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Boko Haram: The early years

by Hans Brun

Violence and uprisings fueled by religious beliefs and ethnic-divides are nothing new in Nigeria.

A bombing by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, 2014. (Flickr/Global Panorama.)

Movements such as Boko Haram and Ansaru have precedents that go back to at least the start of the 19th century in Nigeria, and violent uprisings were rather common even during the 1980s and 1990s.

The recent situation has been compounded by the Nigerian Government's failure to stamp out corruption and distribute the profits from its oil industry in a manner that could have countered violent extremism. Poverty, especially in northern Nigeria where Boko Haram primarily operates, is a major problem.

It is difficult to establish an accurate account of Boko Haram's history and development. It has been argued by a number of scholars that the movement has been active since the mid-1990s under several different names, including Al Sunna Wal'Jamma, Muhajirun, the Nigerian Taliban, the Yusufiyaa Islamic Movement and Ahlusunna wal' Jamma Hijra.

But from 2002 onwards, the movement started to call itself Jamaátu Ahlus Sunnah Liddà Awati Wal Jihad, which translates to 'People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.' The group's more widely used name, Boko Haram, is a composite term consisting of the regional Hausa language's word boko (book) and the Arabic word haram (sinful, ungodly, or forbidden). It literally means 'book is forbidden,' but it can be more deeply interpreted to mean Western education and civilization are sinful or ungodly and should therefore be forbidden and rejected.

Boko Haram appears to have received initial financial support primarily from Nigerian politicians and businessmen who supported the cause for a variety of reasons. However, from 2007 onward, the group started to receive funding from al Qaeda; several members of the group were arrested and accused of receiving funds from al Qaeda, in one case up to US$300,000.

Boko Haram started to launch attacks against the Nigerian Government at the end of December 2003, when the movement destroyed a police station and a number of government buildings in northern Nigeria. During the attacks its members hoisted the flag used by the Taliban and various groups within the global jihadist movement.

Boko Haram continued to stage attacks against police stations in the region throughout 2004, most likely in an attempt to acquire weapons. The violence continued throughout 2005, when Boko Haram attacked a number of Christian villages, looted shops and kidnapped several local businessmen and forced them to convert to Islam. In response, Nigerian security forces launched Operation Sawdust in the northeast of the country. Authorities succeeded in arresting Boko Haram's leader at the time, Mohammed Yusuf, but he was later granted bail and allowed to return to Maiduguri.

On 26 July 2009, Nigerian security forces raided one of Boko Haram's compounds in Bauchi state, arresting nine of its members. Ingredients and equipment for the manufacturing of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and weapons were confiscated. Two hours later, Boko Haram launched several reprisal attacks, primarily against police stations. The Nigerian police eventually gained control of the situation but at least 700 people were killed, including many members of Boko Haram as well as civilians. During the fighting, Boko Haram's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, died (or was murdered) allegedly in police custody, together with one of Boko Haram's key financial sponsors at the time, Alhaji Buji Foi. 

As a consequence, the group's remaining leadership were forced to regroup and go underground.

Abukarar Shekau, who would eventually become leader, and other senior members hid away in countries such as Niger, Cameroon and Benin. Mamman Nur, another leading member who was originally from Chad, sought refuge in Somalia, where he and other members received training in camps run by al-Shabaab. A number of others spent time in training camps in Mali and Mauritania that were under the control of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After the confrontation with the security forces in 2009, Boko Haram allegedly received not only training from AQIM but also a significant amount of money. 

At this time, the movement only had access to primitive weapons such as bows and arrows, various types of farming equipment, homemade firearms, petrol bombs and simple IEDs. In order to arm itself, Boko Haram launched a series of attacks against patrolling police officers and police stations in the Borno and Yobe states in August 2010. Later that year, the movement started to target and kill Muslim clerics in the region who were perceived as a threat, thus degrading the capabilities and willingness of Nigerian civil society to openly oppose it. Later on, the movement started to target churches and schools in the region. 

In recent years, the movement has increased the scope of its attacks by targeting entire villages, often at night. The attacking forces usually arrive on technicals and motorbikes in company-sized units. The targeted village is looted and more or less destroyed together with its inhabitants. Survivors are also often tracked down and killed. 

Boko Haram's access to weapons has grown over the years. Some of the weapons were looted or even bought from corrupt Nigerian officers and soldiers. It is also highly likely that the movement has received weapons, including more sophisticated weapon systems such as man-portable air-defense systems, from looted Libyan weapons and ammunition dumps through its contacts with AQIM. It also appears to have good access to technicals, motorbikes and even an unknown number of armoured personnel carriers of various types.

During 2014, Boko Haram started to try to hold on to seized territory and staged raids over the Nigerian border, primarily into Cameroon. It became obvious that Nigerian security forces were unable to deal with the group. As consequence, military units from Chad, Niger and Cameroon have started to fight Boko Haram in Nigerian territory in cooperation with the Nigerian military. 

The movement claims to have more than 40,000 members in Nigeria and dispersed throughout Africa in countries such as Niger, Chad, Mauritania and even Somalia. According to US intelligence officials, Boko Haram is estimated to have between 4000 and 6000 hardcore fighters. The movement also appears to have access to a large number of child soldiers, whom it usually recruits by force and often uses in mass attacks as cannon fodder.

As of February 2015, approximately 15,000 people have been killed by Boko Haram.


Movie trailer: No Escape

by Sam Roggeveen

This reminds me a bit of the trailer for The Impossible, with a white Western family placed in peril in an exotic Southeast Asian location.

I really hope No Escape offers more than the trailer suggests, because this looks like a movie that will play into a lot of unattractive prejudices about the strange and alien Far East — note that little cutaway of a fish being butchered on the street; we're not in Kansas any more! The father is presented as naively wanting to embrace a foreign culture, but it's his less trusting daughter who turns out to be right. Only America (or in this case, the US Embassy) is safe!


(H/t Slashfilm.)


Digital Asia links: Under the Dome, phones and gender, FireChat and more

by Danielle Cave

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • A new report investigating the gender disparities in mobile phone ownership in developing countries has found the largest gaps are in Southeast Asia, where women are 38% less likely to own a mobile phone than men.
  • President Obama has criticised China's plans for new restrictions on US tech companies, urging Beijing to change the policy if it wants to do business (h/t @BrendanTN_). China has dismissed the criticism and called for the US to 'treat this in a calm, objective and correct manner'.
  • The US is also putting up a fight in Indonesia against new rules requiring smartphone and tablet companies to produce 40% of their content locally from 1 January 2017. The US believes the 'made in Indonesia' rule will hamper the efforts of its tech companies, such as Apple, to capitalise on Indonesia's growing smartphone market.
  • Few 'mobile for development' programs reach Cambodia's poorest because they are unavailable in Khmer and aren't accessible to illiterate users. Local NGOs and the Government are getting around this with a free open-source platform that uses voice rather than text.
  • This blog post questions the hype around the FireChat mobile messenger app. Operable without phone reception or an internet connection, FireChat generated headlines last year during Hong Kong's 'Umbrella Revolution' (and before that during Taiwan's 'Sunflower Movement').
  • Why did a documentary about China's air pollution go viral in China this week? 'Under the Dome', self-financed by a former state TV journalist, has generated tens of thousands of comments on WeChat and been viewed more than 200 million times. It is now being censored but it is available here with English subtitles:



How does the Arab world view ISIS?

by Vanessa Newby

Syrian friends here in Lebanon often tell me that some Syrian refugees have chosen to leave Lebanon and return to parts of Syria that are under ISIS control. These anecdotes usually emerge as part of a larger conversation about why ISIS still receives support in some Arab countries, albeit often tacit and inactive.

When I ask why these refugees return, the response is always the same: 'They simply don't believe that the media reports of the atrocities taking place are actually true'.

Perhaps the death of Jordanian pilot Moath al Kasasbeh changed that. In Lebanon, often a barometer for regional issues, there was a palpable sense of shock on the street among all sects that a Sunni had been killed by ISIS in such an unholy way. A recent article on the Palestinian response to the slaying of the Jordanian pilot appears to confirm that prior to his death, some were wavering about the true nature of ISIS. But it seems the way in which he died (denounced by Islamic scholars), and the fact he was a Sunni Arab, touched people around the region in a way that the deaths of foreign journalists and aid workers perhaps did not.

But even prior to the incident, in conversation I eavesdropped on during shared taxi rides, the phrase ma fi din, ma fi shi (no religion, nothing) comes up when drivers and passengers speak about 'Daesh'. In bars and cafes the locals joke with me: 'It's alright for you, you're Christian, ISIS just want to drive you from the region. I'm Shi'a — they want to kill all of us!' In fact, I have never had a conversation with anyone in Lebanon that didn't involve expressly denouncing the group, whether with Palestinians, Lebanese Christians, Druze, Shi'a and Sunnis. Even Salafis in Lebanon do not appear to agree with ISIS.

However, there are pockets of sympathy for ISIS in Lebanon, often attributed to political and economic factors.

Weak leadership has led to the feeling that Sunnis are under-represented at the political level (as compared to the Shia). This is combined with dire economic conditions in Sunni areas of northern Lebanon and parts of the Beqaa Valley. Sunni leaders in Lebanon are perceived by the people there as not doing enough to ameliorate their poverty. 

But what about other parts of the Middle East?

In Syria itself there is good reason for people to remain in areas under ISIS control, caught as they are between a rock and a hard place: regime attacks or ISIS authority. Formally, Muslim and Arab institutions such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the Arab League and the leading Sunni clerical institution Al Azhar have repeatedly put out statements denouncing ISIS. Less formal responses come in the form of memes mocking ISIS which have emerged online all across the region.

My sense is that most Middle Easterners recognise that ISIS does not reflect genuine Islamic values and believe the group is just opportunistically seeking power. A survey of the region in 2014 found ISIS received almost no support in Arab states. Interestingly, Sunni support for ISIS is described as high by some Western and Israeli commentators.

However, 'almost no support' is not the same as 'zero support', and in Egypt and Jordan, active support for ISIS has emerged. It is fair to assume that in these cases socio-economic factors are partly to blame, something President Obama referred to in his speech at a recent anti-extremism summit. The summit received minimal attention from Middle East media owing to the local belief that US policy in the region is the root cause of extremism there, and because states at the coalface of extremism, such as Lebanon, did not attend. Local politics also play a role. In Egypt, support for ISIS is in part a response to the Government's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups.

There is also the lure of the Caliphate itself. The fact that ISIS has managed to capture territory is crucial, because in theory it means there is an actual place where Muslims are governed under the banner of their religion, which is a powerful symbol even to those who utterly reject ISIS's methods. There may also be a sense among devout Muslims who were on the fence about the group that, as practicing Sunnis, they themselves had nothing to fear from ISIS.

Resistance to the West is another powerful force in the Middle East. Perhaps some people could not help but approve  of the fact that the West is finally being challenged. The Charlie Hebdo attack, which brought the magazine's editorial content to the attention of many Muslims for the first time, may well have demonstrated to them that the West has never had any good intentions towards Islam anyway.

Other than shock and awe, it is hard to know what ISIS was thinking when it killed the Jordanian pilot, because it has alienated ordinary people who might have had latent sympathies towards it, and erased doubts on the street about the truly indiscriminate viciousness of ISIS.

When considering their strategy towards ISIS, the most significant point for the US and other countries to consider is that low support for this group should not be conflated with levels of regional support for other Islamic groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Keeping the war on ISIS separate from these other more established groups is essential.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Hossam el-Hamalawy.


Lone wolf attack won't disrupt US-Korea ties

by Robert E Kelly

Around 7:40 am (KST), the US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was attacked at a breakfast event on Korean unification. His attacker, Kim Ki Jong, slashed Lippert's face and wrist. Lippert was taken to a hospital for surgery.

Kim is a member of two nationalist groups – one regarding national unification, the other concerning Dokdo. The attack, Kim said, was a protest against the current South Korea-US military exercise Key Resolve. Not surprisingly, the attack has dominated the South Korea news all day. A few quick points are in order:

Kim does not represent anything like majority opinion in South Korea on the alliance with the US

Anti-Americanism in Korea is an issue, but not a large one. It tends to come in waves and is often the result of elite political manipulation.

The largest recent outburst was in 2007-08 over US beef imports. A rumour spread in South Korea that US beef was contaminated with mad cow disease, and this catalysed a groundswell of opposition, with candlelight vigils in the streets against a US-Korean free-trade deal. But it was also widely noted that Korean left-wing parties emphasised the American connection to help their political opposition to both a conservative president they disliked (Lee Myung-Bak) and a trade deal their voters opposed.

Similarly, when Roh Moo-Hyun ran for president (2002), he explicitly ran against the US, and that helped him get elected. He did not actually move to expel US forces from Korea. Since Roh, Korea has elected two pro-American conservatives in a row. In fact, part of Kim's anger may be how unresponsive the Korean political system actually is to popular anti-Americanism.

South Korean left-wing parties do not endorse direct action against US personnel in the Korea

Koreans of all parties are very nationalistic, but the South Korean right, which one would assume to be more so, is actually not. The South Korean right supports a tough line against the North and supports American ties, which means it is often labelled 'internationalist.' It is the left that is more traditionally nationalistic: sympathetic to unconditional unification and blaming the Americans (and Japanese) for national division.

These topsy-turvy political categories generate a lot of political confusion, but it is important to note that Korea's democratic left does not endorse violent action against Americans. Recently, a radical-left pro-Northern party was broken up by the Government in part over the issue of violence against the 'occupation.'

North Korea almost certainly had nothing to do with it

North Korea would be foolish to attack such a high-profile American target. North Korea, for all its bellicose rhetoric, does not want war. It would lose. But more importantly for the Pyongyang gangster elite that runs the country, they would lose all their illicit privileges. Not only that, they would likely be hunted down by angry North Koreans, as happened to Gaddafi and Ceausescu, or be pulled before post-unification courts. And South Korea has still has the death penalty, likely for this very contingency.

The South Korea-US alliance has weathered ups and downs for decades. If Kim is the lone wolf he seems to be, the only real fall-out will likely be greater security for US officials in Korea. That will make it harder for regular South Koreans to meet them, and that is a shame.


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