Virginia Comolli provides a good, wide-ranging account of Boko Haram, the vicious, barbaric Nigerian terror group. In the Hausa language, the term Boko Haram means “western education is sacrilegious.” That anti-western attitude is re-enforced by its first major leader, Mohamad Yusuf who said in an interview with the BBC: “the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam …Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain . . . Like saying the world is a sphere. It runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it. We also reject the theory of Darwinism,” Comolli explains.
Yusuf’s interim successor before the rise of its current head, Abubaka Shekau, explained that “… Boko Haram actually means ‘western civilization’ is forbidden … we are talking of western ways of life which include: constitutional provision as it relates to, for instance, the rights and privileges of women, the idea of homo-sexualism, lesbianism, sanctions of terrible crimes like drug trafficking, molestation of infants, multi-party democracy in an overwhelming Islamic country like Nigeria, blue films, prostitution, drinking beer and alcohol and many others that are opposed to Islamic civilization,” the author writes.
It is quite clear from these two statements that Boko Haram has no use for “Western civilization.” However, they have no qualms about using weapons, vehicles, cell phones, and the Internet – all products of their detested “Western civilization” – in their murderous West Africa terror war.
One can see the terror group’s anti-western attitude in many of their targets. They attack schools and destroy them, while in many instances, kidnapping the students, especially the young girls who they either force to convert to Islam and/or sell into slavery.
In July 2009, tensions boiled over between Boko Haram and the government. Yusuf’s group carried out attacks on police stations and other government buildings in northeast Nigeria. The Nigerian government sent the army into the region and was told to spare no effort in “identifying, arresting and prosecuting leaders and members of the extremist sect involved in the attack.” The army carried out their instructions and attacked Boko Haram’s headquarters in Maiduguri. 700 to 800 of the terror group were killed and many others were arrested, including the group’s leader Yusuf. His mosque, the center of Yusuf’s activity, was destroyed and the army handed him over to the police. The cops didn’t turn him over for prosecution and trial, but executed him, claiming he had tried to escape and was killed in the attempt. With its leader dead, the group was soon taken over by its current leader, Abubakar Shekau.
The group launched its terror attacks on the three Muslim northeastern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa. These states lie across the Sahel, a belt on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The area is very poor. It receives few resources from the central government. The area has the worst governmental services – education and health care to name just two – in all of Nigeria. Many foreign policy advocates, including the author of this book, feel this is the main reason underlying Boko Haram’s vicious activities. The author dwells on several aspects of this theme throughout the book and makes a valid argument, but she probably stresses that argument more than she should.
Under that reasoning, Boko Haram’s action has been a stumbling block in the central government’s attempts to improve the quality of life in the affected area. Reform, while a civil war of sorts, makes reforming rather difficult. However, Boko Haram’s attacks on schools, government facilities, villages and Christian churches and schools leads one to suspect there is more than impoverishment of the area driving Boko Haram’s terror campaign. The Islamic religion is a key, if not the key factor, in this reviewer’s opinion, of the group’s terror campaign.
Boko Haram’s current leader, Abubakar Shekau became an enthusiastic supporter of Iraq’s ISIS self-appointed caliphate and proceeded to declare his own caliphate in Gwozo and Borno state shortly after ISIS had declared its caliphate. It is worth noting that its dead former leader, Yusuf, had traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2003. The trip re-enforced his fundamentalist views as reflected in his fiery sermons at his mosque after his return to Nigeria. These sermons bestowed the nickname upon him as the Nigerian Taliban and drew their inspiration from Saudi Wahhabism, which, incidentally, is preached in many of the mosques in the United States.
Boko Haram also claims they are spiritual followers of al-Qaida, especially al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The author quotes from the U.S. State Department report: “There are reported communications, training, and weapons links between Boko Haram, al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks.”
Boko Haram has expanded its terror activities into the countries of Nigeria’s neighbors, including Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and Mali. The Nigerian military recognizes this and feels its neighbors must join forces with Nigeria in order to take control of the situation as quickly as possible. Cooperation has been established, with mixed results, as Boko Haram is still very active throughout the region. Taking control is easier said than done. Cameroon and Niger are poor and their military capacity is limited. Chad, while also poor, has a French military presence, which can boost Chadian military capacity. Most of this joining of forces will be used to guard known and frequently used border crossings. However, the borders between Nigeria and those neighbors are vast and it is impossible, given current military capabilities, for these poor countries to cover all of them. Not only that, but there are numerous unknown crossings used for smuggling, which can be, and are by Boko Haram’s terrorists moving back and forth from Nigeria into and out of neighboring territories.
Adding to the Boko Haram problem, Nigeria is rife with corruption, which greatly hinders action by the central government to conditions in their troubled northeastern states. Boko Haram’s violence has also spread to other parts of Nigeria. They carried out suicide attacks on the UN building and National Police headquarters in Abuja in 2011 — a far distance from their northeastern area of operations.
Operating outside of Nigeria in conjunction with other jihadist elements, near or far away, could result in the creation of a vast ungovernable area controlled by militant Islam. This would consist of parts of Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Mali, southern Libya, as well as northeastern Nigeria. This area would then become a future base for Islamic fundamentalists to train, plan, and prepare terror attacks in other parts of Africa, as well as outside the continent.
While I may quibble over some of the author’s emphasis on poverty and under- development, both factors in the rise and current acts of Boko Haram, Comolli’s book is the best yet for one to gain a thorough grasp and understanding of Boko Haram and its war on modernity. Boko Haram and other groups like it will be a looming problem in our future. Reading this book will help to understand the threat.
Virginia Comolli is a Research Fellow for Security and Development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.