Boko Haram

The History of an African Jihadist Movement

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Alexander Thurston
Princeton Studies in Muslim Politics
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , November
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement, Alexander Thurston sets out to introduce the world not only to Boko Haram but also to the conditions that give rise to such groups. By understanding the underpinnings that encourage the growth of violent Jihadist movements, Nigeria and the rest of the world could stop or prevent the births of such destructive factions.

Using Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin as a case study, Thurston presents the emergence of Boko Haram as the “outcome of dynamic, locally grounded interactions between religion and politics” (3). Frequently, when the topic of terrorist groups is brought up, the individuals within the organization are presented as senseless or purposeless, and the blame for their existence is shifted, irrespective of what the group is claiming as its reasoning behind the movement. What Thurston does in Boko Haram is trace the early years of its founders—Mohammed Yusuf and his deputy Abubakar Shekau. Painstakingly, this historical reflection presents Boko Haram members as human beings, reacting and adapting to the socioeconomic and political atmosphere in which they had grown up. 

Thurston argues that the instability and corruptive nature within the Nigerian government, as well as the resulting lack of economic opportunities, contributed to the rise of groups such as Boko Haram. Since the time of its independence, Nigeria—now in its fourth republic—has gone from military rule to civilian rule, and, until 2015, that transition has not been peaceful. Furthermore, corruption and the lack of opportunity, especially in larger cities such as Maiduguri, provided little support to the great influx of migrants, many of whom turned to a life of crime. It was amid the turmoil of this high unemployment rate, widespread prostitution, lack of infrastructure and services, and prevalent disease that “Yusuf and Shekau would soon attempt to build an antigovernment movement on Maiduguri and beyond” (51).

In Boko Haram, Thurston details why the group stood against Western education. To Boko Haram, the Western way of governance—democracy—was an enemy of Islam. In light of the instabilities mentioned above, Muhammed Yusuf, and later Abubakar Shekau, came to believe that “the government of Nigeria has not been built to do justice … It has been built to attack Islam and Kill Muslims” (34). This accusation stemmed from a myriad of grievances committed against Muslims by the Nigerian government, a fact that Muhammad Yusuf would claim to be the reasoning behind their retributive attacks. Therefore, the answer for these young Islamic activists was the establishment of Sharia law in the place of democracy. Here, Thurston does a commendable job of portraying Boko Haram as a group that thrived on the politicization of Islam, and his positioning of Boko Haram as a religio-political movement is a fascinating perspective. 

Christian, as well as some Muslim, readers in Nigeria may find Thurston’s humanizing of Boko Haram members—presenting them at times as being retributive and adaptive—problematic, especially when Thurston raises the question of how much of the responsibility should be placed on Boko Haram. He also questions their actions and whether those actions are propagated by their quest for destruction. Lending legitimacy to these questions, Thurston is able to show that “creating a Salafi-Jihadist enclave meant expunging Christianity” (227). He continues this observation, revealing that once Boko Haram, under Abubakar Shekau, had an Islamic state under its control, it “made little effort to institutionalize Islamic courts and schools, or to distribute human relief” (227). Therefore, though Boko Haram was initially incepted due to instability within the country, its current reason for existing is for the sake of causing chaos. Perhaps Thurston could have provided more examples of how the groups methods and tactics have changed. Though Thurston demonstrates how Abubakar Shekau continued to preach the late Muhammad Yusuf’s message, the violence and lack of organization in a fragmenting sect could indicate a greater divergence from their initial motivations. 

Thurston should have supplied more evidence in defense of his decision to exclude other major terrorist groups from the affairs of Boko Haram. His two prominent arguments are that these external terrorist groups, such as al-Qaida, did not trust Abubakar Shekau due to his irregular Jihadi practices and that the methods of attack employed by Boko Haram—such as shootings using motorcycles—were not similar to the kidnapping style attacks of other terrorist organizations. As Thurston himself states, one should not “project coherence onto actors and events in order to generate a neat narrative about jihadist cooperation” (171). For this reason, it is hard to conclude that other international jihadist groups did not have a hand in the affairs of Boko Haram, though Thurston provides an incredible amount of well-investigated information to prove the seclusion and locally formulated attacks of Boko Haram. 

Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement also suggests that the best means of solving the problem of Boko Haram, as well as similar subsequent groups, is to embrace successful methods of dialogue. In demonstrating the failed initiatives of military and civilian forces, continued dialog appears to be the only solution; a constant dialog where accountability is fostered. Thurston argues that empowering, rather than vilifying, individuals with access to Boko Haram can disarm them, and at the same time de-radicalize them.

Boko Haramdoes an exceptional job at presenting the historical makings of Boko Haram. Alexander Thurston, using well-researched sources, has been able to demonstrate how a government can avoid inciting its people to violence. In this case, where violence exists, dialogue—and dialogue alone, may restore a bit of sanity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bullus M. Gago is a doctoral student in Comparative Theology at the Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alexander Thurston is visiting assistant professor of African studies at Georgetown University and the author of Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.