Boko Haram increasingly turning on fellow Muslims in Nigeria

Boko Haram, known for its Islamic jihadist terrorism in Nigeria, has slowly evolved from an organization under siege by the government to one estranged from its Muslim rivals and now actively targeting fellow Muslims with violence, writes Abubakar Abubakar Usman of the Asia Middle East Centre for Research and Dialogue (Malaysia). Writing in the journal Contemporary Islam (October), Usman notes how Boko Haram was one of many Salafi-jihadist factions seeking to establish a territory governed by Shariah law in northern Nigeria, establishing schools throughout the region and seeking alliances with like-minded Muslims. After 2009, driven by state repression, the group took on a covert role marked by exclusive membership methods and expansive violence that spread from Nigerian armed forces to civilians, particularly those of other faiths and especially Christians. But in its attacks Boko Haram would still often try to justify its actions to other Muslims. When the group attacked a UN office in Abuja (the capital city) in 2011, it sought to justify its targeting of some Muslims by saying they were working in cooperation with infidels. This concern for its image among other Muslims, including Sufi orders, changed in subsequent years after the group orchestrated the assassination of no fewer than six Islamic scholars who had criticized Boko Haram. Few Muslim groups sympathized with such an attack and Boko Haram’s animus increasingly targeted fellow believers who criticized it, as well as Sufi orders as a whole.

Source: Institute for Security Studies.

After 2013, Boko Haram drew a clear line between those whom it deemed authentic Muslims and those deemed unbelieving and fake Muslims, including even other Salafi jihadists. Its criteria for deciding if a Muslim is a friend or foe included living among unbelievers or having any association with the government. The group also embraced ISIS, sharing its willingness to attack and kill Muslims who opposed its actions and agenda, with several branches flying the ISIS flag. Following a schism in the movement, Boko Haram later metamorphized into an ISIS offshoot know as the Islamic State in West Africa. But it was Nigeria’s counterterrorism strategy across the region that pushed the group toward an increased ruthlessness in its choice of targets, basically proclaiming that anyone outside its group and its teachings were open to attack. The shift from a relatively moderate Salafist group to its post-2009 violent and intolerant identity correlated with a change in leadership, with Muhammad Yusef displaying greater intellectual acumen and restraint compared to his successor Abubakar Shekau. While Muslims have been blamed for Boko Haram’s rise, understanding its anti-Muslim turn “can disrupt this blame cycle and encourage a united front against [Boko Haram]” and a more general unity among divergent Muslim groups, such as Sufi, Shia, and mainstream Salafi, Usman concludes.

(Contemporary Islam,