Tackling global extremism: the case of Boko Haram
22 Sep 2017|


Since it was formed by Mohammed Yusuf in the early 2000s, Boko Haram, or Jama’a Ahl as-Sunna Li-da’wa wa-al Jihad (roughly translated from Arabic as ‘people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad), has become one of the most violent Islamist groups in the world. It has been responsible for the deaths of approximately 20,000 people and the displacement of over a million.

Boko Haram’s goal is to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. In doing so, it has committed numerous atrocities, ranging from kidnapping and enslaving girls to carrying out scorched-earth policies and sporadic killings in local communities.

Boko Haram is now losing territory in northern Nigeria, leading it to seek safe haven in neighbouring states. That has led to an upsurge of violence in the wider Lake Chad region.

It appears that endogenous and exogenous factors have caused the group to splinter into three broad factions. One branch is led by Abubakar Shekau, who took over the group after the death of Mohammed Yusuf in 2009. The other key faction is now known as ‘Islamic State West Africa Province’, which pledges allegiance to Islamic State and also operates in Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Since August 2016 it has been led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, Mohammed Yusuf’s second son. A third faction, about which little is known, is led by the Cameroon-born Mamman Nur, who is suspected to have connections to al-Shabab and al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb.

On a trip to Nigeria late last month, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and International Development Secretary Priti Patel announced a £200 million development aid package over the next five years, including funds for deradicalising Boko Haram fighters. Very little information was provided about how the aid would be used beyond referring to it as humanitarian aid, which mean that natural concerns emerge that it may end up in the hands of the Nigerian military. In 2015, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari replaced Fatima Akilu, a UK-trained psychologist who had set up a rehabilitation program for Boko Haram fighters (partly funded by Britain and the EU) with an army colonel, raising concerns about the direction of the program.

Reaching out to key countries such as Nigeria that are battling extremist and radicalised groups has become a crucial mission for the international community. In 2006, the UN established the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) to aid in the coordination of counterterrorism efforts.

Deradicalisation is an important tool in defeating terrorism. Increasingly, it seems to focus on dealing with those who have embraced Islamic terrorism and who the state now wishes to reform. That helps explain why the EU has also provided over €60 million for deradicalisation of Boko Haram fighters. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with the support of the Japanese government, has sought to interact with women, with a focus on civil society organisations. In Nigeria, the UNDP has partnered with the Centre for Democracy and Development to establish a community dialogue, mainly through women’s groups, and including the Nigerian army, to discuss deradicalisation in the northeast of the country. The rationale is that by educating women one educates the family. The CTITF’s engagement in Nigeria has centred on building community resilience against terrorism, improving cooperation among law enforcement agencies, and strengthening judicial institutions.

Two broad approaches to deradicalisation are apparent within Nigeria. Many of the Boko Haram recruits aren’t willing participants, but rather kidnapped and radicalised individuals. The Nigerian government, through its Office of the National Security Advisor and Countering Violent-Extremism program, claims that it provides women who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram and male defectors with psychological care that includes addressing PTSD. There are also efforts to counter-radicalise and to prevent individuals and communities that may be susceptible to Boko Haram’s message from joining the group. Local development programs are vital in that context. As Max Schott, the chief UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon, declared, ‘It is essential to address the root causes of the crisis by addressing poverty, marginalization and underdevelopment’.

Northern Nigeria, the area where Boko Haram operates, is underdeveloped and remains dangerous. The military continues to carry out counterterrorism operations, which makes it difficult to access the area and undertake monitoring. The fact that the Nigerian military has been accused of gross human rights violations feeds into Boko Haram’s narrative that it is fighting an entity—the Nigerian state—that oppresses people living in the northern regions of Borno and Yobe.

Nigeria is clearly seeking to address the threat posed by Boko Haram. It’s comforting to know that the international community and individual states such as Britain recognise a need to support domestic efforts to counter radicalisation and violent extremism. However, it doesn’t appear that the Nigerian government is addressing many of the root causes of terrorism, which relate to poverty, underdevelopment and environmental damage. The Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics noted in 2012 that 61% of all Nigerians—nearly 100 million people—earned less than $1 a day in 2010; a petty trader in Kano earns less than $3 a day. Education is non-existent unless it is madrassa-based, leading to a common claim that policymakers only care about lining their own pockets. That feeds into the radical agenda propounded by extremist groups, led by Boko Haram.