Nigeria schoolgirl kidnapping boosts Boko Haram's online presence, for better or worse

Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram ("Western education is a sin") is seen in a propaganda video posted to YouTube. YouTube

LONDON -- Jihadist Internet forums have been flooded with postings about Nigeria's homegrown, al Qaeda-linked militant group Boko Haram, with users eager to comment on the group's latest operations.

While the reaction has been a mix of support and condemnation of the group's kidnapping of almost 300 teenage girls from their school in the northern Borno province, the overall outpouring of interest seems to have elevated the group to a more equal footing with other al Qaeda affiliates -- at least on the vital modern battlefield of the Internet.

Relatively little attention had been paid to Boko Haram on Muslim extremist web forums prior to the kidnapping, and the global attention and outrage it has catalyzed. Nor was the group itself very active in the online propaganda game.

Boko Haram pledged allegiance to al Qaeda in 2009 after the death of its leader Mohammed Yusuf, but was never officially recognized as an al Qaeda franchise by the terror network's core leadership based in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

Other affiliates like the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the north African, Algerian-based franchise al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have driven the online jihadist discussion, posting the most propaganda themselves and garnering the most attention from the arm-chair militants, or "e-mujahideen," who support the Islamic extremist cause from behind computer screens.

Recently however, Boko Haram's operations have seen it gain special attention on Shumukh al-Islam, the main online outlet for al Qaeda propaganda. In the 24-hour period ending Thursday morning Eastern time, the forum began seeing comments and reports about the group's kidnapping and subsequent attack on a village near Nigeria's border with Cameroon.

They get a lot of support, with veteran e-muj praying that God will grant victory to the "brothers in Nigeria."

"May Allah help the lions of Boko Haram defeat the criminal Christians," one user wrote in response to the video posted online of the group's leader Abubakar Shekau claiming responsibility for the kidnapping and threatening to sell the schoolgirls into sexual slavery.

On another prominent Jihadi forum, al-Fidaa, the reactions were more varied. One female participant going by the name "Martyr's Widow" slammed Boko Haram over its "kidnapping of innocent girls who did no harm to no one (sic)."

She went as far as describing the group as criminal and un-Islamic. Another poster drew a comparison between Boko Haram to the al Qaeda off-shoot based in Iraq and Syria, which was cast off by al Qaeda's central leadership for its refusal to obey orders.

"They have become a criminal gang of killers," the user complained.

But others on the forum rushed to Boko Haram's defense, urging fellow participants not to believe everything being published in Western media. One person reposted a link to the full 59-minute video in which Shekau claimed responsibility and told his compatriots to listen carefully to his words before making any judgments.

"We have African brothers in this group whom we deem are righteous people; If you saw them, you would say they are 'the Quran walking the Earth,'" the al-Fidaa poster said.

Whether their new-found online largess will eventually bring Boko Haram closer to al Qaeda's core leadership remains to be seen. Thus far, al Qaeda Central has said absolutely nothing, positive or negative, about the mass kidnapping.

  • Khaled Wassef

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