Haram--Who they are, their origins and connections
Bezhan May 7, 2014
Newscast Media LAGOS—The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram has been in the headlines after it
kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in the country's volatile north in
recent weeks, and threatened to sell them as slaves.
The kidnappings took place in separate incidents, the largest in April,
when more than 300 schoolgirls were seized , of which 276 remain in
captivity, according to Nigerian police. This week a further 11 girls
were kidnapped in Borno state, where Boko Haram has waged an Islamist
uprising for the past five years.
The kidnappings have led to an international outcry and pledges of
assistance from various countries, and a $300,000 reward for information
from the Nigerian government.
Who Is Boko Haram?
Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group based in northern Nigeria. The
extremist group is fighting to overthrow the government and create an
Islamic state. It has wreaked havoc in the country through a deadly
campaign of bombings, assassinations, and mass abductions.
Boko Haram's official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad
-- which in Arabic means "People Committed to the Propagation of the
Prophet's Teachings and Jihad." But it is widely known as Boko Haram,
which loosely means "Western education is forbidden" in the local Hausa
The group is based in the northeast city of Maiduguri, the capital of
the northeastern state of Borno. It has some support in Nigeria's
impoverished Muslim north, particularly in rural areas.
The group's fundamentalist interpretation of Islam makes it "haram," or
forbidden, for Muslims to participate in any social, political, and
educational activity linked with the West. That includes taking part in
elections, receiving a secular education, and wearing Western clothes.
That has led some to label the group the "Nigerian Taliban."
What Are The Group's Origins?
Mohammad Yusuf, a charismatic Islamic cleric, formed Boko Haram in
Maiduguri in 2002. Yusuf led a group of radical Islamist youth in the
1990s. He was originally interested in education, building a mosque and a
madrasah where poor Muslim families enrolled their children.
He did not aim to violently overthrow the government. Instead, he blamed
the country's problems on Western values imposed by Nigeria's former
British colonial rulers and preached a doctrine of withdrawal from
Things came to a head in 2009, when police clamped down on the group for
its refusal to observe a law making motorcycle helmets mandatory. It
led to clashes between Boko Haram supporters and the security services.
More than 800 people were killed, including hundreds of Boko Haram
supporters. Police captured the group's headquarters and took Yusuf into
custody, where he died.
Since then, Boko Haram has carried out a series of deadly attacks
targeting security institutions, churches, schools, and the
indiscriminate killing of civilians.
Yusuf's right-hand man, Abubakar Shekau, took his place and the group
changed direction. Without its charismatic founder, the group went
underground and became increasingly splintered. Various factions
emerged, including in neighboring Niger and Cameroon.
"From 2009, the group changed its dynamic," says Sola Tayo, an associate
fellow at the London-based Chatham House. "The violence they have used
has become more and more audacious. They're becoming a lot bolder, their
armories are becoming more sophisticated, and their tactics have become
more blatant as well."
Who Has It Targeted?
Boko Haram has been blamed for the deaths of almost 3,000 people since
2009. Amnesty International estimates that the group was responsible for
the deaths of more than 1,500 people this year alone.
The group has targeted Nigerian security forces, members of the
country's Christian community, and Muslim leaders and clerics accused of
cooperating with the government. It has also targeted foreigners and
tourists, albeit on a smaller scale. Among its most audacious attacks
was on the UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja, that killed more than
20 people in 2011.
Then, last month, the group kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls, of which
53 have since escaped, in the town of Chibok in Borno state. On May 4,
another 11 schoolgirls were kidnapped. In a chilling video released on
May 5, Shekau threatened to sell the schoolgirls as slaves and force
them into marriage.
Is It Linked To Al-Qaeda?
The United States, which has designated Boko Haram as a terrorist
organization, has said the group may have ties to Al-Qaeda via the
Islamic Maghreb, which operates in northwest Africa; the Al-Shabab
extremist group, in Somalia; and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
A U.S. Congressional report in 2011 warned that the group was an
"emerging threat" to the United States. Boko Haram has denied forging
ties with foreign groups.
There is little firm evidence that Boko Haram has ambitions beyond
Nigeria, despite claiming the abduction of a French family in northern
Cameroon in February last year.
"They do have links and they share information," Tayo says. "But whether
Boko Haram is actively part of Al-Qaeda is up for debate, because at
the moment the conflict is contained in a certain part of Nigeria."
Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East