Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Logic Behind Boko Haram’s Brutal Attacks in Nigeria - Alex Thurston

The first weeks of 2015 have already brought repeated, shocking attacks by Boko Haram in and around Nigeria. Within the country’s northeastern state of Borno, the home turf of the proselytizing sect-turned-Islamist-group, militants massacred hundreds of civilians in Baga, site of a multinational military base.
Suicide bombers attacked Maiduguri and Potiskum, the latter on three occasions. In a continuation of last year’s trends, Boko Haram’s violence spilled once again into northern Cameroon, where militants kidnapped dozens of children and adults in villages near Mokolo.

Some commentators, including Kenan Malik in the New York Times, argue that “jihadists have turned terror into an end in itself,” but there is a logic behind Boko Haram’s attacks. The group nurses ambitions of destroying the Nigerian state, especially in the northeast. This ambition is a long-term one: Even as Nigeria’s Feb. 14 general elections approach, Boko Haram is behaving as though it plans to trouble Nigerian authorities for years to come.

Boko Haram has always shifted tactics in response to changing behaviors by the state. Since launching its campaign of sustained guerrilla violence in 2010, its tactics have included prison breaks, robberies, assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, arson and more. When Boko Haram suspected the state of using cell phones to track it, its fighters destroyed cell phone towers. When the state imprisoned female relatives of Boko Haram’s leaders, the group responded by kidnapping women and girls. Contextualizing Boko Haram’s choices does not excuse them, but it does indicate that the group adapts when it sees opportunity, or when it reaches the limits of a given approach.

Boko Haram has inflicted extreme violence on rural northeastern communities in Nigeria in response to two interconnected developments: the emergence of vigilantes known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (C-JTF), and the C-JTF’s role—in cooperation with Nigeria’s official security forces—in making Maiduguri less hospitable to Boko Haram. Driven out of its former stronghold and into the countryside, Boko Haram began targeting villages and towns, partly to find and punish C-JTF members and their families. Boko Haram sought revenge in part because the C-JTF stood up to them, but also because the militia, like Nigerian security forces, has been implicated in widespread human rights abuses against suspected Boko Haram members.

This year’s violence follows a shift in tactics last summer, when Boko Harammoved from pure guerrilla warfare and terrorism to territorial conquest. That, too, may have been a response to the changing conditions in Maiduguri. But the emphasis on territorial conquest has so far only been a partial one: Boko Haram seems reluctant to bid for outright control of Maiduguri itself, a move manyexpected them to make last year. Instead, Boko Haram now holds some rural areas tightly, competes with the military for control of others—including Chibok, site of the April 2014 schoolgirls kidnapping—and terrorizes cities it is either unable or unwilling to capture.

Boko Haram slaughters civilians in places like Baga in part because of the group’s highly exclusive worldview. Like some other jihadist groups, Boko Haram’s founders emphasized the concept of al-wala wa-al-bara, which translates as “loyalty (to fellow Muslims)” and “disavowal (of non-Muslims).” For Boko Haram, however, the concept means loyalty to those few Muslims whom the sect considers true believers. In fact, Boko Haram has murdered not only Muslim civilians, but also Salafi preachers—that is, Muslims whom one might expect Boko Haram to see as theological cousins. Boko Haram’s insistence on this absolute divide between insiders and outsiders was reinforced by the extrajudicial execution of its founder, Muhammad Yusuf, in 2009. Watching gruesome videos of Boko Haram executing young, and presumably Muslim, men in northeastern Nigeria who reportedly refused to fight for the group, one gets a sense of just how sharp that insider-outsider divide is.

Boko Haram is also committed to shocking domestic and international audiences as a deliberate tactic to mock the Nigerian state, earn notoriety and spur recruitment. In videos, its leader, Abubakar Shekau, brags, jeers and jests, using the group’s violence not only as physical force, but as propaganda.

That points to the group’s wider domestic agenda. With Nigeria’s elections nearing, it might seem surprising that Boko Haram has not done more to disrupt the vote. If it has thousands of fighters, as some analysts estimate, surely it could coordinate bombings in southern cities, where it has rarely ventured, and throw the entire country, along with international investors, into a panic.

Boko Haram is not unaware of politics. During the 2011 electoral campaign, its militants assassinated prominent politicians in Borno, in particular in its capital, Maiduguri. During the 2015 campaign, however, the group has instead concentrated on rural violence, territorial conquest and urban terrorism, if still primarily in northeastern Nigeria. It may have an election day plan involving violence in different parts of the country, but so far it has chosen to focus on the fight in its home region.

Boko Haram’s violence in northeastern Nigeria will, of course, severely disrupt the administration of the elections there. Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman Attahiru Jega has been doubtful about the prospects for effective elections throughout Borno and even in the neighboring states of Adamawa and Yobe. Any disruptions in that corner of Nigeria may feed broader post-election disputes, especially given the constitution’s requirement that winning the presidency requires winning at least one-quarter of the vote in at least two-thirds of the states. Nigerian authorities have not clarified how compromised voting in the northeast would factor into calculations to determine the winner of a tight race.

Boko Haram’s extreme violence in the northeast will likely continue after the elections, no matter who wins. Analysts who tie Boko Haram’s violence to the tenure of current President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, forget that Boko Haram has already watched two presidents come and go, one of them a Muslim northerner. Whoever takes office at Aso Rock, the presidential villa in Abuja, on May 29 will still be grappling with Boko Haram and the deadly challenge it poses to state control some 500 miles away in Borno.

Written by:
Alex Thurston
A visiting assistant professor in the African Studies Program at Georgetown University.