Nigeria's Boko Haram: Is it here to stay?

New analysis suggests the shadowy insurgency benefited from the 2013 war in Mali, that its leader 'Abubakar Shekau' may be both a single person and the name for a collective leadership, and that the group's ability to destabilize remains strong.

Two boys stand near the charred chassis of a vehicle after a bomb attack believed to have been carried out by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram that killed at least 10 people near a busy market area, in Ajilari-Gomari in Maiduguri, Nigeria, in this March 2, 2014 file photo.

A version of this post originally appeared in Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Jacob Zenn has published an important article that analyzes the various factions that comprise “Boko Haram,” their leadership and rivalries, and their links with other radical Islamist groups outside Nigeria

The article is dense and exhaustively documented. 

Here, I highlight certain of his points that I found especially relevant, given that the kidnapped Chibok school girls remain in captivity and a focus of intense domestic and international concern. 

Mr. Zenn’s reminder is salutary that the French intervention in Mali likely had a perverse consequence of revivifying Boko Haram and strengthening its ties with other radical Islamist groups. There is a lesson here as western governments consider what they can do to free the Chibok school girls.

Further, given the preoccupation with freeing the girls, his discussion of the role of Boko Haram’s use of kidnapping is of particular use. He shows that the financial profits from kidnapping are very high, especially in a part of the world where the costs of conducting terrorism are low.

For those who follow Boko Haram closely, his suggestion that the name “Abubakar Shekau” may have become a nom de guerre for Boko Haram’s collective leadership is useful. The nom de guerre is still of course used by Mr. Shekau himself.

I find the suggestion credible and it could account for why “Abubakar Shekau” appears somewhat different in appearance and mannerisms in some of the videos Boko Haram has released.

If Zenn is correct, it also means that negotiating the release of the girls is likely to be more complicated than it would be if there was a single leader to negotiate with.

Zenn highlights that Boko Haram statements indicate their view that northeastern Nigeria, parts of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger was a single cultural unity rent asunder by the colonial powers. These “colonial” boundaries therefore have no legitimacy. So, colonial boundaries -- and the secular states they delineate -- may be like western education: haram.

Finally, Zenn sketches scenarios for the future directions that Boko Haram might take. But even his most optimistic scenario implies that Boko Haram will have the ability to de-stabilize Nigeria for a long time to come.

Jacob Zenn has given us much to think about.

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