An upstart Islamist militia is causing havoc in Nigeria, killing more than 250 people this year alone, and almost 1,000 since its insurgency began 2½ years ago. Its attacks have emptied schools in the north of the country, stoked sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims, and threatened the stability of a state that is a key Western ally and a potential economic powerhouse in Africa.
Boko Haram is the name locals in the north of Nigeria have given to the extreme Salafist group that calls itself “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad.” Its nickname, which roughly translates as “Western education is sinful,” isn’t inaccurate. The group rejects Western education, as well as democracy and Nigeria’s constitution. Its founder, Mohammad Yusuf, once explained to the BBC that Western education was sacrilegious because, among other things, it teaches that the Earth isn’t flat.
Boko Haram began about a decade ago under Yusuf’s spiritual leadership. In July 2009, it launched attacks on police stations across northeast Nigeria. Hundreds died in clashes, as well as in the resulting crackdown when security forces murdered suspected Boko Haram members in cold blood.
Video footage later obtained by Al Jazeera shows police ordering unarmed civilians to lie face down in the street, and then shooting them dead. In one instance, a commander cautions the shooter to aim for the victim’s chest rather than his head because, the commander explains, he wants the soon-to-be-dead man’s cap. Yusuf himself was captured and then murdered. Nigerian security forces claimed he was shot trying to escape, but his bullet-ridden body was filmed as it lay in the street with handcuffs around his wrists.
Boko Haram went quiet for a time after this, but re-emerged in 2010 with a series of attacks, including a prison break that freed more than 700 inmates. “Boko Haram, or remnants calling themselves Boko Haram, essentially went to war with the Nigerian government,” says Peter Lewis, director of the African studies program at Johns Hopkins University. “They found themselves in direct military confrontation with the state.”
The group’s assaults escalated in severity and skill, employing large numbers of assailants, as well as car bombs. The targets included government offices, police, soldiers, churches, Christians, and Muslim clerics who had criticized Boko Haram. Abubakar Shekau, who says he is the new leader of the group, tried to explain Boko Haram’s goals in a video released this January, claiming restraint while simultaneously fingering a wide array of potential enemies. “We hardly touch anybody,” he said, “except security personnel and Christians and those who have betrayed us.”
The result, says Alex Thurston, a doctoral student who recently returned to the United States from the northern Nigerian city of Kano following a spate of bombings there in January, has been to make parts of Nigeria “maybe not ungovernable, but permanently violent. It’s a larger and larger area of the country where the government is not in full control.” Christian schools in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria are now empty as parents keep their children at home. Others are fleeing for the predominantly Christian south.
“You have a panic right now in Nigeria,” says Paul Lubeck, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who conducted fieldwork in Kano last summer. “This panic threatens the existence of Nigeria. Because everyone fears for their security. Nobody’s certain who Boko Haram is and who its sympathizers are. Its level of organization and ruthlessness is so much more sophisticated, and its capacity to carry out attacks is far more superior, than the Nigerian government’s capacity to defend the population.”
The military and police response to Boko Haram attacks has too often been indiscriminate and heavy-handed. “It’s self-defeating,” says Eric Guttschuss, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who is now in Nigeria. “Abuses by the security forces have made their work more difficult because of the ability of Boko Haram to use these abuses to create new members.”
Despite the carnage the group has caused, little is known about Boko Haram’s structure and members.
“They’re not an organization. We’re not talking about something like the IRA, or what the IRA was,” says John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What it is is a highly diffuse movement.”
Also unclear is the extent to which Boko Haram has links with other violent Islamist groups in Africa, notably al-Shabab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, has said there are signs Boko Haram and AQIM sought a “loose partnership.” Following the killing of dozens of Muslims in sectarian violence in 2010, AQIM promised to help Nigerian Muslims “respond against the aggression of the Christian minority.”
J. Peter Pham, Africa director of the Atlantic Council, says at least two groups of Boko Haram members have recently trained with al-Shabab in Somalia. He points to a Boko Haram video message that was issued through AQIM’s media wing, al-Andalus, as further evidence of the sect’s wider links.
The apparent skill and organization behind some of Boko Haram’s attacks suggest outside training and support. And the group has not shunned international targets. In August, it bombed the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. Abubakar Shekau has also threatened the United States. But most analysts characterize Boko Haram as an indigenous insurrection, albeit one that draws on others’ expertise. “I think it’s simplistic to say we simply have another al-Qaeda franchise,” says Pham.
There’s an element of a personality cult about the group, and its public messages are steeped in familiar jihadist rhetoric. But much of its support is driven by anger at the corruption and brutality of the Nigerian government and security forces, and the economic deprivation of the country’s northern, predominantly Muslim, states. “There’s a class element here involving elites that have been criminally negligent, and a population that is growing in misery [while] elites are building fortified houses,” says Lubeck. “[The people] elect them. They go to Abuja; they gain access to the petroleum wealth. And they return in SUVs with smoked windows.”
But even if Boko Haram’s grievances and enemies are mostly local, this doesn’t mean the West can safely ignore the group. “Boko Haram is capable of seriously weakening a Nigerian government that the United States would like to partner with, the democratically elected government of [President] Goodluck Jonathan,” says Pham. “You’re talking about the most populous country in Africa, the United States’ fourth-largest source of petroleum imports, a country that is one of the top contributors to peacekeeping in Africa, a country that could be a real anchor of stability—all up in arms because this one group runs amok.”
Unrest in Nigeria could also spread, according to Lubeck. “Religious communal violence like this is toxic, extremely threatening to the rest of Africa,” he says.
So what can be done?
John Campbell, who was U.S. ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007, says the Nigerian government and President Jonathan should treat Boko Haram as a political problem rather than a security one. “If he sees it as a political problem, and starts communicating that the government is hearing the legitimate grievances of the north and will try to do something about them, and ideally launches a couple of high-profile humanitarian or development initiatives, then I think you can start to suck the oxygen out of Boko Haram. You’re not going to destroy it completely, because it has scores of religious fanatics. But you can reduce it.”
Jonathan has said much the same thing himself, recently telling Reuters that “military confrontation alone will not eliminate terror attacks,” and that an “enabling environment for young people to find jobs” was necessary. He has also offered to hold peace talks with the insurgents. Any such talks will be difficult, though, because of the opaque and possibly fragmented nature of the group. “There are a lot of people calling themselves Boko Haram now, and there is not a clear, identifiable leader,” says Lewis. “There is not a civil wing or a political wing that you can identify. There is not an organized structure.”
Developing the Muslim north of Nigeria is also an enormous challenge, given the severe socio-economic disparity between it and the Christian south of the country. But Lewis says it must be addressed. The West’s role, he says, should be peripheral. “Probably the United States’ best option is to hang back and not allow this to become identified as a U.S. effort.”
Nigerian soldiers already receive training in the United States. But Pham says American troops should not deploy to Nigeria. “That would feed right into Boko Haram’s narrative,” he points out. “It would provide legitimacy to their exaggerated claims. This is a problem that doesn’t call for military force. It calls for better policy. It has to be Nigeria who owns the problem.”