Alexander Thurston on Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement

ThurstonBoko Haram is one of the world’s deadliest jihadist groups. It has killed more than twenty thousand people and displaced more than two million in a campaign of terror that began in Nigeria but has since spread to Chad, Niger, and Cameroon as well. This is the first book to tell the full story of this West African affiliate of the Islamic State, from its beginnings in the early 2000s to its most infamous violence, including the 2014 kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls. In an in-depth account of a group that is menacing Africa’s most populous and richest country, Alexander Thurston also illuminates the dynamics of civil war in Africa and jihadist movements in other parts of the world. Read on to learn more about this deadly terrorist group and what is being done to stop them.

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a jihadist group, or rather cluster of groups, that emerged in northeastern Nigeria in the early 2000s. The group has called itself by various names, and “Boko Haram” is a nickname given by outsiders—it means “Western education is forbidden by Islam.” The nickname refers to a central theme that its founder Muhammad Yusuf used in his preaching, namely the idea that Western-style education (and democracy) were anti-Islamic. Boko Haram was involved sporadically in violence before 2009, but its transformation into a sustained insurgency occurred that year, when Yusuf and his followers clashed with authorities. Yusuf was killed during the initial uprising, but his followers regrouped under Abubakar Shekau and began to commit regular assassinations and attacks the next year. Boko Haram began to hold significant amounts of territory in northeastern Nigeria in 2014, which prompted Nigeria’s neighbors to intervene more strongly. In 2015, back on the defensive, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL). Boko Haram continues to stage attacks in Nigeria, as well as in the neighboring countries, especially Niger. In summer 2016, a public schism emerged in the group, with one faction remaining loyal to Shekau and another following Abu Mus‘ab al-Barnawi, who has pledged to reduce civilian casualties and refocus Boko Haram’s efforts on fighting states and militaries. Boko Haram is most infamous for its mass kidnapping of 276 teenage schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014.

How has the Nigerian government responded to Boko Haram?

The Nigerian government has used a heavy-handed, military-focused approach to Boko Haram. The approach involves serious and systematic human rights violations—extrajudicial killings, collective arrests, detentions without trial, and torture. This approach has itself become a driver of the crisis, antagonizing civilians and reducing their willingness to work with authorities. In some cases, a desire for revenge has even pushed some civilians into joining or working with Boko Haram. Nigerian politicians repeatedly debated and haltingly pursued the idea of dialogue with Boko Haram starting around 2012, but it was not until 2016 that negotiations bore some fruit, resulting in two waves of releases/prisoner swaps of some of the “Chibok girls.” The current president, Muhammadu Buhari (elected 2015), has been quite eager to declare Boko Haram defeated, but its attacks continue to trouble the northeastern part of Nigeria.

What are the biggest misperceptions about Boko Haram?

One key misperception is the idea that Boko Haram is a direct consequence of demography, poverty, and underdevelopment in northern Nigeria. That thesis does not explain why Boko Haram emerged in the northeast, rather than elsewhere in the north, nor does it explain why there are not many more movements like Boko Haram in Nigeria’s neighbors, which suffer from many of the same problems. In a related way, many observers continue to believe that Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf was a nonviolent critic of Nigerian government corruption; in truth, he rejected the entire premise of Nigeria’s secular state, and he flirted with violent jihadism from an early point in his career. By the time Yusuf’s message was fully developed, he was not calling for reform in the existing order, but for a complete overhaul of the system.

Another key misconception, however, is the claim that Boko Haram is merely an extension of the global jihadist movement—that it was created and managed by al-Qaeda, or that it now is merely a branch of the Islamic State. The reality is more complicated; Boko Haram’s early contacts with al-Qaeda were patchy, and al-Qaeda had trouble getting Yusuf and Shekau to follow their advice, so much so that al-Qaeda seems to have broken off contact with Yusuf well before the 2009 uprising, which was a disaster for Boko Haram. Given the flaws in these simplistic hypotheses—the poverty hypothesis or the global jihadism hypothesis—there is a need to develop more complicated understandings of Boko Haram. That’s what my book tries to do.

What are the key arguments of your book?

The main argument is that Boko Haram reflects a complicated intersection of politics and religion in northeastern Nigeria, and that this intersection can only be understood by examining developments at the local level, especially in the city of Maiduguri and the surrounding state of Borno. Political developments that contributed to Boko Haram’s rise included the implementation of “full shari‘a” in northern Nigerian states in the early 2000s, a highly competitive gubernatorial election in Borno in 2003, and bitter memories among northern Muslims regarding intercommunal violence dating back to the 1980s. Religious developments involved a rapidly shifting “religious field” in northeastern Nigeria. Yusuf’s rise coincided with new opportunities for young preachers to gain prominence as key scholars in Maiduguri were either aging and passing away, or were absent because they were studying in the Arab world.

Another, related argument is that although Boko Haram horrified and antagonized almost all Muslims in northern Nigeria, it did not come out of nowhere. Boko Haram and Yusuf picked up on ideas that had been circulating for several decades, particularly the idea that Nigeria needed to become an Islamic state, and the idea that Western-style education was undermining the moral fabric of northern Nigerian society.

In what way does religion matter for Boko Haram?

When the relationship between religion and jihadism gets discussed in the media and popular outlets, analysts often focus on the question of whether individuals really believe in what they’re saying—whether jihadists are pious and well-informed about religion, and whether recruits join jihadist groups out of conviction or opportunism. To me, those debates are of limited interest because it’s difficult to get inside the minds and hearts of individuals, and to know what they really believe. So for me, the most important way to think about religion’s role in jihadism is in terms of the “religious field”—the totality of actors and institutions vying to define and shape a religious tradition in a particular setting. Whether or not Boko Haram’s leaders and followers are truly religious and pious, they certainly see themselves as operating in a religious field. Their vocabulary, their propaganda, the leaders’ interactions with followers, and often the targets of their violence all reflect a self-conscious invocation of religion and Islam, or at least Islam as Boko Haram tries to define it. A big part of the book is an effort to show how Boko Haram found a niche in northern Nigeria’s religious field, and how it has tried to reshape the field around it.

ThurstonAlexander Thurston is visiting assistant professor of African studies at Georgetown University and the author of Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.

Nile Green: What happened when a Muslim student went to Cambridge in 1816

GreenTwo hundred years ago, there arrived in London the first group of Muslims ever to study in Europe. Dispatched by the Crown Prince of Iran, their mission was to survey the new sciences emerging from the industrial revolution.

As the six young Muslims settled into their London lodgings in the last months of 1815, they were filled with excitement at the new kind of society they saw around them. Crowds of men and women gathered nightly at the ‘spectacle-houses’, as they called the city’s theatres. London was buzzing with the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo a few months earlier, and the new sciences – or ulum-i jadid – that the students had been sent to discover seemed to be displayed everywhere, not least in the new steamboats that carried passengers along the Thames.

As the weeks turned into months, the six strangers began to realise the scale of their task. They had no recognisable qualifications, and no contacts among the then-small groves of academe: they didn’t even know the English language. At the time, there was no Persian-to-English dictionary to help them.

Hoping to learn English, and the Latin that they mistakenly took to still be Europe’s main language of science, the would-be students enlisted a clergyman by the name of Reverend John Bisset. An Oxford graduate, Bisset told them about England’s two ancient seats of learning. When two of the students were subsequently taken on by the mathematician and polymath Olinthus Gregory, further links were forged with the universities, since Gregory had spent several years as a successful bookseller in Cambridge. A plan was hatched to introduce at least one of the students, Mirza Salih, to a professor who might be amenable to helping a foreigner study informally at one of the Cambridge colleges.

This was long before Catholics were allowed to study at Britain’s universities, so the arrival in Cambridge of an Iranian Muslim (one who would go on to found the first newspaper in Iran) caused sensation and consternation.

The don who was selected to host Salih was a certain Samuel Lee of Queens’ College. Lee appears to have been an odd candidate for supporter of the young taliban, as the students were called in Persian. A committed Evangelical, Lee was devoted to the cause of converting the world’s Muslims to Christianity. Along with other colleagues at Queens’, including the influential Venn family, he also had close ties to the Church Missionary Society. Founded in 1799, the Society was fast becoming the centre of the Cambridge missionary movement.

Yet it was precisely this agenda that made the young Muslim so attractive to Lee. The point was not so much that Salih’s conversion might bring one more soul to Christian salvation. Rather, it was that as an educated Persian-speaker, Salih might help the professor in his great task of translating the Bible into Persian, a language that was at the time also used across India, as well as what is today Iran. Lee jumped at the opportunity. And so it was that Salih was invited to Cambridge.

As his Persian diary reveals, Salih came to like the professor enormously. For though posterity would commemorate Lee as the distinguished Oxbridge Orientalist who rose to the grand status of Regius Professor of Hebrew, his upbringing was far humbler. Lee had been raised in a small Shropshire village in a family of carpenters and, in his teens, was apprenticed to a woodworker himself. On a research trip from California, I visited Lee’s home village of Longnor. It is still a remote place today, reached by single-lane tracks hidden in the hedgerows. At the local church, I was delighted to find the initials of his carpenter great-grandfather, Richard Lee, carved into the pews he had made for his fellow villagers.

Two hundred years ago, it was almost unknown for a country boy like Sam Lee to become a Cambridge professor, but he had a genius for languages that won him the patronage of a local gentleman. As a similarly ambitious young scholar on the make, Salih warmed to the self-made Lee, and in his Persian diary he recorded his life story with admiration.

Through Lee’s patronage, Salih was able to lodge at Queens’ College, and dine in the hall with dons such as William Mandell and Joseph Jee. At the time, the president of Queens’ was the natural philosopher Isaac Milner, as famous a conversationalist as he was a chemist. Salih certainly enjoyed the dinners at the high table, but his time in Cambridge was not all a Regency feast. He made study tours of the libraries that interested him, especially the Wren Library at Trinity College, which housed the statue of Sir Isaac Newton. In his diary, Salih called him ‘a philosopher who was both the eyes and the lantern of England’.

In return for having the closed world of the university opened to him, Salih helped Lee in his work on the Persian Bible. He even wrote a letter of recommendation when Lee was first nominated for the post of Regius Professor. The letter is still preserved in the university archives.

Between Salih’s diary, Lee’s letters and university documents, a rich picture emerges of the unlikely relationship formed between this foreign Muslim and what was then the most muscularly Christian of the Cambridge colleges.

The university was only one of many places that Salih and his fellow Muslim students visited during their four years in England, questing for the scientific fruits of the Enlightenment. The encounter between ‘Islam and the West’ is often told in terms of hostility and conflict, but Salih’s diary presents a quite different set of attitudes – cooperation, compassion and common humanity – and, in preserving the record of an unexpected relationship with the evangelical Lee, unlikely friendships. Written in England at the same time as the novels of Jane Austen, Salih’s diary is a forgotten testament, and salutary reminder of the humane encounter between Europeans and Muslims at the dawn of the modern era.

Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His many books include Sufism: A Global History and The Love of Strangers. He lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.