The US military this week wraps up its flagship annual military cooperation drill in Africa whose 2022 iteration was marked by its expansion ... beyond North Africa and the inclusion of Israel as an observer.
Was Boko Haram a local and Nigerian jihadist movement? Or has it been foreign-oriented from the outset, particularly in West Africa?
American academic Jacob Zenn, a specialist in West African jihadism at Georgetown University, traces the origins of the “sect” back to those now affiliated with the Islamic state armed group.
In an 30 April book, Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria, Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., Zenn describes the foreign influence that helped forge Boko Haram, from Sudan to Algeria’s GIA to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. He answers our questions.
Boko Haram is often presented as a purely Nigerian creation. Why do you maintain that its roots are also Sahelian?
Jacob Zenn: The founders of the Nigerian jihadist movement developed their movement through interactions with Algerian jihadists and the first representatives of Al Qaeda in Sudan in the 1990s. It was these outside influences and fighters that they then brought back to Nigeria.
Moreover, it should not be forgotten that jihadist ideology is inherently transnational. It seeks to eliminate so-called “Westphalian” borders in favour of expanding Islamic states without borders.
Two countries seem to have strongly influenced the fate of Boko Haram in the early years: Algeria and Sudan. How?
Algerian jihadists arrived in Nigeria from 1994 onwards to buy arms. They were welcomed by local Salafists and recruited students, who became their militants. Similarly, we know today that one of the founders of the group that later became Boko Haram met Osama Bin Laden’s lieutenants in Sudan.
The article continues below
Get your free PDF: The Sahel trap
States under strain
Complete the form for your free download of The Africa Report’s special feature "The Sahel trap". Get your free PDF by completing the following form.
His Nigerian fighters then received money from Al Qaeda’s Saudi religious and financial networks to establish the jihadist movement in Nigeria.
Mohamed Yusuf, who officially created the group that would later be called Boko Haram in 2002, was therefore under foreign influence?
Indeed, he was influenced by two Nigerian preachers with a strong Middle Eastern orientation: Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, a pro-Iranian Shiite preacher, and Jaafar Mahmud Adam, a proponent of Saudi Salafism. Yusuf drew elements from both visions, although he always sought to adapt his ideology to the local Nigerian context.
Alongside Yusuf are two other central characters: ‘Uncle Hassan’ and ‘Muhammad Ali’. What role did they play?
Uncle Hassan’s real name was Hassan Allane. He was a member of the Algerian GIA and allegedly fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
He withdrew to Niger in 1994 to supply the GIA with weapons and worked with an Islamic charity on Bin Laden’s orders. But he had to leave Niger to avoid arrest, and eventually found refuge with the Nigerian Salafists.
That’s how he started recruiting fighters there, as did Muhammad Ali, also close to al-Qaeda. They were the ones who recruited and “populated” the movement that Mohamed Yusuf would lead, which would later be called Boko Haram.
Can Osama Bin Laden be considered the godfather of this first generation of Nigerian fighters?
In any case, he helped to inspire and finance them, to the point where they are sometimes referred to as the “Nigerian Taliban”. Above all, he advised their first leaders, like Muhammad Ali. But that is not to say that the ‘foot soldiers’ had any knowledge of the extent of Ali’s or Uncle Hassan’s links with Bin Laden and the Saudis.
You explain that many Nigerian fighters were trained in camps in the Sahel and Sudan. Do we have any details?
We know, for example, that the training provided by Aqmi in 2009 was supervised by Yahya Jouadi and that the daily training was probably provided by Abu Zeid.
We also know that Khalid al-Barnawi, Ansaru’s future commander, was involved in training Nigerians at bases in the Sahel in the mid-2000s. Ten years earlier, Barnawi himself had travelled through Sudan, where several paramilitary camps were helping to train Nigerian fighters, among other things.
Nigeria and the Sahel have long been regarded as rear bases for jihad in Algeria. It was not until after 11 September 2001 that Nigerian jihadists aimed to make their country a battlefield in its own right, and they will not actually achieve this until after 2010.
When Yusuf died in 2009, al-Qaeda’s leaders allowed many of his supporters to flee Nigeria and take refuge in the Sahel, among other things.
Yes, Yusuf’s successor, Abubakar Shekau, sent “waves” of Nigerian jihadis to the Sahel to train with Aqmi in 2009 and to take refuge outside Nigeria for a while. It was in part these fighters who returned and helped launch the jihad, which continues to this day.
Shekau, however, eventually “left” al-Qaeda networks to join those of the Islamic state .
The relationship between Shekau and Aqmi has indeed become complicated. The Nigerian has gradually adopted some of the doctrines of the Islamic state. He was seduced by the EI’s notion of conquest of a caliphate, and eventually pledged allegiance to ISWAP, the Islamic state in West Africa, in 2015.
Today, of course, differences remain. Shekau, even affiliated with the Islamic state, tends to recruit more locally, among the Kanuri and Bornoans, while ISWAP emphasizes a broader, more pan-African reach, with fighters from Sokoto, Kogi or Lagos states, but also from neighbouring Chad and Niger. But the West African ideologies of the two groups are in fact very similar.
Can it be said that ISWAP inherited its West African ambitions from the precursors of Boko Haram, themselves heavily influenced by Al Qaeda in the 1990s?
Yes, although the founders of Boko Haram probably never imagined that two decades later a group like ISWAP could unite fighters from Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso and cause so many problems for governments in the region. Osama Bin Laden himself saw West Africa as nothing more than a rear base for the great theatre of jihad in Africa: Algeria.
Since then, however, it has become clear that the ambitions of the elders of Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are in line with those of the Islamic state, to which many have pledged allegiance. If Bin Laden were still alive and observing ISWAP, he would no doubt be pleased to see that West Africa has become a major jihadist battlefield.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options