Dans le numéro 3/2020 de Politique étrangère, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos a proposé une analyse croisée de plusieurs ouvrages consacrés à l’insécurité en Afrique subsaharienne. L’auteur d’un de ces livres, Jacob Zenn, professeur associé à l’université Georgetown et chercheur à la Jamestown Foundation, a demandé à bénéficier d’un droit de réponse.

In Politique étrangère (n°3/2020), Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos reviewed my book, Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2020), but with much misrepresentation. This article addresses those misrepresentations by quoting Montclos’ review and the book itself.

Montclos claimed Unmasking “utilized no French academic literature on the Sahel.” However, Unmasking cited two French-language Olivier Meunier book chapters. One chapter demonstrated 1990s Nigerian and Nigerien Salafi scholars’ close contacts and the other revealed an “Algerian merchant” constructed Niger-based Islamic school, Moufidah (p. 33). The relevance in Unmasking related to Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) member, Hacene Allane, being a Niger-based Algerian merchant in 1993 before becoming the GIA’s first Nigeria-based operative in 1994 (p. 30). Furthermore, the Salafi preacher hosting Allane in Nigeria ran an Islamic school that supported Moufidah. Although I suspected Allane constructed Moufidah, I withheld making that claim in the book.

French scholar Emmanuel Grégoire’s book chapter was also citedfor noting Niger’s Salafis were called “new jihadists” in 1993 (p. 33). Although Niger’s Salafis rebuffed GIA recruitment attempts, Nigerian intelligence officials observed Allane’s recruiting Nigerians to the GIA and inviting diaspora Nigerian al-Qaeda members back to Nigeria (p. 39). Unmasking contends this represented the Nigerian jihadist movement’s beginnings.

Another French scholar cited was Christian Seignobos, whose research demonstrated when Ansaru faction members reintegrated into Boko Haram in 2013 they would have encountered Cameroon-based zarquina road-robbers (p. 213). Further, Mauritanians Lemine Salem and Zekeria Salem’s French-language works were cited regarding Abu Muhammed al-Yemeni and Muhammad al-Hassan Dedew. Al-Yemeni was Usama Bin Laden’s Nigeria envoy and was hosted by Allane (p. 48); Dedew frequented a Mauritania-based Islamic camp where “Nigerian Taliban” youths studied in 2003 (p. 96).

Lastly, a Montclos French-language report was cited because it argued Boko Haram lacked “diaspora links” and Sahelian jihadist ties. However, Unmasking argues Saudi Arabia-based diaspora Nigerians contributed to Boko Haram’s founding (p. 37) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) trained, financed, supplied weapons, and advised Boko Haram before it launched jihad in 2010 (p. 152). Given Unmasking’s citing French scholars, including also Gilles Kepel (p. 21), and French-language publications, including Tunisia-based Jeune Afrique, Cameroon-based L’Oeil du Sahel, and Senegal-based Dakaractu, it is remarkable Unmasking was criticized for not citing French scholarship.

Montclos further asserted Unmasking focused only on “international connections” and “a few individuals who tried extending sect networks towards the Sahel.” However, Unmasking’s introduction argues for “understanding how international, national, regional, and local forces produced the Boko Haram phenomenon (p. 9).” Moreover, Chapter 4 examines Nigeria’s domestic Islamic milieu, including oil magnate Muhammad Indimi, who befriended George Bush’s family and selected Salafi Jaafar Mahmud Adam over Sufis to preach at his Maiduguri mosque (p. 81). This mosque is where Adam’s disciple, future Boko Haram leader Muhammed Yusuf, eventually preached.

Chapter 4 also mentions the 1982 Borno government report recommending banning the Salafi Izala movement for promoting takfir against Sufis (p. 67). Further, political calculations compelling Izala’s “godfather” Abubakar Gumi to ally with Sufis to counter northern Nigerian Christian political influence is analyzed (p. 76). Tensions between Gumi, anti-government Salafi radical Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, and Shia revolutionary Ibrahim al-Zakzaky are also assessed (p. 71). However, Gumi’s, Datti Ahmed’s, and al-Zakzaky’s receiving Saudi, Libyan, and Iranian support, respectively, demonstrates Nigeria’s religious marketplace was inseparable from international influences.

Other Nigerian Salafi preachers mentioned in Chapter 4 for post-9/11 pro-al-Qaeda preaching include Aminu Daurawa, Abubakar Gero Argungu, Yahya Farouk Chedi, and Isa Ali Pantami, who collectively impacted Muhammad Yusuf’s followers (p. 86). Nigerian Scholars Muzzamil Hanga, Abdullah Saleh “Pakistan”, and Bashir Aliyu Umar, whose experiences with Pakistani, Iranian, Sudanese, and Saudi scholars shaped their religious worldviews, were also analyzed because they eventually renounced radicalism (pp. 73-76). Furthermore, Chapter 8 described Kogi-based Salafis who joined Boko Haram and Ansaru (p. 201), while Chapter 9 discussed Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP)’s financing around Lake Chad (p. 246). One can imagine my wonderment about allegations that Unmasking focused only on “international connections” and “a few” Boko Haram members with Sahelian ties.

Another Montclos claim is Unmasking “says nothing about Nigerian army failures” or abuses. This is patently false, and is rebutted by Chapter 9, whichstates “revenge for arrested, abused, or slain cofighters must have motivated Boko Haram members” (p. 246). The chapter also mentions Nigerian soldiers’ castrating Boko Haram members and asserts Nigeria’s “military alienated traders when their goods were taxed by ISWAP but then seized and destroyed by the army” (p. 290). Additionally, Nigerian security forces’ extrajudicial killing of Muhammed Yusuf, which inspired Boko Haram’s fighting “under the banner of the global jihad movement” like al-Shabaab, is analyzed in Chapter 6 (p. 142).

Montclos also faults Unmasking for showing “little interest” in Nigeria’s 1999 return to civilian rule, 2001 sharia implementation, and post-2001 Islamist disillusionment, which inspired Islamists’ turn to jihadism. However, Chapter 5 argues influential Saudi-trained Nigerian Salafis easily observed Saudi Salafi scholars’ pre-1999 voting prohibitions because Nigeria had few democratic elections. However, after Nigeria democratized in 1999, Nigerian Salafis gradually softened their sharia demands and promoted voting for Muslim leaders. Therefore, Boko Haram preachers claimed Nigerian Salafis liberalized by embracing democracy to the point of infidelity whereas only Boko Haram retained “pure” Salafism (pp. 82, 100, 115). Montclos clearly overlooked this analysis.

Finally, Montclos finds both my omission of Abubakar Lawan and Muhammed Yusuf’s alleged birthyear of 1970 as “troubling.” However, Lawan is deliberately omitted in Unmasking to avoid speculating on individuals when sources are uncorroborated. The original source regarding Lawan is civil society activist-turned-politician Shehu Sani’s 2011 Vanguard article asserting Lawan was a 1990s-era Boko Haram founder. However, no Boko Haram members’ interviews, primary source documents, or scholarly fieldwork proves Lawan even existed. Contrarily, ample evidence revealed in Unmasking indicates al-Qaeda operative Muhammed Ali cofounded Boko Haram alongside Muhammed Yusuf (p. 87). Likewise, no evidence substantiates Yusuf’s 1970 birthyear. Contrarily, Boko Haram’s Yusuf biography states Yusuf’s birthyear as 1388 hijri, or 1967 (p. 65). Thus, these are hardly “troubling” claims and Montclos’ nitpicking digresses from more important discussions.

A lesson learned from Montclos’ book review is reviewers must perform a close reading or risk being exposed for misinterpretations, inaccuracies, and outright falsehoods.

Jacob Zenn