from Africa in Transition

Guest Post: Flash Mob Dynamics of Boko Haram

September 24, 2012

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This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

The recent tragedy in Benghazi exhibited flash mob characteristics, which Wired magazine makes a useful comparison to with similar violence in Mexico, Darfur, and Nigeria. These dynamics were also present in the London 2011 riots, which I have commented on previously.

Instead of a pre-planned, lethal attack by known enemies such as al-Qaeda, individuals proposed actions without any central direction, they gained momentum, and in rather short order a tragedy occurred.  Though the outcome may not have been part of the original intent, it was generated by the momentum that built up.  This is how flash mobs and "do-ocracy" (an organization or movement where respect and power are awarded based on action) operate. It is unlike classic insurgencies.  They at least have leadership cadres that plan operations.

This phenomenon seems relatively new to Libya.  It is not new to Nigeria.  Boko Haram, I believe, has been operating in a similar way for quite a while now.

Implications for policymakers, domestically and internationally, are scary because there is little they can do to guard against this dynamic.  There is more they can do to try to defend against groups like al-Qaeda because it at least is known to have specific leaders.

But what does a government do, when confronted with flash mobs and "do-ocracies"?  These are groups that lack conventional cohesion.  They are held together instead by a sense of "belonging" to a gang--a social role with its own morality and self esteem--but one that holds meaning in a world with limited prospects.

From this it follows that the end game is probably not anything we would recognize, i.e., nothing we are likely to be familiar with from history or our own experience.  A rioter interviewed after the London riots in 2011 admitted that the violence and destruction did not solve his problems, but the riots were, nonetheless, the greatest thing he had ever participated in.

Boko Haram members may feel the Kingdom they say they seek is nearing.  That sense is capable of generating a great deal of enthusiasm, but one must be participant to sense and feel it.  Foreign policy professionals think in terms of end states, so as to know how to structure negotiations for example, but they may be intellectualizing the situation more than the participants.  I imagine (and maybe that is what it takes) the feeling of action, of getting to the Kingdom is more gratifying than the end state itself.  That is why Boko Haram continues the struggle.  One reason why the Nigerian government trumpets every arrest, every Boko Haram killing, and prevented attack in the press is to create a perception of progress against a threat they know they cannot handle.  In contrast, Boko Haram carries on, seemingly undeterred.

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