrorism, becoming more radical and violent in the process. The group expanded its terror operations since 2009.
The current Boko Haram leader known as ‘Abubakar Shekau’ was rumored to be dead until August 2015 when he proclaimed his leadership of Boko Haram in a video, in response of the IS’s appointment of Abou Mosab Al-Barnawi as his replacement.
Weaker but more evil and desperate
Constant bombardments by the Nigerian government forces have reduced Boko Haram’s footprint in northern Nigeria. It is possible that the terror group is possibly running short on financial resources. Increasing number of looting, hostage taking, abduction of children for ransom in villages by Boko Haram operatives are possible indications that the organization is losing ground and becoming desperate. But this does not yet indicate an upcoming rapid end to Boko Haram’s existence. For example, only on June 2016 the Nigerian army experienced its worst defeat against Boko Haram in the city of Bosso.
An estimated 2.5 millions Nigerians have fled their homes due to the Boko Haram. The group’s suicide missions are still unabated mostly in the cities, and the perpetrators are increasingly younger, many of whom are children. Despite the Nigerian, Cameroonian and Chadian armies joining the fight against Boko Haram, the conflict is still raging strong, although the territory once held by Boko Haram has shrunk.
Most of Boko Haram’s recruits are local, and they come from poorer regions of Nigeria like Borno — regions that are undeserved by the Nigerian government. Manned by local recruits with regional grievances, Boko Haram contextualizes its presence based on the realities on the ground for each of its sub-groups.
For more than a decade, Nigeria’s southern Niger Delta region has had long standing local grievances related to oil production resulting in regular conflicts and criminal activities. The Nigerian government had tried to stem the rise of militancy via negotiated settlements with local militants, which even included an amnesty program. Yet, peace stayed elusive with rampant criminal activities unabated.
Major source of financing for the militants come from local and transnational criminal activities. Piracy in the nearby seas, oil theft, drug running, and illegal weapon trades are some of the key revenue generators for the militants. Due to rising maritime piracy by Nigerian militants in the Gulf of Guinea, that area now has been flagged as one of the most dangerous waters of the world.
Ignoring the prevailing local grievances and lawlessness, and then attributing Boko Haram’s rise singularly to religious extremism is problematic. Such a view only allows Nigerian political leaders to seek international help against Boko Haram while at the same time ignore the localized grievances aiding Boko Haram’s recruitment machine.
Religion is indeed the pretext for most of Boko Haram’s violence, but Boko Haram’s victims appear to be a chaotic selection unfortunate targets. Some attacks are aimed against particular families, some are targeted towards specific ethnic groups, many of whom are Muslims, while some of the other attacks are against business interests, and some are against school children.
Understanding the underlying method behind Boko Haram’s selection of disparate targets must be looked through a more localized lens, instead of looking at them through a globalized monolithic jihadist angle like that of ISIS.