Nigeria and Boko Haram in jihadi media discourse

Boko Haram, a violent islamist group operating in Nigeria, is often linked to Al-Qaeda and Somalia jihadists Al-Shabab, though there is no evidence to support these claims. Christopher Anzalone investigates the position of Boko Haram in international jihad looking at its profile in jihadi media sources

The rise of Boko Haram, the shadowy militant Islamist group that has carried out dozens of high profile bombings and other attacks on the Nigerian state and foreign targets, as a major armed force inside Nigeria continues to raise alarm bells both in Africa as well as abroad.

International attention on the group rose significantly following an increasing number of bombings and raids they carried out throughout northern and central Nigeria during 2011.This campaign of violence, which has killed hundreds of people, has been marked by a number of major attacks including a suicide car bombing of the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on August 26, 2011, a series of coordinated attacks in Damaturu in northern Nigeria on November 4, and coordinated bombings throughout January 2012.

The increasing sophistication of Boko Haram’s arsenal and bomb-making abilities has led officials in a number of governments, including those of Nigeria and the US, to allege that the group has established ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has major branches in Algeria and the western Sahel and is believed to run training camps in the far north of Nigeria, where it also kidnapped two Europeans in 2011. Recently, Oluseyi Petinrin, Nigerian air chief marshal and the current chief of the country’s defense staff, claimed that Boko Haram has received “support and training” from AQIM.

The available evidence, at least in open source, is far from conclusive, however, and it is possible that Boko Haram has been able to make advances in its military technology thanks to in-country support rather than from AQIM. The question regarding which direction any communication between Boko Haram and AQIM is going in also remains open. AQIM has a number of Hausa-speaking members in the western Sahel and it is possible that some of them have been used as emissaries to Boko Haram, though there is no direct open source evidence of this. It has also been alleged, usually by anonymous intelligence sources, that Boko Haram may have established ties with the Somali insurgent movement Al-Shabab, which formalized its affiliation to Al-Qaeda Central in early February. Given these claims, it is worthwhile to review the place of Nigeria and Boko Haram in the wider Sunni transnational jihadi universe.

Boko Haram’s presence on the internet forums used by transnational jihadi groups such as AQIM and Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) to distribute their media materials remains almost non-existent in official channels. Its videos are not advertised on these forums’ main pages and, if posted at all, they are usually relegated to sub-forums on “events and general news” rather than the sub-forums for official media releases from established groups. In contrast, Al-Shabab media is distributed via official channels, advertised prominently on the forums, and placed in the sub-forums for official release. Further, Boko Haram’s videos and messages are re-posted from other websites by individual forum members rather than being distributed through the major transnational jihadi media networks, the Al-Fajr Media Center, which coordinates the online distribution of all media materials produced by AQC and its regional affiliates - with the exception, as of this writing, of Al-Shabab, or the Global Islamic Media Front, which currently coordinates the distribution of media material produced by Al-Shabab and Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan.The beginning of the distribution of Boko Haram’s statements and videos through one of these media and distribution networks would signal a significant shift closer to the core of the transnational jihadi current.This shift, however, has yet to occur.

Attention on Nigeria on the part of transnational jihadis peaked following the eruption of severe violence between Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram in July 2009, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.  Nigerian security forces were recorded on video summarily executing alleged members of the group following the fighting. Yusuf was captured by Nigerian police and was later summarily executed while in their custody along with his 72-year-old father-in-law, Baba Fugu Muhammad. Footage of summary executions have been used in transnational jihadi videos to illustrate the oppression of Muslims and to urge viewers to actively support military struggle against this.

On February 1, 2010 AQIM’s Al-Andalus Media Foundation issued a written statement from the group’s leader, Abu Mus’ab Abd al-Wadud, about the “genocide of the Muslims in Nigeria.” He described the violence in northeastern Nigeria as a “new episode of the continuing Crusader war” on the worldwide Muslim community, the Ummah, and alleges that the “infidel West” has supported the Nigerian government’s violent suppression of their country’s Muslims. Al-Wadud cited a number of massacres, which he claims killed hundreds of Nigerian Muslims, and strongly criticised the majority of the world’s Muslims for their “mournful silence” to the crimes being perpetrated in the country. He offered condolences “on my own behalf and on behalf of my mujahideen brothers in the Islamic Maghreb” to the families of the victims killed in the Nigerian violence, who he described as “my brothers, the beloved Muslims in Nigeria.” Eulogizing Yusuf, al-Wadud promises Nigerian Muslims that AQIM will “do all that we can to support you” and will strive to assist in avenging Yusuf. He then urged Nigerian Muslims to fully embrace jihad and fight back against their “minority Christian oppressors,” citing the example of Somali resistance to the Ethiopian military that occupied parts of Somalia from December 2006 to January 2009.

Nigeria was again highlighted in a major transnational jihad video on November 18, 2010 with the release of the eighth installment of the Islamic State of Iraq’s series The Knights of Martyrdom. In the introduction and in between the narration of the biographies of three young men who carried out suicide operations in Iraq, the plight of Nigerian Muslims is described and highlighted by the video’s narrator. Footage of the aftermath of the 2009 violence is used throughout.The killings of hundreds of Muslims in sectarian clashes between Nigerian Christians and Muslims, particularly in and around the city of Jos, were specifically highlighted.The narrator accuses the west of aiding the Nigerian government because of its interest in accessing the country’s rich mineral and oil resources, a theme also put forward by al-Wadud.

Fears have been raised about the possibility of Boko Haram linking up with Somalia’s Al-Shabab, fuelled by the reports that members of the former had travelled to Somalia for military training.These reports are contested, however, and strong open source evidence linking the two movements is scarce in open source, despite occasional rhetorical affinity. Al-Shabab did dedicate a video produced by its media department, the Al-Kata’ib Media Foundation, and released on April 14, 2010 to the “people of Tawheed [absolute monotheism] in Nigeria.”  However, Nigeria has not been a major theme in subsequent Al-Shabab statements and videos, though the Somali movement’s leadership continues to embrace their Muslim brethren, particularly jihadis, there as it does in other countries such as Chechnya, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

Boko Haram’s use of language similar to that of transnational jihadis only goes so far.  Its primary focus on local issues and grievances is in contrast to the latter, casting further confusion on the question of how best to classify the group. While the group’s messaging has moved closer to the transnational jihadi current represented by Al-Qaeda Central and its regional affiliates during the tenure of Boko Haram’s current leader, Abu Bakr Shekau, the group’s main focus seems to remain on largely Nigeria-centric issues. It is possible, however, that continued inter-communal violence and government neglect and suppression, both real and perceived, will lead Boko Haram to eventually embrace a broader, regional type of Islamist militancy, fully embrace transnational jihadism, or a broader regional type of Islamist militancy.

About the author

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, Shi'ite Islam, contemporary jihadi movements, and Islamist visual culture. He has published articles in Foreign Policy magazine's AFPAK Channel and several academic encyclopedias including the Princeton University Press' Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (forthcoming) and Oxford University Press' Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (2009), Encyclopedia of the Modern World (2008), and Encyclopedia of Islam and Law (forthcoming).