December 8, 2021

What’s in a Name?- The Boko Haram-Al Qaeda Connection

An interesting piece in today’s Daily Beast by Eli Lake discusses the possible role played by Osama Bin Laden in the formation of Boko Haram. In the piece Lake notes the disagreement in the Intelligence Community over the organization and nature of Al Qaeda:

The dispute inside the intelligence community falls along familiar lines about al Qaeda. The White House has emphasized the distinctions between al Qaeda’s core and its affiliates and other aspiring jihadists, who the White House sees as operating almost entirely independent of the central group.

However, another faction inside the U.S. intelligence community—one that comprises the current leadership of the Defense Intelligence Agency and others working in the military—see al Qaeda as a flatter organization that coordinates between nodes and operates through consensus in the model of an Islamic Shura council.

In the case of the Boko Haram debate, this latter group inside the intelligence community has pointed to documentation and raw intelligence that suggested the Nigerian group had evolved over time—particularly after 2010—into something that resembles an unofficial al Qaeda affiliate and a threat to the West.

If there was recognition within the USG that Al Qaeda views itself as organized around shariah law, the debate on the shura council model would be over, since it is a model that is understood as theological prescribed in Surah 3:159,

“…And take counsel with them in all matters of public concern; then, when thou hast decided upon a course of action, place thy trust in God: for, verily, God loves those who place their trust in Him.”

Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb (whom the 9/11 Commission report noted was very influential on Bin Laden’s world view) notes In the Shade of the Quran:

 We have here a distinctive order: “Consult with them on the conduct of public affairs.” This principle, which is basic to the Islamic system of government, is established here, even when Muĥammad himself, God’s Messenger, is the one who conducts public affairs. This is, then, a definitive statement that leaves the Muslim community in no doubt that consultation is central to Islamic government. Without it, no system is truly Islamic.

Another point worth making regarding Boko Haram as an “unofficial” AQ-affiliate is it’s real name is “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad” or “Group Committed to the Propagation of the Sunnah (Traditions of the Prophet) and Jihad. Compare that to another terrorist group in North Africa, now called “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” but once called the “Salafist Group for Call and Combat” al-Jamā‘ah as-Salafiyyah lid-Da‘wah wal-Qiṭāl. The two names are effectively synonymous, and carry with them clear ideological meaning.  Both are groups (jamaat) committed to the call or propagating (dawa) of the traditional Islam of Mohammed and the early Muslims (ahl-Sunnah or as-Salaf) and to fighting jihad.

It is the ideology which informs the doctrine, which in turn establishes how forces are organized, and it is the ideology that drives the names groups give themselves. Our failure to understand the motivating drivers and doctrine of the enemy, namely shariah, has resulted in strategic confusion that in turn translates to the inability to agree on even basic analytical questions such as “How is Al Qaeda organized” more than a decade after 9/11.