It seems that the public and media missed critical clues in the evolution of Boko Haram. People seem to think the 2009 clashes between Boko Haram and security forces were the start of the group’s campaign of violence.
However there were clues about the group’s increasing radicalization as far back as 10-12 years ago. In early 2003 a group that advocated implementing a purer form of Sharia law embarked upon a Hijra (migration) away from secular society which they regarded as corrupt, to a remote village in northern Yobe State near Nigeria’s border with Niger. Its members were described as “mostly urban, comparatively well off Nigerians who had moved to a commune-like village to set up their own isolated society”. Locals nicknamed the group the “Taliban”. Until the “Boko Haram” moniker became part of popular discourse in 2009, the group was known as the “Taliban” for about 5 years.
WHO WERE THE “NIGERIAN TALIBAN”?
According to Shehu Sani (who has met Boko Haram members) the “Taliban” group was led by an associate of Mohammed Yusuf called Mohammed Alli. Alli led the Taliban’s migration to a village close to Kannamma in Yobe State. The Taliban were largely peaceful and devoted themselves to their own interpretation of Islam and isolated themselves from the rest of secular society. Its members included “individuals from wealthy Islamic families in Borno State, unemployed university students and friends and colleagues from other states including Ogun and Lagos”. The Governor of Yobe State Bukar Abba Ibrahim denied allegations that his son was a member.
Although the Taliban were not violent, a Professor at the University of Maiduguri in Borno State, Abdulmumin Sa’ad, said that the group was on an “idealistic outing in Yobe State,” but that it and other groups could easily become violent and adopt extremist ideology or foreign ties. The Professor and his colleagues noted an increase in religiously inspired sects on Nigerian university campuses. Professor Sa’ad also said that radical Islamist groups were also emerging from unemployed academics looking to make sense of their corrupt society. With Nigeria becoming more corrupt and economically polarised, “radical groups will likely emerge and youth may look to Islamic extremism to strike back at economic and political injustice.” Chillingly, a U.S. diplomatic cable in February 2004 warned that “A small sect could easily turn to terrorism, or be used as a tool by international terrorist groups.”
After living peacefully with their neighbours in 2003, conflict arose after the Taliban got into a dispute with locals about fishing rights. Local leaders asked the Taliban to leave and in December 2003, the police destroyed the Taliban’s camp and arrested several of its members. This interaction with the police marked the first step in the weaponisation of the group that eventually metamophorsised into Boko Haram.
THE SLIDE INTO VIOLENCE
The Taliban retaliated by attacking the police station in Kannamma and taking several guns and ammunition from the station. They attacked other police stations in Yobe State before finally being suppressed in the Yobe State capital Damaturu. It is important to note that at this stage, the Taliban’s violence was directed almost entirely at the police and they had little interest in conflict with civilians. One Taliban member called Ismael Abdu Afatahi (a 21-year-old student from Lagos who joined the group) said: “I don’t know the major reason why we attacked the police posts. Maybe it is because the police is the protector of the people in Nigeria – But I was not told actually”.
In early 2004 the Taliban took their weapons into Borno State and also battled the police there. Press reports mentioned that scores of men wearing “red bandanas”, carrying a flag with an Islamic inscription, and chanting “Allahu Akbar!” attacked police stations in Bama and Gworza in Borno State. During their raids they also kidnapped some locals who they tried to conscript and forced to dig trenches around their camp. According to Shehu Sani, the Taliban who survived these clashes then joined Mohammed Yusuf’s movement. The movement that eventually became Boko Haram…