Boko Haram: Nigeria's mysterious terror group

Believed to have been founded in 2001, Boko Haram has no clear organizational structure.

06.03.2014 - Update : 06.03.2014
Boko Haram: Nigeria's mysterious terror group

by Rafiu Ajakaye


Opinions differ as to the origins of Boko Haram, the militant group that has gained notoriety in recent years for its terror campaign in Nigeria's northeast.

Since 2009, the group has been responsible for more than 10,000 deaths, according to conservative estimates, along with arson attacks believed to have cost the country millions of dollars.

It has also attacked places of worship, mostly churches, and a number of Muslim scholars.

The most recent casualty was Sheikh Mohamed Albani, a scholar from Kaduna in northwest Nigeria known for his fierce opposition to Boko Haram.

Overall, more Muslims are thought to have been killed by Boko Haram insurgents than members of any other group.

In the country's northern region, where the group is most active, Muslims account for about 90 percent of the population.

Two main, albeit contradictory, narratives have been told about this violent sect.

The first gives a religious rationale for its existence by casting Boko Haram as a modern-day Maitasine – a religious group that held similarly extremist views and waged a similar insurgency against the Nigerian state in the 1970s.

The leader of this group, Marwa Mohamed, died in 1980, after which the Maitasine were decimated.

Maitatsine literally means the "one who damns" – a name that captures the group's irreverent view of the Nigerian state and its leaders.

The sect claimed to seek "religious purity" and cast anyone opposed to its ideology as un-Islamic.

Many people who follow Boko Haram believe it to be a reincarnated Maitatsine. This view is grounded in the group's call for Islamist rule in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram links all the rot in society to "corrupt western values," calls for a return to "true Islam," and rejects modern notions of democracy.

Its popular name is derived from its claim that Boko (translated as "western education") is "Haram," the Arab-Hausa word meaning "religiously proscribed."

The group's official name is Jama'at Ahlus-Sunnah Li-Da'awah Wal-Jihaad, roughly translated as "Congregation of the People of Sunnah for Proselytism and Jihad."

Reportedly founded in 2001, it was led in its initial years by Mohamed Yusuf, who was killed in police custody in 2009 after being captured in the northeastern Bauchi State following a jailbreak.

Members of the group had stormed a prison to free detained colleagues.

The whole episode degenerated into a serious civil disturbance, forcing late president Umaru Yar'Adua to order the group destroyed.

Some have questioned the extrajudicial killing of Yusuf, with many believing his death was part of a conspiracy to forestall any investigation into the root causes of the brewing insurgency.

Abubakar Mu'azu of Borno State's University of Maiduguri, who has done research into Boko Haram, told Anadolu Agency that Yusuf had believed in "Hakimiyah," an Islamic doctrine that calls for the strict application of God's laws.

Yusuf claimed to espouse the views of Ibn Taymiyah, a controversial Muslim scholar who lived in the Middle Ages. Yusuf's public statements also showed him to belong to the "takfir" movement, which views anyone who doesn't adhere to its austere interpretation of Islam as an "infidel."

Yusuf urged his followers to eschew anything modeled after the west – from education and banking to civil service employment.

But some observers believe Yusuf was a hypocrite. They cite his university degree, his mastery of the English language and his allegedly lavish lifestyle.

Until his death, he is said to have driven a Mercedes-Benz.

Some observers believe Boko Haram's emergence was a partial response to the situation in Nigeria's north-central Plateau State, where the Hausa and Fulani tribes were at loggerheads with the indigenous Berom people.

The latter are represented by Plateau Governor Jonah Jang, a Berom man whose handling of recent ethnic clashes has drawn condemnation from rights groups. Jang, for his part, denies any wrongdoing.

Yusuf had reportedly described the situation in Plateau State as "ethnic cleansing."

-Political tool-

That religious ideology narrative doesn't sit well with other analysts, however, who believe Boko Haram is nothing but a political tool run amok.

Those who take this view liken the group to the Niger Delta militants who, at the height of their power between 2005 and 2008, deployed weapons just as sophisticated as those now being used by Boko Haram.

It is the opinion of several analysts that the Niger Delta militants had been a product of unhealthy competition among rival politicians.

The militants were used to intimidate opposition voices and rig elections in their paymasters' favor. Using environmental activism as a pretext, the militants would kidnap oil workers who they exchanged for large ransoms.

They got out of control after elections, however, when their sponsors were unable to disarm them.

Some observers believe Yusuf and his militants were pawns in a larger political game, with some linking the group to Ali Modu-Sheriff, who served as Borno governor from 2003 to 2011.

In a bid to oust then-governor Mala Kachala, Modu-Sheriff allegedly raised and armed a group of "bad boys," dubbed ECOMOG, who terrorized his political opponents – and the entire state. Yusuf was believed to be a member of ECOMOG.

According to a military officer who served in Borno from the 1980s to the late 2000s, Modu-Sheriff failed to fulfill his promises to the ECOMOG gang. This led some members of the gang, including Yusuf, to accuse Modu-Sheriff's provincial government of corruption and of being anti-Muslim.

Yusuf was later mollified, however, and was brought into Modu-Sheriff's government as a commissioner of religious affairs – a position he later resigned in order to continue opposing the state government.

He openly accused the state government of corruption and called for a political system based on Islamic principles.

Yusuf found supporters among the impoverished local populace, much of which shared his views regarding alleged government corruption and neglect.


How Boko Haram was transformed from a small group of disaffected citizens into a sophisticated militant group able to field rocket launchers and anti-aircraft missiles, however, remains a mystery.

Believed to have been founded in 2001, Boko Haram has no clear organizational structure. It is said to employ "cells" and is sometimes accused of fostering conflicting beliefs.

The group has never revealed the number of its members, nor have Nigerian security agencies ever provided any estimates.

But videos seen by AA – coupled with the prevalence and intensity of Boko Haram attacks – suggest the group must have thousands of fighters.

Boko Haram's recruitment style, meanwhile, appears to vary from case to case.

There are those who – due to gullibility, ignorance or frustration with a system that has left them with little to hope for – have bought into the group's violent ideology.

On the one hand, there are those who are lured into the group through its promises of stipends enough for three daily rations. Others, however, have been "forcibly conscripted" into the group.

Boko Haram doesn't have a particular dress code, allowing its members to mingle with civilian populations without being detected.

In some instances, group commanders and fighters have been seen in videos wearing hoods. At other times, they've been spotted in military fatigues.

Abubakar Shekau, who succeeded Yusuf as Boko Haram leader, can be seen wearing military fatigues in almost all the videos the group has released in the past.

Boko Haram militants are known to occupy the Sambisa Forest in Borno State, located on the borders with Cameroon. They are also known to hide out in Borno's Gwozha Hill after having driven local villagers away. 

It has also been claimed that the group has at least nine bases in neighboring Cameroon – allegations the latter country has neither confirmed nor denied.

Some Boko Haram militants were recently arrested in the Niger Republic, suggesting the group may also have cells in that country. Many Boko Haram militants also live undetected among Nigeria's civilian population.

No clear funding sources have been linked to the militant group.

Claims that the group is self-sustaining seem far-fetched, given the unimpressive socioeconomic profile of some of its members and leaders, including Yusuf.

The group's reputation for harboring petty criminals, however, isn't in line with its apparent sophistication as is seen in the strength of its arsenals – which have been known to include rocket launchers and anti-aircraft missiles.

Military sources believe the group has engaged in armed robbery and other criminal activities in order to fund its ongoing insurgency.

The funding issue has raised serious questions about Boko Haram and its backers, with many observers suggesting that local politicians could be covertly supporting the group.

It is the opinion of some, including incumbent Borno Governor Kashim Shetimma, that Boko Haram has become a "franchise" under which criminal elements conceal their activities.

Western intelligence officials have linked Boko Haram with terrorist groups operating outside Nigeria, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

But others insist there is no concrete evidence to substantiate such claims.

Citing the group's terrorist activities and the consequent dangers posed to its interests, the United States recently designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization.

Nigeria had earlier designated the sect as a terrorist group.

Shekau, believed to be the group's ideologue, has been labeled a terrorist by both Nigeria and the US, the latter of which is offering $7 million for his death or capture.

Recent claims of Shekau's death have turned out to be false. He made two recent video appearances in which he claimed responsibility for recent attacks and refuted reports of his assassination.

Lending weight to conspiracy theories about the group, Shekau's speeches in videos seen by AA do not portray him as a particularly intelligent – or even coherent – leader capable of coordinating the group's vast activities.

Unlike Al-Qaeda kingpins Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Sheikh Anwar Awlaaqi, Shekau does not come across as being grounded in any particular ideology – nor is he a particularly gifted orator.

Other known leaders of Boko Haram include Ahmadu Bama, said to be the group's bomb maker.

Meanwhile, repeated attempts to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the insurgency have failed.

Former president Olusegun Obansanjo once visited Yusuf's Maiduguri hometown in an effort to persuade group leaders to talk to the government.

But the man who hosted Obasanjo was assassinated only hours after Obansanjo's departure.

Shehu Sanni, a prominent civil rights activist with links to the group, had assisted in Obasanjo's peace overtures.

Distressed by the killing of his Maiduguri host, Sanni, citing government insincerity, rejected subsequent attempts to persuade him to resume his peacemaking role.

Sanni refused to serve on a presidential committee set up recently to meet with Boko Haram leaders. The committee, headed up by Special Duties Minister Saminu Turaki, submitted its report to the president last November.

No progress, however, has been made since then. On the contrary, the violence has gone from bad to worse, with hundreds of people killed in a spate of attacks in recent weeks.

Alarmed by the group's continued violent activities, an umbrella body of powerful state governors recently called on President Goodluck Jonathan to review the latter's counter-insurgency strategy, which, they asserted, "is definitely not working."

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