A Shia “Boko Haram” Insurgency or Iranian Proxy in Nigeria? Not So Fast

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 15

(source: dailypost.ng)

On July 29, the Kaduna High Court is expected to rule on whether Nigerian Shia leader, Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, will be allowed to leave Nigeria to receive medical treatment (Leadership, July 18). In 2015, al-Zakzaky was severely injured during a crackdown by the Nigerian security forces on his movement, called the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), which led to the deaths of a reported 300 IMN members (hrw.org, December 22, 2015). That crackdown was purportedly precipitated by al-Zakzaky’s followers’ blocking roads and preventing Nigerian army officials from passing through areas in Zaria, Kaduna State, where al-Zakzaky’s headquarters is based. Since 2015, al-Zakzaky has been receiving inadequate medical care for his injuries while in the custody of the Nigerian army.

The 2015 crackdown came amid the rise of Sunni-Shia tensions globally. In Nigeria, 2014, al-Zakzaky was accused of “dividing Muslims.” Al-Zakzaky, however, accused his accuser, prominent Saudi-based Nigerian cleric Ahmad Gumi, of “working for Israel” and plotting al-Zakzaky’s assassination with U.S. and Israeli backing (Vanguard, December 11, 2014). One year prior to the major 2015 crackdown, in July 2014, three of al-Zakzaky’s sons and nine other followers were also killed during a “Quds [Jerusalem] procession” in Zaria (Vanguard, July 26, 2014). Thus, the 2015 crackdown was not without precedent.

IMN confrontations with the security forces resurfaced in October 2018 when several dozen of the group’s members were reported killed in Abuja while protesting and demanding al-Zakzaky’s release from his seemingly indefinite detention. The New York Times subsequently released exclusive footage showing unarmed al-Zakzaky supporters being killed in those protests by Nigeria’s elite Presidential Guard Brigade (Punch, December 18, 2018). This year, in early July, protests recommenced as al-Zakzaky’s supporters have become concerned that he may die in detention (Vanguard, July 12). Again, the security forces responded to agitation with lethal force on several protesters, who themselves were accused of killing a security officer. The latest confrontation was on July 22 when several al-Zakzaky supporters were killed in another protest in Abuja (Vanguard, July 22).

This series of events has led international and Nigerian media to suggest there may be a Shia rebellion or “new Boko Haram” in Nigeria if al-Zakzaky is not released or if pressure continues to mount on his Shia followers (Al-Jazeera, April 22). Nigerian officials meanwhile label the IMN an “insurgent group” (Vanguard, December 6, 2016). However, the IMN is not like Iranian proxies or other Shia militias in the Middle East, and it does not resemble Boko Haram during the period when it prepared for jihad in the aftermath of a similar government crackdown that killed at least 200 of its members 10 years ago in July 2009 (dni.gov, January 19, 2017). This article argues al-Zakzaky’s Shias followers will continue to protest and be further suppressed but will not engage in a large-scale violent uprising. Contrarily, they will become more “useful” to Iran as a symbol of global Shia victimhood.

Al-Zakzaky: An Imperfect Iranian Ally

Ibrahim al-Zakzaky became best known during his student years in the 1970s as a Muslim Brotherhood-influenced student leader demanding sharia law replace the Nigerian Constitution. After the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, however, he was among the many northern Nigerian Muslims becoming interested in Iran as a model for the change Nigeria needed and even visited Iran to witness the Islamic Republic. [1] Many other Nigerian Muslims who initially sought to emulate the Iranian Islamic Revolution in Nigeria drifted away from Tehran’s ideological influence either because they received Saudi or Kuwaiti funding and remained in the Sunni-Salafi fold, or they became disillusioned by Iran because of its foreign policy—including supporting Hafez al-Assad during his violent suppression of a 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Hama, Syria.[2] However, al-Zakzaky remained committed to Iran throughout the 1980s and emerged as its most prominent supporter by the turn of the 1990s.

Knowing Iran could not become a global Islamic power if it relied on projecting a “Shia” identity, in the 1980s Ayatollah Khomeini instead portrayed Iran as an “Islamic” power. One prominent Nigerian cleric who visited Iran after the Islamic Revolution, for example, recalled hearing the chant, “La Shia La Sunni-ya, Thura, Thura Islamiya (No Shia, No Sunni, Revolution, Islamic Revolution” (Youtube, May 21, 2016). In a religious landscape where few Nigerian Muslims were Shia before 1979 (there are now around three-million Nigerian Shias), al-Zakzaky, too, adopted a slogan avoiding a “Shia” identity and instead promoted an identity of “Islam only”, which his movement continues to endorse (ihrc.org.uk, December 21, 2015). However, when al-Zakzaky became more pronounced about his Shiism in 1994, a number of his followers branched off and refused to become Shia. One follower who split from al-Zakzaky at this time was Muhammed Yusuf, who was then around 25-years-old and later co-founded Boko Haram in 2002-2003, but under Salafi influence (aymennjawad.org, August 5, 2018).

Beyond that schism, al-Zakzaky also lost Iranian favor due to the rise of factions among the Nigerian Shias themselves. One Shia group, for example, considered itself more theologically learned than the “activist” al-Zakzaky, and claimed greater support from Iranian ayatollahs than al-Zakzaky. Moreover, another Shia group under Iranian management avoided al-Zakzaky’s politically antagonizing activism. This helped Iran maintain more amicable relations with Nigeria than it would if it was seen as sponsoring al-Zakzaky’s delegitimization of the Nigerian state. [3]

Al-Zakzaky himself also eventually accepted there would be no such “Islamic Revolution” in Nigeria and instead began advocating for “Islamic Evolution” and even accepted his followers’ participation in the Nigerian civil service. Despite maintaining a lightly armed “Hizbollah-like’ guard corps, a newspaper, and pro-Khomeini and pro-Ayatollah Khomeini imagery on the IMN website and at demonstrations, the IMN has more recently settled for highly public, and even ostentatious, Shia rituals as its hallmark, as opposed to direct political agitation (islamicmovement.org, July 11). However, this is a far cry from the violence for which Boko Haram has become notorious.

A Shia “Boko Haram”?

When the Nigerian government cracked down on Boko Haram in July 2009, late Muhammed  Yusuf’s supporters then met with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and received weapons, financing, training, and advising (aymennjawad.org, September 15, 2018). Although Yusuf’s successor, Abubakar Shekau, ignored AQIM’s advice, which ended up leading to the end of AQIM’s support for Boko Haram, the relationship still helped Boko Haram launch its insurgency in 2010. However, even if al-Zakzaky’s followers wanted to wage an insurgency, Iran has few regional assets in West Africa to support the IMN like AQIM had to support Boko Haram.

The situation in Nigeria is much different than the Middle East, where Iran is geographically proximate to Shia militias it supports, such as in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Moreover, the record of Iranian and Hizbollah-backed terrorist cells in countries outside of the Middle East, like Thailand, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria itself suggests they are more inept when backing cells outside of the Middle East (Vanguard, January 19, 2011; ; Kampalapost, July 23). This is perhaps due to Iran and Hizbollah’s weaker cultural knowledge of those countries, stronger Israeli counter-intelligence outside of the Middle East compared to that region, and Iran’s placement of more elite operatives in Middle Eastern countries than outside of the region.

Beyond the obvious fact that al-Zakzaky’s Shia political agitation bears little resemblance to Boko Haram’s Jihadi-Salafism, al-Zakzaky has also not called for violence in response to the clashes with the Nigerian state from his detention. This does not mean all al-Zakzaky followers will abstain from violence. However, there does not appear to be any organized insurgency in the works by al-Zakzaky’s followers. Even if Iran wanted to back a proxy militia in Nigeria, the geographic and cultural distance would hinder it. In addition, Iran is overstretched in Middle Eastern conflicts and has less commitment to al-Zakzaky than it may appear on the surface, especially given the other Nigerian Shia factions.

Nigeria’s Next Move

One possibility is rather than allowing al-Zakzaky to become a “martyr” and a further stain on Nigeria’s human rights record if he dies in Nigerian custody, Nigeria will allow him to travel abroad to receive medical treatment. Iran has offered to provide care for him (Punch, July 26). However, there is a chance Nigeria, which accuses al-Zakzaky and his wife of being accomplices to murder, would presumably not allow him back into Nigeria (Punch, April 27, 2018). Al-Zakzaky would therefore live in exile in Iran or other countries whose governments and Muslim organizations have courted al-Zakzaky’s family members, especially his daughters, such as Lebanon and Turkey (YouTube, June 2, 2018; YouTube, March 11, 2018). By portraying Nigeria’s government as in league with Wahhabis or takfiris in oppressing Shias like al-Zakzaky, Iran will also be able to further its narrative of global Shia victimhood.

Nigeria, therefore, is a case where Iran might paradoxically benefit more from further oppression of the IMN, rather than directly using proxy militias to obtain political power as it does in Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen. The Nigerian government also shows no sign of leniency towards the IMN beyond possibly sending al-Zakzaky into exile. With Nigerian Sunni-Salafi clerics reticent to either comment on the al-Zakzaky affair or assertively call for an end to the violence, it appears there is no way out but for more IMN public protests and more Nigerian government crackdowns on the IMN creating more “martyrs” from among Nigeria’s Shias. However, Iran may be the ultimate “winner” from this situation.


[1] Ramzi Ben Amara, “6 ‘We Introduced sharīʿa’—The Izala Movement in Nigeria as Initiator of sharīʿa-reimplementation in the North of the Country: Some Reflections.” In John A. Chesworth, Franz Kogelmann, Sharīʿa in Africa Today: Reactions and Responses” (Brill, 21 November 2013), 142.

[2] Kane, Ousmane, Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria, pg. 78 (Brill, 2003)

[3] Sani Yakubu Adam and Kabiru Haruna Isa, “A History of Shia and its Development in Nigeria: The Case-Study of Kano,” Journal for Islamic Studies, Vol. 36, 2017, 226-256.

[4] Ibid.