Connecting the Dots

Boko Haram: Making a Regional Conflict into a Global Fight?

Col. Jim Hentz
Col. James J. Hentz, Ph.D.

In March 2015 Boko Haram leader Abubakor Shekau pledged baya, or allegiance, to the Islamic State (ISIS) and ISIS leader Abu al-Baghdadi.  It rebranded itself the Islamic State in West Africa (Wilayat Gharb Ifriqi).  New reports say it may now be turning away from ISIS and re-aligning with al-Qaida and its affiliate in North Africa, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Is Boko Haram really part of the global jihad? 

What does it mean if they are, or, more importantly, if we say they are?

There is no question that Boko Haram is an Islamic insurgency.  There is little doubt that there are ties between Boko Haram and other Islamic insurgencies, from AQIM to Al Shabaab.  Boko Haram did, for instance, train in Timbuktu in 2012 when northern Mali was subjugated by radical Islamic militants.  It almost certainly received an infusion of arms after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Individual members of Boko Haram have met with jihadists from other militias.

Boko Haram, however, is a product of local grievances.  In particular, it rejects the legitimacy of a Nigerian state that from the end of colonial rule through the reintroduction of democracy in 1999 failed to develop Northern Nigeria.  The North has done more poorly than the South.  Not only do more people live in poverty in the North, 72 percent, than in the South, 27 percent, but the North has been harder hit by desertification and draught, and is disproportionately affected by globalization.  For instance, the number of factories in the northern city of Kano went from 350 in 1987 to 103 in 2016.  Deindustrialization in the North was, furthermore, accelerated by Nigeria’s growing dependence on oil revenues from the South.

Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in the military crackdown in 2009, was inspired by the independent 19th-century Sokoto Caliphate founded by the Islamic jihad of Usman dan Fodio (1754-1817).  Dan Fodio, like Yusuf, fought against corruption, nepotism, fraudulent practices, poor governance, and immorality.  Boko Haram uses the legacy of the Sokoto Calphate to legitimize its fight for a Kanem-Borno caliphate that would take in Northern Nigeria and part of neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.

Boko Haram has aggressively pushed into these neighboring countries, partially because of the recent successes of the counter-insurgency in Nigeria.  This may also, some argue, be evidence of it metastasizing into regional insurgency.  But 70 to 80 percent of Boko Haram are Kanuri.  There is a Kanuri-based network of operations surrounding the insurgency. The push into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger is more likely proof that Boko Haram no more recognizes the legitimacy of those states’ inherited colonial borders than it does Abuja’s right to govern Northern Nigeria. Indeed, parts of those states were in the pre-colonial Kanem-Borno Empire and their borders are seen as a figment of the late-18th century European imagination.

To say Boko Haram is metastasizing into a regional insurgency, or is an arm of the global jihad, is to portray a purely local conflict as part of a global fight.  We have been down this road before.

In the 1960s we got bogged down in Vietnam because we conflated a nationalist insurgency with global communism.  During the Vietnam War the communist threat was first seen as Soviet inspired and later China inspired.  It was neither.  North Vietnam welcomed Soviet and Chinese help: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” 

Boko Haram once welcomed ISIS support for the same reason, although it was more for recruitment than for material assistance.   It is likely no coincidence that when ISIS recently called on West African militants to travel to Libya to wage jihad, rather than fight in Nigeria, Boko Haram looked elsewhere for support.  Its primary interests are northeast Nigeria and contiguous territories.  

The specter of a global communist bogey man, of course, helped legitimize spending on the Cold War. 

Adding Boko Haram to the global army of the Islamic Jihad, whether as an ally of al-Qaida or of ISIS, may do the same for the Global War on Terror.  We should be careful, however, not to connect the dots for them.

This op-ed was published in the Aug. 14, 2016, issue of the Roanoke Times.

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