Background Briefing: What Is Boko Haram?

Children stand next to burnt vehicles after an attack by Boko Haram Islamists on Feb. 20, 2014 in the northeast Nigerian town of Bama. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Children stand next to burnt vehicles after an attack by Boko Haram Islamists on Feb. 20, 2014 in the northeast Nigerian town of Bama. Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Suspected members of the hardline Islamist group Boko Haram attacked a school in Damaturu, Nigeria, early Tuesday morning, burning or shooting 29 boys, but sparing the female students, news outlets reported. The Council on Foreign Relations offers this backgrounder on the extremist group.

By Toni Johnson of the Council on Foreign Relations


Boko Haram, a Sunni Islamist sect, has targeted Nigeria’s police, rival clerics, politicians, and public institutions with increasing violence since 2009. Some experts view the group as an armed revolt against government corruption, abusive security forces, and widening regional economic disparity in an already impoverished country. They argue that Abuja should do more to address the strife between the disaffected Muslim north and the Christian south.

But Boko Haram’s increasingly violent campaign, including a suicide attack on a UN building in Abuja in 2011 and the murder of dozens of students in their sleep in 2013, as well as its ties to regional terror groups, led the U.S. Department of State to designate it a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO). The designation, which included the splinter group Ansaru, may spark a stronger international response that makes it harder for Boko Haram to address the north’s alienation.

The Road to Radicalization

Mohammad Yusuf, a radical Islamist cleric, created Boko Haram in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno. The group aims to establish a fully Islamic state in Nigeria, including the implementation of criminal sharia courts across the country. Paul Lubeck, a University of California professor studying Muslim societies in Africa, says Yusuf was a trained salafist (a school of thought often associated with jihad), and was strongly influenced by Ibn Taymiyyah, a fourteenth-century legal scholar who preached Islamic fundamentalism and is considered a “major theorist” for radical groups in the Middle East.

Boko Haram colloquially translates into “Western education is sin,” which experts say is a name assigned by the state. The sect calls itself Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad.” Some analysts say the movement is an outgrowth of the Maitatsine riots of the 1980s and the religious and ethnic tensions that followed in the late 1990s. Many Nigerians believe Yusuf rejected all things Western, but Lubeck argues that Yusuf, who embraced technology, believed Western education should be “mediated through Islamic scholarship,” such as rejecting the theory of evolution and Western-style banking.

Before 2009, the group did not aim to violently overthrow the government. Yusuf criticized northern Muslims for participating in what he saw as an illegitimate, non-Islamic state and preached a doctrine of withdrawal. But violence between Christians and Muslims and harsh government treatment, including pervasive police brutality, encouraged the group’s radicalization. Boko Haram’s hundreds of followers, also called Yusuffiya, consist largely of impoverished northern Islamic students and clerics, as well as university students and professionals, many of whom are unemployed. Some followers may also be members of Nigeria’s elite.

In July 2009, Boko Haram members refused to follow a motorbike helmet law, leading to heavy-handed police tactics that set off an armed uprising in the northern state of Bauchi and spread into the states of Borno, Yobe, and Kano. The incident was suppressed by the army and left more than eight hundred dead. It also led to the televised execution of Yusuf, as well as the deaths of his father-in-law and other sect members, which human rights advocates consider to be extrajudicial killings. In the aftermath of the 2009 unrest, “an Islamist insurrection under a splintered leadership” emerged, says Lubeck. Boko Haram began to carry out a number of suicide bombings and assassinations, from Maiduguri to Abuja, and staged an ambitious prison break in Bauchi, freeing more than seven hundred inmates in 2010.

Attacks continued to escalate, and by 2013 some analysts began to see greater influence by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Boko Haram operations. Terrorist acts against civilians, like the murder of sixty-five students while they slept at the agricultural college in Yobe state in September 2013, chain-saw beheadings of truck drivers, and the killing of hundreds on the roads of northern Nigeria raised doubts about the central government’s ability to control territory and amplified fears of protracted violence in the country.

Fighters with Boko Haram, a diffuse group, don’t necessarily follow salafi doctrine. Manyfoot soldiers are drawn from impoverished, religiously uneducated youth, according to Jacob Zenn, an analyst on African affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. Some fighters claim to have been trained in Iran and are part of a Shiite Muslim group, Zenn writes, while others were involved in other conflicts in Nigeria and the region, and are now caught up in the latest violent extremist group.

Rising Against the State

CFR Senior Fellow John Campbell notes that “the context of Boko Haram is easier to talk about than Boko Haram itself.” Injustice and poverty, as well as the belief that the West is a corrupting influence in governance, are root causes of both the desire to implement sharia and Boko Haram’s pursuit of an Islamic state, say experts. “The emergence of Boko Haram signifies the maturation of long-festering extremist impulses that run deep in the social reality of northern Nigeria,” writes Nigerian analyst Chris Ngwodo. “But the group itself is an effect and not a cause; it is a symptom of decades of failed government and elite delinquency finally ripening into social chaos.”

The reintroduction of sharia criminal courts was originally proposed by the governor of the state of Zamfara in 1999, but the proposal quickly became a grassroots movement that led to its adoption in twelve states. Experts say there was widespread “disillusionment” with the way sharia was implemented, and that Boko Haram has tapped into this dissatisfaction, promoting the idea that an Islamic state would eliminate the inconsistencies. “You punish somebody for stealing a goat or less—but a governor steals billions of naira, and gets off scot-free,” says Jean Herskovits, an expert on Nigerian politics.

In an August 2011 report, Human Rights Watch noted, “corruption is so pervasive in Nigeria that it has turned public service for many into a kind of criminal enterprise. Graft has fueled political violence, denied millions of Nigerians access to even the most basic health and education services, and reinforced police abuses and other widespread patterns of human rights violations.”

A 2009 Amnesty International report (PDF) points out that the Nigerian police force is responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances each year across the country that largely “go uninvestigated and unpunished.” The group said that nearly one thousand people, mostly Islamist militants, died in military custody in the first half of 2013. Human rights advocates note that Nigerian authorities are rarely, if ever, held criminally accountable for the public executions of Boko Haram followers. In 2011, the government began to try five police officers connected to Yusuf’s killing, and began thecourt martial of a military commander responsible for troops that allegedly killed forty-two sect members in 2009, but both proceedings weren’t concluded as of November 2013.

The North-South Divide

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with more than 160 million people and nearly 350 ethnic groups speaking 250 languages. The country is about 50 percent Muslim, 40 percent Christian, and 10 percent indigenous sects. The country has long grappled with how to govern a diverse nation in which religion is one of the most important features of identity. Some experts argue that the ongoing struggle between Christians and Muslims over political power is a significant factor in the country’s ongoing unrest. This sectarian violence, particularly in the central part of the country where the north and south collide, has killed more than twenty-five thousand people since 1999, according to Human Rights Watch and the CFR Nigeria Security Tracker.

Others note that Boko Haram has killed more Muslims than Christians. “In a country with a history of polarization between the majority-Muslim north and the majority-Christian south, Boko Haram’s message is a polarizing one at the national level and within the Muslim community,” writes Alex Thurston in Foreign Policy. Experts also note that though the northern unrest has been portrayed in a context of extreme religiosity, religious extremism is evident throughout Nigeria, including among Christians.

Despite a per capita income of more than $2,700 and annual GDP growth of 7 percent, Nigeria has one of the world’s poorest populations. An estimated 70 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Economic disparities between the north and the rest of the country are particularly stark. In the north, 72 percent of people live in poverty, compared to 27 percent in the south and 35 percent in the Niger Delta.

Another crucial factor in economic inequality is oil. In his book Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, Campbell writes that the “formal politics” of northern Nigeria are “overwhelmingly dominated by Muslim elites, who have, like their counterparts across the country, benefited from oil wealth at the expense of regional development.” He says that the central purpose of the Nigerian state is to divide up the country’s oil wealth among elites, making Nigeria’s politics a “zero sum game.” In the oil-producing delta, for example, groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)—which has attacked oil infrastructure—are largely an outgrowth of the feeling that the south should get more revenue than it already does.

Although these elites still have access to oil wealth, northern Nigerians fear their political influence in the country is waning. “The Nigerian voices heard most loudly around the world, and in Nigeria itself, are Christian and secular, reinforcing the sense among Nigeria’s Muslims that they are invisible,” G. Pascal Zachary writes in the Atlantic.

The dispute over 2011 election results, which led to over eight hundred deaths, also has played a role in Boko Haram’s escalating violence. Experts say many northern Nigerians view the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, as illegitimate, arguing that he ignored an informal power-rotation agreement that should have kept a Muslim as president this round. (Muslim president Umar Musa Yar’dua died in 2010, two years into his four-year term.)

Terror Ties and Policy Prescriptions

Experts say the 2010 prison break, use of propaganda, and the bombing of police headquarters in June 2011 indicated an increasing level of sophistication and organization, which could point to outside help. In August 2011, U.S. officials claimed the group has ties toal-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in northwest Africa, andSomalia’s al-Shabab, another militant Islamist group.

Security officials in Nigeria and around the world are concerned that the group has splintered into two factions: one that is focused on local grievances and another that is seeking external contacts. “What is most worrying at present is, at least in my view, a clearly stated intent by Boko Haram and by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to coordinate and synchronize their efforts,” said General Carter Ham, head of U.S. military operations in Africa, noting that such a relationship would be “the most dangerous thing to happen” to Africans and to U.S. interests in the region. A 2011 State Department report observes the Nigerian National Police Force has limited capacity to conduct antiterror operations.

Other experts, such as Lubeck and CFR’s Campbell, question the extent of the sect’s regional terror ties and say it is unclear which attacks are actually the work of Boko Haram. There is concern that some of the acts may be the work of criminals looking to capitalize on the mayhem (some of the targets supposedly attacked by Boko Haram have been banks, for instance) or perpetrated by other groups hostile to the state. They also argue that the group has a legitimate grievance against the country’s security forces and that international intervention could distract from policy actions needed to address the underlying issues.

Before the UN bombing in August 2011, the Nigerian government started to look at solutions similar to its quelling of unrest in the Niger Delta, including negotiation and amnesty. MEND leaders were “bought off” by the government and accepted a ceasefire in 2010. But experts say such a solution is unlikely for a group like Boko Haram. “The grievances Boko Haram expresses are more diverse, less material, and are explicitly articulated as religious politics,” writes Thurston in his blog.

Analyst Chris Ngwodo argues some kind of federal intervention may be needed, especially in education and healthcare, and greater pressure may need to be exerted on northern elites to develop the region. CFR’s Campbell argues that President Jonathan needs to address northern disaffection with gestures such as naming prominent northern Muslims to his cabinet.

President Jonathan appears to be set on quelling the insurrection by force, declaring a “state of emergency” in three northeast states in May 2013, although it isn’t clear if the Nigerian military has enough troops to defeat Boko Haram. The U.S. designation of Boko Haram and Ansaru as Foreign Terrorist Organizations will allow Washington to investigate and prosecute suspects, but the State Department urged Nigeria to counter these extremist groups “through a combination of law enforcement, political, and development efforts, as well as military engagement.”

A version of this backgrounder first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations’ website. We’ll have more on the attack on Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour.

The post Background Briefing: What Is Boko Haram? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.