from Africa in Transition

ISIS and Boko Haram

February 24, 2015

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Sub-Saharan Africa


Terrorism and Counterterrorism

The relationship, if any, between Nigeria’s Boko Haram and ISIS is a question that vexes the policy community. If there is one, it would support the argument that Boko Haram is, indeed, a new front in the international war on terrorism, as Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan maintains. If a relationship does not exist, or if it is minimal, that would support the argument that Boko Haram is essentially a domestic Nigerian issue, while ISIS has more of a global agenda.

For movements that have caused so much disruption and suffering, from a practical perspective, their internal workings and their governance remain obscure.

Graeme Wood published a fascinating article in the March Atlantic that analyzes ISIS. He concludes: “it is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.” He argues that ISIS is a religious millenarian movement with a theology based on serious study and literal interpretation of seventh century Islam and that its theology must be understood to be countered. Much the same can be said of Boko Haram. Its stated goal – the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth through justice for the poor by the rigid implementation of Islamic law – is millenarian, not political.

Wood argues that ISIS seeks to recreate the legalities and governance of Islam’s earliest years dating back to the seventh century. He places ISIS in the context of the salafist school of Sunni Islam. Salafism is characterized by the literal reading of the Koran and the earliest scriptures while stripping away later accretions. Boko Haram is also part of that tradition. Both also emphasize the excommunication and killing of Muslims who, by behavior or belief, diverge from their orthodoxies. Accordingly, the majority of the victims of both are Muslims.

However, if ISIS seeks to recover seventh century Islam, Boko Haram appears much influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, a thirteenth century theologian originally from what is now Iraq. He is seen as one of the theological pioneers of salafism.

Boko Haram and ISIS sound similar, and they have expressed mutual admiration. But, there exist significant differences beyond their differing geographies and circumstances. Among them is the emphasis that ISIS places on holding territory as the basis for a caliphate, and that a universal caliphate is a requirement for the End of Times. Hence, Woods argues that for ISIS, there can be only one caliphate.

It is difficult to imagine that Boko Haram would accept subordination to a caliphate based in the Middle East. Islam has existed in northern Nigeria for more than a thousand years. Boko Haram’s “face,” Abubakar Shekau, may have announced the creation of his own caliphate, or he may simply have established an Islamic state. The evidence is inconclusive, but the distinction is important: a ‘caliphate’ would imply an institution with much broader reach than an ‘Islamic state’. The former has religious implications and associations far beyond the later.

Both ISIS and Boko Haram are authoritarian and reject compromise in matters of faith. Further, Boko Haram’s leadership and structure appears much more diffused than that of ISIS. Hence, Boko Haram and ISIS are unlikely to reach a political agreement that would require either of them to compromise.

Theology is only one dimension of ISIS and Boko Haram, along with alienated youth, economic depression, and predatory states. But, the theological dimension is an important one, as Woods reminds us, if the international community is to understand and counter ISIS and Boko Haram.