21/07/2014 11:18 BST | Updated 16/09/2014 06:59 BST

Millions of Nigerians Support Boko Haram's Jihadism


The latest Pew Research survey of attitudes towards Islamic extremism reveal that the overwhelming majority of Nigerians - including the majority of Muslims - deplore Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda, but a significant minority still support the two militant groups.

Pew found that 10% of those surveyed had a favourable view of Boko Haram, which is engaged in a lengthy and bloody insurgency that is focused on its northeast heartland. This equates to seven million Nigerian adults.


While the group sees itself as a vanguard of Allah fighting Christian "infidels" to turn Nigeria into an Islamic theocracy, many security analysts believe it has little mass support.

However, Boko Haram does not need mass support to be effective. The level of sympathy from a significant section of the population, as suggested in Pew's survey, may suggest broader allegiance to the group than the three northeastern states where the federal government has imposed a state of emergency, which together have a total population of under eight million.

Pew's research also suggests support beyond the ethnic Kanuri population, who number around 6.5 million in Nigeria, represent around 80 per cent of the group's membership. It indications are that Boko Haram is gaining ground among the Hausa-Fulani populations of the north and middle belt.

The results of the survey will cause mounting anxiety among the overwhelming number of Nigerians who deplore the group's ideology and tactics and fear the insurgency penetrating southern states, particularly the oil-rich Delta region where its leader Abubakr Shekau has pledged to mount terrorist operations.

In a video published this week, Shekau claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on the country's financial capital Lagos located in the southwest. The video also contained subtle symbolism in the use of flags, which are identical to those used by the Islamic State, formerly ISIS. Boko Haram has never before used these flags.

Although he has largely been obsessed with local issues, Shekau has been eager to become part of an international jihadist network, mindful of the boost this would give him in domestic support as well as the global recognition he craves. The Pew survey found that Al-Qaeda was almost twice as popular in Nigeria than Boko Haram with 18 per cent of respondents - who included both Christians and Muslims - expressing a "favourable" view of the organisation. Around 19 per cent of Nigerian Muslims believe suicide bombings are "often or sometimes justified in order to defend Islam", which suggests that many Nigerian Muslims support Islamist ideology even if they do not endorse its methods. Nevertheless, the survey results equate to six million supporters of hardline jihadism. It would only take around four or five per cent of these jihadist sympathisers to outnumber the total number of Nigerian military personnel.

The exact nature of the relationship between Boko Haram and international jihadism is unclear, although Shekau praised Zawahiri and Al-Baghdadi in his speech. Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan believes Boko Haram is too extreme for an "Al-Qaeda in Western Africa".

Abubakr al-Baghdadi's newly announced "Caliphate" may well embrace the Nigerian jihadist, although Shekau's braggadocio may test even the self-appointed Caliph's patience. Shekau is no thinker and often his rants are ill-informed, such as his statement in December that Margaret Thatcher feared him, even though she had been dead for eight months.

Political illiteracy may not matter to those millions who support Boko Haram's nihilistic brand of jihadism, regardless of its negative impact on Nigeria's security, territorial integrity and communal relations. Yet, some may see the emergence of such violent insurrection as inevitable in a country plagued by corruption, state terror, political manipulation of ethnic divides and areas of extreme poverty.