Africa News

Answering the Questions Behind Boko Haram

Story by Devin Windelspecht |

On February 1st, 2016, events in Nigeria once again seized global headlines. Fighters from Boko Haram, West Africa’s most notorious and deadly militant group, stormed the small town of Dalori in the northeast of the country, killing 86 people, including children. Horror stories emerged of militants firebombing houses with people trapped inside, adding to the growing list of atrocities the militant group has committed against the people of Nigeria.

Kidnappings, bombings, targeted attacks on schools- since 2014, when Boko Haram abducted over 250 girls from a Nigerian school and subsequently catapulted into the realm of front-page news, these crimes and more have plagued the West African nation. But what is Boko Haram? Who leads it? And what, if any, ties does it have to foreign terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State? Uncovering the answers to these questions may help us further understand the motives and means behind Boko Haram’s attacks, and in doing so find solutions to the conflict gripping Nigeria.

What are the origins of Boko Haram?

While most of the Western world didn’t become fully aware of Boko Haram until its capture of over two hundred girls from a school in 2014, the terrorist organization’s roots go back at least a decade further, when a young, fiery preacher named Mohammed Yusuf began sermonizing from a mosque in the Yobe city of Maiduguri. Yusuf possessed a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and spoke out particularly against the implementation of Western style education in Nigeria- a belief that would give rise to the organization’s most commonly known name, Boko Haram, which roughly translates into “Western Education is Forbidden” or “Western Fraud” in the local Hausa language (the group’s less well known official title is Jamaatu Ahlis Sunna Liddaawati walJihad” or People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad).


Over the years, Yusuf gained a devoted following in Maiduguri, large enough for Nigerian authorities to send a special task force dubbed “Operation Flush II” to confront Yusuf and his followers in 2009. The subsequent conflict left at least 17 of Yusuf’s followers wounded, causing the preacher to call upon his followers to rise up against the police and government authorities.

For five days, the city of Maiduguri burned as police and Yusuf’s followers clashed, until the arrival of the Nigerian army lead to Yusuf’s capture. Mohammed Yusuf was subsequently given over to the police, who most likely executed the preacher, although police reports claim that he was killed while trying to escape. For a year, Boko Haram went underground before re-emerging once again in 2010 under a new leader.

Who is in charge of Boko Haram?

There are two answers to this question- a simple one and a more complex one. Nominally, Boko Haram is lead by Abubakar Shekau, Mohammed Yusuf’s deputy who was also thought killed during the events of 2009 before appearing in videos when the group re-appeared in 2010. Born in Shekau village, in the very northeast region that Maiduguri is located in, he is a religious scholar who studied at the Borno State College of Legal and Islamic Studies. He has been thought to have been killed multiple times since his first assumed death in 2009, most recently in August of 2015, when the Nigerian military claimed that he was incapacitated and replaced in the organization’s leadership. Boko Haram subsequently denied this, and released an audio recording, allegedly by Shekau, to prove otherwise.

Many think that Shekau may have died in clashes with the Nigerian military even before August, as he hasn’t appeared in a video recording since February of 2015 (with many experts believing that even this is the work of another man impersonating Shekau). Yet whether or not Shekau is alive may matter little.

Which brings us to the second answer to this question. Boko Haram operates as a kind of “umbrella” organization, with multiple terror cells that each claim allegiance to Boko Haram but operate almost completely autonomously. Even if Shekau is still alive, he most likely serves as a mere figurehead and face to the militant group, and exerts little to no control over the fighters he supposedly leads. This complicates any attempts to solve the conflict through diplomacy, as there is no one person or group of people who can be counted on to speak and negotiate for the organization as a whole.

What happened to the Nigerian Schoolgirls?

In 2014, Boko Haram stole the international spotlight by kidnapping 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. Despite calls to “#bringourgirlsback” on social media, condemnation from world governments and organizations, and a commitment from the Nigerian government to see to their rescue, to date none of them have returned outside of the initial 57 girls who escaped in the first few days of their capture.

We know little about what has happened to them, with only a few scattered reports. According to a group of women who claim that they were held in the same camp as the schoolgirls, many have been “brainwashed” and radicalized themselves, and have carried out punishments on other women on behalf of the militants. In October of 2014, the Nigerian government attempted to create a deal to swap captured Boko Haram fighters with the schoolgirls, but the agreement never came to pass.

The last the world saw of the Nigerian schoolgirls came in May of 2015, when Boko Haram released a video showing around 130 of the girls reciting the Koran. Since then, the girls have disappeared, and hope has dimmed that they will ever be returned. Even the new president of Nigeria, Muhammadhu Buhari, has admitted, “we do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued”.

What are Boko Haram’s ties to the Islamic State?

On March 7, 2015, Boko Haram announced “allegiance to the caliphate” in an audio message broadcast in Arabic, English and French, adding itself to the list of a number of other militant groups around the world that have declared themselves “provinces” of the so-called Islamic State in an effort to capitalize on the Iraq and Syrian-based group’s media presence. In the months since, Boko Haram has at times referred to itself as the “Islamic State in West Africa”, though continues to use its initial name.

It’s unclear how much logistic cooperation exists between the two terror groups, but there are signs that the Islamic State has provided assistance with the group’s propaganda efforts. New Twitter platforms, more professionally-designed videos, and other advanced communications methods began to be used by Boko Haram following its allegiance to the Islamic State.

Boko Haram has also adopted Islamic State terror tactics, including the use of public executions, but it’s important to note this isn’t the first time it has aligned itself to an outside faction. In 2011, around the same time al-Qaeda bombed the UN headquarters in Abuja, Boko Haram declared itself as an al-Qaeda affiliated group, an affiliation is has since renounced. Most likely, Boko Haram’s allegiance to the Islamic State is likely little more than an attempt to capitalize on the group’s notoriety and gain a place in the media spotlight by doing so.

Why hasn’t Boko Haram been defeated?

When former army general Muhammadhu Buhari won the Nigerian election over the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, he issued a promise that Boko Haram would be defeated by the end of 2015. Over the course of the next year, the Nigerian army pushed the terrorist group out of major towns in the northeast they had captured during their campaigns of 2014 and into the “stronghold” of uninhabited forests to the extreme northeast of the country. By the end of 2015, Buhari declared that the group was “technically defeated”.

The events of February 1st in Dalori prove otherwise. While Boko Haram may not control the same vast swaths of territory as a year ago, by nature of being a terrorist group, they don’t need to hold land to commit mass atrocities. There has also been criticism of the Nigerian military’s actions during its campaign against Boko Haram, with several instances of the army committing human rights abuses of its own in invasions of the country’s northeast.

With one of the largest and most experienced militaries in Africa, that the Nigerian army can’t stop Boko Haram’s reign of terror after a committed year of combatting the group, bodes ill for the future of the country, as is the government’s inability to stop its own soldiers from committing human rights abuses. With a reviving secessionist movement in the southeast of the country also causing problems for the nation’s sovereignty, Boko Haram’s continued reign may signal a much deeper problem affecting the nation’s ability to maintain order, a problem that may have disastrous consequences in the future.

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