Boko Haram’s Allegiance to ISIS: Propaganda or Real Threat?
Boko Haram’s Allegiance to ISIS: Propaganda or Real Threat?
The Nigerian Islamic fundamentalist group, Boko Haram, has now formally become an Affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For some time now, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau had been making overtures to ISIS leader, Abu – Bakr al – Baghdadi, in audio and video messages.
ISIS, or sometimes IS or ISIL, is an ultra-hard-line offshoot of Al-Qaeda which has established a caliphate in captured territories in parts of Iraq and Syria. Much like Boko Haram, ISIS is a Sunni Islamic sect which is committed to extreme interpretation of the Quran. This means opposition to Western education, banning of music, smoking and drinking, opposition to elections and democratic rights. ISIS vows to establish a Caliphate under Sharia law and ruled by one leader, known as the Caliph. The group is notorious worldwide for its grisly videos of beheadings, mass executions, crucifixions, mass enslavement of women and killing of everyone who stands in the way of their utterly sectarian agenda.
Buoyed by the successes being recorded in the ongoing military campaign, attempts have been made to describe this alliance as nothing more than propaganda for both Boko Haram and ISIS. For instance, Simon Tisdall of the Guardian (London) wrote that “the new alliance, unilaterally proclaimed at the weekend by Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, is unlikely to amount to much in terms of immediate collaboration on joint operations. It may, in fact, be more of a cry for help, given recent string of defeats sustained by Boko Haram”. But he was also quick to recognise that the implication goes far beyond this. According to him, “For Isis, Boko Haram’s offer of an ideological alliance is grist to its international propaganda mill, boosting its global profile. For Boko Haram, the shelter of Isis’s umbrella, and the ungoverned spaces of the Sahel, potentially provide productive new linkages to other Muslim world conflict zones in terms of recruits, weapons, finance, know-how, and intelligence. For Western government, this scenario conjures up their worst nightmare – the prospect of joined-up, globalised Jihad” (Guardian (London) 9/3/15).
The link now formally established between ISIS and Boko Haram potentially makes Nigeria the preferred destination of all kinds of Jihadist-wannabes who may be unable to cross the border into Syria or Iraq to join ISIS. The sophistication these foreign Jihadists can bring onto the table raises the frightful prospect that even if pushed completely out of captured territories, Boko Haram may still retain the capacity to continue to be a threat to the peoples of Nigeria and its neighbours through suicide bombing, kidnappings etc. This also means that Nigeria may in the coming period become a centre of global Jihad with all the consequences that entails.
In accepting Boko Haram’s allegiance, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammed Al-Adani called on Muslims who could not join ISIS in Iraq and Syria to enter combat in Africa instead, saying Boko Haram’s pledge had opened “a new door for you to migrate to the land of Islam and fight” (Guardian (London), 9/3/15). Should this happen, it would most certainly mean that an end to the six-year insurgency is far from sight despite substantial victories won by the military in the ongoing offensive. It would mean for instance that Boko Haram in alliance with other ISIS-allied groups in Libya, Egypt and Algeria could develop the capacity for orchestrated attacks against local and foreign interests within Africa. This is one way that “collaboration of joint operations” can take place. For instance, the Punch newspaper of March 12, 2015 reported that “a United States lawmaker, Stephen Lynch, is currently in Nigeria meeting with the Federal Government officials to review US Embassy security” following the recent bombings in Maiduguri “and the pledge by Boko Haram to join forces with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. This is not a panicky reaction. Even while on its own, Boko Haram had demonstrated it has an agenda and capacity far beyond attacking the Nigerian State. On Friday 26, August 2011, the group claimed the car bombing of the United Nation’s office building in Nigeria’s capital Abuja which left at least 21 dead and 60 wounded.
Also important for Boko Haram is the training that ISIS can provide. According to the BBC (13/3/2015), even President Goodluck Jonathan recently told Voice of America (VOA) that “Boko Haram militants were travelling to IS camps for training”. Also experts have pointed to sophistication in some recent video recordings by Boko Haram showing it might be getting help from ISIS which is widely known for its professionally edited propaganda videos as well as social media presence.
Boko Haram’s resilience and ability to rebound is also an issue. To a certain extent Boko Haram shares similar roots, and geographical area, with the Maitasine movement which peaked in the fighting in the first half of the 1980s that cost at least 4,000 lives. Later in 2009 Boko Haram, which then attracted the mass of poor and disenchanted youth in Borno State by its teaching of Sharia and railing against the excesses of the corrupt ruling elites, was driven underground after a bloody clampdown by the State that saw its members massacred and its founding leader, Mohammed Yusuf, killed extra-judicially. Yet it was able to regroup within a short period of time to begin a brutal reprisal that has lasted till today with, until recent military onslaught, a slice of Nigeria, almost the size of Belgium, under its control. Boko Haram’s fighting force is estimated to be between 6, 000 and 9, 000. Also a UK-based finance and security analyst Tim Keatinge estimates that BH’s annual net income is about $10 million from kidnap ransom, looting of banks and raiding of villages it overruns etc (BBC News 26, January 2015). While these capabilities may have now been substantially reduced due to its pushback from some of its occupied territories, yet they point to Boko Haram’s potential to rebound even if routed in the current ongoing military offensive.
This is why there is no basis for optimism despite the string of successes that have attended the recently renewed military onslaught. For instance, Boko Haram, perhaps out of desperation, now appears to have changed tactics. The sect’s renewed suicide bomb attacks at bus parks, markets and public places in areas nominally fully under the control of the military is a worrisome reminder that even if the current military onslaught drives it underground, the sect may still have the capability to strike anywhere it desires. As the end of the six-week election postponement nears, it is still uncertain that voting can take place in the Northeast without the threat of bomb-laden suicide jihadists blowing themselves off in Maiduguri and other cities in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States.
The strong resistance to ISIS in the Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria is an example of how a mobilised population can defeat Boko Haram, although in Iraq and Syria there is ever-present danger that the war is fought on religious, ethnic and tribal lines. Hence, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) has been consistently calling for the building of united, multi-ethnic and multi-religious armed defense committees which are independent of the State but under the democratic control of communities and the labour movement to protect communities against Boko Haram attacks. But the Boko Haram insurgency itself is not just a product of the unresolved national question in Nigeria, it is also a development made possible by the capitalist-induced situation of mass poverty, unemployment and destitution in the midst of plenty which ultimately drives extremism and violent crises.
No other personality than former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, admitted “Boko Haram has legitimate grievances” (IBTimes UK, 16/3/2015). According to him, “While 79% of Nigerians received education in the South West of the country and 77% in the South East, in the Boko Haram stronghold of the Northeast that figure was just 19%”. These figures alone show why a deadly terrorist group could emerge from the Northeast railing against Western education. In most parts of the North, Western education is seen as a preserve of the rich few as a result of the rudimentary level of education infrastructure in the region. This is despite that members of the corrupt Northern ruling oligarchy have ruled Nigeria, either as Military head of states or Civilian presidents, for more than half of the time since independence. Instead of using resources to develop education infrastructure, they merely enriched themselves and this has made it possible for Boko Haram to link “western education” with corruption and looting as well as being “un-Islamic”.
What is responsible for this distasteful state of affairs is capitalism which has seen Nigeria enrich a few multi-billionaires while the vast majority of the 170 million population lives on less than $2 per day. Even in the South West today, University education is beginning to be seen as something exclusively reserved for the rich as a result of the steep increases in fees at both Federal and State tertiary institutions over the last few years. For as long as these conditions of social and economic injustice persist, Boko Haram and some other forms of extremism will persist. This is because many people including youths will continue to feel marginalized and alienated from a society that works only for the rich. And in the absence of a labour movement that is energetically pushing forward an effective working class alternative to capitalism, these alienated elements in society can often come under the influence of backward sectarian ideas which tries to substitute reactionary religious and ethnic ideas for a class understanding of how society came to be unjust and the ways to end the injustice and oppression.
Therefore together with building independent armed defence committees in communities to combat Boko Haram and other extremist violent groups, the labour movement urgently needs to build a mass movement that can unite the working class and poor against sectarian ideas and around a fighting program to struggle for a new minimum wage, against looming austerity and for improvement in living standards, employment for all and funding of education and health services. Such a movement must also strive to build a mass working class political alternative to put an end to the unjust system of capitalism and enthrone a democratic socialist system. Only a socialist government formed and run by the working masses themselves can allow the judicious utilisation of Nigeria’s vast resources to take care of the needs of all whether in the South, West, East and North of Nigeria unlike the current situation where a few people corner to themselves over 80% of Nigeria’s wealth.