Boko Haram and al-Shabaab: Comparable threats to African security

Photo courtesy of www.africaontheblog.com
Photo courtesy of www.africaontheblog.com

By Conway Waddington

Drawing comparisons between Boko Haram and al-Shabaab can be beneficial for analysis of these groups and their activities, but caution should be given to over-simplifying their respective origins, objectives and relationships with each other and with other international terror groups.

Boko Haram and al-Shabaab are militant Islamist sects that are predominantly operational in Nigeria and Somalia, and are both engaged in protracted insurgencies and terror campaigns. Their origins, strategic goals, methodologies and recent track records are comparable to varying degrees. These groups are also compared to other militant Islamist groups with which they associate, particularly al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and more recently the group known as the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Countering terrorist and insurgent forces remains a highly challenging task, and lessons can be learned from past and present efforts by a wide range of global actors. Both the Boko Haram and al-Shabaab insurgencies are likely to continue for several years at least, and success at arresting the violent terrorist attacks they carry out are likely to require a blend of social reform, negotiated de-escalation and varying degrees of military force. In late 2014, both groups were responsible for several high-profile terror incidents, including a wave of Boko Haram suicide bombings in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab’s cross-border attacks in Kenya. In their antipathy toward non-believers of their theologically-faulty brand of Islamic fundamentalism, both groups also have a history of exploiting the Christmas and early New Year periods for attacks.

Despite the numerous similarities between the two terror groups, however, their shared commonalities should not be simplified. Nor should it be assumed that there is equivalence in the relationships that these groups have with other international terror groups. Where al-Shabaab, in particular, has cultivated support from international terrorist organisations and benefitted from some limited access to a pool of international recruits, Boko Haram has not been as successful in forming relationships with outside actors.

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Boko Haram and al-Shabaab share some superficial and some more nuanced similarities

As insurgent groups, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab naturally share several organisational and operational similarities. Fundamentally, they seek to achieve many of the same tactical goals: both groups have the same basic strategic objectives in mind in terms of disrupting government authority and creating ungoverned spaces. Furthermore, their available courses of action are constrained by similar factors to those faced by most insurgent forces: limited access to logistical support and the need to avoid or control the situations under which direct confrontations with security forces occur.

These commonalities between the groups can offer useful insight in their own right. However, there are other areas of commonality that are of particular interest. One example is that both groups are commonly known by names that are in fact informal and can be said to be nicknames. Boko Haram is from the Afro-Asiatic language family, a Hausa-language-based colloquialism, which is loosely translated as ‘Western education is forbidden’, while the name the group is known by to its followers is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (people committed to the pProphet’s teachings for propagation and jihad). Similarly, al-Shabaab, which literally means ‘the boys’ or ‘the youth’, is formally known by a name not used in the global media – Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Mujahedeen Youth Movement).

While at first glance this observation about group names is quite superficial, it is interesting to note how these groups are portrayed and perceived, particularly in the media. In its early days, al-Shabaab was often mischaracterised as ‘merely’ a youth-based militia operating in Mogadishu, possibly contributing to early assessments by commentators and various security-sector actors that the group posed minimal threat. Currently, Boko Haram is still often characterised in the media on the strength of the group’s loosely-translated nickname as being explicitly opposed to Western education. This assessment is not entirely incorrect, although partially supported by several high-profile attacks on universities, technical colleges and schools as well as quotes from several tirades against the West made by the group’s bombastic leader, Abubaker Shekau. But, this emphasis also overstates only one aspect of Boko Haram’s much broader list of grievances and targets.

Ideology is another useful area of comparison between Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. Both terror groups espouse extremist militant Islamist goals. Although both follow Sunni Islam, specifically Salafist threads of that religion, and have linkages to Saudi-inspired Wahhabi thinking. As a result, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab are frequently presented, particularly by the international media, as fundamentally motivated by the same ideology. Furthermore, it is often taken for granted that there are closer ties between these groups than may actually exist, simply because of an assumed shared ideology. Another assumption is that these groups’ ideologies automatically place them alongside al-Qaeda and its affiliates and ISIS.

Setting aside the problematic assumptions about ideological commonality, it is also a mistake to take for granted the relationships between militant groups. On occasion, militant Islamist terror groups have recognised, pledged allegiance to, and even operationally supported one another to varying degrees. There is good evidence of limited operational cooperation between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), for instance. Similarly, there is tentative evidence of limited support and training having been provided by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to Boko Haram (or possibly a small group associated with Boko Haram) during the brief Islamist occupation of northern Mali in 2013. However, it is important that the loose affiliations between similarly-minded militant groups is not overstated, nor should the practical and logistical limitations of any more ambitious forms of cooperation be ignored.

An example of such conflation can be seen in the functional ties between Boko Haram and al-Shabaab that have been suggested, perhaps most prominently, by several successive commanding officers of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM). However, a lack of clear evidence toward such any cooperation exists.  It also appears unlikely that either group would actively pursue a functional relationship, considering the practical limitations for any such support as well as the costs of such cooperation compared to likely benefits. AFRICOM speeches and announcements have nonetheless repeatedly referred to the threat posed by Islamist militants along the Sahel arc that stretches from West to East Africa. Insecurity along the Sahel arc is deserving of substantial concern, but caution should be given to the evocative but factually-lacking narrative of working alliances emerging between those various non-state actor groups that continue to (separately) destabilise the region.

It is a mistake to over-simplify the objectives of these groups

Another example of an over-simplified narrative for the relationship between various militant groups gaining traction in Africa relates to the Islamist objective of establishing a caliphate. By definition, a militant Islamist group seeks to establish, by force, some form of territorial sovereignty in which it can impose its particular extremist interpretation of Islam. In August 2014, ISIS declared the establishment of a global caliphate, essentially claiming religious, political and military authority over all Muslims. Subsequently, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab’s strategic intentions have been equated with this goal, and in so doing, the nuances behind their respective objectives have been glossed over. In late August 2014, a video was released by Boko Haram in which Abubaker Shekau referred to the then recently overrun city of Gwoza in north-eastern Nigeria as now being part of an Islamic state or caliphate. Although he did not formally proclaim the establishment of a caliphate per se, Boko Haram’s association with ISIS has been heavily emphasised in media reports ever since.

Certainly, both groups have sought to carve out territorial control with the end-goal of establishing some form of some semantic equivalent to either an Islamic emirate or caliphate. But, it is also worth noting that both organisations’ territorial ambitions predate ISIS’ rise to prominence. Boko Haram has repeatedly voiced the desire to establish some form of territorial control since its formation. It is no coincidence that Boko Haram’s current area of operations coincides with the historical Kanem-Bornu Empire(s), which existed from medieval times through to the early 20th Century and controlled territory that included parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and north-eastern Nigeria. Boko Haram draws its rank and file from the Kanuri ethnic group that populates this area and likely gains an advantage by leveraging the historical outline of those pre-colonial empires.

Boko Haram has also waged a significant proportion of its violent campaign not just against the Nigerian government, but against the Muslim authorities that already exert significant political control of the north of the country, particularly under the Sultan of Sokoto. The Sokoto caliphate, which existed in the 19th century, was preserved as a protectorate by British colonial authorities and has retained substantial autonomy since Nigerian independence. Boko Haram contests the authority of those Muslim leaders and has made numerous attacks against authority figures and mosques (acts that have contributed to the group’s difficulty in establishing support from other, international Islamist militant organisations).

With regard to al-Shabaab, it originated as one of several Islamist groups that sprung up during the chaos of the Somalian civil war that occurred after the collapse of the Siad Barre military regime in 1991. By 2006, the core group of fighters and leaders of what would later become al-Shabaab were a part of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which had effectively seized control of the capital, Mogadishu, from the weak transitional government in 2006. That same year, an Ethiopian intervention and later the UN-mandated African Union (AU) Mission in Somali (AMISOM) saw the ICU expelled from Mogadishu. Al-Shabaab emerged as the ICU fractured to pieces, leaving this group in control of small parts of central and southern Somalia.

The aspiration of establishing a Somalia-based Islamic state, which had briefly looked achievable in 2006, remains the goal of the group today. Continued pressure by AMISOM and international actors such as the US has, however, significantly degraded al-Shabaab’s ability to project power in Somalia. As a result, the group has increasingly embarked on a transnational terror campaign, lashing out at neighbouring states that have been involved in the intervention in Somalia. These aggressions included attacks in Uganda in 2010 aimed at World Cup football supporters, in Kenya in 2013 in the Westgate Mall attack. On 2 December, al-Shabaab gunmen killed all non-Muslims picked out of a crowd of prisoners at a quarry in the northern town of Madera. Such incidents stand out amongst numerous other attacks, and highlight the regional threat posed by the group.

Al-Shabaab has, however, remained focused on its insurgency that targets AMISOM in Somalia, and against the Somalian transitional government itself. Moreover, the group has also exerted substantial effort toward the goal of financial survival. Much of the initial fighting against Ethiopian and later Kenyan intervention forces was aimed at maintaining dominance of the port of Kismayo, which al-Shabaab controlled as a lucrative source of taxes. The group has also been heavily implicated in sugar, charcoal and ivory smuggling, which has seen it clash with Kenyan and Ugandan rangers.

Al-Shabaab leverages the narrative of waging a war against ‘invaders’ in Somalia to gain support from local clans and to aid in recruitment. The group also blends this motivation into the traditional al-Qaeda-esque anti-West narrative. Similarly, Boko Haram continues to shine a spotlight on the Nigerian government’s high levels of corruption and the Western influences implied to be responsible for such corruption as its primary enemy, a message that resonates in Nigeria despite the brutality of the group. Both al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are, in actuality, engaged in complex campaigns with a range of tactical and even strategic goals that belie the oversimplified narratives that they themselves portray, and that have been embraced in media analysis and commentary.

A more sophisticated understanding than media portrayals of Boko Haram and al-Shabaab is essential to countering the insurgencies

Similarities in the origins and objectives of Boko Haram and al-Shabaab, seen with a more serious, nuanced understanding, can offer useful insight for the analysis of the behaviour of these groups, and indeed, can inform efforts to counter the respective ongoing insurgencies. Oversimplified narratives relating to the origins or objectives of these groups, or their relationships with each other or with other militant groups can undermine useful analysis.

Some shared ideology does not account for the myriad of other factors that characterise the motivation of these groups. An accurate understanding of the relationship between these groups should be cognisant of the complexities involved in such a relationship. Similarly, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab’s relationships with other militant groups should be treated as complex. Understanding the grievances and sources of inspiration that serve to motivate these terror groups is of particular value for behaviour prediction. Moving beyond superficial similarities, there are common sources of instability, economic and political repression of populations that these groups can exploit, as well as other factors that have contributed to the militarisation and radicalisation of these groups and their member-base. These factors can serve as important signposts for evaluating and countering al-Shabaab in East Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa, as well as for predicting the emergence of other such terror groups, or indeed, for accurately assessing actual global jihadi activities on the continent.

This article is extracted from the January 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM). The essential +/-70 page monthly report that dissects conflict developments and trends across the African continent to guide businesses, governments, academics and other stakeholders in Africa’s growth and stability.

Current ACM subscribers include AFGRI, AngloAmerican, BP, CNN International, eNCA, Halliburton, IBM, KPMG, MSF, various international government departments and major universities around the globe, ranging from UCT here in South Africa to MIT in Boston, USA.

Find out more about ACM.


(1) Conway Waddington is a Regional Analyst with ACM, has contributed papers, reviews and con­ference material to the Institute for Security Studies (Pretoria, South Africa) and has acted as a peer-review­er for Scientia Militaria.