By: Devyani Wadera, Research Analyst, GSDN
As the world grapples with the dangers of global terrorism in the form of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and Islamic State, one militant group has garnered attention for its brutal and hostile ways in the state of Nigeria. Here, we are talking about Boko Haram, an extremist radical group that has been termed one of the deadliest terrorist organizations by the Global Terrorism Index in the transnational arena. The group has received a lot of coverage since 2009 due to its large-scale and relentless violent attacks on local police, military, political and religious groups, and its indiscriminate killing of civilians. The insurgency has massacred more than 32,000 people, 3,00,000 children, and displaced 2.3 million civilians from their homes, speaking of the somber circumstance threatening the political integrity and sovereignty of Nigeria. In this article, we will be investigating the rise of Boko Haram, from the genesis of the group to its current disposition as a militant organization. Further, there will be an exploration of the influence and current activities of Boko Haram.
The inception of the militant jihadist group took place in 2003 when war was waged against the Nigerian government under the leadership of Muhammad Ali, a Nigerian who had fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan. This small group mainly comprised of youth coming from wealthy families, fighting against the corrupt government, and wanting to establish an Islamic state run according to the sharia laws. The group withdrew from Maiduguri to the Yobe state in the northeast of the country. From here, the militants launched attacks on government buildings and police stations in different areas in the Yobe state. In December 2003, the group engaged in a fight with the local police over fishing rights in a pond. This fight escalated into a violent showdown where close to 70 members of the group were killed including Muhammad Ali. This group garnered attention from the Nigerian media for its open defiance against the state and its sensational name- Nigerian Taliban.
The survivors of the attack returned back to Maiduguri and joined Mohammad Yusuf, who had just returned back from his exile. The group identified themselves with a new name ‘Boko Haram’ colloquially translating to ‘Westernisation is Forbidden’. The ideology rejected, democracy, secularism, and western education and westernization. The organization’s objective was to fight against the corrupt, inefficient, and unjust Nigerian government. In an interview with BBC Hausa language service, the organization’s leader Mohammad Yusuf stated western education must be replaced with Islamic education and that all those who oppose it must be killed. Further, there was a threat of converting all the non-Muslims to Muslims. Boko Haram wanted to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state and regarded the current government as illegitimate. It sought to purify the practice of Islam and remove what it sees as west-inspired corruption and immortality.
According to observers, the rise of Boko Haram is a consequence of the government’s incompetency to address corruption, unemployment, and growing income disparities between the poor north inhabited by Muslims and the rich south with a majority population of Christians. These disparities lead to anger among the public, especially in the north and northeast areas of the country. The jihadist group took advantage of this predicament by tapping into local grievances and offering people a higher sense of purpose driven by religious beliefs. This jihadist movement was the boiling point for the rising inequality and neglected poverty-stricken population of the north. The group steadily expanded into other regions- Yobe, Bauchi, and Niger under the leadership of Yusuf. Many experts referred to how the organization had created a state within a state in the provinces that were controlled by them.
The year 2009, turned out to be a flashpoint for Boko Haram as an armed conflict took place between the organization and the security forces. The long-standing contestation achieved its climax as the militants were traveling to the funeral of a fellow member and the group was stopped on the highway by the police to enforce a tightened restriction on motorcycle helmets. This led to a heated confrontation between the two parties. The argument instigated an altercation as the men refused to comply with the demands, angered the police shot and wounded several men. This incident led to a violent crackdown by the police on the organization and more than 1000 people were killed with 800 alone only in Maiduguri. The clash continued for 5 days where initially the organization members were roaming the streets independently, killing civilians indiscriminately and fighting the police. The police finally took control of the city and were on a killing spree, multiple people were queued up and shot including Mohammed Yusuf. The police however denied the allegations of executing Yusuf, rather stating that he was shot while trying to escape.
This violent upsurge and the extrajudicial killing of Yusuf by the armed forces ignited a desire for vengeance in the terrorist organization which has gone underground. A year later, the new leader Abubakar Shekau in a video vowed to avenge the death of Yusuf. After the re-emergence of the group, there was a noticeable change in the strategies, mimicking the sophisticated tactics of Al Qaeda. The group refashioned its methods by organizing lethal and continuous attacks in the country. The brutal tactics of the regime included suicide bombing, mass killings, and mass abductions of particularly women and children. The organization’s first high scale attack was in September 2010, when the members attacked a prison in Bauchi and freed 700 prison inmates out of which 150 belonged to the group. A guerrilla war had been waged, where the terrorists assassinated many politicians, and police personnel, and robbed banks. Attacks by Boko Haram became more frequent and more severe, causing numerous fatalities and injuries. Many of the attacks took place in the northeast, north-central, and central states of Nigeria, with a particular emphasis on police, military, and government targets as well as Christian churches and schools and Muslims who held opposing views.
Subsequently, multiple attacks took place, which brought the organization into the eyes of the international audience. In august 2011, a bomb exploded at a United Nations building in Abuja which maimed 100 people and killed 25 others. Boko Haram kept up its relentless attacks and initiated coordinated assaults on police installations in Kano on January 20, 2012 which killed 185 people. Further, in an attack in February, Boko Haram destroyed more than 12 schools in Maiduguri which pushed 10,000 students out of formal education. Two churches in Kaduna were destroyed by a suicide bomber on April 8, which was Easter and resulted in the deaths of almost 40 persons. Further, the group murdered more than 60 boys at the Federal government college in Yobe state. In 2014, the group abducted 276 female students from the town of Chibok. This move followed the pattern of the kidnapping of women in the northeast and demonstrated to the west and the Nigerian government the unlimited power of Boko Haram. Abubakar Shekau in a tape promised that these women will be exploited and sold in the markets the same way the authorities have seized and inflicted atrocities on Muslim women belonging to Boko Haram. These attacks are a small proportion of the total number of killings by the militant group.
Since 2010, Boko Haram has organized numerous attacks in Nigeria which have destabilized the country and led to countless loss of lives. The more recent attacks include the kidnapping of 110 school girls in Yobe state in 2018 and an attack on Chadian security forces which killed at least 23 soldiers and was the deadliest attack by Boko Haram inside Chad. In 2020, at least 20 people were killed and 25 others were injured when the cult stormed the Nigerian community of Gajigana, just as locals were getting ready to break their Ramadan fast. The group has been termed the deadliest terrorist group in the world which has disturbed and exterminated the lives of many. The organization has been able to carry out an average of two attacks per day since it turned violent in 2009, killing close to 11 people every day. Since 2013, the Boko Haram insurgency has primarily operated in rural regions where it has been able to confront the Nigerian military. Up until 2014, Boko Haram concentrated its attacks in north-eastern Nigeria, but mounting pressure from security forces and vigilante groups has forced the terrorist group to launch more and more attacks in Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. In Cameroon, the organization massacred more than 1000 people between 2015 and 2016. Civilians living in areas controlled by Boko Haram have spoken of the inhuman and degrading treatment that is inflicted on them by the group members. Many reports have highlighted how the women and children were subjected to ill treatment, severe beating, and starvation for days. Also, women and girls in captivity for sexually abused by the members including rape, sexual slaves, forced pregnancies, marriages, and conversions.
The organization is now also active in west African nations- Chad, Niger and Cameroon which are bordering Nigeria. A very similar pattern of assassinations, kidnapping, and suicide bombings has been noticed in these countries as well. The group has also been able to develop ties with other terror groups in Africa and other places. This highlights a global nexus of terror groups connected through common theological and ideological aspirations. According to sources the group has ties with African-based organisations- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Somalia’s Al-Shabab, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There have been reports of operational connection with AQIM with special reports detailing how fighters have been trained with Al-Qaeda in small groups. AQIM has also provided Boko Haram with useful information about making improvised explosive devices. In 2012 the UN discovered that several Boko Haram militants fought alongside Al-Qaeda-connected organizations in Mali.
In 2012, Boko Haram openly declared its support for Al-Qaeda, and even during the killing of Osama Bin-laden, US officials found letters by Abubakar Shekau to Bin-laden. Boko Haram in 2015, also openly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. However, there exists a difference between these groups, as the methods, frequency, and magnitude of the attacks organized by Boko Haram are much more brutal and heinous. Boko Haram believes that the entire Muslim population of Nigeria is non-Muslim and therefore killing them is acceptable, whereas other groups believe that the Muslim population of Nigeria should be considered Muslims and not be attacked. The antagonizing and harsh attitude of Boko Haram toward the Muslim population is what differentiates the group from other non-state actors.
The Nigerian government’s approach up until 2015 alternated between ignoring the issue and ineffective, overbearing counterinsurgency tactics that made little distinction between Boko Haram terrorists and the populace that had to live under its rule. Between 2015 and 2017, the military campaign’s effectiveness increased, and the Nigerian government was able to recapture territory from Boko Haram, driving the organization into less populated areas. In 2021, the forces were also able to kill the leader Abubakar Shekau during one of its operations. However, the Nigerian military has had trouble successfully defending retaken territory. Attacks by Boko Haram on a smaller scale continue, exposing the dubious assertions of the Nigerian government that Boko Haram has been effectively crushed. Although the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the region has made significant strides against Boko Haram, people are still at risk of terrorist assaults and identity-based violence. Security personnel have allegedly violated human rights and used disproportionate force, including extrajudicial killings, against suspected ISWA and Boko Haram members during counterterrorism operations. The ruthless counterproductive measures have proven to be unadvantageous for the government as it has only further fuelled the desire to seek revenge and caused the lives of civilians.
Even though the government in the last few years has been successful in reducing the group’s capabilities, it has not been able to fully eradicate the same, posing a great threat to the integrity of the country. The insurgency continues to openly operate in the complex north and northeast regions of the country. It has further expanded into the regions of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon leading to regional instability. Several reports have backed that annually 5% of the total deaths are caused by Boko Haram in Nigeria, proving how the militancy still exists as a grave humanitarian crisis for the country. The jihadi group continues to be one of the most dangerous militancy groups in the world, whose attacks are increasing not only in frequency but also in magnitude.