Tony Blair has warned policymakers in Africa and the rest of the world that they must learn the lessons from the rise of the violent extremist group Boko Haram if they are to counter similar groups.
Launching a new report from the Tony Blair Institute, ‘Violent Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons from the Rise of Boko Haram’, Mr Blair said:
“For 12 years, the vast potential of Nigeria has been held back by the scourge of Boko Haram’s violent activities. This report reveals the detailed history behind what began as a non-violent local Islamic movement and what became a transnational terrorist organisation. In doing so, it explains the genesis of an ideology we must understand fully if we hope to defeat it, collectively.
“To reach the right solutions and a proportional response requires us to trace the roots of the movements and understand the common ways in which Islam’s beliefs – in all local contexts – are exploited and politicised. Boko Haram today threatens not only Nigeria’s future but also that of wider sub-Saharan Africa. A commitment to confront extremism on the continent together will be a first critical step to realising this region’s full potential.”
The new report is being published just before the 12th anniversary of the first series attacks by Boko Haram on several police stations across northern Nigeria, on 26 July 2009. The attacks led to the death of hundreds of Boko Haram members and that of its first leader, Muhammed Yusuf.
It sets out a number of key findings about the factors which led to Boko Haram’s rise and their survival and success, and recommendations for how policymakers should respond e.g.:
The importance of Boko Haram’s links to Middle East extremists – Although they never gained first-hand experience in the Middle East, Boko Haram’s leaders took direct inspiration from Salafi-jihadi groups in the region. In challenging the ideology of groups like Boko Haram, policymakers need to understand they are challenging Salafi-jihadism and political Islamism as well.
Boko Haram does not depend on alliances with other terror groups – Boko Haram benefited from alliances with al-Qaeda and ISIS, but transnational support was – and is – not essential to its survival. Homegrown groups such as Boko Haram (and its most active faction) are standalone threats that should be considered beyond the transnational links they hold with ISIS.
Splits do not reduce Boko Haram’s violence – Factional splits led to more, not less, violence with Boko Haram’s ideology retained despite the divisions. Policymakers, globally and in the region, must not mistake factional disputes and changes in leadership as “operational crises” for terrorist groups.
Poor literacy and education help Boko Haram to recruit – Low literacy rates and education gaps served as tools and opportunities for Boko Haram’s recruitment. Policymakers should prioritise soft-power policy programmes that aim to equip communities with the basic skills to dispute and counter extremist narratives.
Boko Haram’s local strength – Boko Haram and its network embedded themselves in social, religious and political channels at a local level. Policymakers should consider implementing monitoring frameworks to facilitate evaluation of local Islamic networks and emerging religious leaders as part of any countercampaign.
The report also recommends that all governments directly affected by Boko Haram activities, including those in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, to do more to synchronise their military, de-radicalisation and prevention programmes.
About the new report
‘Violent Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons from the Rise of Boko Haram’ examines the roots of Boko Haram by highlighting key phases in its evolution. It explores the roles of the four individuals who formed the group, defined its ideology, framed its policies and recruited its early followers, eventually commandeering them into violence.
It draws on primary Hausa, Kanuri and Arabic-language evidence and eyewitness accounts, including the author Bulama Bukarti’s extensive interviews with former classmates and associates of three of the four founders – Muhammed Yusuf, Muhammed Ali and Mamman Nur.
The report benefits from deep personal and professional knowledge of Boko Haram. Bulama Bukarti hails from some of the same towns as the group’s leaders, putting him in a unique position to examine first-hand evidence from friends and neighbours who went on to join Boko Haram.
- shows how Boko Haram is inherently a homegrown group that has emerged from the socioeconomic, political and religious milieu of North East Nigeria but whose influence can also be traced to the Middle East, where the global jihadist movement originated;
- reveals how the founders leveraged mosques and religious networks to build a footprint locally and establish credibility while cleverly exploiting their ethnic heritage to enhance recruitment beyond ordinary Islamic followers – and facilitate expansion beyond Nigeria;
- delves into the ways Boko Haram identified social vulnerabilities in and around the Nigerian city of Maiduguri, particularly among those communities lacking education or with low literacy to enable a sweeping radicalisation campaign across the North East. These at-risk communities became integral to Boko Haram’s funding channels, with militants soliciting donations from locals including prominent and respected figures; and
- describes the internal disputes and operational divergences that gave rise to the three distinct terrorist factions active in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin today. Despite numerous changes in leadership and rank, defections to and from groups, variations in territorial objectives and differing affiliations to global jihadi organisations, these factions all sprang from the same violent ideology that arose in Nigeria’s North East almost 20 years ago.