A Review of Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency by Virginia Comolli (Hurst & Company, 2015)
By Isaac Kfir
(Re-published from Journal of Islamic Studies, 28:1) The emergence in Northern Nigeria of Boko Haram—Jamāʿat ahl al-Sunna li-l-daʿwa wa-l-jihād (“The Group Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”)—has spawned a number of studies offering to explain its origins, rise, and rationale. In Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency, Virginia Comolli, a research fellow for security and development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, offers her interpretation for the rise of the group and the continued threat that it poses to Nigeria, the region and possibly the international system. The threat stems from Boko Haram nurturing and building relations with various al-Qaeda affiliates in Africa and beyond. An additional objective of the book is to highlight how counterinsurgency operations can feed an insurgency.
Comolli’s study frankly admits to the inherent difficulties of gathering primary information about the group and Northern Nigeria in general. This is because the group generally does not engage with Westerners (senior members of the group do not give interviews for example), its public statements are limited (some are available on YouTube, but Comolli does not seem to use them). Rather, Boko Haram opts for action, and access to its area of operation is restricted mainly by the Nigerian security services. Thus, Comolli bases her research on interviews with Nigerian security services, ordinary Nigerians (including some survivors of Boko Haram attacks), open-source information, and historical materials. This approach allows her to put together a compendium about the group. In some respects, the book’s goal, as Comolli recognizes, is to develop a more comprehensive approach to the dynamics of religious extremism in Nigeria and the region. To achieve such a goal Comolli’s takes a historical, societal approach to what prompted the emergence of the group. The book’s chapters, though meant to be thematically organized, read more chronologically, which makes sense as Comolli traces the evolution of Boko Haram to its current manifestation as a regional entity committed to violence across the Sahel and West Africa.
Comolli opens with an account of religious extremism in Nigeria, focused mainly on Usman Dan Fodio’s Jihad and the Sokoto Caliphate. Included in this account is Britain’s preference for indirect rule in Nigeria, which allowed, if not encouraged, the adoption of Shariʿa in Northern Nigeria. The chapter underlies the North-South division that has plagued Nigeria from the moment of independence. The next chapter describes the origins of many contemporary Islamist groups, noting how they formed, splintered, transformed and reformed, as seen for example with Ansaru (in full, Jamāʿat anṣār al-Muslimīn fī bilād al-Sudān). This provides the foundation for Comolli to deconstruct and explain Boko Haram, which she does in ch. 4. She describes its social make-up, funding and support networks.
In reviewing the evolution of the group, Comolli explores its first leader, Yusuf’s role and how he sought ties with the people, particularly the children who become almajirai—a complex term that has elicited different descriptions from different scholars, some seeing them as unemployed vagabonds, others as those who come to study the Qurʾān, or who migrate to avoid the hardship of the dry season, to those who are essentially street hustlers. Yusuf managed to appeal to these individuals because he was charismatic and also wealthy, able to provide micro-loans. What Yusuf did was to give many of the young men an identity and a sense of belonging …
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Isaac Kfir, Associate Professor of International Relations and the Middle East at Tokyo International University, is an INSCT Research and Practice Associate.