Statements like Pham’s may galvanize those who are in favor of “political, economic and social liberalism,” but such statements also obscure more than they reveal. Though Abubaker Shekau — the current head of Boko Haram — has expressed solidarity with the missions of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, partnerships between the groups have not developed. Relatedly, though al-Qaeda has affiliates in neighboring countries, it has seemed reticent to endorse or cooperate with Boko Haram.
More importantly, lumping these organizations together ignores the local conditions that give rise to their specific characteristics. Attempting to understand Boko Haram from a transnational perspective yields very little; in more than a decade, the organization has only engaged in one attack on an “international target,” bombing the United Nations building in Abuja in 2011. For all of the rhetoric and symbolic overtures to internationalization that Pham and others point to, the operational characteristics of the Boko Haram insurgency are overwhelmingly focused on Nigeria.
The changes in the insurgency’s tactics in Nigeria are likely a reaction to the policies of the Nigerian government and the resources available to the insurgency than a response to global jihadistcurrents. It’s critical to note that Boko Haram began as a largely non-violent (though anti-system) Muslim reform movement, targeting local imams and politicians that were unsympathetic to their strict interpretation of sharia law. The movement only became radicalized following the Nigerian government’s 2009 offensive, in which an estimated 700 people, including Boko Haram’s founder Mohammed Yusuf, were killed by members of the Nigerian security sector, while members of the Joint Task Force engaged in egregious human rights abuses and violations of the rule of law. While Abubaker Shekau may include in his sermons international jihadistrhetoric, much of Boko Haram’s ideology and mobilization centers on the specific abuses of the government. In 2011, Shekau released a statement in which he entreated the leaders of Kano state to recognize government abuses:
“You all saw on Al-Jazeera TV how unarmed men, youths, women, cripple and even under age were asked to lie on the ground and were shot on the head and chest by security agents. You all saw our leader Mallam Muhammad Yusuf with handcuff[s] and shot severally. You all saw how both Masjid and the Holy Qur’an were being destroyed.”
Similarly, the insurgency’s attempts to control territory are less a mimicking of ISIL and more a response to the declaration of a State of Emergency accompanied by an increased security presence across northeastern Nigeria by President Goodluck Jonathan in May 2013. The Nigeria Social Violence Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies found that prior to the State of Emergency, just two of over 400 incidents involving Boko Haram were focused on villages; since the declaration, Boko Haram has engaged in more than 84 attacks on villages, resulting in more than 3,000 casualties. These village attacks have been critical to Boko Haram’s strategy of gaining territory and undermining the legitimacy of the Nigerian state.
In Nigeria, the long-standing economic and political marginalization of the north has prevented the government from mounting a robust response to Boko Haram, and has allowed the insurgency to gain access to sophisticated arms through Sahelian trade routes; the abuses of government forces have given Boko Haram a platform from which to mobilize and a motivation for their ideological goals.
Treating terrorism as a monolithic, global network serves a specific political agenda, mobilizing support for well-intentioned but homogenous and ineffective counter-terrorism programs. Counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism programs that fail to acknowledge the context and characteristics of specific movements have failed and will continue to fail.
The international community owes it to the survivors of such horrific attacks to assist in the design and implementation of effective programs, recognizing that while the struggle is global, all politics are local.
Hilary Matfess is a master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where she works on issues of governance, security and development in sub-Saharan Africa. See her co-authored post on The Monkey Cage from October, “The Boko Haram insurgency, by the numbers.”