Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
23 Feb. 2018
Review by Robert L. Tignor, Princeton University
Jihadism in a Post-Cold War World
Descriptors: Volume 2018, 20th Century, 21st Century Print Version
Al-Qaeda 2.0: A Critical Reader
Ed. Donald Holbrook
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2018. xiv, 291. ISBN 978–0–19–085644–1.
Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement
By Alexander Thurston
Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2018. viii, 333. ISBN 978–0–691–17224–8.

Two years after the Berlin Wall came down, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post as president of the Soviet Union (26 Dec. 1991) and Boris Yeltsin assumed the office of the presidency of the new Russian State. The hammer-and-sickle flag of the now thankfully defunct USSR was replaced by the Russian tricolor. Not surprisingly, scholars all over the world celebrated that seeming victory with paeans to a new world order. The prominent political philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, proclaimed[1] that the fall of the Soviet Union presaged the victory of liberal capitalist democracy as the final stage in humanity's sociopolitical evolution.

In this triumphal, post-Cold War geopolitical context, little attention was paid to the bombings of US embassies in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Nairobi in Kenya on 7 August 1998; they were deemed the cowardly acts of an obscure Islamic jihadist organization known as al-Qaeda, "the Base" or "Fortress" in Arabic. Al-Qaeda directed its operations from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, a far off region of little interest to Americans after the failed Soviet occupation of the country in 1979–89. While the US intelligence community was well aware of al-Qaeda, the typical American knew nothing of the organization. That all changed forever on 11 September 2001, when al-Qaeda ideologues crashed three commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in suburban Washington, DC. Brave passengers aboard a fourth aircraft forced it to crash in rural Pennsylvania before it could reach the White House or the Capitol building.

The works under review here help to explain the nature of Islamic militancy. In the first, political scientist Donald Holbrook (Univ. of Lancaster) has gathered many speeches and internet writings by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded to the leadership of al-Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. In the second, Alexander Thurston (Wilson Center) offers an impressive scholarly study of the militant movement, Boko Haram, in northeastern Nigeria, which first captured the world's attention by kidnapping a group of over two hundred schoolgirls and holding most of them prisoner ever since.

Since Boko Haram is much less familiar than al-Qaeda outside Africa, Alexander Thurston's well-researched study of the Nigerian jihadist movement is a welcome addition to our knowledge of terrorist organizations. Although the author claims the movement did not arise solely or even mainly out of sociopolitical conditions in Nigeria, he nevertheless portrays it as a very flawed state, the creation of British colonial conquerors who combined diverse geographical, ethnic, and religious regions for mainly financial reasons. Specifically, the better-off south had to support the poorer north, with near-catastrophic results since the country gained its independence in 1960. The federal government suppressed a breakaway Biafran quest to create a new state in a bloody civil war (1967–70). Since then, it has weathered countless other storms. Among the first were protests and violent actions by the peoples of oil-rich southeastern Nigeria, who recognized (and resented) that their region gained little of the enormous wealth generated by its oil exports. For decades, they resisted all federal government efforts to bring law and order to the area. More recently, northeastern Nigeria, particularly the state of Borno, also grossly neglected by the central government, made its discontent painfully visible in the form of an Islamic jihadist movement calling itself Boko Haram.

In the Hausa language, "Boko Haram" means that Western learning, indeed Western civilization, is prohibited as wholly antithetical to Islam. Emerging around 2000, its founders had grown up in northeastern Nigeria, a strong Muslim territory, during the 1970s and 1980s. Many had studied in Western schools and, finding few outlets for their talents, established a branch of the worldwide jihadist movement in their region.

The sources for Boko Haram were as hard to assemble and interpret as those in Holbrook's Al-Qaeda 2.0. The organization's own videos, audio recordings, and written sources were, naturally, designed to attract recruits and present an unassailable image to the outside world. Besides such internal documentation, the author has drawn on many sources produced by opponents of Boko Haram, chiefly Nigerian and US government reports and UN documents. Thornton has also diligently combed through local and international newspaper articles. The result is as balanced and comprehensive a treatment of Boko Haram as we are likely to see for many years.

The author concentrates on Boko Haram's two leading figures: Muhammad Yusuf, its founder and leader until his death at the hands of the Nigerian federal government in 2009; and Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf's successor, who made Boko Haram even more vicious and aggressive. Both men came from rural areas of northeastern Nigeria, but eventually made their way to Maiduguri, the provincial capital and heart of the old Borno Islamic Empire. They became increasingly disillusioned by the Borno political elite, especially, the Shehu (ruler of the Borno Empire), the religious establishment, and the Sufi orders. Yusuf was initially close to the Salafi preachers but not yet fully committed to violence; he broke from them when they rejected his deep opposition to Western education and support for armed revolutionary activity. In time, he became an ardent adversary of democracy, constitutionalism, and party politics, affirming that these institutions had caused Islam's failures. Nigerian troops captured and executed Yusuf on 30 July 2009, before he could carry out a planned uprising against the state.

Nigerian authorities wrongly assumed they had killed Boko Haram along with Yusuf. But Shekau succeeded to its headship, stressing the Quranic verse that "chaos is worse than killing." Though it never gained much public interest or financial support from al-Qaeda or other jihadist groups, Boko Haram embarked on a campaign of total warfare in 2013 in the northeastern Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, compelling the Nigerian authorities to put them under a state of emergency. Boko Haram's most notorious action was the abduction of 276 girls from the government's Secondary School in Chibok, in Borno South, on the night of 14 April 2014. By mid-2014, Boko Haram's successes led Shekau to declare the formation of "a state among the states of Islam" in Gwoza, Borno, and, later, additional territory in Borno and Adamawa (228). Yet the movement's ambitions exceeded its grasp. A determined Nigerian military defeated it in battles and seized territory. The election of Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, as president of Nigeria in 2015 strengthened Nigerian state leaders' (earlier lacking) resolve to rid the country of Boko Haram. Still, even today, Boko Haram retains its power and appeal in northeastern Nigeria.

The books reviewed here go far to clarify the motives of Muslims who rally to jihadist movements; they demonstrate, too, that those organizations will continue to attract followers despite crushing military defeats and the deaths of their frontline leaders. Both volumes will reward the careful reflection of anyone interested in jihadism in a post-Cold War world.

[1] In his The End of History and the Last Man (NY: Free Press, 1992).

[2] The Al Qaeda Reader, ed. Raymond Ibrahim (NY: Doubleday, 2007).

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