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FACTSHEET: Explaining Nigeria’s Boko Haram & its violent insurgency

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Much of the world learned of the Boko Haram terrorist group after they kidnapped 276 school girls from their dormitory in the town of Chibok in 2014, but for years its steadily worsening attacks have been wracking parts of the country.

Boko Haram must be understood in the context of Nigeria’s current conditions: it is Africa’s most populous nation, largest economy and biggest oil producer, but astounding levels of corruption have left it without basic development and infrastructure.

Disparities between the country’s north, which is mainly Muslim, and its south, which is mostly Christian, are also important in understanding the conflict. Today much of the north badly trails the south in terms of education and wealth due to a complex list of historical, cultural and other factors.

Here is an explanation of Boko Haram and its violent insurgency:

2003 beginnings

The group now known as Boko Haram began to emerge in 2003, when a collection of like-minded Islamists retreated to a remote area of the northeast called Kanamma. Here they violently clashed with authorities.

They had been followers of a young, charismatic preacher named Mohammed Yusuf. He had a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an and believed that the creation of Nigeria by British colonialists had imposed a Western and un-Islamic way of life on Muslims.

It is unclear whether Yusuf played any direct role in the violence in 2003 and early 2004. He later denied it, saying the youths involved had simply studied the Qur’an with him.

Meaning of ‘Boko Haram’

Yusuf founded his own mosque in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Outsiders gradually came to know his Salafist sect as Boko Haram, based on their understanding of his teachings.

The most commonly accepted translation of the name, a phrase in the indigenous lingua franca Hausa, is: “Western education is forbidden”. It could have a wider meaning though, since “boko” may also signify “Western fraud” or similar interpretations.

The group has since said it wants to be known by a phrase that translates to “People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad”.

A five-day uprising and crackdown

Authorities from a task force known as Operation Flush II in Maiduguri confronted Yusuf’s followers in 2009, wounding at least 17 Boko Haram members. Yusuf angrily denounced the security forces and called on his followers to rise up against them.

In a violent campaign that stretched some five days they attacked police stations and engaged in gun battles before the military brutally cracked down. Yusuf was eventually captured by soldiers and then handed over to police, who shot him dead. Police claimed he tried to escape when they killed him, but witnesses said he was executed.

A video later emerged of alleged security forces ordering people they suspected of being Boko Haram members to lie on the ground before shooting them dead. Around 800 people were killed in this round of violence.

Lying low for a year

Boko Haram went underground for more than a year after the uprising, but re-emerged in 2010 with assassinations and a major raid on a prison. Yusuf’s deputy, Abubakar Shekau, who police claimed had been killed in the 2009 uprising, began to appear in videos as the group’s new leader.

Attacks gradually grew more deadly and sophisticated, particularly with the use of explosives. A suicide attacker rammed a car bomb into UN headquarters in the capital Abuja in August 2011, killing 23 people in the most high profile of several incidents. Such violence gradually became frequent in parts of northern and central Nigeria.

The insurgency grew even more complicated when a splinter faction of Boko Haram - later known as Ansaru - emerged by kidnapping foreigners. Boko Haram’s main faction also started kidnapping foreigners when Shekau claimed responsibility for the abduction of a French family of seven in February 2013.

Targeting school children

In 2013, Boko Haram targeted pupils in a series of awful school attacks in the northeast that killed dozens of boys. Later there were reports that the group was also kidnapping girls and women with the intent of raping them or making them brides.

In April 2014, attackers raided Chibok deep in northeastern Nigeria and kidnapped 276 school girls, generally between 16 and 18 years old. 219 remain missing. Shekau claimed credit for the kidnappings in a video and threatened to sell them.

An umbrella-like structure

It is perhaps best to think of today’s Boko Haram as an umbrella-like structure, with true organisation only at the very top. Cells may carry out attacks for their own reasons, recruiting foot soldiers as needed from an army of young men who are susceptible to extremist ideology and hope to benefit financially or otherwise.

For these reasons, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say how many followers Boko Haram have. It is also not clear how much of the insurgency is under the control of Shekau – or if he is even still alive, after the military again claimed that he may have been killed. Someone who looks and speaks like Shekau appeared in videos up to now and the violence has only worsened.

Financing and weaponry

Boko Haram has financed itself mainly through ransom kidnappings, bank robberies and other illegal activities. The group is believed to have raided at least one Nigerian military arms depot. Illegal arms are trafficked in West Africa and likely not difficult for Boko Haram to procure.

There have been accusations of political sponsorship, but little evidence has been offered. At this point the insurgency has evolved into a many-headed monster, beyond the control of any one politician.

Links to foreign groups

Since 2004 small groups of Nigerian Islamists have traveled to northern Mali to train with extremists, from what would later become Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). There have been indications that Boko Haram and AQIM have cooperated in more recent years, possibly involving arms procurement and training.

A number of Nigerian Islamists are suspected of having formed links with al-Shabaab in Somalia or AQIM and its offshoots. However, much remains unclear about all such links, and Boko Haram should in no way be considered a branch of these organisations, nor of Al-Qaeda in general.

Their demands

The insurgents’ demands have varied, but they often focus on two main areas: the release of Boko Haram prisoners and the creation of an Islamic state. While Shekau has pledged solidarity with jihadists globally, Boko Haram’s demands have largely remained local and the insurgency has fed on poverty, hopelessness and unemployment in northern Nigeria. Finding Boko Haram leaders who could legitimately negotiate a peace deal on behalf of the group has been a major challenge.

How the government has responded

In May 2013 Nigeria declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states - Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. The military has mainly responded with heavy-handed raids that have resulted in widespread accusations of human rights abuses. Such accusations include indiscriminate arrests, extra-judicial killings and the burning of homes, but the military has denied this. - 22/07/2014

Mike Smith was Lagos bureau chief for AFP news agency from 2010-2013. His book, “Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War” is available from IB Tauris.

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