Boko Haram: A Group the World Needs to Know More About:

At almost the same time as the world was declaring that they too, were Charlie Hebdo, and while millions of people (along with 40 world leaders) gathered in Paris to honor the death of 12 cartoonists for publishing depictions of the Islamic Prophet Mohammed, one of the worst domestic terrorist attacks every perpetrated in Northern Nigeria ripped across the land.  As of this writing, hundreds of people still lie dead in the African brush, unaccounted for because the perpetrators still pose a danger to the area.  Another 30,000 people are displaced from the region, with nowhere to call home.

Maybe Boko Haram; a sect of Islamic militants who’s name (loosely speaking) stands for “Western education is forbidden“, gets relatively little global media attention because they have already committed so many atrocities that the blood just all seems to run together in Western eyes.  They have used young girls for suicide bomb attacks, attacked villages, churches, mosques, and civilians, and recently, were repelled as they tried to attack the town of Biu in Kano, Nigeria. (01)

Boko Haram is a militant group we all need to be paying more attention to; whatever the reason for so much Western apathy, we need to know more about this ultra-violent organization, which deserves the world’s strongest condemnation, and isn’t receiving enough of it.

Early History and Ideology:

            Boko Haram is the ‘popular’ name of ‘Jama`at ahl al-sunna li-da`wa wa-l-qital’.  The Boko Haram phase of its existence was founded as a radical Salafist sect in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, who was initially just as concerned with Nigeria’s bad government, corruption, inequality, and bad economy as he was with any religious concerns. (02)

Nigeria had just recently gained its independence from colonial powers and from under the military’s dictatorship.  The region was split by Sufis and Salafist Islamic sects and Christians were proselytizing throughout the region, leading to the Pro-Democracy movement and the election of Olusegun Obasanjo along with the southern domination of President Goodluck Jonathan. (03)

Muslims responded to this perceived Christian intrusion (with some justification, I think) with an imposition of Sharia Law in several states, but the Salafists (including the early Boko Haram) were often left out of governance, leading to estrangement. The south was left heavily Christian, while the north was Islamic.  The area was a powder keg.

The first phase of Boko Haram’s existence as an outsider group seemed peaceful enough.  Mohammed Yusuf led the group away from society and out into the remote regions of Borno and Yobe and established small camps and schools in 2002-2006.  But conflict with law enforcement mounted until the group first began ‘operations’ against the police in urban areas and then began to confront the police and military openly.  This culminated in a military attack on Yusuf’s main compound and mosques.   Hundreds were killed and Yusuf himself was subjected to extrajudicial murder by the military, his body released on video for everyone to see.

All hell broke loose after that.

As of today, Boko Haram is an Islamic extremist sect that believes that Nigeria is run by false Muslims and that only their ‘pure’ vision of an Islamic state can change matters.  Their goal is to impose Sharia Law over the Federal Republic of Nigeria and overthrow the current Muslim leaders in Nigeria.  Their means of doing so is through all-out war and terrorism.

Boko Haram is fanatical even by extremist standards and they don’t hesitate to go after other Muslims.  In an interview given to the BBC, a teacher for the sect’s ideology said, “Allah says, “fight those who are fighting you”. Muslim or non-Muslim. If you are an enemy we’ll come and attack.” (04)

Boko Haram is opposed to anything they deem ‘Western.’  They completely reject all political, economic, and social liberalism, and all scientific progress.  They consider any means valid to bring about the Islamic Caliphate that they envision for the future.  (05)

Boko Haram has shown little interest in attacking Western targets, the one exception being an August 2011 attack on the UN compound in the capital of Abuja.  Since then, there have been no attacks on international interests.  Their main targets for terrorist attacks are churches and public places and starting around 2012, they began to target schools, where they have found an appalling level of success.  (06)

The group operates within a cell-like organizational structure, which leaves the group vulnerable to schisms and splits, but makes it extremely hard for law enforcement to get at the leadership.

Mohammed Yusuf:

In July of 2009, Nigerian officials announced that Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, had been captured.  Mere hours later, they announced that he had been killed in a shoot-out while trying to escape.  Absolutely nobody believed them.

Sure enough, an interrogation video of the sect leader almost immediately surfaced on YouTube, showing Yusuf smiling, relaxed, and cooperating with interrogators. (07)  It didn’t take long for information to surface that Yusuf had been summarily executed by Nigerian police, who have a long habit of enthusiastic punishment and corruption, but little experience (or desire, it sometimes seems) for preventive measures.  Another video soon surfaced that showed Yusuf’s bullet-riddled body.  (08)

Mohammed Yusuf originally came from the village of Na’iyyah in the Gashua province of Yobe state, Northern Nigeria.  As a youth, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood of Nigeria under the radical leadership of Ibraheem az-Zakzaky, where he gained a reputation as an enthusiastic preacher.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Nigeria formed several groups including Jama`at ahl al-sunna li-da`wa wa-l-qital, which became Boko Haram soon after the declaration of Sharee’ah (Sharia Law) in some states and the resulting political splits.  Musef came to ‘Jama`at ahl al-sunna li-da`wa wa-l-qital’ from an earlier group, ‘Izālat ul-Bida’ wa Iqāmat us-Sunnah’ (“The Removal of Innovation and Establishment of the Sunnah Group”), where he then went on to ‘found’ Boko Haram. (09)

Yusuf was far more outgoing and accessible than his successor and for someone against all things Western; he loved to surround himself with Western things such as cars and fancy telephones.  When asked about this contradiction, he scoffed that such matters were, “…only a matter of technology.” He also left many of his follower’s poor, his only defense being, “That is due to their circumstances. Each person has his own circumstances.” (10)

Still, if Yusuf had not been killed matters might be better today, because if he was a demon, than his second in command; the new leader, is the Devil himself.

Abubakar Shekau:

After Mohammed Yusuf’s death, the mantle of leadership was turned over to Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s far more radical second-in-command.  The man seems to have the luck of the devil; the Nigerian military has announced his death several times over the last few years, but he keeps resurfacing.  They came close in 2012, when they managed to wound him in the leg when Shekau snuck back to his home for a baby-naming ceremony.  He managed to escape, even with a gunshot wound to the leg.

Not a lot is known about the man himself.  He was born in Shekau village.  He’s an Islamic scholar and speaks several languages, and studied at Borno State College of Legal and Islamic Studies, which is how he has earned the name ‘Darul Tawheed’ one of his many, many nicknames and aliases (it means an expert on monotheism or, “a oneness with Allah”). (11)

Shekau stays in the shadows and doesn’t speak directly to his followers, appearing only in rarely-released videos.  He’s supposed to be a master of disguise and nobody is even certain of the year he was born; the U.S. State Department has it as 1965, 1969 and 1975.

Oh yeah–the man is crazy and brutal, and he means every word he says.  In May of 2013, he first began to threaten to kidnap schoolchildren, in retaliation for imprisoned sect members and Nigerian security forces taking the wives and children of group members;  Shekau has been doing it–and selling those children into sexual slavery and forced ‘marriages’ ever since.

A bounty of $7 million dollars currently stands over Abubakar Shekau’s head.  To put that in context, that’s $2 million more than the head of the Afghan Taliban. (12)

Maiduguri prison break:

Shortly after Mohammed Yusuf’s death, when Boko Haram was still predominantly targeting police and military targets, the group pulled off one of Nigeria’s biggest prison breaks in its history during the sect’s Bauchi state uprising.  The group fought right past security, broke into a federal prison in front of the palace of the Emir of Bauchi (while the area’s Muslims (including the Emir) were having breakfast) and freed over 700 prisoners, including 150 Boko Haram members. (13)

The Guardian said that a witness reported that about 50 men with machine guns pulled up to the prison site and forced the prison open, freeing the prisoners.  They then set the prison on fire and made their escape.  One police officer, one soldier and two residents were killed in the battle.

The Boko Haram members inside the prison were captured during the same riots the previous year that saw Yusuf’s capture, awaiting trial when they were freed by the group.  Meanwhile, things were already becoming more violent.  For example, seven policemen had been killed a few months before and two traditional rulers assassinated in the region the week before.  (14)

2014 saw more Christian casualties across the world than any time in recent history, and about 70% of those casualties were in Nigeria; more than Pakistan, Syria, Kenya and Egypt combined. (15)  While Boko Haram is far from the only ones in the region persecuting Christians (two of the deadliest attacks were carried out by local civilians), they are a big factor.

There is a perception that Christians have been interfering in Nigerian politics, warranted or not. After the Pro-Democracy movement ousted the military dictatorship in 1999, 12 states declared Sharia Law to counter democratic elections and promote a Muslim state.  There has been ongoing violence against Christians ever since.

Boko Haram has engaged in forced conversions for some time now, going from house to house and village to village and killing anyone who will not convert on the spot, killing as many as 350 Christians in a single week, and forcing women to ‘marry’ them. (16)  Some victims are shot, some beheaded, and some have their throats slit.  (17)  Around the same time as the attack on Gwoza, which also left a 150-congregation-member church displaced, other churches and Christian villages were also targeted. (18)

Chibok Schoolchildren Kidnapping:

            The incident that shocked the Western World awake to the danger of Boko Haram was in April of 2014, when sect members stormed the remote settlement of Chibok and drove up to the Chibok government girl’s secondary school and kidnapped 276 girls.  A survivor said that the men–disguised as soldiers, said that they were there to ‘protect’ the children before gathering them outside.  They then started setting fire to the school. (19)

The kidnapping was one of the first Boko Haram-related incidents to earn global media attention, with a social media campaign called #bringbackourgirls aimed at the sect, with such heavy hitters as Angelina Jolie, Malala Yousafzai and Michelle Obama lending their voice to Nigeria’s government in an effort to get the girls back, but all to no avail. (20)

Abubakar Shekau released a mocking video where he stated that he had ‘liberated’ the girls and made them Muslims.  One segment features some of the girls talking about their conversion.  Shekau made it clear that the kidnappings were in retaliation for Boko Haram members in prison and allegations that President Goodluck Jonathan’s military is routinely mistreating those prisoners.

Shekau has made contradictory statements about the status of the girls, at one time promising that they would be treated well until his demands are met and at other times threatening to sell them into marriage “in the market” (21)

The following November, in the midst of a bombing in the heavily-populated northern Kano city, Boko Haram returned to Chibok and seized the village.  By this time, Shekau had released another video saying that the girls, “all had converted to Islam and been married off to his fighters”. (22)  Worse, several of the girls have been found dead, with their mutilated bodies chained to trees.

Not long after the Chibok kidnapping, the group went on to kidnap 10 Chinese workers and the wife of Cameroon’s vice-president both were later released, with no comment as to a ransom), along with the Sultan of Kolofata and his family.

Christian Persecution:

On August 6th, 2014, a fleet of military trucks, motorcycles and Toyota Hilux vans pulled into the village of Gwoza in Borno State bearing men wearing military uniforms.  These men, disguised Boko Haram operatives, opened fire on the predominantly-Christian village killing over 100 people and burning the village to the ground after ransacking the place for food and supplies.  (23)

The sect had previously been marauding throughout the far northeast corner of Nigeria, burning churches and slaughtering innocents.  One village leader had said that he had pleaded for military intervention before the sect entered town, so it was doubly horrible when the group arrived in uniform, announced that they were there to ‘protect’ the people, and then marched hundreds into a crowd in the center of town where they were systematically gunned down.

“They began to shout ‘Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,’ then they started to fire at the people continuously for a very long time until all who had gathered were dead,” said the community leader. (24)

Two other villages had been previously attacked as well; altogether they were Danjara, Agapalwa, and Antagara.  Hundreds were left dead and thousands more displaced.

The Baga Massacre:

On Sunday January 3rd, a fleet of pickup trucks carrying Boko Haram militants drove up to a military outpost in Baga, Nigeria.  The military fled almost immediately and the outpost was captured.  Over the next six days, Boko haram conducted a series of raids and outright massacres among the surrounding villages that culminated in a Wednesday raid of Baga itself that left buildings razed and an unknown number of dead.  Early reports put the number as high as 2,000 while more recent ones put it at around 150 dead, including the elderly and children (but it should be warned that the local military has regularly been accused of misrepresenting Boko Haram deaths by lowering death tolls). (25)

The motive for the attacks?  It’s believed that Boko Haram is trying to intimidate the region into not voting in upcoming elections.  In Baga, they reportedly shot villagers at random while screaming at others not to vote.  Boko Haram considers voting to be a crime, and Democracy in general to be ‘haram’, or religiously forbidden.   (26)

The massacres were exacerbated by Nigerians own corrupt and incompetent military.  They fled the area immediately, and have long been accused of being indifferent to the plight of the northern Nigerians.  Those who survived the bloody attacks have so far had little recourse; government and rescue workers are loath to go into the region while militants are still occupying, and 30,000 people have been misplaced.  20,000 of them camped in Maiduguri city, while 10,000 more are being ferried in from nearby Monguno town.  A number of people have tried to escape by swimming to Chad, and have ended up stranded on Kangala Island on Lake Chad, where Chad is asking for help from the U.N. in order to relocate them. (27)

The Deadliest Conflict on Earth:

Boko Haram’s insurgency is now considered one of the deadliest ongoing conflicts on Earth.  According to the Nigeria Social Violence Dataset, (28) there have been 29,600 Nigerians deaths associated with the group since 1998 in over 2,300 incidents.  As a glance at the chart will show, those deaths have done nothing but escalate, with 2014 being the worst year of all.

The violence in Nigeria now overshadows even the world’s most recent and highly publicized wars.  According to the Washington Post, “Nigerian casualties are now running more than double those in Afghanistan, and substantially higher than in Iraq just a few years ago.”  Last year, there were an estimated 3,120 military and civilian deaths in Afghanistan last year and 4,207 in Iraq in the wake of the 2011 surge. (29)

Boko Haram currently controls a region of 20,000 square miles; a territory the size of Belgium (including Baga, at least for the moment).  According to a 2006 census they hold eleven local government areas with a population of over 1.7 million people.  The Nigerian military, ravaged by corruption and incompetence, can do little to nothing to stop them. (30)  Boko Haram isn’t going away and it isn’t going to dwindle into some isolated local African problem, like the Lord’s Resistance Army.  The group is rapidly being called another Islamic State, and the West ignores it at great peril.

Works Cited










09:  page 5-6 in the document