Hidden roots of Boko Haram...Why security agencies are worried about South-West
Thursday, 16 February 2012
Regional Editor, Olawale Rasheed, unearths the ideology behind the Boko Haram insurgency, affirming that unless the ideology is defeated, the nation may not be weaned off violent extremism in the future. Security agencies in western countries, as well as some key African nations, are currently evolving a long term intelligence strategy to curtail a worrisome spread of radical jihadist Islamic evangelisation. The worry stems from the realisation that Third World countries, like Nigeria, with a tradition of moderation in Islamic activities, are increasingly becoming hot-beds of jihadist agitations.
In Nigeria, a new awareness appears to have dawned on the intelligence community that an ideology is driving the insurgence of jihadist movements like the Boko Haram sect. The ideology, it is feared, may spread radical jihadist tendencies to even the SouthWest part of the country where some young turks are becoming very impatient with the secular state.
Getting to know the soul of this ideology and how to diplomatically curtail its spread from the traditional hot-bed in the North is said to be one of the key issues currently engaging the attention of the security forces.
As the clamour for dialogue between the Federal Government and the Boko Haram sect intensifies, there are strong indications that the security challenge facing the nation may not be easily solved unless there is a proper understanding of the insurgency by all stakeholders in the Nigerian project. The Friday Edition investigations showed that the general tone of debate reveals a deep level of ignorance of Islamic insurgency ravaging the nation, leading to the proffering and application of wrong solutions.
An analysis of national discourse so far on the Boko Haram menace confirms a failure of intelligence on the dimensions and nature of Islam versus the raging insurgency, a misunderstanding that has led to a wholesale labeling and profiling of Muslims which further complicates the conflict resolution process. The Friday Edition checks revealed an untold story of the insurgency whose narration is capable of assisting security agencies and the citizenry to better analyse and tackle the crisis.
It needs be stated from the onset that the Boko Haram insurgency is a manifestation of an ideology within the Islamic fold. That same ideology accounted for the many religious uprisings in the North in the past several decades, such as the Maitatsine and others. The problem is that, even when the manifestation is destroyed, the ideology remains, leading to fears that in the future, the ideology may sprout another manifestation with even more violent orientation. The nation cannot just fight the current effects but should strategically tackle the ideology to prevent it from gaining permanent foothold in the country.
The Friday Edition attempted a review of the ideology, relying on several intelligence briefs from many western organisations, in addition to materials from agencies domiciled in the Arabian peninsula and the highly revered Anzar University in Cairo, Egypt. The review was an eye opener which opened up a new level of understanding of Islamic insurgency, not only in Nigeria, but across Sub- Saharan Africa.
Some general statements actually flow from the reviews, with particular reference to Islam in Africa and Nigeria. The first is that majority of Muslims on the African continent belong to the Sunni narrative of Islam. Less than five per cent are of the Shia stock which is the Iraninan-Iraq brand of Islam. Of the four main legal traditions in Sunni Islam are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. Several surveys showed that the most popular is the Maliki School dominant in North Africa with very few minorities embracing the Hanbali fundamentalist tradition fully developed in the Arabian Pennisula.
On the African continent, the Maliki Sunni brand was reported to be the first form of Islam known to the continent, dating back to 1730s according to reports. Adherents are mostly Sufi Muslims who believe there can be a direct experience of God through a spiritual chain linking saints and their followers to Prophet Mohammed. While many Muslims in the region do not belong to a Sufi brotherhood, documented reports showed that most of them subscribe to one of the three predominant brotherhoods namely, Qadiriyya, Mouridiyya, or Tijaniyya. The Qadiriyya have the longest history in the region; the Mouridiyya are the predominant brotherhood in Senegal (but much less present elsewhere; the Tijaniyya are the most widely represented group across the region.
For Nigeria, the leader Othoman Dan Fodio, who introduced Islam to the western side of Northern Nigeria, was a sufi sunni Muslim and Sheikh El Kanem of Bornu whom he met on ground as Muslim leader in the North-East, was also a sufi-sunni Muslim. For a very long time, this brand of Islam was predominant in Sub-Saharan Africa with its non-violent, traditional form. Reports showed that traditional Islam on ground for long on the continent was hated by some clerics in the Arabian peninsula.
From 1940 upwards, the situation was said to have changed as new movements emerged within Islam with huge petrol-dollars of the Gulf Arab states backing their spread across the world. Two major movements stand out namely, the Salafis and the Wahabis.
An International Crisis Group report of 2005 described the group as follows: “The Salafiyya is a movement of those Muslims who promote a return to the original beliefs and practices of the salaf — the “founding fathers” of Islam — that is, the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors. In all cases, their vision of the changes necessary to achieve this renewal is based on a literalist reading of the Koran and volumes documenting the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammed and his closest associates.”
A western intelligence brief likened the Salafis to Christian and Jewish fundamentalist movements. The Salafiyya Movement identifies the problems of the contemporary world with the diversion from the correct path delineated in the Holy Scriptures. Consequently, Salafis describe their activities as a struggle against innovations and shirk, or heresy. Both are usually understood to have been introduced into local Muslim practice by Sufi orders who have cultivated cults of saints and the important role of the spiritual figures as religious intermediaries.
There is also the Wahabis. Muhammed al-Wahhab founded the Wahhabi form of Islam around 1744 and Muhammed Ibn Saud, ancestor of the Saudi royal family, conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula and was reported as having promulgated this form of ascetic Islam. Hence, behind the Wahabi ideology is the resources of the Saudi state.
Records showed that Wahhabism came to West Africa in the 1930s, via local clerics who had studied at the Egyptian religious university, Al-Azhar. Their religious practice and political commitment were intertwined from the 1940’s onward. They sought to eradicate what they perceived as the heresies of the predominant forms of Islam in the region — Qadiriyya, Tijaniyya and Mouridiyya — all Sufi. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia heavily financed this brand of Islam and is reputed to be the ideological foundation of Al Qaeda worldwide.
Dawa Al-Tabligh is the other stream of Islamic fundamentalist revivalism practice which was founded by Muhammad Ilyas in 1926 in Mewat Province, India. Western agencies compared the Dawa to the Jehovah Witness Movement because it requires members to travel both around and beyond their own countries, preaching door-to-door. Present in more than 100 countries, the Jama’at al-Tabligh is the biggest Muslim missionary society in the world, claiming over six million adherents.
A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report however documented a number of Tablighi converts in the US moving quickly from a political form of Tablighi fundamentalist practice to links with al Qaeda and its affiliates. Among the most famous is Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber”; Jose Padilla, an American convert to Islam currently being held as an “enemy combatant”; the “Lackawanna six”, a group of Yemeni-Americans from northern New York State who participated in al Qaeda training in Afghanistan after travelling to Pakistan under the auspices of the Jama’at al-Tabligh; and John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban”
There were also documented reports linking the Tablighis to the Pakistani state and the trajectory that South Asian fundamentalism has taken, especially within the Pakistani Army and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. Tablighis are said to be theologically more or less identical to Deobandis, the Pakistani fundamentalist group which runs many of the religious schools of Peshawar and whose teachings underlay the philosophy of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Intelligence briefs related that the Tabligh differs on emphasis and approach with the Deobandis, participating actively in politics and the Tablighis rejecting that world to focus on proselytisation. “Neither group had much influence politically in Pakistan until after General Zia ul-Haq’s 1977 coup, when support for religion and, especially for fundamentalist Deobandi and Tablighi forms of Islam, became semi-official policy,” a western analyst noted. A Crisis Group analyst affirms that this link becomes more significant in looking at the unusual presence of some Pakistanis in northern Mali and the Sahelian region over the past years.
The comforting or otherwise point is that the three renewal movements are powerfully present in Nigeria‘s North and South. Many international experts in this field however noted that “not all salafis, wahabis or Tablighs are of the extreme stock. As described in a recent Crisis Group briefing, “there is a serious distinction between the Salafiyya ‘ilmiyya, or “scholarly Salafis”, and the Salafiyya jihadiyya, or “fighting Salafis.”
“Adepts of the latter are those who have fought in the interconnected series of armed struggles beginning in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and extending to Bosnia, Chechnya, Algeria, Kashmir and now Iraq — and form the core of jihadi networks in various parts of Africa, where they are often known as “the Afghans”.
“Many Salafis are quite radical in their calls for a return to an authentic original form of Muslim practice without being at all oriented toward political activity, whether peaceful or violent. This is also the case of a distinct fundamentalist movement, the Jama’at al-Tabligh. What they share with the jihadi Salafis is the sense that such a radical renewal is necessary by one means or another,” the report noted.
Documented records by Western and even Middle East security organisations showed that there was an overwhelming storming of African continent by the new movements with specific goals of over running the traditional sunni-sufi Islam already firmly established on the continent. That push was aided by Saudi petrol dollars, as well as generous funding from Qatar, Quwait and other Gulf Arab nations. Thier intentions, it must be noted, are mere missionary efforts for the propagation of Islam, even though an outgrowth of it is the Jihadi movements now spread all over the world.
Unfortunately, the Jihadis Salafis, to which the Boko Haram sect belongs, has the strongest hold in the religious scramble for Africa. In the North African nation of Algeria first emerged the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combats. With an open pledge of affiliation to Al-Qaeda, the group, when pushed to the southern border of Algeria, reportedly allied with the Tuareg population of the Sahel nations of Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
Interestingly, the Tuaregs are mostly Salafis of the Tabligh stock who are involved in fundamentalist uprising in Mali and Niger. Documented reports showed that Muslim missionaries from Pakistan and other Arab countries swarmed the Sahel region, spilling over to the countries bordering Nigeria, such as Niger and Chad.
In Niger, it was a fact that the southern parts of the country is dominated by the Hausa speaking Izala-Salafis group, while its northern region, bordering Algeria and Libya, is dominated by the Tabligh Tuaregs. In Chad, a powerful group, Ansar al Sunna is an influential Salafi group which gets its funding from members and donors in Sudan and Saudi Arabia. And for record purpose, the Salafi just won about 25 per cent of the Egyptian parliamentary seats. The various salafi/wahabi movements in the Sahel and lower belt of the Sahara thus easily merged into al-Qaeda in the Magreb.
It is thus clear that, while the traditional form of Islam known to Nigeria was never violent or jihadist- oriented, the Jihadi Salafiya’s entrance into the scene changed the religious dimensions of the nation. As Nigeria is surrounded by intrusive Salafi movements, it was not long before the Salafis established a foothold in the country. While the mainstream Salafis only engaged the traditional Muslim adherents in scholarly debate, the situation changed with the incoming of the Jihadi Salafis who believe what the Salafi scholars are preaching can best be achieved by taking up arms against the state.
An international news media documented the fact that several people from Maiduguri were arrested in connection with the Algerian Salafi Movement group in March 2004. The matter was however not followed up, probably because the security agencies then felt it was just an incident, rather than an emerging spread of fundamentalism from North Africa to Nigeria. The United Nation‘s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in December 2003, also reported a telling incident. According to the agency, movement of fundamentalist students in Maiduguri, who styled themselves as Nigerian “Taliban”, attempted an uprising, capturing weapons from a police station before being chased into Niger and then back into Nigeria.
As at today, the Salafis are everywhere in the North in two modes, the scholarly and the jihadist. Increasingly, the majority sufi-sunni Muslims are being hounded and are under intense pressure. The reason is that the Salafi have a stream of funding from the Gulf states, while the Sufi traditionalists have little. It would be recalled that foreign funding was reduced by the Saudis following pressure from the Americans after the 9/11 attack. That has, however, not in anyway reduced the surging influence of Salafism in the North.
Findings thus showed that the Boko Haram sect is a manifestation of a Jihadi Salafism ideology. The ideology is not a mainstream conception among Northern muslims. The major cities of the North— Kano, Maiduguri and Sokoto are dominated by non-salafi Muslim elite. The same scenario applies to the ancient cities of Katsina, Zaria and Bauchi.
Interestingly, Salafism or Wahabism is not only restricted to Northern Nigeria like many commentators are affirming. Even though Jihadi Salafism has not manifested in any area of Southern Nigeria, checks showed that the domineering push of that ideology is manifesting on daily basis across the South-West and Middle Belt in particular. The zeal, curtailed in the North, is flourishing among the more educated Southern Muslims who see the broader preaching of Islamic revival as acceptable.
Findings showed that the Tabligha Dawa is present in very intense manner all over the country with the South-West having a large chunk of their presence. So far, the scholarly missionary zeal is the predominant manifestation with no report yet of any violent uprising. Other Wahabi-related groups are active all over South with building of mosques and quranic schools as their preoccupations, especially in the Delta/Edo axis of the South-South.
It is also discovered that a large pool of Wahabi scholars are emerging from the South-West, following the generous university scholarships operated by the Saudi government. With each town in Yorubaland having two to three student scholars every year, the zone may, in the next few years, be a bastion of Wahabism. Even while there may be no violent uprising in the zone, there may be a pattern of increasing assertiveness on the part of Muslim groups in the zone as was witnessed in the recent case of hijab crisis in Osun State schools where some people wanted hijab to be worn by pupils in non-Muslim schools..
The manifestation of the strength of the group is already showing in the South-West as there is now struggles in mosques about how an Imam, prayer leaders should be chosen. The sufi traditionalists are being challenged by the emerging wahabi salafis for the control of mosques across Yorubaland. Whoever control the mosques is likely to be successful in selling and marketing its ideology to the adherents. This raging battle across the South-West may eventually upstage the traditionalists who are credited with the near low profile of the Muslim majority of the South-West.
A foreseeable scenario for the nation may be a wahabi domination of the South and a salafi entrenchment of the North, a possibility that may further heighten future fears of confrontations. The greatest challenge to all stakeholders is that since the Salafi are into two parts, recognising a possible shift between the two lines is very problematic. Just as a scholarly Salafi or Wahabi may peacefully preach the need to return to original practices of Islam,a violent strain may creep in at any moment in view of issues of economic justice and inequality.
Investigations thus showed that Nigeria is facing what an international scholar called “a Salafiyya movement of renewal very much like the Protestant Reformation. The Wahabi challenge to Sufism resembles that of the Protestant Reformation, which attempted to return to “true” Christianity by stripping Catholicism of its worldly accretions. Both renewal movements abhor icons, saints and shrines, which they consider polytheistic.”
The ideology posing the threatening challenge is thus the jihadi salafiya/wahabiya strain of the Islamic renewal movements. Reports applicable to Nigeria showed that the population of the jihadist is mostly within thousands while the scholarly reformer at times numbered in millions. The fatal trick of the situation is that the few, most of the time, used the majority pool as a recruitment ground. It was not a coincidence that the violent jihadists gained quick support in impoverished areas than in affluent zones. From the backward Sahel region to the back water of Nigerian North Eastern region, many research reports confirm the link between successful recruitment into violent movements and level of poverty and economic backwardness.
In more than seven other countries of the world, that extreme strain of the renewal movement is responsible for ongoing insurgency with the various governments adopting various approaches. After close to a decade, the insurgency is still flourishing in Algeria with about 75,000 souls said to have been lost to the insurgency. The funny thing is that the uprising was sparked off by the annulment of an election won by the Salafists.
In the Russian federation, the insurgency is spreading with no end in sight. From Chenchenya, it has spread to the North Caucasian areas with jihadists vowing to establish an Islamic state. It is a low level insurgency that is taking its toll on the Russian state.
A keen watcher at the Jamestown Foundation noted that “ the Kremlin will have to engage eventually in some sort of dialogue with the insurgents, however difficult that might seem at this stage. Only a negotiated peace, which, among other things, recognizes the role of Islam as a key pillar of North Caucasus societies, can provide a lasting resolution to a war that has plagued the region for the past decade.“
In Southern Thailand, the Islamic insurgency is destroying the relative prosperity of the state. After unsuccessful clampdown by the nation‘s former leader, the new prime minister has opened negotiation with the rebels. The Phillipino scenario is even more violent with peace talks held on and off and with the fighting ever intensifying on the peninsula. The Pakistani state has commenced negotiation with the Taliban after failed military actions just as the American government has approved of a peace talk with Mallam Omar‘s Taliban leadership.
If there is any question bothering many peacemakers across the affected countries, it is how to accommodate such jihadist strain whose demands tend to request the surrendering of the state. Many are finding a middle ground like the Thai approach which is attempting to create a special administrative zone for the affected region. The same approach is being adopted by the Pakistani government which is conceding that Sharia law be implemented in the SWAT region of the country. The Russians are finding that possibility difficult to accept, prefering instead concessions on family laws rather than wholesale introduction of Shari law in the North Caucasian region.
While Nigeria is now at the threshold of fashioning its own strategies, lessons from other affected nations may be a good starting point. But some international experts are quick to note that the first port of call may be to win over the area affected politically and economically. This is so as poverty is a likely facilitator of enrolment in extremism.
Former US President, Bill Clinton, struck this cord on Monday at the Thisday award ceremony in Lagos where he called on the state to address the economic challenges, if it is serious about overcoming the political problems.
“I am really worried about your security problems. I hope the president and the appropriate ministers can figure it out. But from my experience as a public servant, I know that it is almost impossible to cure a problem based on violence without giving people something to say yes to,” Clinton noted, while he stressed that the Boko Haram crisis is a manifestation of the acture poverty ravaging the North. “You can’t just have this level of inequality persist. That’s what is fuelling all this stuff,” he said.
Analyst contend that while poverty cannot rationally provide theological basis for violent religious beliefs, it, at least, provide a fertile ground for the recruitment of elements whose life- ambition is to die, having lost all hope of living good lives.
Dr Domitilla Sagramoso, a teacher of Security and Development at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London listed five facilitating strategies to create an environment that wins over a disaffected population. This includes a political strategy that builds government effectiveness and legitimacy; a comprehensive approach that closely integrates civilian and military efforts; and a population-centric security founded on presence, local community partnerships, and self-defending populations.
Here the role of foreign governments is also critical. The interesting finding, however, that is the involvement of Americans in any of the crisis always attracts more jihadists. In Thailand, the government consciously put off American intervention despite several offers. In Phillipine where the Americans are involved, the conflict has been escalating. The Pakistanis and the Afganistan cases are even more telling. A North African expert in terrorism recently noted that “hopefully, the US will continue to disassociate this conflict with any global war on terrorism and stay out of the fray. Nothing attracts jihadis like the promise of fighting Americans and their local allies”. Some key American commentators on the Nigerian situation, like Ambassador John Campbell, have also warned America against being overtly involved in the Boko Haram crisis.
For Nigeria, several options are on the table. The first advantage Nigeria has over others in the conflict zone is that Sharia laws are already in operation in several states of Northern Nigeria with constitutional recognition., That probably answer the first demand of the insurgents. How to deepen Sharia law in the core north without infringing on the constitution is a vex question for all stakeholders.
Many Islamic clerics in the South and in the North offer some smart paths to resolution of the conflict. The first idea they put forward is for the state to monitor foreign funding of religious activities. While they are not calling for an end to Arabian funding, they want more scrutiny of the motive and associated issues.
The other path outlined includes deliberate encouragement of Sufi Islam which they reasoned remains the dominant mode in all major Islamic centres of the country. Others include the strengthening of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs which is a body dominated by moderate muslims, state data base of religious movements, strengthening of the National Inter-Religious Council, diplomatic engagement of the Saudi and Gulf Arab countries and playing down of American involvement to deny the jihadists armory and propaganda tools.
As the nation grapples with the salafi jihadis, the reality is that the battle is with the ideology and not Boko Haram. If Boko Haram is defeated, the ideology is still alife.If the ideology is defeated, the nation may then heave a sigh of relief.