A Brief History of Boko Haram and al-Shabaab

Yesterday on the 20th of April 2014, two car bombs ripped through a market place in Jos, Nigeria, killing at least 118 people. According to an article published by the Daily Mail, the bomb blasts were timed 30 minutes apart in order to maximise fatalities. As of yet, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack but many suggest the most likely culprit is the terrorist organisation; Boko Haram. This follows a reported suicide bombing in the city of Kano the previous day in which 4 people were killed, one of whom was a girl of 12. Kano, the second largest city in Nigeria, has become a flashpoint for conflict with Boko Haram claiming responsibility for many attacks in the city including a car bomb that killed 22 people in March last year and the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls on the 14th of April this year.

Five thousand kilometres east in Kenya another Islamist terrorist group, al-Shabaab, is also becoming more active. Their attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi, on the 21st of September 2013 in which 67 people were killed, shocked the world. But more recently Reuters reported that, on Monday the 19th of May, at least 12 people were killed by suspected al-Shabaab militants in northern Kenya. As these attacks become more frequent and more violent, it becomes necessary to understand where these terrorist organisations come from and what it is that motivates them. Like the Latin saying “ex nihilo nihil fit”, “nothing comes from nothing”.

 “…declare war on Boko Haram,” Nigerian President Paul Biya said during a summit in Paris last weekend.

Artist Arnold Platon’s impression of the Boko Haram logo.

 Boko Haram militants pose for the camera. (Image courtesy of International Business Times)

The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad is also known by its Hausa name, Boko Haram. Hausa is a Chadic language and one of the most spoken in Africa. According to a video posted by Al Jazeera, Boko Haram aims to create an Arab Emirate between the northern borders of Cameroon and Nigeria. It was started in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, who is a fierce proponent of Sharia law. Many scholars agree that Sharia law is a far cry from the teachings of Islam and that in many cases it stems from radical fanaticism. In Nigeria and Cameroon there are both Muslim and Christian citizens but there is a Muslim majority in the north of both states. Conservative Muslims who live in this area tend to see alcohol and girls going to school as a westernisation of their cultural beliefs. It appears Boko Haram has transpired out of those views.

 

“…it is clear after the Westgate attack that the world must unite as never before in the fight against the spread of violence by al-Shabaab outside Somalia.” These words were published by The Wall Street Journal, in an opinion piece written by the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, on 6 March 2013.

The logo of Al-Shabaab.

 Al Shabaab militants sing the Kenyan national anthem.

Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (HSM) translates to “Movement of Striving Youth”. The shortened name more commonly used, al-Shabaab, translates to “The Youth” or “The Youngsters”. The organisation was started in 2006 and is currently based in Somalia. Al-Shabaab began as an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was the main judicial system in Somalia after its government collapsed in 1991. In 2006 however, after losing much territory due to conflict, the ICU was replaced by the Transitional Federal Parliament and later the Federal Parliament of Somalia. The more radical members of the ICU refused to give up their attempts to instate Sharia law in Somalia  and formed militant groups such as al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, while more liberal members went into exile in Eritrea and Djibouti.

 As large scale military operations are carried out against terrorist organisations well-armed and well-versed in the art of guerrilla warfare, what more should be done to aid those most affected? Is the African Union doing enough to prevent terrorism? Do African countries need help from foreign militaries such as those of the US or France? Please share your views by clicking on the speech bubble above.