On Boko Haram and AQIM

Over at Sahel Blog, Alex has a really excellent short piece parsing a recent New York Times article (in which I’m mentioned, full disclosure) speculating about the possibility of increased links between AQIM and Boko Haram. He writes:

The first assertion [that Boko Haram has ties to AQIM] relies heavily on the claims of officials and on circumstantial evidence, such as an increase in Boko Haram’s tactical sophistication. Hard evidence of a tie that goes beyond rhetoric and perhaps the exchange of a few personnel remains weak. (The evidence I mean would look something like arrests of AQIM personnel in Nigeria, or of Boko Haram members in Mali or Mauritania). Additionally, AQIM’s southernmost attack that I am aware of, January’s kidnapping in Niamey, Niger, of two Frenchmen, was still a good distance from Maiduguri. The distance between AQIM’s strongholds in the Sahara and Boko Haram’s strongholds in Northeastern Nigeria is considerable, which presents a logistical obstacle to the development of strong operational ties between the two movements. The possibility of such a tie is real, and perhaps growing, but the article frames the issue as though a strong tie (beyond just rhetoric) has been conclusively established.

[…]Finally, the notion that we should fear a scenario where “extremists bent on jihad are spreading their reach across the continent and planting roots in a major, Western-allied state that had not been seen as a hotbed of global terrorism” seems overblown to me. AQIM has suffered setbacks this summer in Mauritania and Mali (and it conducted fewer kidnappings in 2010 than in 2009), al Shabab recently abandoned Mogadishu, and Boko Haram’s primary goals remain oriented to altering Nigerian politics (spreading shari’a, removing hated leaders, etc.). The formation of a pan-African jihadist movement is, it seems to me, still a remote possibility.

The whole piece is well-worth a read, and Alex knows this situation and northern Nigeria quite well. I share his skepticism, given the lack of more concrete evidence of ties, and keeping in mind that even what we hear in the public from officials is extremely speculative. I think in particular his point about the major operational distance separating AQIM camps from Maiduguri is important, as is the possibility explored in the comments section that Boko Haram’s increasing proficiency in explosives and tactics could come from defectors or sympathizers within the Nigerian military, rather than from foreign sources or militant training.

To push back slightly, though, I think the possibility of limited operational ties does not have to necessarily mean the existence of a full-blown jihadi arc, as the Times article might imply. For small and even medium-sized organizations, an increased sophistication and operational tempo wouldn’t require a team of people trained in better tactics, but rather could depend in part on a few members who have received training and then return to construct explosives and possibly disseminate their knowledge. Another possibility that I think Alex does not deal with fully  here is outreach from AQIM members who speak Hausa. AQIM has been actively trying to expand its recruitment among non-Arabs, and has in the past shown off Hausa speakers in videos. So it is possible that AQIM has reached out to Boko Haram (rather than the other way around), though I must be clear that there is absolutely no evidence of this, and in the absence of the kinds of indicators Alex lays out (arrests of personnel in Nigeria or in Mali/Mauritania) as well as other proofs such as evidence of communications, Boko Haram members in AQIM videos, etc.., we really can’t draw conclusions.

Instead, what we’re left with are several questions. The first is where this increased sophistication and aggressiveness comes from, and I think Alex deals with that quite well. The second, though, is where the actual materiel is coming from that’s helping fuel this new push. RFI cites unnamed Nigerian officials who claim that that Nigerians are flowing north, while weapons (presumably provided by AQIM) flow south. The latter point is a genuine possibility, given the evidence of increased explosives traffic in the Sahel fueled in part by instability in Libya and and the increased use of large quantities of high explosives in Boko Haram attacks. But again, there is no actual evidence that this trade is occurring, and nothing to indicate that Boko Haram, like other Nigerian rebel groups such as the MEND, aren’t simply obtaining explosives on the rich West African weapons market or from military stocks. And finally, if connections are being made between the two groups, we still must ask about the extent of cooperation and ideological cross-pollination taking place; while the move to suicide bombings by Boko Haram is troubling, that alone does not indicate major influence by AQIM, and friendly media and propaganda relations between the groups also does not indicate that they share all of the same goals.

The bottom line is that in the absence of harder evidence in the open source, credible claims of cooperation between the two groups cannot be made. This is a potentially dangerous situation, and the uptick in violence in northern Nigeria and the Sahel deserves more attention than it’s getting. But government officials and in particular the media need to be careful about how these claims are interpreted and then presented to the public.

Another side of multiculturalism

Since the tragic murders of nearly 80 people in Norway last month, much ink has been spilled looking at what motivated terrorist Anders Breivik to perpetrate a deadly bombing in downtown Oslo and methodical killing of dozens of people, mostly children attending a Labour Party retreat, on the island of Utoya. In particular this attention has often focused on the right-wing or “counter-jihad” bloggers and figures whose works appeared frequently in Breivik’s manifesto, which has in turn sparked renewed questioning of “multiculturalism” in Europe, the subject of many of Breivik’s musings. Unfortunately, much of this debate seems to misunderstand multiculturalism, using the word to refer not to the specific policies pursued by various European governments to deal with immigrant populations but instead to refer to the capacity of immigrants (and in particular Muslims) to integrate into and become a part of European society.

Into this debate stepped Malise Ruthven in a post this week at the New York Review of Books, where the Irish scholar digs into the debates and polemics surrounding Breivik. The entire post, though lengthy, is well-worth a read. However, it was Ruthven’s somewhat conclusion, a discussion of foreign (in this case Saudi) interference and dealings with Europe’s Muslims, that caught my attention. He writes:

In his manifesto Breivik deplores the spread of “Saudi theo-fascism” in Europe, and marvels at the way the West demonises Shi‘a Iran, while cozying up to Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. His anxieties may be overdrawn, but they are far from irrational. Despite the challenges to social harmony posed by burqa-clad women, or even the occasional act of violence driven by rage at the host society’s perceived hostility, or indifference, the deeper dangers posed by a growing Muslim minority in Europe are not to the host communities: they are rather to the Muslims themselves. The export of the ultra-conservative, anti-integrationist cult of Salafism from the Arabian peninsula and similar cults from South Asia—with doctrines that enjoin disdain for, even hatred of European values and life-styles—is a real threat to social harmony, because they serve to ghettoize Muslims, to create in them a sense that they are a people apart.

Before the recent atrocity, a group of Muslims residing in a major Norwegian city sought permission to build a mosque. They explained that the biggest part of their funding—around $ 3 million—would come from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. The municipal authorities—backed by the Norwegian government—turned them down.

This was not Islamophobia, but a wise decision that should be emulated throughout the West. The construction of mosques, which serve as community centers as well as places of worship, is to be welcomed when the funding comes from sources that are accountable to communities that use them. When that funding comes from the state that produced fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists (and whose intelligence services may even have been implicated in the attack, or from other religious sources that preach hatred or disdain for “infidels,” the authorities have every right to refuse.

While Ruthven goes a bit far in the language he uses to describe Saudi influence, such funding and its impacts are widespread in Europe and the United States, and he highlights an important but often understudied element of the discussion about multiculturalism and Muslim integration in the West.

While explanations of multiculturalism and its “failings” will be the subject for another, much longer post, one of its key elements has been the farming out of key functions within communities, especially the training of religious leaders, to foreign countries who have large immigrant populations in the West. Two easy examples are Germany and Belgium, where Turkish and Moroccan leaders have respectively supplied or attempted to supply mosque leadership to their communities in Europe, a practice that often meant religious instructors arrived speaking very little of the local language, promoting more insular communities detached from their surroundings and inhibiting the adaptation of law and practice to a Western context.

This back and forth between leaders in countries such as France, the UK, Belgium and Germany is in essence a symbiotic relationship: For years European leaders were able to dodge the difficulty of taking on responsibility for regulating and in some cases training religious staff, while foreign leaders were able to maintain influence in diaspora communities and keep an eye on expatriates, many of whom still vote in local elections, send money back home, and sometimes actively oppose the state.

In recognition of the problems posed by outsourcing imam education, several European countries have for years been either providing training and courses for imams or are planning to in the future. And while the issue of imams is only one thread in the complicated web of relationships between diaspora communities, home countries and European governments, it is helpful as a demonstration of policies enacted by the latter under the banner of multiculturalism helped in turn fuel greater separation between peoples and brunt integration. As governments, writers and others debate multiculturalism’s impact, then, it is important to keep in mind how specific actions taken in the Paris, London, Berlin or Brussels helped foster or prolong the problems Europe’s governments are facing today as they try to decide how to best deal with their Muslim populations.

What’s in a Name: The Death of the al-Qa’ida Brand?

This is my first piece back after doing Middlebury’s Arabic program this past summer. Clearly, I couldn’t wait to write since I wrote this on the plane ride back this past Saturday. Looking forward to your feedback.

Last week, Ansar al-Shari’ah, (Supporters of Shari’ah), based in Yemen, released its first video titled “The Opening [Conquests] of Zinjibar.” Since mid-April, many analysts and scholars have wondered where this apparently new group came from, who its members were, and what connections it has to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The name Ansar al-Shari’ah was first mentioned in an unofficial audio release by AQAP’s leading shari’ah official, Shaykh Abu Zubayr ‘Adil bin ‘Abdullah al-Abab, who conducted a question and answer session with online global jihadi activists through PalTalk in Ghorfah Minbar al-Ansar (Pulpit Room of the Supporters). The first question was “What is the general situation of the mujahidin in Yemen and the status of the Shabab Ansar al-Shari’ah?” al-Abab responded that when they recruit new members to AQAP, they first introduce themselves under the banner of Ansar al-Shari’ah. But why would they need to do that? Has the AQ brand really become that tarnished? And is Ansar al-Shari’ah really AQAP?

Some have been skeptical of links between AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’ah. While conclusive evidence is lacking, there are several strong indicators. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s first video release, which was not published by AQAP’s media outlet al-Malahim (the Epics), highlighted “martyrs” who were also eulogized in the most recent issue of AQAP’s Inspire Magazine — Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, ‘Ali bin Salih bin Jalal and ‘Amar ‘Abadah al-Wa’ili. Although this is not proof of collusion, there clearly seems to be some overlap. Ansar al-Shari’ah may be a subsidiary of AQAP used for recruitment and foot soldiers in Yemen’s incipient civil war. It is telling that AQAP may be recruiting individuals using a different name.

We have also recently learned that Usama bin Laden may have been looking to change the name of al-Qa’ida central. According to press reports based on leaked information from the raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qai’da’s central leadership in Pakistan was debating a couple of options for its name. This was spurred in part by the Western habit of referring to the group as al-Qa’ida, rather than its official name of Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Base Organization of Jihad). The leadership felt that the West’s habit of omitting the word “jihad” robbed them of some of their religious legitimacy. Unfortunately for al-Qa’ida, the two alternative names on the table were a mouthful – Ta’ifat at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Sect of Monotheism and Jihad) and Jama’at ’I‘adat al-Khilafah al-Rashidiyyah (Restoration Group of the Rashidun Caliphate). Ultimately, they decided to stick with Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

The name game isn’t new. al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) attempted to rehabilitate its image following the death of its leader,  the notorious butcher Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. AQI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) as a way of rebranding itself because many Iraqis were repulsed by the organization’s overuse of violence, as well as the perception that it was made up of foreigners. The latter is also the reason they announced Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, a purported Iraqi, as their new leader, although it has been disputed whether he was actually a real person. In the years since, the name change has not done much for AQI’s credibility. It remains a threat, but is a shadow of its former self.

Another place where naming is an issue is in Somalia, where Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin (The Movement of the Holy Warrior Youth) has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden but has not changed its name to become an al-Qa’ida franchise. Leah Farrall recently wrote an excellent overview on this topic in the most recent issue of the CTC Sentinel. Although it is a great addition to the literature, there were also other explanations for the lack of formal name change. Reportedly, al-Qa’ida itself opposed the name change because it did not want al-Shabab to sully its so-called “street cred” by using its polarizing brand. It is difficult to ascertain whether these reports are credible. But the very discussion shows the growing pitfalls of the al-Qa’ida brand.

All told, the al-Qa’ida brand is not favorable anymore – even for its senior leadership. It’s a big problem if AQAP is able to recruit more individuals by rejecting the brand and taking on a name with more religious significance.[1]

Even if the brand name is discredited, AQ’s ideas still resonate with many, especially if it can be repackaged for local contexts, as in the apparent case of AQAP. As we have seen in the past, AQ is a very nimble organization that learns, evolves, and quickly adapts to a rapidly changing “battlefield.” It would be wise for our policy makers and government officials to heed these subtle changes in its counterterrorism strategies. Otherwise, we are fighting an imaginary enemy, one that only exists in our minds or that existed in 2001 or 2008, but not in 2011.

[1] Ansar or the supporters played an important role in early Islamic history when the Muslim prophet Muhammad was still preaching and calling people to Islam. Ansar were the individuals in Medina that helped Muhammad and his followers following its hijra from Mecca. Therefore, the use of the term Ansar acts as a strong link to the past that appeals to the average Muslim. Further, when attaching it to the Shari’ah, which has primacy in the lives of religious Muslims, Ansar al-Shari’ah becomes a catchy and useful name that is stronger in Islamic terms than Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.

IN PICTURES: Some Harakat al-Shabab Leaders, a Photo Essay Sourced from Insurgent Media

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)


Abu Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, governor (wali/waliga) of Lower Shabelle

Preacher ‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min, former resident of Britain

Yusuf Sheikh ‘Ise Sheikh Ahmad (Yusuf Kaba Kudukade & Kaba-kutukade), governor (wali/waliga) of Galguduud

Harakat al-Shabab founder Adan Hashi Farah ‘Ayro

Popular Rahanweyn leader Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow (left) and American member Omar “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” Hammami.

Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, governor of Banaadir

Mukhtar Robow, senior spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere), and preacher Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole” (from left)

Senior leader Hasan Dahir Aweys (center)

Banaadir governor Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman (left) and Hussein ‘Ali Fiidow, the current head of the Emergency Relief Committee

Senior spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (‘Ali Dheere)