Local support for the West Africa Province of the Islamic State, otherwise called Boko Haram, has been erratic over time and shaped by various factors. But recent developments in the group’s leadership structure makes it necessary to consider how such changes might affect these patterns of support.
The Islamic State recently appointed Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the new leader of the movement. At the same time, there have been reports of long-time head and current rival Abubakar Shekau’s purported demise.
Al-Barnawi’s agenda, which includes ending attacks on Muslim civilians and instead redirecting efforts against state institutions, may be rooted in ideological considerations – but it could also be aimed at reviving local backing, which has waned in recent years.
Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf was a popular preacher in the late 2000s, drawing large crowds at his mosque in the Railway District of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria. Yusuf reportedly attracted a diverse set of followers from various socioeconomic backgrounds.
His sermons criticising the Nigerian state and Western influence struck a chord in a region where many were fed up with ongoing government corruption, mismanagement and neglect.
Yusuf effectively framed his religious outlook as a solution for Nigeria’s ills, offering an attractive alternative path. Studies from the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Fund and Mercy Corps, in which former Boko Haram members were interviewed, mention how those who joined the movement prior to 2009 were often motivated by religion, ideology and an overarching desire for change.
The heavy-handed crackdown by Nigerian security forces on Boko Haram in July 2009, which resulted in Yusuf’s extrajudicial murder, probably inflamed these tensions and emboldened group support – further reducing the popularity of the Nigerian state.
Despite this wave of support, the movement’s subsequent leader, Abubakar Shekau, was unable to replicate Yusuf’s charisma or appeal. His speeches were often rambling and disjointed, creating the impression of an impulsive individual rather than a respected leader.
More importantly, Shekau’s strategy probably began to alienate potential supporters. Turning Boko Haram into a full-fledged terror organisation, Shekau initially drew criticism for attacks such as the January 2012 assault on the city of Kano, which resulted in high civilian casualties, many of whom were Muslim.
The biggest shift in terms of local support, however, probably occurred once Shekau’s movement began targeting civilian villages in northeast Nigeria in the latter half of 2013, terrorising the local population.
This development was precipitated by the emergence of anti-Boko Haram vigilante organisations collectively known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), which in turn forced Boko Haram members to flee from urban centres to rural areas.
The movement responded by accusing local civilians of supporting the vigilantes and murdered young men in towns that hosted the CJTF.
This period also saw a rise in forced recruitment in the countryside. This addressed a shortage of fresh recruits, because Boko Haram’s violence against civilians disillusioned many who may previously have been sympathetic to its battle against an unpopular state and abusive security apparatus.
The continued expansion of the CJTF pointed to lessening local support of Boko Haram, with many communities throwing their lot in with the vigilantes, despite the potential costs. The need for Boko Haram militants to loot villages to supply rural camps probably compounded these dynamics, reducing the organisation’s popularity.
The period of territorial control starting in mid-2014 exacerbated the situation. Boko Haram’s predatory rule contrasted with little actual governance, demonstrating Shekau’s failed vision for the region. The consequences of this project have been a dire humanitarian crisis, displacing more than 1.4-million people, many of whom are now facing the risk of famine.
That is not to say, however, that the appeal of Boko Haram completely dissipated under Shekau. Some still saw value in supporting the group for a number of reasons, including as a vehicle for economic or social mobility, or even an option of last resort.
Offering financial or material incentives to attract recruits has been a common practice and others have been enticed by benefits such as obtaining a bride – a potentially difficult prospect for destitute young men in the region.
The Mercy Corps report also describes how Boko Haram offered young entrepreneurs business loans and other research from Amnesty International mentions a credit system that the militants had operated in certain towns. More recently, ethnic groups in the Lake Chad area, like the Buduma, have reportedly leveraged a relationship with Boko Haram to increase their stature vis-à-vis rivals in the region.
The opportunities presented for some by Boko Haram shed light on the complex nature of local support in the region. Its focus on incentives and coercing recruits is a far cry from the levels of popularity during the days of Muhammad Yusuf, when followers willingly paid dues to ensure their membership.
The appointment of al-Barnawi, who is reportedly a son of Muhammad Yusuf, may therefore also be aimed at reviving popular backing through a leadership change.
Al-Barnawi’s strict promise to avoid targeting “innocent people who are attributed to Islam”, specifically by ending indiscriminate attacks on markets and mosques, may appeal to some still not convinced by the government’s sincerity, but scarred by the recent history of suffering during Shekau’s tenure.
Al-Barnawi has his work cut out for him, as the legacy of indiscriminate violence has probably reduced popular backing to one of the lowest levels in the group’s short history.
Nonetheless, support throughout the region has not ceased; nor are all civilians caught between Boko Haram and regional governments convinced of the latter’s appeal.
If al-Barnawi succeeds in ending violence targeting Muslims and redefining relations with local populations in a less predatory manner, the outcome may be a revival of support and recruitment into Boko Haram’s ranks. This could lead to a worrying resurgence of a movement that has otherwise been largely on the retreat. – ISS Today
Omar Mahmood is a researcher for the peace and security research programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria