26 Apr 2014

Boko Haram: who are the group bringing terror to Nigeria?

The jihadist group’s escalating campaign of terror has claimed 4,000 civilian lives in just four years, and Boko Haram is now linked to the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls. But who are they?

Their name means “western education is forbidden”, and while the group has targeted many schools – and schoolchildren – it has also attacked churches, mosques, police stations, government buildings, bus stations and even a UN compound, as well as carrying out assassinations and kidnappings.

The sect claims to be fighting for a strict sharia state in northern Nigeria and is believed to receive guns and money from Salafist al-Qaeda-linked insurgent groups in the Islamic Maghreb and beyond. Boko Haram is estimated to have killed 4,000 people during its four-year-insurgency. The Nigerian military is estimated to have killed almost as many in its efforts to hunt down and kill the insurgents.

Security analysts say that following the extra-judicial killing, in military custody, of Boko Haram’s former leader in 2009, a rift developed between his successor, Abubakar Shekkau and another commander, Mamman Nur, whose ideology is said to be more in sync with international jihadism. All three had studied theology together in Borno and all reportedly admired the Taliban.

Boko Haram has failed to take control of any big population centres. There has been a marked shift towards instilling terror in Nigerians.

Nur is also a veteran of fighting in Somalia and is understood to have learned expertise in more sophisticated terrorist tactics. Experts say, though, that recent attacks against soft targets, including the mass-kidnapping of the schoolgirls, could be interpreted as a sign of lowered capability.

Boko Haram has failed to take control of any big population centres. There has been a marked tactical shift towards instilling terror in Nigerians, particularly in the north east of the country, through guerrilla-style attacks and kidnappings. Its attacks have devastated the economy in that region, and, more widely, have served to undermine public confidence in the government of President Goodluck Jonathan.

Earlier this week, General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s head of state during the Biafran civil war, said he believed the country had fallen back into what he called “full-scale civil war”.