Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram achieved international notoriety in mid-April by attacking a girl’s school in northern Nigeria and abducting 276 of its female pupils. The girls have yet to be rescued, and the kidnapping has sparked a major social media campaign, going all the way to the White House.
But outraged westerners aren’t the only ones furiously debating Boko Haram’s tactics. Other terrorist and extremist organizations are hauling the Nigerian group over the coals, with the kidnapping becoming a fault line in the Islamic world. On one side are extremist groups who believe Boko Haram’s modus operandi can be considered justifiable jihad. On the other are slightly more moderate jihadis, worried that their brand of extremism is being dragged into the gutter by an utterly merciless group of hangers-on.
Boko Haram claims that it is sympathetic to Al Qaeda, but it’s not an official affiliate, largely because Al Qaeda is no longer the centralized hierarchical organization it once was. Today Al Qaeda primarily consists of a set of sympathizers and disparate groups spread throughout the world. Its core membership has little control over who identifies with the Al Qaeda brand. Many groups who claim affiliation to, or inspiration from, Al Qaeda, are increasingly extreme in tone. Groups like the ISIS in Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria who perpetrate indiscriminate and excessive violence are simultaneously challenging Al Qaeda’s leadership by their brutality, as well as alienating their potential supporters within the wider Islamic community.
The debate over the legitimacy of the attack is raging in extremist forums and chat rooms, as well as on social media.
Those who want to distance themselves from Boko Haram say that threatening to sell the kidnapped girls rather than using them to bargain for the release of Muslim prisoners is an unacceptable tactic. The minutiae of what is and is not acceptable is doing the rounds on forums. One member comments: “If Boko Haram would have settled with imprisoning the young girls in order to exchange them with Muslim women who are locked in jail, no one could have said anything against them. Yet they acted without thinking of the consequences. I hope that their talks [about selling the girls] are merely threats. I hope Allah will guide them to the right way.”
Other forum members claim that because the girls are now Muslims (they were forcibly converted by Boko Haram), their continued detention violates Islamic law. On Twitter, one extremist influencer with over 100,000 followers leveled accusations at both ISIS and Boko Haram, suggesting that their tarnishing of the jihadi ideal could mean they’re in cahoots with intelligence agencies.
The tweet translates: “Boko Haram and the ISIS are a dirty game by intelligence organization[s] to suppress political Islam as if it was a spreading disease.”
Not all of the commentary is anti-Boko Haram. Some commenters suggest that all jihadi groups are initially treated with suspicion at first—Boko Haram should just be given a chance to prove themselves. “What’s the big deal here?” asks the forum post. “Their [Boko Haram’s] methods are still unclear. Abdullah Azzam Brigades were suspicious about Al Nusrah’s actions. Many mujahedeen didn’t trust the Taliban in its early days, fearing that it is a product of the Pakistani intelligence. Everything is normal.”
Groups closer to Al Qaeda’s official core tend to be more critical. Jahabat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s official group active in the Syrian civil war, has been waging a long and high-profile struggle against its offshoot, the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). In one extremist forum, Al Nusra supporters have condemned Boko Haram’s attack and likened them to their local rival ISIS as being an agent against the cause, and part of the West’s ongoing war against Islam.
Perhaps even more critical is the response of Boko Haram’s alliances in Africa. In 2009, following a crackdown by Nigerian security forces, Boko Haram fled to various African countries, where they received training from both Al Qaeda in the Maghreb in Algerian training camps and Al Shabab in Somalia. AQIM and Al Shabab have both been officially linked with Al Qaeda—the former in 2006 the latter in 2012.
Following the kidnapping Al Shabab has come out in favor of Boko Haram and the legitimacy of the attack. A series of postings on their Facebook page, “Radio Andalus Islamic Somalia,” argues that the the girls were not kidnapped but rescued and that the Nigerian government’s abuses against Muslims justify such actions, including the seeking of blood in revenge.
Al Shabab’s own history with children might go some way to explaining their support of Boko Haram. A largely unreported attack by the group in March resulted in an unknown number of children being abducted.
As for AQIM, there has been no official response by the organization. However, in March they did declare their support for the Al Qaeda-disowned ISIS.
Meanwhile, the girls remain unaccounted for, and the attacks from Boko Haram continue. Fault line or not, they continue to cause chaos in Nigeria’s northern regions, with utter impunity.
Noam Binshtok contributed deep web reporting to this article.