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What Is Boko Haram?

Islamic sect opposes Western education terrorizes civilians


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Boko Haram, a fundamentalist Islamist sect, was formed in 2002 in northern Nigeria by Mohammed Yusuf. The group is opposed to Western education, political philosophy, and society, and seeks to overthrow the government and implement sharia throughout the country. The group's name translates to "Western education is sinful."

When he formed the militant group, Yusuf also opened a school and mosque in Maiduguri and recruited young Muslims and trained them as jihadis to fight the government. In July 2009, deadly violence broke out in northeastern Nigeria between government troops and members of Boko Haram. As many as 1,000 civilians died in the battles. The fighting began after militants attacked police stations and began preparing for a pitched religious war against the government. The police and army retaliated with a five-day assault against the sect. Yusuf was killed in the campaign and the group was nearly decimated.

Boko Haram Regroups after Loss of Leader

Abubakar Shekau took over after Yusuf's death, and the group re-emerged as a threat in 2010. It launched an attack in September on a prison in Bauchi and freed hundreds of its supporters. Boko Haram, which had previously launched attacks locally, emerged as a transnational force. It unleashed nearly daily deadly attacks in 2011, including one on the UN headquarters in August in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, that killed 24 people. On Christmas Day, the sect claimed responsibility for a series of bombings near churches that killed at least 40 people. The government declared a state of emergency in northern Nigeria and dispatched troops to the region. Boko Haram continued its assault on the Lake Chad basin area in the north throughout 2012, prompting retaliatory attacks but government troops.

Boko Haram has been linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and some of its members reportedly trained in Al Qaeda camps. A report released in April 2013 by the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security said, "For years, Boko Haram has assaulted the people of Nigeria, embraced Al Qaeda’s brand of international terror, and threatened the United States." It added that the organization "shows no signs of ending its campaign against the government of Nigeria and the Western world."

Fierce—and brutal—fighting between the militants and soldiers in April 2013 in Baga, a fishing village on Lake Chad, left as many as 200 civilians dead and 2,275 homes destroyed. Both sides accused each other of setting homes on fire. The government came under fire for its scorched-earth tactics. In May, the government declared a state of emergency in the northern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe, where Boko Haram has been most actively launching attacks. The move allowed government troops to hold and question terror suspects. The state of emergency did not thwart the violence at the hands of Boko Haram. In July, the government closed secondary schools in Yobe after 22 students were killed in attack attributed to the militants. Another massacre in Borno claimed nearly 90 lives in September. The military inaccurately reported it had killed Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, in August.

Students Targeted in Horrifying Attacks

Boko Haram's brutal campaign against schools took a horrifying turn in early 2014. The militants killed more than 400 people in and around Maiduguri in February and early March 2014. Among its victims were children watching a soccer match and dozens of male students at a public college in Yobe State, many of whom were burned or shot to death. The group was also blamed for a rush-hour bomb set off in April at a bus station in Nyanya, a city on the outskirts of Abuja that killed more than 70 people.

In April, the group kidnapped about 280 girls from a school in the northeast with the intention of making the girls sex slaves. The mass kidnapping—and the government's inept attempts to rescue them—sparked international outrage and anti-government protests in Nigeria. A social media campaign helped to increase news coverage of the kidnappings and put pressure on Jonathan to take action against Boko Haram.

In a videotaped message released in early May, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, said the group planned to sell the abducted girls and threatened to "give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves. We would marry them out at the age of 9. We would marry them out at the age of 12." He also reiterated the group's core belief that Western education is a sin.

—Beth Rowen

Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.

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