Stephen Ulph Releases Major New Study on Boko Haram

Stephen Ulph, one of the West’s most insightful scholars of both jihadist and reformist narratives, has just published a study on the Nigerian Islamist group, Boko Haram.  Ulph sets out to explain the ideological and doctrinal underpinnings of Boko Haram, with the end goal of helping to construct an effective counter-radicalization strategy.  The report provides critical insights into the history, personalities, and doctrine that shape Boko Haram, and it also provides a broad and instructive overview of contemporary Islamic radicalization more generally.

Ulph’s report can make a valuable contribution to current U.S. strategy in Nigeria, which is a matter of contentious debate.  The State Department and the Administration have focused on what Stephen Ulph calls “the classic analyses on social inequality, political marginalisation and economic underdevelopment.”  The State Department has consistently downplayed the sectarian nature of the conflict and has worked to keep out of the discussion all mention of Islam as a driving factor.  This in turn has shaped the programs employed to address the conflict.  Rather than portray it is a counter-terrorism issue, for example, the State Department frames it as a development/educational issue. [1] At the heart of the debate is the State Department’s designation of three of Boko Haram’s leaders as “specially designated global terrorists,” but the failure, thus far, to designate Boko Haram itself as a foreign-terrorist organization (FTO).  The failure to make the designation hampers the ability to investigate sources of funding, to block assets, and to prosecute those who do provide funding.  The State Department’s position has been contested by the FBI, the military, members of Congress and NGOs.

Ulph makes the point that Boko Haram cannot be understood purely through the lens of undereducation, impoverishment, or political disenfranchisement.  Yet neither can it be fully understood as a purely terrorist phenomenon.  And if we do not correctly understand the movement, we will never put a stop to its reign of violence:

Failure to provide an accurate diagnosis of the rejectionist ideology that underpins the rebellion of Boko Haram and like-minded groups leaves room for the cyclical re-manifestation of militant expressions of this rejection, manifestations no less violent than the present phase is witnessing.

Ulph covers the trajectory of Islamic conservatism and radicalism, looking as far back as the 12th century, up through the 19th century reformist efforts of Usman Dan Fodio.  FromDan Fodio’s almost singular concern with the issue of bida‘, or unIslamic innovation, one can see rejection of innovation and a return to Islamic authenticity and purity in successive waves of radicalization in Nigeria, right through to Boko Haram. Ulph also looks at important external factors that helped shape Nigeria’s radical Islamist movements, including Cairo’s Al Azhar University, the Islamic Awakening, the Iranian Revolution, the Muslim World League and the Gulf Arab states.  Most importantly, Ulph notes, is the influence of ‘Jihadi Salafism,’ a purist, literalist strain of Islam that has helped shape and give rise to the Islamic Awakening:

The gravitational pull of Salafisttextualism, the absolutist adherence to the letter of the law rather than its spirit, inevitably ends with a violent group that sets as its task the tearing down of all structures that conflict with the text. The motivator of this violence is the repudiation of diversity, the disassociation with the other (see Annex: Al-walā’ wal-barā’), the condemnation of Disbelief in Islam and the development of a practice of declaring fellow Muslims ‘infidels’ (takfīr). Such things are not extraneous importations but rather are inherent, organic growths potential within any conservative Muslim tradition that seeks a radical solution to decline.

Because Nigeria is following a pattern seen elsewhere in the Islamic world, it would be inaccurate to say that it is purely local or circumstantial causes that have given rise to Boko Haram.  As Ulph states:

Boko Haram is essentially a product of an age-old tradition of Islamic fundamentalism in Nigeria, one that has come to be fuelled by increasingly absolutist views on Islamic purity and orthodoxy, and increasingly intransigent views on the role Sharīʻa plays as a definer of Islamic identity. By its reflection of Islamic pre-occupations on the global scale, Nigeria would still be subject to Islamic fundamentalist influences even without the specific programme of Boko Haram.

The full report can be accessed here.

Stephen Ulph is a member of the board of the Westminster institute and Senior Fellow with The Jamestown Foundation. One of the preeminent analysts of the Islamic world, Mr. Ulph specializes in the analysis of jihadist and Islamist ideology and regularly lectures on aspects of Islamist and Jihadist ideology impacting on Western democracies and the course of the war on terrorism. He is the founder and former editor of Islamic Affairs Analyst and Terrorism Security Monitor for Jane’s Information Group. His publications include an analysis on jihadism in Syria for the CTC, an ideological analysis of the ‘Virtual Border Conflict’ (the online arena for Islamist extremism) for The Borders of Islam, an in-depth examination of the relationship of Islamism to other totalitarian systems of thought in Fighting the Ideological War, and a 4-part reference work, Towards a Curriculum for the Teaching of Jihadist Ideology, available online at the Jamestown Foundation. He is also the Director of The Reform Project and its bi-lingual website Almuslih (‘The Reformer’ which supports Arab reformist writers and promotes their work to an English-language readership.


[1] For example, in March 2011, then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said that religion was not the primary driver behind extremist violence and that Boko Haram was exploiting “legitimate grievances.” Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Dept. said on April 25, 2011, “In Nigeria, long-standing grievances in the north led to the re-emergence of Boko Haram.” The State Department’s 2012 Country Report on Nigeriacites reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights watch on“how the population’s grievances regarding poverty, government and security force corruption, and police impunity and brutality created a fertile ground for recruiting Boko Haram members.” (