Sunday, 6 July 2014

"God's Warriors" Against the Secular State -- On Boko Haram and ISIS

Nowadays, something is happening before our eyes that is difficult to understand. But we must understand it if we still want to work for our political vision.

     In Nigeria, a big gang of Islamic fundamentalists, namely Boko Haram, is fighting for a “state of God”, killing civilians of other faiths, destroying educational institutions and abducting girls. And the secular state Nigeria – the most populous country and economic power number one in Africa –is powerless against it. Something similar is happening in Iraq. A relatively small militia of Islamist jihadists called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) – according to estimates of Western experts, (along with allied militant Sunni groups) about ten thousand strong – invaded northwestern Iraq, and the soldiers of the Iraqi army – in all about two hundred thousand strong – who were stationed there took flight in a panic, totally without a fight. They even threw away their uniforms and helmets, and ran (probably) straight back home. The fact that the units in question were taken by surprise cannot be the only explanation for the flight. For even on the following days, the army could not stop the advance of the ISIS-fighters.

    This total powerlessness of the armies of the concerned States is remarkable. In terms of military equipment too, there is no superiority of the “warriors of God”. The only thing that comes to mind to explain the different fighting strength of the soldiers of the two sides, comes from the area of psychology, morale, and character. The ones, “God’s warriors”, are highly motivated fighters for a cause they have dedicated their lives to. They know no fear, are always ready to die for their cause – if necessary, even as suicide bombers. The others are just ordinary people who have found a job in the army. They gladly take the pay, but they do not want to risk their lives.

    We have observed this contrast also in Afghanistan and Somalia. The Taliban and Al-Shabab had easily vanquished the diverse politicians, clan chiefs and warlords with their soldiers and put them to flight. It required a veritable invasion of the Americans and the armies of the neighboring states supported by the Americans to drive out the Taliban and Al-Shabab respectively from the cities. But the latter are not beaten at all. They continue to fight, now as guerrillas. Al-Shabab fighters even perpetrate attacks deep in enemy territory, namely in Kenya.

    Undoubtedly, this tenacity and this fighting power come mainly from the fact that these warriors – at least their leaders – pursue, in their view, the highest conceivable goal: They strive for nothing less than the establishment of a "state of God". All those who stand in the way in their pursuit of this goal are to be destroyed. As against that, what is demanded of the soldiers of the state armies is only that they fight against those whom the ruler(s) of the day consider as enemies.

    Maliki cannot make his soldiers believe that he as the national leader is pursuing some higher goal. Moreover, the Iraqi Shiites did not come to power through something approximately like an armed uprising of their own in the sense of a liberation struggle, but only through accepting the American invasion, letting the Yankees put an end to the Saddam regime, and, lastly, simply by being a large majority of the population. (The Kurds, of course, collaborated with the Americans, but, before 2003, they had fought for many years for their own Kurdish nation state.). So it is no wonder that now the ayatollahs and imams appear on the scene and call upon Shia young men to volunteer go to war for defending their sacred pilgrimage sites.

    In the two previous years, we have also seen in Syria that neither the professional state army of Syria was in a position to crush the armed uprising, nor could the secular soldiers and officers of the Free Syrian Army overthrow Assad from power. That is why finally, on the one hand, the Shiite warriors of Hezbollah had to rush to the aid of the Assad regime, and, on the other hand, the Sunni “holy warriors” of Al Nusra Front and ISIS had to engage themselves in the struggle against the Assad regime. Both sides were able to achieve successes. Hezbollah fighters were able to save the Assad regime, and the Al Nusra and ISIS fighters could liberate large parts of northern Iraq.

    We now know enough about the corrupt ruling elite of Nigeria. It is also known that the soldiers lack motivation. In 2014, one can read the following about the state of the Nigerian Army:

"The opposition in Nigeria accuses … the government and the military of total failure. The army is in a rotten state. The morale of the soldiers is bad, inter alia, because they often have to wait for weeks for their pay. The equipment of the military is neglected and internal communication chaotic. Discipline of the troops is weak. Venal officers collaborate with Boko Haram. In May 2014, nine generals were under criminal investigation on charges of arms sales to Boko Haram. After an attack on May 13, 2014 on a raiding party of the 7th Infantry Division, during the subsequent visit of the commanding general to the troops, his car was shot at by his own soldiers. The soldiers suspect their own commander of collaborating with Boko Haram. "(Wikipedia - German)

And one can read the following opinions on the condition of the Iraqi Army:

Recent assessments by Western officials and military experts indicate that about a quarter of Iraq’s military forces are ‘combat ineffective’, its air force is minuscule, morale among troops is low and its leadership suffers from widespread corruption. ... 60 out of 243 Iraqi Army combat battalions ‘cannot be accounted for, and all of their equipment is lost’. ... Five of the Iraqi Army’s 14 divisions were ‘combat ineffective’, including the two that were overrun in Mosul. … Iraq's army is [essentially only a] ‘checkpoint’ army, but …. they do not have the equipment nor willingness to do even that in the precise and effective way US troops did while there. …. Iraqi soldiers discounted their future. They were interested in a paycheck. But the Iraqi civilians were scared to death, … .” (Rubin & Gordon 2014)

About the ISIS fighters one reads the following:

“A commander of the Iraqi army said: ‘ISIS are in small numbers, but they are well trained, … ISIS fighters have a will to die so they don’t show fear.’ … Western officials describe ISIS as a far tougher enemy than the one the American military faced when it was battling Al Qaeda in Iraq … . They also appear dedicated to their cause of vanquishing the forces of the modern world and returning the territory they take to an earlier form of Islam. … So far the fighters seem impervious to combat losses, quickly replenishing their ranks with fighters from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Chechnya and Europe, who appear to be drawn by the successes in Iraq.” (ibid)

Two unknown (probably American) readers of the article I have just quoted from commented as follows:

I find this amazing given the fact they were trained by the military of the United States. Why and how did the US allow this happen? The Iraqis were trained by the best, then they should also be the best. I don't get it?” And

 “What type of training did they do that caused the Iraqi army to run away faster than a TV cartoon character at the first sign of fighting?”(ibid.)?

To this I would like to say that these two commentators have not understood that commitment and morale cannot be injected through training nor through a pay.

Deeper causes of the rise of Boko Haram and ISIS

But if it has come so far that the ruling elite of Nigeria cannot even pay the soldiers regularly even though the country is Africa's economic power number one, then it's no wonder that this army cannot defeat the fighters of Boko Haram, who are fighting for a cause out of political-religious conviction.

    It must, however, also be said here that corruption among the ruling elite is not the only cause of soldiers not getting paid regularly, which is, no doubt, the most important factor in their declining morale. There are also some deeper, namely material-economic, causes. In an English newspaper article (Ahmed 2014), one reads:

 But while corruption and ageing infrastructure play an important role, the end of cheap oil is the real elephant in the room. One study by two Nigerian scholars concluded in 2011 that ‘there is an imminent decline in Nigeria's oil reserve since peaking could have occurred or just about to occur.’… ‘According to one senior Shell official, in March this year, crude oil production decline rates are ‘as high as 15 to 20 per cent.’

    The author also refers to ‘Nigeria's intensifying energy crisis.’ He writes: ‘In recent months, the country has faced a fuel crisis partly due to the government slashing previously high fuel subsidies, contributing to increasing public anger and civil unrest.’ (ibid).

    This is a pure economic crisis. If we add to this the rapid population growth – 159 Million people in 2010 with an annual growth rate of 3% (Wikipedia–English) – then we understand how bad the economic situation in Nigeria is.

    That is not all. The author of the above quotes also writes:

“Instability in Nigeria, however, has been growing steadily over the last decade, and one reason is climate change. In 2009, a UK Department for International Development (Dfid) study warned that climate change could contribute to increasing resource shortages in the country due to land scarcity from desertification, water shortages, and mounting crop failures.

    A more recent study by the … US Institute for Peace confirmed a ‘basic causal mechanism’ that ‘links climate change with violence in Nigeria.’ The report concludes: ‘...poor responses to climatic shifts create shortages of resources such as land and water. Shortages are followed by negative secondary impacts, such as more sickness, hunger, and joblessness. Poor responses to these, in turn, open the door to conflict.’

    According to the late Prof Sabo Bako of Ahmadu Bello University, the 1980s ‘forerunner’ to Boko Haram was the Maitatsine sect in northern Nigeria, whose members included many victims of ecological disasters leaving them in ‘a chaotic state of absolute poverty and social dislocation in search of food, water, shelter, jobs, and means of livelihood.’

    A year after the USIP study, Africa Review reported that many Boko Haram foot soldiers happen to be people displaced by severe drought and food shortages in neighboring Niger and Chad. Some 200,000 farmers and herdsmen had lost their livelihoods and, facing starvation, crossed the border to Nigeria. (ibid)

    As for the rise of ISIL and other militant Sunni groups that are now so successfully fighting in Iraq, its cause may not only be the general rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the whole Islamic world. It also has something to do with the economic situation in Iraq. Oil extraction in the OPEC’s second largest producer country has largely recovered from the setbacks suffered in the previous decade. But apart from crude oil export and some oil related industries, that are the mainstay of the country’s economy, there are not enough other employment opportunities to absorb the growing number of young people seeking gainful employment. Iraq’s population – 31.234 Million in 2009 – is growing at the annual rate of 2.29 percent (2013 figure). 25 percent of the country’s work force are unemployed, and 25 percent live below the poverty line (cf. Wikipedia–English). Maliki’s Shia-dominated government has also not done enough to assuage the feelings of the Sunni youth that they are being discriminated against in economy and politics. This is also a reason that many Sunnis who are not fundamentalists support the Sunni “holy warriors” led by the fundamentalist ISIS.


I remember TV reports from the Congo, when the country was still called Zaire and its ruler Mobutu. The soldiers often did not get any pay from the kleptocratic rulers of the minerals-rich country. They therefore now and then mutinied and looted the shops and residents of the capital, so as to collect their pay in an alternative way. We know that in the following years Zaire sank in chaos. The eastern part of the country soon became the hunting ground of resource robbers. Currently, chaos also prevails in Iraq, although it is a somewhat different kind of chaos. It is likely that the country will fall apart. And then on its territory will originate three new states that will be fiercely fighting for the rich oil resources of the region. The oil fields of Kirkuk are already objects of serious dispute.

    It is possible that at some point Nigeria too will be overtaken by the same fate. Just as the Iraqi people are divided into religious and ethnic groups, so also the Nigerian (Muslims, Christians, Ogonis, Adonis etc.). In Iraq, the Kurds have already achieved a high degree of autonomy; they now want to create a real state of their own. In Nigeria, the Ogonis are demanding political and economic autonomy as well as environmental protection, all connected with oil extraction in their region. So there are religious conflicts in Nigeria – Muslims (Boko Haram) against Christians – but also ethnic ones. In1993, a violent conflict flared up between the Ogonis and the Adonis, as a result of which about 1000 Ogonis were killed and 30,000 were forced to flee.

    I am afraid wherever such a constellation exists – different religious and/or ethnic and/or linguistic groups living in one country – there, potential for more or less serious conflict also exists. It may be a poor country or a (potentially) rich one, it may be an overpopulated country or not, the potential is there. Three examples occur to me immediately: Sudan and then South Sudan (different religious and ethnic groups, poor but oil-rich), Belgium (two major linguistic groups, rich, and same religion with insignificant denominational difference), and the Ukraine (two linguistic groups, relatively poor, two denominations of Christianity, different histories).

    Of course, in Nigeria as well as in Iraq, conflict over power and wealth distribution has been playing a major role. But the long-term, that is, the real goal of ISIS, Boko Haram and other fundamentalist-Islamist groups is to establish a "a state of God” on the basis of the Sharia and their particular interpretation of Islam. Will they be successful? In the medium term, they could win, at least in the Muslim majority countries. Because they are devotedly fighting for an ideal, but not their opponents. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, who was murdered by a fanatical Islamist in 2004 because he had insulted Islam, gave another reason: There is a promise in Islam that he who dies as a martyr would directly ascend to heaven and enjoy there a most beautiful life. The “holy warriors” of Islam firmly believe it. For their opponents and for fighters of other faiths, there is no such promise; actually, nowadays most of them do not really believe fully in their respective religion.

    In Afghanistan, before the American invasion of 2001, they were already successful. Their moderate brothers, elected by the people, are today ruling in Turkey. Until a year ago, also elected by the people, they ruled for a short time in Egypt. In Gaza-strip they could very easily drive away their secular opponents.

     In the long term, however, they too will fail. For, firstly, there is no God who could help them when the earthly problems would become more acute. These are already acute and are becoming ever more acute. This was concretely demonstrated one year ago in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood failed. And secondly, faith and Sharia alone cannot satisfy the growing material needs and desires of a growing population. Turkey is a special case. It was already a relatively developed country, when the AKP party came to power.

    The Western model of a democratic secular state is in the retreat – generally in the whole world, and particularly in the Islamic countries. In the long term, it will also fail. We could again make this model attractive, if, and only if, we could free it from its current liaison with capitalism. In conjunction with eco-socialism it could again become an attractive model, and a goal, for which to fight with dedication would be worthwhile. This goal could take the wind out of the Islamists’ sails.


Ahmed, Nafeez (2014) ”Behind the Rise of Boko Haram – Ecological Disaster, Oil Crisis, Spy Games.” In: The Guardian. Com 9.05.2014.

Rubin. Alissa J. & Michael R. Gordon (2014) “Iraq’s Military Seen as Unlikely to Turn the Tide”. In: The New York Times (online), 22.06 2014.

PS. In this context, I also recommend the following reading: The Power of the Religions and the Helplessness of the Leftists, by Saral Sarkar.