At the end of January, Nigeria's information minister revealed that security forces had recovered "sensitive documents and treasures" disclosing, among other things, the propaganda strategy of ISIS affiliate Boko Haram.
Having lost in the field, Lai Mohammad told reporters, Boko Haram was turning to the press and social media to spread its violent and extremist interpretation of Islamic law, and to give the impression that it still holds territory. He called on the media not to give the militants "the oxygen of publicity they desperately need."
The minister was absolutely right. Boko Haram, like other jihadi terrorist groups, needs publicity. It uses every platform available to communicate with members and potential recruits, instill fear, spread its ideology, and send messages to government, security agencies, and the international community. Mohammad did not disclose in full detail what the documents revealed about Boko Haram's PR machine, which has been going strong since it launched its insurgency in 2009, but over the last one-and-a-half decades the group's propaganda strategy has grown increasingly sophisticated.
Boko Haram's PR approach can be split into three eras: pre-2010, post-2010, and post-affiliation with ISIS. The jihadi group formed in 2002 and had its first open confrontation with the Nigerian security forces in 2009. During this first period, it engaged in aggressive preaching, recruitment, indoctrination, and radicalisation of members. This was done through Friday sermons, public lectures, debates with opposing ulama, or clerics, and the publication of books and pamphlets. Boko Haram leaders also paid personal visits to renowned scholars to invite them to join the group.
Using this strategy, Boko Haram's founder and first leader, Muhammad Yusuf, along with its second and currently disputed leader, Abubakar Shekau, and senior member Mamman Nur, recruited and trained members until the Borno state city of Maiduguri and its environs became the stronghold of its ideology and narrative. Throughout this time, Boko Haram often referred to the hardships the Prophet Muhammad and early Muslims went through, admonishing its members to prepare for the same.
After successes in recruitment, the group established the Ibn Taymiyya Centre, named after the renowned medieval Sunni jurist and theologian, in Maiduguri. This centre was the group's headquarters. Boko Haram's leaders and ideologues also went on regular preaching tours to mosques, other centres, and public places in Maiduguri, as well as to other towns and cities throughout northern Nigeria. The lectures, recorded on tape and video, were sold to members in order to recruit and radicalise more people.
The group also published a manifesto, "Hadhihi Aqodatuniwa-Manhaj Dawatina," or "This is Our Creed and the Method of Our Preaching." Pamphlets published at the time included "Jaa al-Haqq," meaning "The Truth has Emerged," one of the most well-known. These publications explained the group's creed and expounded its concepts of jihad, its views on working for a secular government, and its position on conventional education and relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims. These publications, which became the group's primary reference materials, were used as course books by the group's scholars. Even though Boko Haram's ideology has remained broadly the same since then, its violence has expanded from targeting security forces to Christians and later Muslims (declared by the group as hypocrites). Later on, the Islamist militants also started killing and kidnapping women and children, even though these groups were initially not targets.
Using these early PR methods, Boko Haram was able to mobilise groups of enthusiastic youths who pledged allegiance from the four north-eastern states of Gombe, Adamawa, Yobe, and Bauchi. It was also able to garner a small following from the north-western states of Kano, Jigawa, Katsina, Sokoto, and Kebbi and from Plateau state in the north-central zone.
The first armed conflict between Boko Haram and security forces in July 2009 led to the death of many members of the group, including its founder and pioneer leader. Its headquarters were demolished and it went underground, resurfacing in mid-2010. Boko Haram announced its return with a video published on the web.
At the end of June that year, Muhammad Yusuf's deputy, Abubakar Shekau, appeared in his first online video, his face masked and an AK-47 rifle in the background. Shekau refuted claims that he had been killed in the 2009 confrontation in Maiduguri. He declared that he was still adhering to the principles of the movement and its war against disbelievers and their allies.
The clip launched Shekau as Boko Haram's leader after Yusuf, as well as its spokesperson. He started to regularly address his target audience via video - and sometimes audio - posted online. Since that first clip, and until Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, the group has relied extensively on this medium. Not only has it used video to claim responsibility for attacks and brag about successes, it has used it to reiterate the group's beliefs and communicate with a broader audience. Boko Haram releases its clips on YouTube, which removes some of them from the site shortly afterwards for violating the platform's policy. Boko Haram has also uploaded recordings made earlier in its genesis to YouTube.
Radio has been another key medium for the jihadis, allowing them to reach millions who may not have internet access. The most popular radio stations with the widest coverage in northern Nigeria are the Hausa services of the BBC, VOA, Deutsche Welle, and more recently, France International. Boko Haram has used these stations to spread its propaganda to people its online recordings would not reach otherwise. Boko Haram started using this medium after its re-emergence in 2010, though the group gave its first interview to international media in 2009 to BBC Hausa.
Boko Haram closely monitors media coverage, and often responds to it. In its audio message claiming responsibility for January's attack on a university in north-eastern Nigeria, the group included a warning to a Muslim scholar, Tijjani Bala Qalarawi, who regularly features on VOA and other outlets advocating for peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims. Similarly, in a bid to silence negative publicity, the insurgents have threatened to – and indeed did attack – some outlets whose coverage is critical of Boko Haram. In April 2012, the group attacked a popular newspaper, This Day, in Nigeria's capital.
PR reach expanded massively in April 2014 with the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno state. The assault catapulted it to the world stage. Along with its declaration of a caliphate in its capital city in Gwoza, Borno state, in August of that year, this gave Boko Haram the chance to spread its propaganda worldwide.
Boko Haram became formally affiliated to ISIS in March 2015, opening yet another new chapter in its propaganda history. The group's videos immediately started showing signs of ISIS' influence. The very first video the group released after its affiliation, footage of two beheaded men accused of spying, mirrored those of ISIS.
With the affiliation, the quality and professionalism of Boko Haram's videos improved markedly; their iconography and higher resolution were made to resemble ISIS productions. The group started embellishing its videos with professionally designed graphics and first-rate opening sequences. It also began publishing branded photographs of its militants and the areas it controlled to demonstrate successes. The clips included jihadi anthems used by ISIS, improved sound quality, and well-presented subtitles in English, French, Arabic, and Hausa.
But Boko Haram borrowed a leaf from ISIS' media strategy, too. Previously, the group published its videos directly on YouTube and distributed them to international media outlets like AFP through middlemen. However, in January 2015, following ISIS' lead, Boko Haram launched a Twitter handle called al-Urwah al-Wuthqa, or "the trustworthy handle."
The name of the Twitter account was culled from Surah 2:256 of the Quran, which says "...So whoever disbelieves in Taghut (everything that is worshipped besides Allah) and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handle, al-Urwah al-Wuthqa, which never breaks." The Quranic phrase here is deliberately used to validate the group's claim to Islam and lure new recruits. It is worth noting that the very beginning of this verse contains the popular Islamic phrase, "There is no compulsion in religion..." which goes against Islamist militancy. This part was ignored by the group, however, confirming that Boko Haram, like other ISIS affiliates, cherry-picks Islamic texts to justify its ideology.
A number of hints in Boko Haram's propaganda output show the group's connection with Islam, terrorism, and ISIS. Its videos always feature a black and white ISIS flag, a book, and two crossed guns. Masked men in camouflage and military vehicles are a show of Boko Haram's strength. They are also a way of mocking the Nigerian army, from whom the group claims to have captured the equipment.
Most of the group's recordings are made in three languages: Arabic, Hausa, and Kanuri. The latter two languages are mainly spoken in northern Nigeria, and parts of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. Except for references from the Quran, the majority of the content is in those two tongues, an indication of the group's regional focus. The fact that subtitles were included in videos after the group's affiliation with ISIS shows that its target audience has expanded, from regional to global. When the videos contain extensive Arabic content, they tend to be targeted at ISIS or members of Boko Haram. English is sometimes used when the Islamist militant group refers to the "Constitution" or "Western education," or as a form of mockery to the government, security forces, and the international community.
Boko Haram militants themselves use recordings to send messages to their leaders, which consolidates the group's propaganda machine. In a video released in November 2014 after a massacre in Bama town, Borno state, a young Boko Haram militant wearing a yellow kaftan and clutching an AK-47, apparently the leader of that contingent, reiterated his allegiance to Shekau and his readiness to die for the cause. In a more recent video from August last year, some fighters sent a message to ISIS insisting on the leadership of Shekau and their resolve not to obey Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who ISIS had announced as the group's new leader.
Since its inception, Boko Haram has recognised the importance of propaganda to its survival, and adapted accordingly. At first, it used face-to-face meetings, lectures, sermons, pamphlets, books, and audio and video tapes, with little coverage on mainstream media, to spread its message. The first interview given by its first leader to an international outlet was seven years after the group first formed. In more recent years, however, as internet and cellular services in Nigeria have improved, the group has grown more savvy, gravitating online.
Simply calling on the media not to give Boko Haram publicity will not produce the required results. The group can always use new media, which today reaches as many people as the conventional media, if not more, and is much harder to control. It is high time governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders realised this and the need to use the same tools to counter the group's messaging. This cannot be done without first carefully studying and understanding the propaganda and ideology of group's like Boko Haram and developing an articulate counter-narrative.