Revisiting the Beginning of Boko Haram
In the late 1990s, a promising teenager named Muhammad Ali lived in north-east Nigeria. His brilliance and maturity made him a natural leader. He was the head of his class in school, and his teachers thought that he had a bright future ahead of him as a medical doctor.
Unfortunately, those teachers turned out to be wrong. Ali would go on to establish Boko Haram, one of the most brutal terrorist groups in history. A decade and a half after his death in 2004, at the hands of vigilantes, the conflict between Boko Haram and Nigeria’s security forces has killed an estimated 35,000 people in north-east Nigeria. The violence has devastated communities, leading to the displacement of over three million people, and has plunged millions more into extreme poverty. Today, three different factions of Boko Haram continue to target security forces, civil servants, humanitarian workers, and civilians in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad in their bid to establish their version of a puritanical Islamic state.
How in the world did this happen? How did Ali establish Boko Haram and why? The existing literature portrays him as someone who was recruited and radicalized outside Nigeria, and who was subsequently trained and funded by al-Qaeda to set up Boko Haram. Over the years, this narrative has gained authority in the literature on Boko Haram. Unfortunately, it is supported by relatively weak evidence. By portraying Boko Haram as a franchise of al-Qaeda that was set up using a direct grant from Osama bin Laden, this theory downplays the local agency and motivations that birthed Boko Haram, as well as the group’s localized strategies and objectives.
To dig deeper into the origins of Boko Haram, I spoke with three of Ali’s childhood friends and a prominent Salafi scholar who knew him in 2001. These conversations — which took place between January 2021 and January 2022 — reveal that Ali studied and became radicalized in Nigeria by reading extremist literature, some of it from the Middle East. His genius was in taking these ideas and relating them to local issues and grievances. Ali was inspired by the Taliban and al-Qaeda — whom he tried to mimic — but he never had personal contacts with Taliban or al-Qaeda members in Nigeria or abroad.
These new details of Ali’s early life have both academic and historical value, but they also have practical policy implications. Understanding the true story of how Boko Haram started is critical to crafting policies to target the group’s nefarious activities.
Unfounded Claims of Ali’s Transnational Links
The conventional wisdom about the origins of Boko Haram emphasizes the importance of Ali’s time outside Nigeria to his radicalization. According to this account, Ali studied in Sudan, converted to jihadism there, and then trained and fought in Afghanistan or Algeria before returning to Nigeria to found Boko Haram. Accounts differ and contradict each other about whether he studied and became radicalized in Sudan or Saudi Arabia and whether he fought in Afghanistan or Algeria. However, this conventional wisdom is not supported by strong evidence.
The first of the stories making these claims came out in a 2014 report by the International Crisis Group. The report argues that Ali studied with jihadist ideologues in Sudan, where he met bin Laden or his deputies between 1992 and 1996, and then fought in Afghanistan before obtaining a three million-euro grant from bin Laden to set up an al-Qaeda franchise in Nigeria. As I highlighted in a Hudson Institute report, this story is based on a solitary account from an anonymous interviewer by someone who was not a researcher. Nevertheless, this information has gained authority, with later literature editing out the International Crisis Group’s wise disclaimers to double down on the theory.
In his 2020 book, Jacob Zenn, a widely published Boko Haram scholar, cited Abu Aisha (among others) as a source who shared details of Ali’s activities in Sudan. Zenn described him as “Ali’s companion” who “learnt from Ali.” However, Abu Aisha was never in Sudan, nor was he informed of these matters by Ali or an eyewitness. This much was made clear by Abu Aisha in each of his three Hausa-language interviews with Zenn’s representative in 2017, 2018, and 2019, in which he repeatedly cited “those close to Ali” as his source. Moreover, Abu Aisha said he was a “little child” when Ali died in 2004.
Besides, there are several contradictions in Abu Aisha’s testimony. In the 2018 interview with Zenn, Abu Aisha said “There were members from Mali, Algeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad there” in Kanamma, the village to which Ali’s camp migrated in 2003 (09:45–10:00). Asked the same question by the same interviewer just a year later, Abu Aisha contradicted himself by stating “There was not a single person from Afghanistan, Mali, Algeria, or other countries there.” (10:50–12:35).
Other analysts who emphasize the importance of Ali’s time outside Nigeria marshal claims with weak evidence. Kyari Mohammed’s 2014 book chapter states that Ali was “radicalised by jihadi literature in Saudi Arabia and was believed to have fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan,” A claim he repeated in another chapter in 2018. But Mohammed did not cite any source for this. When I contacted him on this point in January 2022, he said his use of “believed to” was intended to indicate that the information “was trending at the time but it was not definitive or authoritative.”
Other researchers have referred to a “high-level security report” that claimed that Ali and his followers were first conscripted to fight in Algeria in the wake of the annulment of the country’s 1992 election. However, these authors did not say which intelligence report, by whom, and from where. Instead, they cited an academic report that does not reference such a security report either. An article in Nigeria’s Tell magazine in 2004 reported that it was one Ahmed — not Ali — that had “strong links with Saudi Arabia” where he grew up and that his “possible link” with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was being investigated. This story was “according to a report quoting villagers,” suggesting that it is secondhand and cites anonymous sources with no designation. I visited the villages referenced in the report in February 2019 where I interviewed actors and eyewitnesses who said the versions of event narrated by the kinds of Tell are untrue.
Another document claims that it was two Algerians that came to Nigeria to recruit members — including Ali — not the other way round. It mentions figures that have not been referenced in any other source that I’m aware of, and claims that Boko Haram is affiliated with and got training and financial support from Mali, Sudan, and Somalia. This document has no author or institution, did not indicate where any of this information came from. The more one digs into this matter, the messier reports of Ali’s transnational link get.
What is more, Boko Haram’s own writings suggest that allegations about Ali’s travels and activities outside Nigeria are untrue. For instance, a January 2017 article by a Boko Haram factional leader in Al-Risalah — an al-Qaeda magazine — did not mention Ali’s alleged trips to Sudan or Afghanistan, nor did it talk about any meeting with bin Laden or his deputies. Likewise, a 2018 book written by the sons of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf and published by the Islamic State does not mention Ali’s alleged foreign travels. Given that these publications were written for an internal audience to eulogize Ali and extol Nigerian jihadists’ connections to the global jihadi movement, Ali’s foreign activities — if they did happen — would surely have merited discussion.
The Al-Risala piece did claim that one Abu al Bara al Dourawi, said to be Ali’s teacher and mentor, was given money by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Instead of using the money for jihad in Nigeria, the article claimed that al Dourawi “abandoned the truth” and fled to Saudi Arabia, where he was “enjoying that immense wealth (that was initially intended to help and support the Jihad in Nigeria).” This story is likely fictitious, as none of the dozens of players and witnesses whom I interviewed in northern Nigeria, including former Boko Haram members and prominent Salafi clerics who know Boko Haram closely, knows al Dourawi. Also, I have not found any researcher who has spoken with one person who knows al Dourawi even vaguely. Asked about al Dourawi and the Al-Risala story in 2018 for Zenn’s book, Abu Aisha said he did not know “the person with this name” and the story was just a “rumour that was circulated at that time” (21:18 – 23:04).
Ali’s Trajectory According to His Friends
To understand Ali’s early life, trajectory, and possible motivations, I separately interviewed three individuals who knew him very well: Muhammad Gana, Muhammad Kabir, and Bukar Balarabe (whose name has been changed for security reasons). Gana and Kabir were Ali’s secondary school classmates at Federal Government College, Maiduguri. Balarabe studied privately with Ali for Nigeria’s university matriculation examination — which they both undertook in 1999 — and was his associate in Maiduguri’s Salafi circle. Gana is now a civil servant in north-eastern Nigeria, Kabir is a businessman in north-western Nigeria, and Balarabe is a lecturer at a university in the United Kingdom. I also recently spoke with someone who met Ali: Professor Isa Ali Pantami, a prominent Salafi cleric and Nigeria’s current minister of communication and digital economy. Pantami was approached in 2001 by Ali for recruitment to lead his new group, and their meeting culminated in hours of debate on Ali’s new ideology.
The three witnesses whom I interviewed argue that Ali was living and studying with them in or around Maiduguri from 1992 to mid-2003, when he migrated out of the city to the villages where his group clashed with security forces and where he was subsequently killed. From their unanimous accounts, by 1994 — when his alleged stay in Sudan began — Ali had just joined junior secondary school after completing primary school in his early teens. By 1992, when Ali was supposedly conscripted to fight in Algeria, he was in primary six. Their accounts agree or complement each other in every material detail of Ali’s early life, his path to Boko Haram, and his legacy in the group. They were unanimous that Ali had never studied or trained in Sudan, or fought in Afghanistan. They know this because they were with him at school or in Maiduguri throughout the period in question.
Assuming that Ali became radicalized in his teenage years in the 1990s, it would still have been highly unlikely for him to have acquired an international passport and a visa, travelled to Sudan, and met bin Laden or his deputies. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s unlikely that bin Laden would have invested 3 million euros in an al-Qaeda offshoot in Nigeria led by an inexperienced teenager.
A Good Beginning
Ali was born to Nigerian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s and returned to his family’s home in Maiduguri at around 10 years old. He went to the University of Maiduguri Staff Primary School, and received top grades in his secondary school final exams at Federal Government College, Maiduguri. According to Gana and Kabir, Ali specialized in the natural sciences. In 1999, he sat for the Nigerian universities’ joint entrance examination and applied to the University of Maiduguri. Gana and Balarabe, who sat for the same examination in the same year, said that Ali scored the highest marks in Borno State that year and was admitted to study medicine at the University of Maiduguri, where they both studied. However, Ali declined to enroll because he had by this time become involved with radical Islamic circles in Maiduguri. In the eyes of the members of these circles, Western-style schooling was forbidden, which became a major theme for Boko Haram. Ali rejected repeated advice from his classmates and teachers to start his university education — including from Gana — and opted instead to self-study and promote an extreme interpretation of Islam.
All the interviewees described Ali as a very bright person. “He was the smartest human I have seen,” said Gana. As well as being top of his class, Ali was also very knowledgeable about Islamic theology and jurisprudence, particularly for his age. He had memorized the whole or substantial parts of the Qur’an, likely in Saudi Arabia before he moved to Nigeria, and was active in the Muslim Students Association of his secondary school where he served as the deputy chairman. After his secondary education, Ali continued to study Islam informally in Maiduguri and began preaching to young Nigerians, especially in Salafi circles.
Learning the Qur’an is not in any way synonymous with radicalization to violent extremism, otherwise the majority of the almost two billion Muslims in the world — including me — would be violent extremists. Ali was around 10 years old when he left Saudi Arabia, and this was in the late 1970s to mid-80s when violent extremism was not an issue in Saudi Arabia. His living a normal life in Nigeria after his return until his graduation from high school in 1998 is another piece of evidence that Ali did not leave Saudi Arabia a violent extremist.
His two classmates told me that Ali was very much around in Maiduguri between his high school graduation in 1998 and his death five years later. They recall meeting at social gatherings, stumbling into him on the road or at friends’ places, and chatting about life after graduation — even debating his ideology. Ali’s associate in the Salafi circle, Balarabe, recalled studying privately with Ali for the 1999 university examination and meeting him at different Muslim gatherings in Maiduguri from 1998 to 2002. He also remembered Ali’s visit to his house around 2002 to invite him to study Ali’s newfound ideology, which led to a long debate.
Ali’s Path to Violent Extremism
Ali studied and became radicalized domestically in north-east Nigeria by reading extremist literature — some from the Middle East — and relating this to local issues and grievances. He was inspired by the Taliban and al-Qaeda — whom he tried to mimic — and might have been introduced to jihadi literature during a short trip in Sudan, but he never studied in Sudan or elsewhere, nor did he have personal contacts, much less train and fight, with Taliban or Al-Qaeda members in Nigeria or abroad.
Zenn, citing Pantami, wrote in his book that “Ali embraced jihadism when travelling to Saudi Arabia in 1994 with classmate and fellow Kanuri, Abu Umar,” and that the duo also “travelled to Khartoum for business and studies” where “they were influenced by jihadist literature.” In my interview with him in January 2022, Pantami said that Zenn did not “get me completely right.” He said he did not tell Zenn that Ali and Abu Umar ever travelled to Saudi Arabia, but that “Ali alone travelled to Sudan in 2000, not 1994, for a short business trip (about a month), but never for studies. In Sudan, Ali came across some students who introduced him to the writings and website of Abu Baseer Addardusiy, a Syrian extremist ideologue then in exile in England.” This suggests that Ali might have travelled to Sudan, but his stay, connections, and activities there are nowhere near what the above literature suggests.
According to Pantami, in Nigeria, Ali read the publications given to him in Sudan and visited Addardusiy’s website hosting jihadi materials that he was introduced to in Sudan, opening his path to extremism. He subsequently got swayed to jihadism and then converted others such as Abu Umar, a Hausa man from Kano who became his companion. But there are both domestic and transnational matters that fed Ali and his friends’ radicalization. His transition period after secondary school education coincided in the late 1990s with the increasing popularity of re-introducing the sharia penal system in northern Nigeria, which galvanized thousands of activists, including Ali and Yusuf.
Following the re-introduction of a sharia system by 12 of the 19 governors in northern Nigeria in 2000, Ali, Yusuf, and their cohorts became disappointed by its “poor implementation.” They argued that a proper sharia justice system required the backing of an Islamic state, not secular, democratic institutions. Consequently, they felt the need for a group that would establish an Islamic government in northern Nigeria that would implement sharia law as the panacea to the region’s social problems.
Ali saw the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as a war on Islam and Muslims globally. Many Muslims across the world viewed the “Global War on Terror” as the United States picking on Muslim countries in an attempt to control the world. But Ali and several in his circle took these grievances much further and deeper. They closely followed events in the Middle East and were transfixed by the speeches of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. According to Balarabe, Ali and Yusuf listened to the recordings and read the writings of bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Ayman al Zawahiri so frequently that they memorized and cited large portions of these speeches in their own preaching. From there, they read and translated jihadi publications into local Kanuri and Hausa languages.
Having converted to jihadism, Ali and Abu Umar went on recruitment visits to Salafi clerics in different towns and cities across northern Nigeria in search of a credible leader for their cause. All of their targets — including Pantami and Mallam Bello Doma, a prominent Salafi cleric in the town of Gombe — rejected the invitation, except Yusuf. Consequently, Yusuf publicly rejected western-style education and secular institutions, and advocated for violence in order to replace this system. Ali and Yusuf’s readings and views reinforced each other, and they went on to lay the foundations for the group that would become Boko Haram in 2003. Since Yusuf was older and a had a higher public profile, it was agreed that he would lead the group and serve as its public face.
It was a perfect storm. A multitude of local factors provided a huge market for Boko Haram’s ideas. Poverty, illiteracy, and inequality had alienated millions of young people in northern Nigeria. Political corruption and police brutality had severely damaged the social contract, which has always been fragile. Ethno-religious tensions and violence from the 1980s, unaddressed through the justice system or reconciliation, had led to a huge inter-faith mistrust between Muslims and Christians, and sectarian tensions among Muslim groups had sharpened. Ali and his associates exploited all of these factors. They translated Arabic literature from the Middle East and infused this with locally relevant materials to roll out a massive grassroots campaign of radicalization. They spoke to local populations in their own language about the problems bedeviling them.
A Terrible Ending
Ali’s most important contribution to Boko Haram was his role in recruiting the initial hardcore members in Nigeria. He did this by writing short pamphlets explaining their new ideology. These were distributed in mosques during religious gatherings organized by other Muslim groups. Members of the public whose interest had been piqued were able to contact Ali via a mobile number left on the pamphlets. In this way, he helped to recruit dozens from north-eastern Nigeria, but also sowed the seeds of Boko Haram in Jos, Kano, and elsewhere across the country. Soon, Ali’s eagerness for members to migrate out of morally “dirty cities” and wage war on the Nigerian government collided with Yusuf’s more strategic approach. This led to a fracture in the group during 2003. Ultimately, Ali led about 70 followers to the northern part of Yobe State, where they ended up on the outskirts of Tarmowa and the Kanamma villages.
A “quit” notice from local authorities that were not comfortable with the commune’s strange — though not at that point violent — activities culminated in a clash with security forces in which scores of members were killed. Ali himself survived, but was killed just weeks later by vigilantes. Ultimately, a few surviving members deserted the group and returned to their communities, while others returned to Yusuf. Those among Ali’s surviving followers who reunited with Yusuf after the Kanamma incident may have played a part in Yusuf’s faction transitioning to violence. While at the commune, Ali dedicated himself to teaching his extreme interpretation of Islam to not only faithful members, but also to the residents of surrounding villages during preaching tours, where he recruited scores of new followers. It was Ali’s heavy indoctrination and calls to arms that incited the Kanamma clash as far back as 2003, and it is probably his influence that accounts for how some of his followers pressed on with his ideological mission, even after his demise.
The Importance of Beginnings
The debate about Ali’s radicalization, links, and connections is very important because it helps to identify where the disaster that is Boko Haram originated. Only after these questions have been addressed can the group be comprehensively defeated and the right lessons be learned by policymakers. Security measures against Boko Haram may not be fundamentally affected by the answers to these questions, but efforts to counter the group’s recruitment, state-building activities, and propaganda won’t succeed if analysts and officials don’t understand how it was actually established. If, for instance, Boko Haram started as an al-Qaeda project conceived and funded from outside Nigeria, then local agency is minimal. In this case, one might assume that the extremism problem in the Lake Chad region is relatively limited, and focus on addressing the factors that make locals vulnerable to recruitment by external forces. On the other hand, if Boko Haram is instead — as I argue — a “homegrown” project conceived and propelled by local actors, then local agency, factors, and grievances should be taken seriously.
To be fair, while Boko Haram’s founding was fueled by local factors, genuine connections did develop around 2010 between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda. This led to financial assistance and the donation of weapons from the latter to the former. In 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, leading to its rebranding as Islamic State West Africa Province and the inflow of financial support and operational training. The fact that these transnational relationships are now real, however, does not take anything away from the importance of questions related to the origins of Boko Haram. Even with these relationships, Boko Haram remains highly localized, and thus the local factors that gave rise to its emergence and resilience need to be understood and addressed. The right approach will therefore be focusing on addressing the local factors while disrupting the transnational enablers.
Ali is a classic example of how genius and energy, if not channeled well, can not just go to waste, but also lead to havoc. A good school and community support system might have stopped this aspiring medical doctor from ending up as a terrorist pioneer, saving not just him, but a whole generation. There are thousands of young people like Ali across Nigeria and Africa — young, smart, and exuberant — who have no proper counselling and mentoring, no role models to look up to or opportunities to compete for. Investing in them today is the best investment in a peaceful and prosperous future. Failing to provide them with a good education and opportunities is a sure path to an even more unstable Africa.
Bulama Bukarti is a senior analyst specializing in extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in London. He has researched Boko Haram in his native Nigeria for over a decade and is now completing a Ph.D. on the subject at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He taught law at Bayero University Kano and practiced as a human rights lawyer and anti-corruption advocate in Nigeria for half a decade.