Boko Haram is a militant Islamist organization whose main target is the secular Nigerian government, although its victims are largely Muslims in Nigeria's north. Boko Haram means “Western Education is forbidden” in the Hausa language, reflecting a teaching of the early Boko Haram leader Muhammad Yusuf, who maintained that western-style education and holding government jobs are religiously forbidden under Islam. The group’s Arabic name is Ahl al Sunna li al Da’wa wa al Jihad, which can be translated as “Salafis/Sunnis for Calling People to Islam and Engaging in Jihad.”
Though Boko Haram is often assumed to have sectarian goals (such as instituting an Islamic state), it is more likely that a complex set of political, economic, and theological factors are driving this movement. In the increasingly impoverished North, high rates of unemployment and inadequate investments in education and infrastructure have led many to feel isolated, neglected, and disrespected. These and other factors, especially corruption, have spawned widespread disillusionment with the Nigerian government, which Boko Haram leaders have compared to the colonial government. They see the failure of the secular state to provide basic services to Muslims as evidence that an Islamic state would be morally and ethically superior, and point to western education as a corrupting influence (hence their name).
One of a number of young Nigerian clerics who embraced Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi/Salafi strain of Islam in the mid-1990s, Muhammad Yusuf called upon Muslims to remove the Nigerian government and replace it with an Islamic state. Officially founded in 2002 (the same year that there were riots and protests over a planned Miss World beauty pageant in the northern state of Kaduna), this indigenous northern militant group initially targeted the police and army. Starting in 2005, as reports showed growing ranks among Yusuf’s supporters and there were fears that the group was stockpiling weapons, a special operation of federal police was sent to stamp out violence and rampant crime in northeastern Borno State.
Nigerian police forces began clamping down on Boko Haram and clashes with federal soldiers in 2009 led to more than 1,000 deaths. Yusuf was killed while in police custody. Boko Haram was subsequently banned by the government, its mosques were abolished, and surviving members went underground. Since 2009, the group has stepped up their attacks to include civilian and international targets, including Christian and Muslim places of worship, schools, markets, government offices, media outlets, and a United Nations building.
Because the group has mostly been silent about its true aims, national and international speculation has ascribed motivations to it which may or may not be accurate. A 2011 secret meeting with former president Olusegun Obasanjo and a 2012 YouTube video by Yusuf’s deputy both suggested that the group’s primary motivation was still deeply rooted in the local politics of Borno State. These sources revealed a quest for revenge for the government crackdown, a desire to have its mosques rebuilt and families compensated for the losses incurred in 2009, and an outright request for government troops to be removed from Maiduguri. Others suggest that the group has become a murky confluence of elements drawn from disgruntled political factions and others with opportunist aims. Due to its cell structure, it is difficult to calculate Boko Haram’s ranks, but it is thought that it might include upwards of 4,000 militants. This estimate includes militants from Chad, Niger, and Cameroon who have crossed over Nigeria’s border.
There are varying opinions about whether and to what extent the group has established ties to other militant groups in the region and internationally. Recent NATO reports have indicated that the north African Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Somali group al-Shabaab have not only established ideological ties to Boko Haram, but have also been able to provide training and financial support. Others say that there is no proof of operational coordination with these groups
Meanwhile, public opinion is divided in Nigeria over how best to deal with the threat posed by Boko Haram. Though some support increased military action (most of whom are Christians), mainstream political and religious leaders in the North have encouraged the government to reach out to the North with solutions to the endemic poverty, unemployment, and marginalization that they believe are the heart of widespread anger among Muslims in the region.
Muhammad Sani Umar, “The Popular Discourses of Salafi Radicalism and Salafi Counter-radicalism in Nigeria: A Case Study of Boko Haram,” Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012): 118-144.
Joe Bavier, “Who Are Boko Haram and Why Are They Terrorizing Nigerian Christians?” The Atlantic online, January 24, 2012.