Terrorism or Tribal Solidarity? Boko Haram & Al-Qaeda in Africa

Is there a relationship between Al-Qaeda related activity in Saharan Africa and tribal and pre-modern national identities in the region? More specifically, are groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Qaeda in Mali and Al-Shabab in Somalia simply terrorist organizations, or is there a deeper ethnic source behind their very existence? This question, which has perplexed me, yields interesting and complex results which do not fit the popular narrative!

Al-Qaeda in Africa, 2012 (globalsecurity.org)
Al-Qaeda in Africa, 2012 (globalsecurity.org)

Boko Haram

By now no one is a stranger to the carnage and suffering Boko Haram has wrought upon the people of Nigeria, sending civilians fleeing into neighboring Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram has been active for over a decade and are most known for their infamous enslavement of village girls in 2013, and a spate of massacres in 2014-2015. The African Union sent in a coalition of Chadian and Cameroonian armed forces to fight Boko Haram on Nigerian soil, following the infamous Baga massacre through much of January 2015.

Boko Haram attacks by 2013
Boko Haram attacks by 2013

This brief overview illustrates that the group exercises control over the Yobe and Borno provinces of Nigeria, as well as parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. This is because the ranks of Boko Haram are overwhelmingly made up of the Kanuri people, a people of Muslim majority and with a history no less rich than those of North Africa or the Middle East. Prior to and during British occupation the Kanuri were represented in the powerful Sokoto Caliphate (1804-1903). Their medieval and ancient history boasts the Bornu empire (ca. 1380-1893) and Kanem empire (ca. 8th century – ca. 1380).

Kanuri People
Kanuri People

This history is enormously important if we are to understand the ferocity and vitality of a group like Boko Haram. Like many developing nations Nigeria has experienced civil war, military dictatorship and oil rentierism. It would behoove policy makers to consider Boko Haram as more than merely another murderous and kidnapping terrorist organization–despite their horrific actions. Boko Haram (lit. “books are forbidden”) represents an opposition to western encroachment (British missionary activity really), but it may also be considered a militant revival of the Sokoto caliphate. This would explain, in part, the groups use of violence in the name of Islam, its vehement attack of Nigerian Christians, the adoption of the black flag of ISIS and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their caliph.

Al-Qaeda in Mali

Al-Qaeda in Mali has not taken the spotlight lately despite several recent deadly attacks, as recent as January 2015. When last AQM took the stage it was 2012 when the group undertook a series of attacks against government interests. By January 2013 French airstrikes and African Union forces halted their advances. However, AQM’s history is longer and more complex than the simplistic media narrative. Members of Al-Qaeda in Mali are overwhelmingly Berber-Arabic speaking Tuareg people, whose home lay in the larger northeastern half of Mali called Azawad. For some time the Tuareg have sought independence from the southwestern half of the nation principally inhabited by ethnic African peoples, and where the capital and seat of power, Bamako, is located. The move towards independence came about after a failed coup d’état in 2012, in which the Tuareg saw an opportunity to break away. Their plans were thwarted, compelling them to take up arms and join forces with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,. The rest is history.

North Mali Conflict, 2013
North Mali Conflict, 2013

A couple of remarks remain concerning Al-Qaeda in Mali and its ethnic underpinnings. One is that its terrorist activity–like elsewhere in the region–was exacerbated by the Arab Uprisings starting in 2011, and especially the flow of arms from the US originally used to topple Ghaddafi but which later spread to Mali, Algeria, Yemen, Egypt and Syria. Finally, it might be more coherent to think of AQM as a separatist movement, a consideration that changes the narrative significantly.


Groups like Al-Shabaab, which pledged allegiance to Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda, have been active in Somalia for almost a decade. The group is known for its animosity towards Ethiopian influence and for committing the Westgate mall attack in September 2013 in Kenya. Since Al-Shabaab are ethnically more diverse they are more divided than either AQM or Boko Haram. The diversity of this group can be attributed to historic maritime links to the Arabian peninsula, and the influx of Mujahideen who left Afghanistan long ago. It goes without saying that the lawlessness, poverty and political instability Somalia has suffered since the civil war in 1991 made the rise of Al-Shabaab possible.

Retreat of Al-Shabaab starting 2011
Retreat of Al-Shabaab starting 2011

Changing the Narrative

What is it that these groups have in common, and why has the world smitten them as “terrorists”–a term which scarcely refers to anything these days–rather than treating them as separatists or one side in a civil war? The answer lies in (A) their problematic use of violence in the name of Islam on the one hand, and (B) the equally problematic “war on terror” initiated by former US president George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, and its subsequent (mis)use by many governments thereafter. It is no surprise that several military regimes and western policy makers can hardly tell the difference between terrorism and Islam, and associate one with the other. And where policy goes the media is sure to follow. So the master narrative of global “Islamic terrorism” spreads, suppressing any sober reflection or honest discussion.

The truth is that in the countries which suffer from social injustice, widespread corruption, and a weakened or absent civil society it is disenfranchised, hopeless, angry young men who turn to their ancient heritage–an Islamic state/Caliphate–as a means of protest. As Islamist separatists, nationalists or even tribes they take up arms–Jihad–and fight any and all symbols of western, neo-colonial, missionary influence. And once they hold any ground they employ an incredibly draconian interpretation of their non-western code of law–Shariah–as the law of the land.

The sooner we change the narrative the sooner we can move much of the world (including the US) out of a perpetual state of war.

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