understanding Boko Haram

Paper and video trail reveals changes in extremist movement

When it comes to researching Boko Haram, the violent jihadist movement that has terrorized northern Nigeria since 2009, the challenges are plain.

The “field site” is a no-man’s land of weekly brutal attacks, with two million displaced persons and five million suffering from food insecurity, and the group’s members are “almost impossible to interview,” said Zacharias Pieri, PhD. “How do you do research in the absence of research participants from that region?”

Pieri, an instructor of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at USF Sarasota-Manatee and an expert on extremist movements, has instead turned to an innovative and diverse mix of materials — from interviews and videos to pamphlets and sermons — to understand how Boko Haram evolved from a social justice movement fighting government corruption and poverty to a group known for its indiscriminate slaughter and the abduction and sexual slavery of women and girls.

"These movements actually are very conscious, able to root themselves within the context in which they operate."

One of Pieri’s favorite ways to study Boko Haram, he said, is a technique called discourse analysis, where he examines the language and narratives contained in Boko Haram statements.

“I have the largest discourse database of Boko Haram materials that I know of, and in it you can see some major shifts in the discourse that are reflected in the operations and strategy of the movement,” he said.

For instance, discourse changes trace the history of Boko Haram’s decision to become an affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State in 2014, and Pieri and his colleagues show how shifts in the idea of takfirism — or judging fellow Muslims as unbelievers or apostates — led to a splintering of the group in 2016, with some factions expanding their attacks to a broader population in Nigeria.

The analyses have also uncovered the deep roots of Boko Haram in Nigerian history, back to an 1804 jihad and caliphate in northern Nigeria that Boko Haram members hold up as an alternative to Nigeria’s corruption-riddled government.

“I will agree that these movements are exceptionally brutal and not really justified in what they are doing, but I think my students are surprised to find out that these movements actually are very conscious,” Pieri said, “able to root themselves within the context in which they operate and have a phenomenal understanding of their own history.”

As an expert on Boko Haram and extremist movements, Pieri has given advice to the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, as well as the U.S. Office of National Intelligence. His research helps these agencies develop strategies for countering jihadist extremism.

“If we’re able to understand the discourse of a group and the narrative, we can then allow policymakers and influential people to develop counternarratives,” Pieri said.

Image of Zacharias Pieri, PhD
Zacharias Pieri, PhD

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