How to influence Boko Haram’s behavior?

Is it even possible? Read few comments.

Questions:

1. Bring Back Our Girls is definitely an admirable campaign and it can mobilize people and resources against Boko Haram. But would you say that there is any chance it can also change the way of thinking of Boko Haram?

2. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti has condemned Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Who can, if anybody, influence Boko Haram actions, in your opinion?

Answers:

Christopher Anzalone, Ph.D. Candidate, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University

1. No, I think the likelihood that the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign will cause Boko Haram to change its ideological outlook and ‘reform’ itself, so to speak, is extremely slim.  The group’s leadership has shown itself to be particularly intransigent to external criticisms and has, rather than repenting and stopping the use of mass violence as a tactic to create an environment of extreme unrest and fear in which it can thrive, only increased the brazen nature of its attacks.

One possibility is that the increasing international reaction to the group’s violence, particularly if this results in military setbacks for Boko Haram, may either lead to divisions among the group or exacerbate disagreements and divisions which are already present.

In a similar scenario, the domestic reaction may lead to the above, or to defections by rank-and-file members.

There isn’t any evidence, however, that any of these scenarios are currently taking place, at least not that is publicly available.

2. First, it is very unlikely that “mainstream” Muslim religious jurists or scholars will influence the group to change its ways.  Many Nigerian Muslim religious and community leaders have criticized and condemned Boko Haram for years, and many of them have been assassinated by the group in retaliation.  It would be far more likely that local religious and communal leaders, who are embedded in the local environments, would be able to influence the group and this has not happened.  Even more conservative voices in northern Nigeria, those belonging to the Salafi current within Sunni Islam, have been unable to convince the group to abandon violence.

Second, religious scholars affiliated with governments, like the Saudi grand mufti, are not taken seriously by the milifants.  These religious figures are detisively referred to as “scholars of the palace” or “scholars of the court,” and are seen as being merely appendages and mouthpieces for the state.

It is more likely that internal debates and divisions within the group will lead to changes of behavior (though not necessarily an abandonment of violence).  Cleavages in the group could, for example, lead to an increase and not a decrease in violence depending on the situation.

The role of the Nigerian state is also important.  The use of mass arrests, overly broad targeting of communities and other segments of the north, and summary violence (such as the summary execution of prisoners in 2009) contribute to (a) local resentment of the government and (2) may lead individuals who would otherwise not do so to join or support the group or, at the very least,  not cooperate with or assist the government.

Sola Tayo, Associate Fellow, Africa Programme, Chatham House

1. BringBackOurGirls was created to keep the missing girls in the news — so they wouldn’t be forgotten by the government and for the search to continue.  While it has raised awareness of the plight of the missing girls it has also shone the spotlight on Boko Haram.  While I doubt it could change the way people view Boko Haram – their hardcore supporters are likely to continue to support them while most people will continue to be disgusted by their acts of violence –  it has educated people who might have known or cared very little about Boko Haram.  Of the people who might have been inclined to have some sympathy for them the kidnapping of the girls might be considered a step too far and could lose them some support.

2. It is really important that the Saudi Grand Mufti and other revered figures and institutions in the Muslim world condemn Boko Haram and what they continue to do in the name of Islam as it will serve to isolate them from what is considered to be acceptable – even in more conservative interpretations of Islam.  The way Boko Haram is behaving now is I think beyond what is considered to be acceptable even for a jihadist group.  Who could influence them?  I honestly think the only people who could have any kind of authority over Boko Haram are its sponsors or financiers but even they might have lost control of them.

Seth Jones, Associate Director,  International Security and Defense Policy Center, RAND Corporation

1. Boko Haram has released a number of individuals it has kidnapped in return for money. While I don’t think there is any way of changing the ideology of Boko Haram leaders, including Abubakar Shekau, I am still hopeful that most of the girls will be released. It’s worth noting that kidnapping is one of the most significant sources of revenue for Boko Haram.

2. It is possible that the condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti and many others across the world will increasingly turn local support in northeastern Nigeria away from Boko Haram. Indeed, Boko Haram’s extremist ideology is not popular among many Nigerians. Boko Haram’s recent actions and the international backlash will likely make the extremist group even less popular and help dislodge it from areas it controls in northeastern Nigeria.

Stephen Harmon, Associate Professor of History, Pittsburg State University

Let me say that the answer to both questions is the same. There is no way to change the thinking of Boko Haram. They believe they are right and everyone else, even other radical Nigerian Muslims, are wrong. In that atmosphere, they will not change their thinking. Not the leadership, at least. The following may change their thinking and vote with their feet, so to speak, that is desert the leadership. But they risk death if they do so openly or publicly. They would have to sneak away in small groups and hide. As for anyone else influencing them, the answer is the same. They have already made up their minds that they are right, an no one, certainly not any Arabian mufti nor any Nigerian Islamic leader, will change their minds. They might take some advice from AQIM, but not likely. Do you remember Jim Jones and the mass suicide incident in Guayana about 30 years ago? Do you think anyone could have influenced him? Could anyone have changed his mind? As for the Bring Our Girls Back movement that is getting world-wide attention, I am pleased about that, but I don’t think many of those girls are ever coming back. Boko Haram has staked its honor on these kidnappings. They will see the girls dead and be willing to die themselves before they give them up. A few may be rescued by special forces operations, but I am not optimistic about a happy ending to this crisis. A further problem is that in many cases their families will not want them back because they will have been disqualified from the marriage market. That means that they will be an economic liability for their families, as well as a mark of shame. This is not going to end well.

 

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