Boko Haram’s Old Playbook and Still Seeking Relevance

Islamist Violent Extremists are thriving in Africa

This past week, more than ninety missing schoolgirls in the northeast of Nigeria were abducted by the militant group Boko Haram which resembles the 2014 Chibok kidnappings and comes on the heels of the groups largely having been defeated militarily, and in which it has faced significant territorial loss since 2016 from its self-declared caliphate in Maiduguri. In addition, it follows a similar demise of ISIS in which last year with the fall of Raqaa, policymakers and practitioners throughout the world have been quickly trying to analyze what will be next for ISIS as it no longer has the territory in Syria and Iraq that it once commanded. Boko Haram is no exception and with this similar and recent incident, it demonstrates the resilience of a terrorist organization that continues to shift and changes its ideology, techniques and strategy constantly.

At present, the internal schism and debate between leaders of Boko Haram and multiple internal factions of leadership between Abubakar Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi has caused even greater confusion on the tactics by the two leaders, however, both men despite being at odds with one another have one clear objective and that is to overthrow the Nigerian government and to establish Islamic law according to their interpretation.

But the challenges presented by terrorist groups within Nigeria, the Lake Chad basin and Sub Saharan Africa as a whole seems to be on the rise. As a whole, observers of terrorist movements on the continent and in the West are looking to see whether or not these group will metastasize into new forms in light of heavy counterterrorism pressure and these groups ability to sustain for the long haul. However, for the foreseeable future, the continent with its porous borders and close proximity to Europe and the Middle East, two hot zones in the fight against extremism, looks like it will continue to be a battleground.

The pace of high profile terrorist’s attacks in Sub Saharan Africa has certainly caused death tolls that have rivalled that of other regions where Islamist extremists are active and continue to remain a concern for the foreseeable future. For that, there is no question that Islamists extremists, that is extremists who seek to use a narrow and strict interpretation of Islam have caused indiscriminate killing against African lives of all walks of life—including men, women and children, and most importantly fellow Muslims who outright reject their brutal and indiscriminate killing of innocent lives. But a number of social science and academic literature, including the United Nations report published late last year, highlighted that “Fifty-one percent of respondents selected religion as a reason for joining. However, as many as 57 percent of the respondents also admitted to limited or no understanding of religious texts” suggesting that there is not necessarily a direct correlation or causation between religion and some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric pervasive globally and that there potentially are a number of alternative approaches to engage in preventing violent extremism.

As such, with varying new research studies pointing to a multitude of reasons in why individuals join extremist movements, on the continent of Africa, like elsewhere around the world, there are other forms of violent extremism that are just as important and critical that pose a national security concern for both regional and transcontinental stability. Certainly, donor funding efforts largely from Western nations have largely driven the public and private perception of the threat, and with the increasing level of internet connectivity throughout the continent of Africa, Islamist and non-Islamist based violent extremist groups have capitalized on new branding techniques to propagate their message for recruitment and financial gain.

Across all of Sub Saharan Africa, we are seeing unprecedented amounts of tensions and the ongoing conflict between farmers and pastoralists as they fight over limited land and water resources as individuals and groups scramble for resources. Social inequities ranging from income-wealth disparities between urban elites and rural farmers as well as climate change which places centuries old herders in precarious situations in which their very livelihood largely consisting of nomadic lifestyles have been affected displacing centuries-old lifestyles.

To resolve the issues of violent extremist activity of all forms on the continent of Africa, international partners, African nations and multinational entities must work in concert with one another so as to recognize that in a changing Africa, there are multiple threats posed to national security and ordinary citizens, and identifying the threat posed by the various extremist groups.

By Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, PhD, Executive Director, Quilliam International, the world’s first counter-extremism organization with offices in London and Washington, DC.