Boko Haram: National or Transnational Aspirations?


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Boko Haram rose to international prominence in April 2014 following its abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in the Nigerian town of Chibok.

The radical Islamist sect had previously gained notoriety through countless acts of violence, including bombings, raids and kidnappings that killed thousands.  Clearly, even prior to the kidnapping of schoolgirls, Boko Haram had emerged as a serious security threat in Northeastern Nigeria.

The numbers bare this out. Since Boko Haram escalated attacks in mid2009, approximately 11,100 people (on all sides) have died in incidents relating to Boko Haram. From July 2013 to June 2014, 7,000 people  died in incidents relating to Boko Haram attacks (compared to 1,900 deaths the year before). Based on these numbers, The Nigeria Social Violence Dataset compiled by the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) argued that “Nigerian casualties are now running more than double those in Afghanistan, and substantially higher than in Iraq just a few years ago,” making it one of the most significant insurgencies in the world.

As the scale of violence escalates and the territory subject to attack widens, questions over Boko Haram’s territorial ambitions arise. Does the group seek to establish autonomy over an area in Nigeria or does it seek to expand beyond Nigeria to exert control over the wider region?

Boko Haram claims to be motivated by domestic grievances in Nigeria linked to failures of local governance, sectarian tensions between Christian and Muslims, and large economic inequality. In addition, and as the name of the group  (which broadly translates to “Western education is sin”’), indicates, the group seeks to implement Islamic rule. While this suggests a domestic focus of the group, more recently Boko Haram has conducted operations in Cameroon and Niger, both of which border Nigeria. For example, in July 2014 Boko Haram kidnapped the wife of Cameroon's vice prime minister which some experts interpreted as “signal[ing] an evolving regional vision for the group”.

In addition, Boko Haram appears to have been in contact with international terrorist organizations, particularly al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).   Some of its key leaders including Mamman Nur and Khalid Al-Barnawi have reported links to AQIM and al-Shabab.

Boko Haram’s transnational activities and links to regional terrorist organizations appear to indicate the presence of aspirations beyond the borders of Nigeria. There are also indications of a schism within the organization, with some factions seeking to grow regional influence by linking with international terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, while others want to maintain an exclusively domestic focus by establishing an Islamic state in Nigeria.

Either way, Nigeria’s neighbors have every reason to remain concerned.