Boko Haram’s relationship with al-Qaeda has evolved considerably over the years. This evolution begs the following questions: What is the status of the relationship between the two groups at present, and how has it changed?
Much of Boko Haram’s ideological underpinnings and goals were inspired by al-Qaeda, and Al-Qaeda provided limited material support for Boko Haram. That said, the groups drifted apart in recent years and are increasingly dissimilar in their tactics and approach.
Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf, respected and admired al-Qaeda from early on. Yusuf preached that Usama bin Laden was one of the “four pure Salafists” that Muslims should follow. Yusuf claimed that in the early 2000s he sent dozens of his followers to Algeria and Mauritania to train with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in order for them to “gain the strength to succeed” in jihad. In a 2009 speech Yusuf asserted “We are yet to establish a pure Sunni Islamic sect that will be ready to take on ignorance and secularism. The few we have that are functioning are al-Qaeda and the Taliban, whose ideology and theological foundations are purely Sunni in nature”. When Nigerian security forces killed Yusuf in 2009, many of his followers left to train with AQIM in the Sahel to avenge his death. Yusuf’s successor was his more violent and militant deputy, Abubakar Shekau. Under Shekau, Boko Haram transitioned from preaching ideological jihad with sporadic attacks to a coordinated jihadist movement carrying out frequent devastating attacks on civilian, police, and military targets. Indicative of the growing relationship between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda during the late 2000s, Shekau reached out to al-Qaeda and worked to actively implement its style of jihad, directing his first video statement in 2010 towards the “leaders of al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups in Algeria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen”.
The link between Boko Haram to al-Qaeda extended beyond ideological inspiration. Over the years, al-Qaeda provided some degree of financial, technical, and training support to Boko Haram. In 2010 Abdelmalek Droukdel, then emir of AQIM, commented that his organization was in communication with Boko Haram and looking at possible forms of assistance. This assertion is bolstered by statements made in 2012 by Boko Haram’s spokesman, Abu Qaqa, in an interview with the Guardian. In that interview, he stated that “Al-Qaida are our elder brothers. During the lesser Hajj, our leader travelled to Saudi Arabia and met al-Qaida there. We enjoy financial and technical support from them. Anything we want from them we ask them.”
A clear divide emerged between AQIM and Boko Haram in the years following Shekau’s assent to power. Despite earlier ideological and material ties to al-Qaeda, Boko Haram’s approach to jihad no longer matches up with AQIM’s. Shekau may have wanted a strong connection between his group and AQIM, but neither AQIM nor any other al-Qaeda organization recognized Boko Haram as a direct offshoot of al-Qaeda. An ideological divergence was at play, as Boko Haram’s rampant and indiscriminate violence towards Muslims went too far, even for al-Qaeda. In 2013 Abu Mundhir, a spiritual leader of AQIM, issued a ruling on Islamic law known as a fatwa condemning Boko Haram’s killing of students at a school dormitory and indicated that such actions work against the overall aims of jihad. The fatwa explained that “Targeting schools to kill young students is impermissible, since they have not yet joined the ranks of the apostate military yet…This will give the enemies of the religion and Western media the opportunity to exploit these scenes to prove to Muslims that the mujahedeen are far from Islam.”
A group called Ansaru splintered off from Boko Haram between 2011-2012. It differed from Boko Haram in that it followed al-Qaeda’s model more closely, both ideologically and operationally, by targeting foreigners and killing fewer domestic civilians. One of Ansaru’s three networks was known as the “AQIM network”, and included Nigerian AQIM soldiers or militants trained and/or funded by AQIM. Ansaru eventually split up, and two of its networks reintegrated into Boko Haram in 2012-2013, including many fighters and trainees from its “AQIM network” who were disenchanted with al-Qaeda and shifted allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This reintegration process assisted the merger between Boko Haram and ISIL. In March 2016, Shekau formally pledged Boko Haram’s allegiance to ISIL and its leader, abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The open competition on the global jihadi scene between ISIL and al-Qaeda became unequivocally clear with leaked statements from al-Qaeda’s leader, Aymen al-Zawahiri. In the statements, Aymen al-Zawahiri ordered Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to stay in Iraq and leave Syria to Jabhat al-Nusra, which was met by “mockery and dismissal” by Baghdadi. Given the open antagonism between it and al-Qaeda, Boko Haram’s decision to reorient itself towards ISIL indicates that Boko Haram opportunistically realigned itself with the shifting winds of jihadi influence, as al-Qaeda’s power waned.
As Boko Haram evolved, it took on the tactics of guerilla warfare and now more closely resembles a jihadist insurgency, and less a traditional terrorist group, such as al-Qaeda. The relationship between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda is primarily defined by the influence the latter had on the former, and the way in which al-Qaeda inspired the organization and operation of Boko Haram’s brand of jihad between 2009-2016. The material support al-Qaeda provided Boko Haram was relatively limited, though the trainings and financial support bolstered Boko Haram’s growth to some extent. Boko Haram’s leadership shift and corresponding ideological change pushed it away from its earlier al-Qaeda benefactors and into the arms of ISIL, evidenced by its embrace of a scorched-earth strategy that fails to distinguish between civilian Nigerian Muslims and the Nigerian state. As ISIL faces increasing challenges to its control over territory and resources, it will be interesting to see how its relationship with Boko Haram evolves moving forward.
Patrick Zimet is a Young Leaders in Foreign and Security Policy Fellow at GCSP and a graduate student in the Master of Science in Foreign Service programme at Georgetown University.
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