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Boko Haram’s al-Qaeda Affiliation: A Response to ‘Five Myths about Boko Haram’

Jacob Zenn
Thursday, February 1, 2018, 7:00 AM

In a January 14, 2018, Lawfare article, Alexander Thurston wrote that “mounting evidence pushed me, despite my strong initial skepticism, to acknowledge and begin to analyze the ties and exchanges between Boko Haram and AQIM.” The humility to amend prior analysis reflects well here.

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In a January 14, 2018, Lawfare article, Alexander Thurston wrote that “mounting evidence pushed me, despite my strong initial skepticism, to acknowledge and begin to analyze the ties and exchanges between Boko Haram and AQIM.” The humility to amend prior analysis reflects well here. Years earlier Thurston had went so far as to argue that AQIM-Boko Haram ties were not serious and it was “more likely” that “Boko Haram members in the Nigerian military” provided training to Boko Haram than AQIM members. There has not emerged evidence since then to suggest Boko Haram members infiltrated the Nigerian military in a way remotely similar to how the Taliban or other groups infiltrated national security forces. There has, however, emerged increasing evidence that AQIM provided financing, training, weapons, and advising to Boko Haram and Ansaru—a position I’ve consistently argued since my first monograph on Boko Haram and congressional testimony on both groups.

If analysts can concur that AQIM had an influence on Boko Haram, then the next question we can ask is, “How much of an effect did AQIM have on Boko Haram?” In a 2016 report for Brookings, Thurston argued that AQIM’s impact on Boko Haram was “marginal” to the group’s “overall development,” and in his book in 2018 he argued that AQIM’s ties to Boko Haram were “loose” and that “perhaps” AQIM did not have a “decisive effect” on Boko Haram’s “character and trajectory.” I disagree. In my latest article, “Demystifying al-Qaida in Nigeria: Cases from Boko Haram’s Founding, Launch of Jihad and Suicide Bombings,” I argue that AQIM’s impact was significant.

In the interest of offering new analysis and primary source information on Boko Haram, I’m writing in response to Thurston’s January 14 Lawfare article. I hope that doing so enhances the dialogue and our collective understanding of the group and the insurgency in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.

In particular, I want to respond to Thurston’s argument that “right-wing think-tanks have advocated maximal interpretations of Boko Haram-AQIM ties” and that they have often “fudged reality” by “insinuating” that Boko Haram was a “formal affiliate” of al-Qaeda or that AQIM “called the shots for Boko Haram or Ansaru.” Although Thurston cites no examples of analysts or think-tanks making these claims, he did cite an article to which I contributed that says “Boko Haram operated as al-Qaeda’s representative in Nigeria” and quotes an AFRICOM commander who said Boko Haram was an “affiliate” of al-Qaeda.

I argue below that it is reasonable—and not “fudging reality”—to argue that Boko Haram was al-Qaeda’s “representative” in Nigeria or an “affiliate” of AQIM, or that AQIM “called the shots” for Boko Haram (at least initially), and especially Ansaru.

Boko Haram as al-Qaeda’s Representative in Nigeria

Before Boko Haram’s pledge to the Islamic State in 2015, Boko Haram was a “representative” of al-Qaeda in Nigeria. Boko Haram, for example, carried out the Federal Police headquarters and United Nations building suicide attacks in Abuja in June and August 2011, which killed three and 23 people. These were the first two suicide bombings in Nigeria’s history, and as I note in my recent article, many of the next 34 suicide attacks in Nigeria until the end of 2012 were done after the group’s members trained abroad with AQIM and al-Shabaab. If this rapid surge in suicide bombings was homegrown and not the result of training from al-Qaeda affiliates, it would make Boko Haram one of the only terrorist groups to acquire the capability to carry out a suicide bombing campaign without collaboration from other more experienced groups. Al-Shabaab, of course, attacked the United Nations in Mogadishu in 2013, killing 13. AQIM attacked the United Nations in Algiers in 2007, killing dozens, and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attacked the United Nations in Baghdad in 2003, killing 22. These three attacks also were suicide bombings.

Nearly half of Boko Haram’s suicide bombings in 2011-2012 targeted churches in the religiously volatile Middle Belt, especially on Easter and Christmas, which reflected strategic direction that AQIM offered Boko Haram. Moreover, after Boko Haram kidnapped a French family, which I argue was done jointly with Ansaru, in northern Cameroon in February 2013, the group demanded France halt its imminent military intervention to oust AQIM from Mali. This and other Boko Haram and Ansaru claims represented AQIM’s strategic interests just as the UN bombing in Abuja did.

More broadly, in the 2009 to 2011 period, pro-al-Qaeda web users showed growing excitement about the new jihadist movement in Nigeria. In 2011 the excitement reached a crescendo when Abu Yahya al-Libi credited AQIM with “expanding the jihad to Nigeria” in a video in October of that year. According to them, Boko Haram represented al-Qaeda in Nigeria.

Boko Haram as a Formal Affiliate of al-Qaeda

It was not "fudging reality” when the AFRICOM commander said that Boko Haram was an “affiliate” of al-Qaeda. The two groups made a strategic decision to keep the nature of the relationship secret. AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, for example, wrote a letter to Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau in August 2009 in which he specifically “welcomed” and proposed to strengthen the “union” with Boko Haram and promised money, training, weapons, and media support to Boko Haram but asked that the relationship be “secret.” This type of secret or “undeclared affiliation” is similar to the relationship between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab in Somalia, Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi in Tunisia, and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. The purpose of such “undeclared affiliations” is to avoid additional international counterterrorism pressure on affiliate groups by not publicly associating them with al-Qaeda. Droukdel detailed this logic in a separate letter to Malian jihadist groups in 2013. I argued in my congressional testimony in 2013 that Ansaru may have changed its name from “al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel” in 2011 for this very reason.

We do not know how Shekau responded to Droukdel, but he did write a thank you letter to AQIM commander Abu Zeid in 2010 for AQIM’s “training and financial generosity.” (Thurston underrepresents Abu Zeid as a “sub-commander” in his article, but others such as Andrew Lebovich and Paul Cruickshank have made clear he was among the two most powerful AQIM “commanders” in the Sahel.) This suggests that Shekau initially accepted the “secret union” with Droukdel. Boko Haram can therefore reasonably be considered to have been an al-Qaeda “sub-affiliate” (to the second degree via AQIM) or an AQIM “affiliate.” Thurston argues that an al-Qaeda affiliation must be publicly announced, like Boko Haram’s affiliation with the Islamic State. He also downplays the potential of a secret or undeclared formal affiliation between AQIM and Boko Haram, even though AQIM was providing money, training, weapons, and advice to Boko Haram and Droukdel requested a “secret union” with Shekau. Why cannot a formal affiliation or “union” still be kept secret?

One of the reasons why AQIM and Boko Haram were able to establish this “secret union” so quickly after the Nigerian government cracked down on Boko Haram in July 2009 is that al-Qaeda and AQIM’s predecessors had a relationship with Boko Haram dating as far back as bin Laden’s time in Sudan from 1991 to 1996. In fact, in the primary source document that contains the letters between Droukdel, Abu Zeid, Khalid al-Barnawi, Shekau, Mokhtar Belmokhtar (via Abdullah al-Shinqiti) and others, there is a comment that the Algerian jihad reached Nigeria and that Nigerians fought and died in Niger, Mali, and Algeria as early as 1994. This claim is supported by other primary source information I have collected.

Three other examples of Boko Haram’s long relationship with al-Qaeda are:

  • Muhammed Ali, who founded Boko Haram in 2002, met Osama bin Laden and other jihadists in Sudan in the 1990s and trained in Afghanistan. (Muhammed Yusuf, who was Ali’s co-leader, was primarily “in charge of” managing relations between Boko Haram, Salafi clerics, and the local government where the group’s training camp was based but became the sole group leader only after Ali’s death in late 2003).
  • In 2003, al-Qaeda’s external operations unit sent a Nigerien al-Qaeda member who pledged baya’a to bin Laden from Pakistan to Nigeria to meet with Muhammed Ali’s deputy leader and plan an attack on United States interests in Nigeria and trainings of Boko Haram with AQIM’s predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). They had advanced to the stage of storing weapons and scouting targets in Abuja before a Boko Haram courier was arrested in Pakistan and the plot was aborted. The motivation for attacking the United States in Nigeria was to prevent Nigeria from becoming a base for power projection in West Africa on behalf of the “Jews and Crusaders.”
  • Boko Haram/Ansaru member Adam Kambar was with Muhammed Ali at Boko Haram’s training camp in 2002 and later trained with AQIM in 2007 and had a “direct line of communication” to Ayman al-Zawahiri before his death in Nigeria in 2012. The United States designated Kambar (along with Khalid al-Barnawi and Shekau) a terrorist in 2012, but without additional explanation.

AQIM Calling Shots for Ansaru

Thurston and I both agree the relationship between Shekau and AQIM went downhill in 2011, which I argue is because Shekau ignored the advice of AQIM leaders, such as Abu Hasan al-Rashid al-Bulaydi, on how best to wage the jihad in Nigeria (though al-Qaeda members still communicated with Shekau at least until 2014). In 2011, a Nigerian commander in Abu Zeid’s Tariq ibn Ziyad brigade, Khalid al-Barnawi, sent a letter to AQIM Furqan brigade commander Abdullah al-Shinqiti, who had been a kidnapping specialist with Abu Zeid, that al-Barnawi asked to be forwarded to Belmokhtar. In the letter, al-Barnawi explained multiple reasons why al-Barnawi’s shura (council) had to leave Shekau, including that Shekau killed Boko Haram members who trained in Somalia with al-Shabaab and in Algeria with AQIM without Shekau’s permission. (This refers to the Boko Haram members who later carried out the suicide bombings in Nigeria in 2011-2012 discussed above.)

AQIM leaders then consulted with Khalid al-Barnawi on forming Ansaru. This is why AQIM had a role in the first kidnappings of foreigners in Nigeria from 2011-2012, which I attribute to Ansaru. Ansaru at this time should be considered an AQIM affiliate, sub-group, or extension in Nigeria. Because Ansaru was involved in these kidnappings and made the first claims and negotiation demands through AQIM channels, it is not “fudging reality” to argue that AQIM was “calling the shots” for Ansaru. It is a correct interpretation. Khalid al-Barnawi himself was a commander in AQIM’s Tariq ibn Ziyad’s brigade and there is much other evidence of Ansaru working with AQIM, including Ansaru propaganda in Belomokhtar’s house in Mali, Ansaru fighters with Belmokhtar and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) (30:52) in Niger, and an Ansaru member who was recruited with other Nigerians during their university studies in Sudan to train with Abu Zeid in Mauritania and Algeria.


It is not a “right-wing” and “maximalist interpretation” or “fudging reality” to argue that Boko Haram was a “representative” or “affiliate” of al-Qaeda and AQIM. Moreover, to suggest that AQIM “called the shots” for Ansaru or Boko Haram (at least initially) is reasonable, considering AQIM’s role in the first kidnappings of foreigners in Nigeria, Ansaru’s other attacks in alignment with AQIM operations in Mali, and the attempted al-Qaeda-directed plot targeting U.S. interests in Nigeria in 2003 coordinated with Boko Haram and the successful United Nations building bombing in 2011. Boko Haram members have had a decades-long relationship with al-Qaeda that began in 1994, was upgraded in 2002, and resulted in a “secret union” between AQIM and Boko Haram in 2009 that involved experienced Algerian and Mauritanian jihadists in AQIM providing financing, weapons, training, and advising to less experienced Nigerian jihadists in Boko Haram.

I share this assessment with the two foremost Nigerian “insiders” on Boko Haram, Fulan Nasrallah and Ahmed Salkida, who are Muslims and lived in northeastern Nigeria. Nasrallah has written that Boko Haram recruits not only fought with AQIM in the Sahel, but also al-Shabaab in Somalia and even with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Salkida has written that Boko Haram receives “contributions from like-minded jihadi groups like AQIM [and] from other groups around [the] world.” Salkida also described Boko Haram’s “biggest war chest” as coming from kidnapping-for-ransom operations, which I have argued Boko Haram coordinated with Ansaru. These are more “maximalist interpretations” of Boko Haram’s ties to al-Qaeda than virtually any analyst in the United States has made, and Nasrallah and Salkida surely do not work for “right-wing think tanks.”

The discussion of the exact nature of the terms of Boko Haram’s relationship with al-Qaeda is about more than whether it is accurate to describe Boko Haram as an affiliate or something else. It is about the role al-Qaeda played in influencing the organization; the difference between my analysis and Thurston’s is that he sees the impact of al-Qaeda or AQIM on Boko Haram as “marginal” or “perhaps not” decisive and I see it as “significant.” This remains a point of contention, but I am confident that in the future more primary source documents will become available related to communications between al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, Adam Kambar and Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Shekau and the Islamic State. If released, they will open new doors for the analysis of Boko Haram—just as the documents AQIM released in April 2017 led Thurston to abandon his “skepticism” about Boko Haram-AQIM ties and opened the door to his acknowledging them.

Jacob Zenn is an adjunct assistant professor on African armed movements at Georgetown University's Security Studies Program and a senior fellow on African affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. He conducted an organizational mapping of Boko Haram for the Swiss Embassy in Nigeria in 2015, ahead of negotiations that led to the release of 123 Chibok schoolgirls. Zenn’s new book, “Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria,” was published in April 2020 by Lynne Rienner in association with the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews.

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