Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, requested to speak with Osama bin Laden’s deputy, according to a newly released letter recovered during the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
After citing Islamic texts concerning the benefits of unity and the pitfalls of factionalism, Shekau said he and his men had “listened to…the tapes of al Qaeda and its sheikhs,” including bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi and Abu Qatadah al Filistini. Zarqawi, who founded al Qaeda in Iraq and was killed in June 2006, was already dead when Shekau wrote his letter, as he asked Allah to “have mercy on [Zarqawi’s] soul.” Abu Yahya al Libi served as al Qaeda’s general manager until his demise in a US drone strike in June 2012.
“But now what we have left is to learn about the system of the organization and how it is organized,” Shekau continued. “The traveler will fail if he does not become familiar with the road that he is taking, and when he fails he may return or choose other options. But, when the traveler knows his way, he never fails, because he knew what he was facing.”
Shekau asked Allah to “bear witness” that “we want to be under one banner and there must be a vision to begin with, because our religion is a religion of vision and knowledge.”
“With your permission,” he concluded his letter, “I ask to speak with Osama bin Laden’s deputy, may Allah protect him, because the group is loyal, which Allah will ask me about on the Day of Judgment.”
Shekau was likely referring to how al Qaeda “is organized” and the requirements to become part of the organization. Ayman al Zawahiri was bin Laden’s deputy when Shekau’s request was written.
Neither the original Arabic, nor the English translation posted online by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) is dated. According to the US government’s translation, Shekau wrote that he and his men “pledge[d] allegiance to our Imam Abu Yusuf Muhammad Bin Yusuf” and this “union” has “continued with us even to this day.” Yusuf, who led Boko Haram, was killed in July 2009.
In 2012, both the Washington Post and the Guardian (UK) reported that bin Laden’s files included correspondence with Boko Haram. But it wasn’t until earlier this week that Shekau’s letter was released. The press reporting on bin Laden’s documents suggests that there are more documents related to Boko Haram that have not yet been released. [See LWJ Report, UN adds Boko Haram to al Qaeda sanctions list.]
Ties between Boko Haram and al Qaeda’s network prior to joining Islamic State
The State Department has offered a $7 million reward for information leading to Shekau’s capture. In its wanted notice, State’s Rewards for Justice program recognized the ties between Boko Haram and three al Qaeda branches. There “are reported communications, training, and weapons links between Boko Haram, al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Shabaab, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], which may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks,” the rewards page for Shekau reads.
In Nov. 2013, State designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, noting its “links” to AQIM. And when Foggy Bottom designated three Boko Haram leaders (including Shekau) in 2012, it said that two of them “have close links to” AQIM.
In July 2013, the UN reported that Boko Haram fighters had been trained in a Shabaab camp in Sudan. According to the UN’s well-placed source, the Boko Haram members were trained by a terrorist “specifically tasked by” al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri to provide instruction to jihadists in Africa.
In 2014, the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported independent evidence concerning Zawahiri’s communications with a jihadist who was allied with Boko Haram.
Al Qaeda “cells” in West Africa “received communications from Osama bin Laden through intermediaries,” the ICG claimed in a footnote. The “more important a cell, the fewer go-betweens.” Citing a “member” of Ansaru, a jihadist group that has fought alongside Boko Haram at times, the ICG said that Zawahiri “communicated directly with” a leader known as Kambar. Ansaru, which was led by Kambar until his death in 2012, eventually disowned Shekau’s Boko Haram.
Shekau swore bay’ah (allegiance) to Baghdadi in 2015
Despite Boko Haram’s ties to al Qaeda’s international network, Shekau never swore allegiance, at least publicly, to bin Laden or Zawahiri.
Al Qaeda’s leaders may have had reservations about Shekau’s erratic behavior. Al Qaeda also has rules that groups must follow before officially joining the organization, and Shekau’s men have been unwilling to comply. For example, Boko Haram’s deliberate targeting of Muslim civilians violates al Qaeda’s guidelines for waging jihad.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State, which began to rival al Qaeda in 2013 and 2014, has placed no such limits on the violence carried out by its fighters. The Islamic State wooed Shekau in early 2015 by sending a team of operatives to West Africa to secure his allegiance. Shekau swore his fealty to Baghdadi in Mar. 2015.
“[W]e announce our allegiance to the Caliph of the Muslims [Abu Bakr al Baghdadi]…and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity, in hardship and ease, and to endure being discriminated against, and not to dispute about rule with those in power, except in case of evident infidelity regarding that which there is a proof from Allah,” Shekau said in an audio message at the time.
“We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the Caliph and support him, as obedience to Allah and as their application of the absent duty of the era,” Shekau added. [See LWJ report, Boko Haram leader pledges allegiance to the Islamic State.]
Boko Haram was rebranded as the Islamic State’s “province” in West Africa after Shekau’s announcement.
Shekau’s letter is somewhat ironic given his eventual decision to join Baghdadi’s cause. In his appeal to al Qaeda’s leaders, Shekau cited hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) “calling for unification and rejecting rift.” The rivalry between the Islamic State and al Qaeda is the biggest rift in the history of modern jihadism.