Boko Haram, a terrorist organization that emerged in northern Nigeria in 2002, continues to pose a significant threat to Nigeria and the broader region, carrying out deadly attacks and engaging in criminal activity. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Boko Haram insurgency has displaced nearly 2.4 million people in the Lake Chad Basin thus far, including 304,562 Nigerians.[i] Funded through kidnappings for ransom, theft, donations from sympathizers, bank robberies, taxation and extortion, and weapons trading[ii], the insurgency shows no signs of slowing down.
To the casual observer, a self-proclaimed jihadist group that prides itself on the idea of “purifying” Islam (the name Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”) while committing atrocities, is counterintuitive. How does murder, unconditionally prohibited in Islam, become a mere means to an end? Does Machiavelli’s “criminal virtue” find its just practice in religion? Or is Boko Haram simply disillusioned and selective with ethical ideals that hinder its agenda?
Salafi Jihadism: Ideological Background
Salafi jihadism (SJ) flourished on the doctrines of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the Egyptian Islamic scholar and leading member of the Islamic Brotherhood. It is rooted in the rejection of western social norms and a sense of inferiority galvanized by the failure of pan-Arabism and the technological and political prevalence of the west. This sentiment catalyzed a call for action by radical scholars who saw western ideology as a threat to their core religious values, whether from systems of government that differ from the “Khilafa” (Caliphate) model, economic and financial practices that encourage “Riba” (Usury),[iii] or social mores that encouraged “Zina” (Adultery).
Though the governmental, economic, and social paradigm of the western world is not a model of precision, SJ adherents are not inclined to meet in the middle. With “God on their side,” their mission is to abolish the existing order and implement their model for society. This religious exclusivity is the main psychological driving factor behind each suicidal thought and action that we observe from the end of terrorist organizations. SJ adherents believe God has their back; secure in this belief that a granted afterlife is guaranteed, they see no reason to reject immortal existence in paradise for a mere short existence on earth.
The Cycle of Indoctrination
The hate that fuels radicalization is a compound product, deriving in part from legitimate predicaments, notably corrupt governments, mismanaged economies, and heavy-handed military responses that harm civilians and fuel radicalization among those who otherwise may not have been predisposed to it. In justifying the killings of innocent civilians, terrorists must bridge the philosophical gap between their actions and the tenets of Islam. This method, which I call “pitiful hate,” is characterized by the belief in the nihilistic notion that, first, because of their “perverted” social order, SJ victims have already been condemned to an eternity in hell, and second, that since their fate has been sealed, they might as well serve a purpose in this life. By this logic, civilians become the “ephemeral organic” means to a “glorious and divine” end. Making things worse, the characteristic SJ inferiority complex, and the continuous indoctrination of groups like Boko Haram, catalyze an aggressive thirst for carnage. Many terrorist recruits experienced acutely the inequality of the system in which they were raised. Disillusioned and frustrated with their inability to achieve success by the standards of capitalist ideals, they find solace in an interpretation of the religious text, most notably from the Quran that nullifies the achievements of others as being “of this life,” while theirs are more noble because they are for “the next life.” These ideas permeate SJ indoctrination which thrives on the vicious circle of deteriorating institutions, poor education, poverty, and lack of opportunity.
The Need for a Coordinated Response
Much of the research on deterring terrorist activity focuses on the role of government incompetence, economic hardship, proxy wars, and counterproductive military interventions that killed more civilians than insurgents.[iv] Yet, many ideas and possible solutions to the problem have fallen on deaf ears. The transnational character of terrorism in a globalized world requires a coordinated global effort from governments and NGOs that focuses on the root causes of radicalization and terrorist recruitment. However, we tend to observe that efforts can be uncoordinated, harmful, or absent. Existing efforts tend to focus on fighting terrorist insurgents rather than preventing their emergence in the first place. Boko Haram perseveres in part because of the lack of full governmental mobilization, lackluster coordination between the nations affected by its activities, and the relative deprioritization of Africa by the international community. In the words of a UN police officer, as I argued with him about the efforts of the government in dealing with Boko Haram, he said: “Why do you think that is the case? There are things that must be done, but nobody wants to do them.”[v] The global community of leaders must successfully organize and implement an agenda of common prosperity, prioritizing marginalized segments of society and rebalancing national budgets from their focus on military might to rebuilding infrastructure, countering radical indoctrination, and supporting development, especially in conflict-ravaged countries. Otherwise, poverty, inequality, and religious extremism will continue to thrive.
[iii] Under Islamic law, charging interest remains synonymous with usury, no matter how small the percentage, although recent viewpoints are starting to differ on tolerable figures.
[iv] Gunaratna, Rohan. “Strategic Counter-Terrorism: A Game Changer in Fighting Terrorism?” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 9, no. 6 (2017): 1–5.
[v] Conversation with a UN police officer, New York, Oct 13th, 2021.