On August 26, 2011, a suicide bomber detonated his car bomb outside of the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital city, Abuja. The attack destroyed several floors of the building and killed at least 23 people.
In a statement of responsibility, the “Jama'ah Ah us-Sunnah Lid-Dawah wal-Jihad”, a Nigerian jihadist group more widely known as “Boko Haram,” took credit for the attack and stated that they were also responsible for several bombs that exploded around Nigeria during the previous month.The success of their August 26 attack and a similar suicide bombing targeting the Nigerian police headquarters on June 16, 2011, underscores the growth of the organization from a weak movement that was nearly crushed by the Nigerian government during a 2009 crackdown to one that, under new leadership, has been able to execute a large-scale al-Qaeda style attack against a highly secured building in the capital city of Nigeria.
Undoubtably, the increase in Boko Haram's capabilities and sophistication rests on several factors, including the group's associations with successful al-Qaeda linked jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Somalia. However, Boko Haram's online presence is one important aspect of their maturation that can not be ignored and seems to have contributed to the rapid increase in their strength.
Nearly two years of posts from a representative of Boko Haram on the al-Qaeda affiliated Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum (AMEF) provide insight into the group's local activities and elucidates the trajectory of an emerging jihadist group in the online jihadist era. Posts made on AMEF by Boko Haram's representative illustrate their progression from persecution by Nigerian security services, to struggles to fundraise and develop a propaganda wing, the eventual procurement of aid and explosives from al-Qaeda in North Africa, and - finally – gaining the strength to carry out multiple suicide bombings against heavily fortified representations of Nigerian state power and the international order.
Responding to requests for assistance, AMEF members engaged with Boko Haram's representative in advising strategies of propaganda and financial outreach, announcing al-Qaeda's deployment of trainers and commanders to Nigeria, and instigating the forum community to join the Nigerian mujahideen. Multiple posts on the forum attest to fact that AMEF members predicted the emergence of Nigeria as a new jihadist front long before the organization gained sufficient operational strength to pose a major threat to Nigeria and the West African region. These predictions about the rise of jihad in Nigeria include a July 2010 quote in which a forum member wrote, “I guess a new front is about to open.”
Due to the group's online outreach, representatives of Boko Haram have become active in the online networks used by jihadists to recruit fighters, fundraise, and share information- such as weapons manuals and tactical advice. Indeed, posts made to an influential English-language jihadist forum reveal the extent to which Boko Haram has actively sought aid from the international online jihadist community. Moreover, the exchanges highlight the degree to which jihadist forums serve to cultivate fledgling jihadist movements and act as clearinghouses for the training manuals and expertise needed to mount a successful insurgency.
AMEF as a Development Resource for Boko Haram
Beginning in March 2010, a representative of Boko Haram using the name “Abu Sabaya” began posting requests for aid on the password-protected Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum (AMEF) zsjihadist forum. Although his account was registered on March 31, 2009, Abu Sabaya became active in March 2010 when he began asking for help from forum members. Among the information that he has sought are Arabic translation programs, advice on fundraising, and information to foil the monitoring of security services. In addition to seeking aid, Abu Sabaya has also provided regular updates about operations carried out by Boko Haram and shared the status of campaigns launched by the Nigerian government to suppress the group. Several exchanges on the forum, profiled below, provide examples of the process by which Boko Haram has utilized such forums to strengthen their organization, establish connections and network with other jihadist groups, and gain supporters from around the world.
One of the first official messages posted to AMEF from Boko Haram came on July 12, 2010, when Abu Sabaya posted a message titled “Greeting Message from 'Boko Haram Leader' in Nigeria” in which Abu Bakr Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, addressed the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) with his condolences for the death of the leaders of the Mujahideen in Iraq. The post, which included links to the Arabic-language message, also contained a description of the fragility of Boko Haram and included desperate requests for assistance in the wake of a major Nigerian operation against the group. However, despite acknowledging their weakness and recent inability to get news out of the country, Abu Sabaya wrote that the organization intends to increase their online presence and production of jihadist propaganda, writing:
“O Brothers in the Forums
We say our Salams to you after a long silence
We are in extreme situations of weakness and incapability in these recent times after the showdown at the boko haram government staged incidence.
“soon, we'll inshallah [Allah willing] be reporting exactly every single thing that occurred [sic] in those days behind the scenes which no cameras covered and no correspondence reported.
“meanwhile, we'll be in urgent need of your Du'a and your assistance in whatever you can of media and advices.
“these are download links for the greeting message of the new Imam of the Jama'a at the occurence of the martyrdom of the leaders of the Mujahidin in Iraq in Arabic.
AMEF members welcomed the message, with a dozen forum members thanking Abu Sabaya for the post and the member “Aydan” immediately predicting that Nigeria will become a new jihadist battleground by stating “I guess a new front is about to open.” A second AMEF member reiterated Aydan's analysis, quoting his message and adding “Insh'allah! [Allah willing].”
In contemporaneous messages, Abu Sabaya repeatedly cited organizational weaknesses and Boko Haram's inexperience in creating and distributing the sophisticated multimedia productions that are necessary for modern jihadist groups to reach out to the online jihadist community. Throughout the summer and fall of 2010, he continued to issue calls for AMEF members to aid the development of the Boko Haram and requested assistance with propaganda, finances, and military operations.
In one such exchange, on November 4, 2010, Abu Sabaya responded positively to an AMEF's members suggestion for methods of increasing their capabilities to distribute media. The discussion began with a message posted by Abu Sabaya that described a Boko Haram attack on prisons in the Bauchi and Yobe states of Northern Nigeria and explained that the group's lack of propaganda is because they are still developing multimedia products to upload to the forums. He explained their difficulties in creating media for distribution to the jihadi forums, writing:
“As for the media productions...we are rigorously working on them. first they are in Hausa Language which means we must translate them before posting them online for brothers. secondly, we lack vibrant media experts in video production. But we are promising the forum members that they should exercise patience with us [as] we are seriously lacking expertise which is presently harming our efficiency.”
In response, “Abu Hafs al-Gharib” proposed that the group should build a relationship with one of the official jihadist media centers such as the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF) and al-Fajr Media Center. Such a relationship would be beneficial for Boko Haram both for technical assistance as well as to convey a legitimacy to their releases by providing them access to the official jihadist online distribution networks. This strategy has been used by a number of other emerging groups, most notably the Shabaab al-Mujahideen in Somalia, as they began reaching out and building an international base of supporters from which to draw recruits, expertise, and funds. Writing on November 5, 2010, Abu Hafs al-Gharib suggested:
Abu Sabaya expressed his interest in extending Boko Haram's media impact by linking with GIMF or al-Fajr Media Center and asked for advice for how to build the relationship, posting “Ya Akhi [brother] how can i build this relationship.” Abu Hafs al-Gharib offered to continue the discussion through private channels that are not seen by other forum members, inviting Abu Sabaya to send him a private message he is able to, stating “akhi, if you able to using [sic] your PM, i will sent you a message inshaAllah [Allah willing]..”
Boko Haram's financial difficulties caused Abu Sabaya to again reach out to AMEF for help. He indicated his need for advice from other jihadist groups on ways to raise funds in an October 6, 2010, post where he noted: “I Urgently Need Any Work Of The Mujahideen That Deals With Ways Of Raising Finance For A Jihad Jama'ah (english).” In response, an administrator directed him to a GIMF call for financial support for the jihadist media uploaded to the Arabic-language Shumukh al-Islam jihadist forum.
Further illustrating the importance of the AMEF forum to Boko Haram as a clearinghouse for assistance with media creation and fundraising as well as for carrying out jihadist operations is a message from Abu Sabaya on October 27, 2010 in which he described the group's great need of experts and called for help with organizational structure and effective management.The post, titled “Steadfastness O Muwahidin,” announced that while the group was gaining in strength, they were nevertheless still in great need of better internal organization. Abu Sabaya concluded the update with a request for prayers and a list of their operational needs for “Expertise, Organization as well as effective management.” He wrote:
“O Muwahidin [Monotheists] your brothers from the suburb of Nigeria are congratulating you and the entire muwahidin all over the World from the immense success Allah (swt) is granting this entire struggle. Here in Nigeria, The success we are achieving is immensely increasing please maintain your steadfastness Allah (swt) is always with the believers. We are dealing heavy blows on the tawaghit in Nigeria and as usual like their Kafirpaymasters they have devised means of capturing and imprisoning us so that we may give up the path but never because this is an Ideology that without it life becomes miserable. Please pray for us for indeed we are currently in need of Expertise, Organization as well as effective management
AMEF Forum Members Support Nigerian Jihad
Support for jihadist groups and a desire to fight in the battlefields of jihad was displayed in the frequency and tone of responses from AMEF members and the administrators of the forum. In one example, a member using the name “TheRealTruth” responded to Abu Sabaya's “Steadfastness O Muwahidin” message by calling on forum members to go and fight jihad in Nigeria. He also noted that, as Nigeria is a new battlefield, Western jihadists should take advantage of the fact that it is still easy to get to Nigeria and that international security services have not yet restricted access to the country, posting:
Going even further than simply calling for jihad in Nigeria, Abu Hafs al-Gharib outlined a regional West African insurgency which he hoped would spread throughout Africa from Nigeria, predicting:
“InshaAllah [Allah willing], Mujahideen from West Africa would be join with their brothers in Nigeria...Senegal, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivorie, Guinea.. Etc... Jihad [will] spread out from North Africa, East Africa, West Africa and soon Central Africa (Where are you O Lion of Sudan and Chad)..”
While ties between Boko Haram and the North African-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) only only beginning to be reported, an administrator and prominent forum member, “Ansar AQIM” - whose posting history indicates that he maintains ties with AQIM- described linkages between Boko Haram and AQIM in an October 2010 post. The message stated that that AQIM commanders had reached Nigeria to train Boko Haram fighters, writing:
"The assistance from the commanders of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has reached Nigeria. I can't give any numbers of how many brothers from the Sahel region moved back to Nigeria to train the youth of tawheed.”
Boko Haram's Rising Strength
Updates posted by Abu Sabaya into the spring and summer of 2011 described a much-emboldened group, including a July 25, 2011 announcement that Boko Haram recruited a number of defectors from the Nigerian security services after they were sent to combat the militants. According to his post, the new recruits not only provided additional fighters for Boko Haram, but brought with them “very relevant information [that] were revealed [sic] by the converts to the mujahidin.” In order to demonstrate their sincerity, the former government soldiers were forced to fight against their former comrades, taking part in a Boko Haram raid against “their former allies.”
Boko Haram's growing strength was also notably apparent on the AMEF forum, evidenced by increasingly frequent statements from Abu Sabaya, whose posts claiming responsibility for executing attacks reflect the Nigerian jihadists' increased activity and capabilities, particularly during the summer of 2011. The updates from Boko Haram were sufficiently numerous that Abu Sabaya requested that forum administrators create a thread exclusively dedicated to news from Nigeria. An administrator of AMEF, “Khanda,” opened a thread titled “On Nigeria” on July 17, 2011 with a statement that the “thread is dedicated to our Mujahideen brothers in Nigeria. Inshallah, [Allah willing] only authenticated reports from our brother Abu Sabaya maybe [sic] posted here.”
Among the messages posted to the thread, Khanda provided the text of an announcement from the spokesman of Boko Haram, Mallam Abu Zaid, memorializing a fighter who carried out suicide bombing against the headquarters of the Nigerian Police, an attack which the accompanying text billed as the “first of its kind in the coast of West Africa.” Moreover, in describing the attack, Zaid announced that the bomb detonated during the operation was procured from another jihadist group and explained that it was “a ready-made [bomb], which the mujahideen acquired from abroad.”
Perhaps foreshadowing the subsequent August 26, 2011, attack on the United Nations building, the announcement promised that the mujahideen have a number of these pre-fabricated explosives, and that they will be deploying them in future attacks. Another post on the thread, uploaded on July 19, 2011, quoted the Abu Zaid stating that future attacks will be targeting “'Aso Rock', the federal seat of power.”
Abu Sabaya continues to remain active on the forum, mostly recently posting a list of advice for AMEF members concerned about security on September 8, 2011 and last logging in on September 15, 2011.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad Group, the predecessor of al-Qaeda in Iraq, utilized the historical Ansar al-Mujahideen forum managed by Younis Tsouli, better known as “Irhaabi 007”, to distribute their communiques and gain an international following. The Shabaab al-Mujahideen also used the defunct Ekhlaas forum to aid in their movement. Now, Boko Haram in Nigeria has turned to the AMEF online jihadist forum to serve as a networking and development tool. Observing the flow of information and advice from AMEF members to the Boko Haram representative and the high level of interest and excitement about the group on AMEF, the connection between the online representative and AMEF should be viewed as a factor that may have contributed to their success.
Networking through the Ansar al-Mujahideen English Forum has been an important vector for Boko Haram to engage the wider online jihadist community while they gained local strength. The connectedness fostered by the online jihadist community means that as emerging groups, such as Boko Haram, seeking to become a regional force and not only a local movement, must develop an online presence through the al-Qaeda linked forums. One of the major milestones in their eventual integration with the global jihadist movement will be joining the official al-Qaeda distribution networks run by the al-Fajr Media Center. Additionally, the presence of forum members with links to jihadist groups throughout the world on transnational jihadist forums, like AMEF, turn the websites into an online university and incubator of jihad, in which experts from other battlefields can weigh in and aid the emergence of new groups.