It’s no secret what Boko Haram wants. Dissatisfied with the Nigerian state, and unhappy with the pervasive and corrosive influence of western culture, it has long sought to establish an Islamic state in north-eastern Nigeria, one governed by its strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.
This has always been something of a fantasy. Nigeria is simply too strong, it’s military too powerful to allow a bunch of unruly militants to force a secession (exhibit A: Biafra). Or at least that’s been the accepted wisdom.
But the accepted wisdom might be wrong.
In the last couple of months, the various organisations that comprise the global jihadist movement have been busy arguing amongst themselves about whether to align behind Al Qaeda, the old guard, or to join forces with the upstart group in Iraq and Syria which now calls itself the Islamic State. The Islamic State has enjoyed unprecedented success recently, occupying huge swathes of both countries and establishing a government capable of providing some basic services. Its control of oil fields, banks and tax collection in the areas it has occupied has made it the richest terrorist organization in the world, and it has increased its ideological appeal by declaring the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate – and demanding fealty from Muslims everywhere.
Africa’s plethora of Islamist groups have been slow to pick sides. But that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been watching, and learning, from the developments in the Middle East.
“Due to the very public spat between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, it is very unlikely that Boko Haram will swear allegiance to the less established Islamic State and risk isolating their al-Qaeda donors in the process. However, Boko Haram may very well mimic the operational tactics employed by Islamic State as a means of securing its own caliphate within north eastern Nigeria,” said Ryan Cummings, chief Africa analyst at risk analysis firm Red24.
There is evidence to suggest that this process is already well underway, explained Cummings. “Since April, Boko Haram has begun appropriating and holding territory within north-eastern Nigeria, particularly within the state of Borno. At the time of writing, Boko Haram has effectively seized control of the Gwoza, Bama and Damboa Local Government Areas (LGAs), raising the Rayat al-Uqab (Black Standard) flags within these areas. Most of the LGAs in the state, bar perhaps Maiduguri and a few surrounding areas, are currently being contested between government forces and the extremist movement.”
These tactics – a departure from Boko Haram’s usual hit-and-run approach – are eerily reminiscent of how the Islamic State took charge in Iraq and Syria. “The capture and holding of territory presents a significant evolution in Boko Haram’s modus operandi. The group has previously exhibited its operational acumen in an effective guerrilla campaign which was being waged in both urban and non-urban environs across much of northern Nigeria. However, in capturing and defending territory in Borno state, the sect is also noting that it has the capacity and capabilities to engage in more conventional forms of warfare,” said Cummings.
In other words, Boko Haram is changing. It’s transforming from a run-of-the-mill terrorist organisation into something altogether more threatening, at least as far as the Nigerian state is concerned: a fully-fledged insurgency designed to take and occupy territory. Pretty soon, Nigeria won’t just be mounting counter-terrorism operations – they’ll be fighting a civil war.
If the government is slow to catch on, the population in the affected areas certainly isn’t. The Wall Street Journal reports that hundreds of thousands of people have left their homes to escape the Islamist threat, many heading towards shanty towns on the outskirts of the regional capital Maiduguri. “They are streaming over the hillsides,” said Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima of the latest refugees.
But Maiduguri may not be a safe haven for much longer. It was this city that gave birth to Boko Haram, and it is this city that would be the capital of a Nigerian Islamic Emirate. Plotted on a map, the areas that Boko Haram has sought to control in the last couple of months indicate that Maiduguri is the real target.
Photo: The pattern of recent Boko Haram attacks in Borno State suggest a deliberate strategy to isolate state capital Maiduguri (Map provided by the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium)
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Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.