The regionalization of Boko Haram’s threat

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch07 Jul 2015Michel Luntumbue

In the early years of 2002 to 2009, Boko Haram was a local sectarian movement with demands confined to the Nigerian context. Gradually, it has radicalized as a result of a repressive policy of the Nigerian state. This policy pushed the organization toward a mass violence strategy, including the use of neighbouring countries as bases of retreat and thus regionalizing its threat.

The main factors contributing to the rise of Boko Haram firstly relate to the internal crisis of Nigeria’s government. Indeed, Boko Haram is partly a result of the cultural domination and economic marginalization sensed by some of the elites and the Muslim population in northern Nigeria. Founder of the movement, Mohammed Yusuf pretended to fight against the westernization of Nigeria particularly the northern regions that are predominantly Muslim, all the while denouncing the inequalities of development between regions.

From a political movement to a jihadist organization

Initially, the movement drew its support and funding from businessmen and politicians in the north eastern Nigerian states who were anxious to increase their influence during local elections. Ali Modu Sheriff was the former governor of Borno state, and with Mohammed Yusuf and his supporters they communicated voting instructions during sermons in mosques in favour of Sheriff, in return for financial support and promises of working towards adopting Sharia law. However gradually, Boko Haram consolidated its popular base due to its support for the poor (widows, orphans, unemployed youth) by assuring them access to health care, help with school fees, etc. This was possible through alleged financial support from Al-Qaeda and opportunistic involvements of various regional actors (like traffickers and corrupt customs officials) in border areas of neighbouring countries.

After the arrest and death of Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 due to a violent crackdown by the Nigerian armed forces, Boko Haram entered a more radical phase. The group lost their internal political support due to the movement’s violence and provoking governments. The group resorted to bank robberies and kidnappings in order to finance their operations. Abubakar Shekau, the new leader since 2010, established links with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is assumed this new connection brought Shekau into contact with the Al-Shabaab movement in Somalia. The ideological evolution of Boko Haram, which went from a simple Salafist group to a jihadist organisation, is very likely related in its relations with AQIM and Al-Shabaab.

Regional expansion, proliferation of weapons and lines of communication

Operationally, Boko Haram is supplied with arms through two main channels. Firstly, by retrieving them from the arsenals of the Nigerian security forces during armed attacks. Secondly, through joining regional networks of arms trafficking. Libya holds a main source of weapons by armed radical Islamist groups since the intervention of NATO and the overthrow of the regime of Colonel Gaddafi in October 2011. Countries in the region either recently or currently experiencing conflicts with a significant proliferation of weapons – mainly Chad, the Central African Republic or Sudan – are other major sources of supply.

The increasing number of incursions and attacks of Boko Haram in the northern region of Cameroon, close to the Nigerian state of Borno and the epicentre of the conflict, is justified by obtaining communication channels for weapon supplies. Furthermore, due to the coincidence of the geographical boundaries of Boko Haram’s influence and the historical kingdom of Kanem-Bornu (dated back to the 15th century), the movement was also suspected of trying to manipulate the historical memory of Kanuri communities, the majority group in this area. Boko Haram was not only establishing its authority in this movement but also justifying its expansion into neighbouring countries.

Regional dynamics and globalization

The local complicities enjoyed by Boko Haram in the neighbouring countries borders seem to be based more on financial and political motivations rather than religion or ethnicity. Boko Haram has informants in many towns and villages in their zone of influence. Corrupted agents of security forces or customs have sometimes facilitated the circulations of arms and indirectly supported acts by the group. The high level of poverty and illiteracy in the North, particularly in the north east of Nigeria, is a main reason why sectarian violence has taken root in these regions. However the regionalization of Boko Haram ‘s threat is also based on prior or simultaneous structural and sociological dynamics in the history of African countries.

There are important internal dynamics including the historical trade flows between the different neighbouring countries driven by economic, religious and human networks that connect the Sahelo-Saharan areas to North African regions. There are also contemporary dynamics of opening and extraversion, characterized by globalization’s spreading of ideas, economic flows, flows of people, expanding religious influences and technological developments. The recent allegiance of Boko Haram to the “Islamic State” in addition to new information communication technology as a means of mobilization and global projection makes this jihadist group look increasingly like an international threat organization that should be interpreted in line with this process of globalization.