What Is Boko Haram?

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Islamic sect that 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.

While the world was focused on the search for the girls, violence attributed to Boko Haram continued. About 100 people were killed in a suicide attack in Jos and dozens more died in a series of attacks on villages in May. The violence continued into the summer, with the military stepping up its attacks on the group. In late June, a bomb attributed to Boko Haram killed about two dozen people in Abuja, the capital. The attack on the city, which is located in central Nigeria, revealed that the group is extending its reach outside its stronghold in the north. About 500 soldiers escaped to neighboring Cameroon in late August after coming under attack by Boko Haram. By early September, the group had captured Gwoza, Gamboru Ngala, Banki, and Bama, towns all located in Borno state near the border with Cameroon. Boko Haram also declared parts of Borno a caliphate. The advances sparked fears that Boko Haram could move in on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno.

In early November, the government announced it had begun to negotiate a cease-fire agreement with Boko Haram, which included the release of the kidnapped girls. Abubakar Shekau, the group's leader, however, denied the claim, and said the girls had converted to Islam and had been "married off."

Group Expands Its Reach

The group continued to seize cities in the northeast and by early December, had taken control of many cities that surround Maiduguri. It also launched several suicide attacks in Maiduguri and other cities, which killed several hundred people. In the absence of effective government troops, civilian militias began to pop up to fight Boko Haram.

The group continued to seize cities in the northeast and by early December, had taken control of many cities that surround Maiduguri. It also launched several suicide attacks in Maiduguri and other cities, which killed several hundred people. In the absence of effective government troops, civilian militias began to pop up to fight Boko Haram.

In January 2015, Boko Haram took over Baga, the only major town in Borno state to resist being taken over by the group. News reports said the militants burned the city to the ground and massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens, making it one of the most deadly assaults by Boko Haram. Goodluck Jonathan was widely cricized for not condemning the attack, and his silence may be met with dissent from voters in February's presidential elections. About 8,000 troops from Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin were dispatched to Nigeria to battle the terrorists.

Nigeria's election commission postponed for six weeks presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 14 after the military said it could not protect voters in the northeast from Boko Haram. Some questioned if the decision was influenced by President Jonathan, whose victory was by no means guaranteed. Indeed, he faced a strong challenge from Muhammadu Buhari, a former military leader who was behind a 1983 coup.

In March 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Islamic extremist militant group. The move further extended the reach of ISIS, which seeks to to establish an Islamic state in the Middle East ruled by strict shariah law.

—Beth Rowen
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