Boko Haram and defining the ‘al-Qaeda network’

The presence of a British-born man in Boko Haram’s ranks proves that the group’s appeal is not confined to Nigeria.

Boko Haram leader Imam Abubakar Shekau threatens to burn down more schools and kill teachers [AP]

Over 200 of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing. These kidnappings have led to an increased focus on the threat posed by the perpetrators: Boko Haram. This group has been conducting a vicious insurgency in Nigeria since 2009 in the hope of creating an Islamic state, with increased fears over their ties to al-Qaeda and the extent they pose a threat outside Nigeria.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan claimed in May that Boko Haram was “an al-Qaeda operation”. The extent to which this is technically true depends on how broadly we define the al-Qaeda network – and it should be noted that Ayman al-Zawahiri has never even publicly referred to Boko Haram – but their ties to al-Qaeda and its affiliates are now so numerous that they are impossible to ignore.

For example in 2002, Osama bin Laden dispatched one of his aides to Nigeria to distribute $3m to Salafi groups. Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, is thought to be a recipient of this money. Bin Laden’s interest in Nigeria seemingly did not end with Yusuf’s 2009 death at the hands of Nigerian security forces. Documents discovered in bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan are thought to show an ongoing dialogue between Boko Haram and the top levels of al-Qaeda, potentially even with bin Laden himself.

By 2006, Boko Haram members were training in the Sahel alongside al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose emir Abdulmalek Droukdel admits assisting Boko Haram in a variety of other ways. Co-operation continued until at least 2013, when a large contingent of Boko Haram fighters attended an AQIM training centre in Timbuktu, Mali.

Boko Haram’s links to al-Qaeda extend beyond AQIM. At least one fighter was trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Others trained in al-Shabab strongholds in Somalia. The US government suspects that there are “communications, training and weapons links” not only between Boko Haram and al-Shabab, but also al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. A Boko Haram spokesman also claimed in January 2012 that they had met senior al-Qaeda figures in Saudi Arabia. It was this presumably this type of activity that led AFRICOM Commander General David M Rodriguez to name Boko Haram an al-Qaeda “affiliate” in February 2013.

Al-Qaeda ‘affiliates’

Boko Haram is also well connected to other organisations in al-Qaeda’s broader network. For example, Ansar al-Din (AAD), a group that received funding, logistical and military support from AQIM, hosted hundreds of members of Boko Haram in territory it controlled in Timbuktu. An al-Qaeda offshoot, the Movement of Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), has also worked and trained alongside Boko Haram in Mali. According to the United Nations, “a number of Boko Haram members fought alongside al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Mali in 2012 and 2013”, a reference to AQIM, MUJAO and AAD.

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The links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are complicated by the presence of Ansaru, the Boko Haram offshoot that in the past have referred to themselves as “al-Qaeda in the land beyond the Sahel”. The Jamestown Foundation’s Jacob Zenn has outlined Ansaru’s connections to AQIM and al-Shabaab, while it is Ansaru that likely conducted the August 2011 suicide bombing of the UN building in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. This attack led to 26 deaths and fears that Nigeria’s jihadists were beginning to be increasingly tied to al-Qaeda’s internationalist agenda. However, Ansaru’s operational activity has now slowed, and it is now thought that some Ansaru leaders have rejoined Boko Haram.

While accepting that Boko Haram remains the most prominent terrorist group in Nigeria, the extent to which it offers a regional or even international threat remains contentious. While Boko Haram’s emir, Abubakar Shekau has made threats against the west, in reality his group have been overwhelmingly domestically focused (having killed an estimated 6,000 people there since 2009). From a western viewpoint, Boko Haram’s threat is generally considered local to northern Nigeria, and it was not until November 2013 that the US even designated them as a terrorist group.

Yet in recent years western policymakers have similarly proclaimed that the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shabab were also purely local. Events on the ground ultimately proved this to be largely wishful thinking: Residents of Syria, Lebanon and Kenya would certainly beg to differ. Now, two recent operations potentially carried out by Boko Haram in Cameroon suggest a new regional component to its threat. The presence of a British-born man in Boko Haram’s ranks also proves that the group has an appeal not solely confined to northern Nigeria.

Such facts cannot be wished away by western governments tired of war, or African countries who consider this to be a solely Nigerian issue. Ignoring the long-standing connections Boko Haram has to al-Qaeda, or betting that Boko Haram’s focus will remain local is not a policy. It is wilful blindness.

Robin Simcox is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and an expert on terrorism, al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups, and national security.