Back to basics: What ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have in common, and how they preach water and drink wine

Little attention is placed on their similarities and differences, even as regional leaders scramble to neutralise their activities.

OVER the past several years, news around the globe has been dominated by information on terrorism. Almost at any given day one may visit a news channel and find a fresh reference to the Islamic militant groups Boko Haram, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Al-Shabaab.

Their regional reach is significant: Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari was Thursday holding talks with leaders of Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin on Boko Haram, with hopes a new fighting force would help crush the Islamists after six years of violence.

The meeting comes on the back of Buhari’s appeal to world leaders at the G7 summit in Germany last weekend for more help in combating extremism,.

A lot of the time it seems that since all three groups are considered to be terrorist organisations, little attention is placed on their similarities and differences; assuming the only thing they have in common is terrorism. 

Just like the mafia, organised crime syndicates, in Italy, Russia or Japan share similar ideologies packaged in a unique form, adapted to regional context, so do Jihadist terrorist groups.

Here are some key facts about each:

The history of extremism

First of all it is imperative to mention that the fundamental ideology of ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab rests on Wahhabism.

The name Wahhabism derives from a Sunni Muslim scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab who preached orthodox and conservative Islam in central Arabia (modern day Saudi Arabia) in the 18th century.

His teachings were radical, aiming to bring Islam to its purest form, rejecting religious innovation and polytheism. He insisted that certain acts of worship were essential, such as five daily prayers, fasting and supplication in the name of God (or Tawhid).

In many ways Wahhabism - or Salafism from Arabic al-salaf al-salih (pious ancestors) -  sees the world in black-and-white, underlining that people are basically of two types: Salafis (Wahhabis) – the winners or chosen ones who go to heaven because of their obedience to God and preaching to Allah with accordance to strict Salafi-rules – and the rest, condemning Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The rest are Kafirs (a person who rejects or disbelieves in God), sinners and deniers of God.

This new, narrow ideology spread quickly as its followers increased. 

Rejecting any form of hierarchy and ruling, Wahhabism predictably drifted away from governments and official power, creating self-declarative interpretations of laws.

As Wahhabism became more extreme, Islam began losing its essential principle of tolerance and finally emerged as the core ideology of groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.

ISIS – The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

Formation                             1999

Area of Operation                Syria/Iraq/Libya/Lebanon/Nigeria/Afghanistan

Strength                                 52,600 – 257,900

Partner                                   Al-Qaeda (2004 - 2014)

Leader                                     Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Ideology                                Wahhabism / Salafism / Salafi Jihadism

ISIS, funded in 1999 under the name of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad by Jordanian militant islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, joined Al-Qaeda in 2004. Linking itself to a major power base and, more importantly, a secured source of funding, ISIS grew steadily.

In 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of ISIS State - Islamic Caliphate -  in current area between Syria and Iraq. He renamed himself Caliph Ibrahim, effectively quitting and, to a large extent, replacing Al-Qaeda as the dominant regional power.

The strong, versatile and well educated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is an experienced commander with fierce reputation, elevated still by his assumed lineage to Quraysh, the tribe of the Prophet.

BOKO HARAM (‘Western Education is Forbidden ’)

Formation                             2004

Area of Operation                 Nigeria / Cameroon / Niger / Chad

Strength                                 7,000 – 10,000

Partner                                   ISIS

Leader                                   Abubakar Shekau

Ideology                                Wahhabism / Salafism

Similarly to ISIS, Boko Haram bases its ideology on the Sunni faction of Wahhabism. Its core mandate to oppose Westernisation and, principally, Western education, now has a more general aim to quash and humiliate the Nigerian government.

Boko Haram’s non-subordinate attitude towards the government or laws is typical to Wahhabism, placing itself far above the kafirs’ span of influence. Just like in the case of ISIS, Boko Haram is led by a charismatic and powerful persona – Abubakar Shekau, who, in 2015, was listed in Time magazine as one of world’s 100 most influential people.   

Since the start of Boko Haram by its founder Mohammed Yusuf, the organisation is believed to have killed  over 10,000 people. Today, the audacity of Abubakar Shekau only escalates the degree to which Boko Haram is feared in the region.

Al-SHABAAB (Party of Youth)

Formation                             2006

Area of Operation                 Southern Somalia / Yemen

Strength                                 7,000 – 9,000

Partner                                   Al-Qaeda

Leader                                   Ahmad Umar

Ideology                                Salafi Jihadism / Militant Wahhabism

Al-Shabaab is an Arabic word for “Party of Youth”, a name which has recently been denied by the Somali government, which insists on another name: “Ururka Gumaadka Ummadda Soomaaliyeed” or UGUS – an acronym meaning ‘The group that massacres Somali people.’

After the death of Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, who was killed in a US drone strike on September 1, 2014, the leadership has passed to Ahmad Umar. Although, the ultimate power should fall on Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Shabaab seems fairly autonomous, making its principal profits on charcoal and ‘road tax.’

Little is known about Ahman Umar,  except that he “earned a reputation as a brutal punisher of non-Muslims”. Like his predecessor he believes in the ‘takfir’ (or kafir = infidel) ideology, which, Wahhabistic in nature, accuses other Muslims and non-Muslims who do not follow strict and purist Islamic principles of apostasy.

What they have in common

Looking at ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab one clearly sees a recurring feature of a strong leader instilling fear and a degree of mystery, which is almost God-like.

The religious extremism of each group allows them to justify extreme actions, basing their choice on Wahhabism ideology.

However, the behaviour of each of the three groups seem more mafia-like than religious. They make money through black markets and self-declared appropriation of means. The organised crime provides a backbone for terrorist operations, which impart fear and allow for further domination.

Ability to provide salaries to impoverished local communities lures people into Jihadist organisations, as there are limited sustainable alternatives. Once in, many followers are not allowed to leave.

Wahhabism inexistent?

Dressing this behaviour in the religious context the Jihadist organisations get away with most actions, while their leaders may enjoy lifestyles far beyond those religiously acceptable.

In 2009 Mr Hussain Zakira, a Nigerian academic, informed the BBC that the founder of Boko Haram ‘lived a lavish lifestyle and drove a Mercedes-Benz’, a car associated entirely with Western lifestyle – the core of organisation’s hatred.

ISIS documents, on the other hand, condone rape and slavery. In the “Question and Answers on Female Slaves and their Freedom”, an ISIS-pamphlet, the organisation  explains its policy of having “sexual intercourse with a female slave”, which they justify citing Quran and going further to state that: “It is permissible to buy, sell or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property.”

Last year the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) reported finding drugs, alcohol bottles and cigarettes as well as female clothes allegedly belonging to raped girls, at an Al-Shabaab site.

Abdi Asiis Durow, a former commissioner in the town where these items were discovered  says:

“What they do and everything they say including telling lies is contrary to religion. They drink wine, smoke drugs in the worst way a human being can do. We have seen the places that they have raped girls and how they devastated the nation’s belongings, they turned everything upside down.”

By any interpretation of the Quran, such behaviour would be unethical and against its principles.

Related Content


blog comments powered by Disqus