Boko Haram is a Salafi-Jihadist group which was founded in 2002 and is fighting for the implementation of strict principles of Shari’a law in Nigeria. The group’s name comes from the combination of the Hausa word for book (‘boko’) and the Arabic word for forbidden (‘haram’), essentially leading to its interpreted meaning as “western education is forbidden”. Although it has been informally called Boko Haram by locals, the real name of the group is Jamāʿat Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Daʿawah wa al-Jihād (JAS), which means “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad”. It is mostly active in the Lake Chad basin, Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, conducting military operations and attacks against security forces, Christians, westerners and Muslims considered ‘infidels’. The conflict between Boko Haram and Nigeria’s security forces has killed more than 40,000 people and has affected the security of Chad, Niger and Cameroon (1).
History & Foundations
The group emerged locally from a radical shift within Nigeria’s Salafist movement - which has been active since the 1970s (2) - and came to prominence in the early 2000s from the historic socioeconomic, political and religious milieu of North-East Nigeria (3). During this period, twelve of the northern Nigerian states established Shari’a law. Nonetheless, parts of the Muslim community were not satisfied due to the simultaneous co-existence of Shari’a and the Nigerian constitution. This discontent stemmed from the latter’s emphasis of the secularity of the Nigerian state, as well as its affirmation of the supremacy of the federal Constitution over “any other law [that] is inconsistent” with it (3) (4). This was something unacceptable for those who wanted Islamic law to regulate all aspects of life.
Amongst this angered part of the Muslim community were Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Yusuf – two Muslims influenced by Wahhabism and the Salafi doctrine, as well as inspired by jihadist movements from the Sahel and Middle East. In 2002, Ali and Yusuf founded Boko Haram, recruiting Abubakar Shekau (a former student of the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies) and Mamman Nur (the militant who introduced Shekau to Muhammad Yusuf) (5).
The group started its militancy in the city of Maiduguri and then expanded its influence by establishing small camps and schools in the Borno and Yobe states between 2002-2005 (6). After years of relatively non-violent activism and recruitment, the group became more radical amidst episodic, regional clashes between Christians and Muslims. These confrontations were exacerbated by the harsh response adopted by the security forces against suspected militants. In 2009, when a police crackdown set off an armed uprising in the Bauchi State that eventually spread in the northeast, government forces killed more than eight hundred people, including suspected Boko Haram members. Following the uprising, Muhammad Yusuf was extrajudicially executed by the police and Abubakar Shekau took his place as the head of the group (7). With Shekau in charge, the group’s approach and its visions became significantly more violent, and the movement evolved into a campaign of terrorism.
Objectives & Ideology
Since its foundation, the objective of Boko Haram has been to build a Muslim society with a literal interpretation of Shari’a, a redistributionist economic ideology, and the rejection of polytheism and Western influence. Its religious view is a mixture of Wahhabism and Salafism (8), which underline Kanuri identity, as well as the memory and historical narrative of Islamic states and empires from the past (9).
Boko Haram has been also inspired by Mohammed Marwa, nicknamed Maitatsine, a preacher born in northern Cameroon who condemned the reading of books other than the Quran. Nevertheless, the group is doctrinally related to the Salafist movement called Yan Izala due to its Wahhabi and anti-Sufi ideology (10). It should also be added that – in a book written for the Islamic State – Yusuf’s sons claim that al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack was one of the major inspirations behind their father’s decision to establish Boko Haram (11).
Military & Political Ability
In its early stages (2002-2009), the group demonstrated a relatively non-violent campaign and was linked to Nigerian politicians and religious leaders. On the contrary, under Shekau’s leadership (following the death of Yusuf in 2009), Boko Haram escalated its violence by conducting very frequent lethal attacks, primarily within the Borno State.
Contemporarily, the organization has a hierarchical structure with a well-defined leader and a Shura Council. Boko Haram acts with battalions, ranging from 300 to 500 men, which are all entitled to make incursions into villages for abductions and into military bases to steal arms and ammunition. The organization has also adopted the use of ungoverned spaces for strategic retreat, regroupings, and high-level criminal activity (robberies, extortion, kidnapping and looting) (11). Moreover, members of the organization have also developed, through the years, the capacity to infiltrate various security services. During the summer of 2014, Boko Haram began seizing control of towns in northeastern Nigeria, by shifting their strategies from hit-and-run tactics to more direct forms of warfare. The current number of Boko Haram militiamen is estimated to lie in the tens of thousands, and at its peak the group held a territory equivalent in size to Belgium (12).
Approach to Resistance
Under the leadership of Yusuf, Boko Haram's approach to resistance was to create its own enclave by empowering and indoctrinating young Muslims. Yusuf preached against the Nigerian state and other moderate Muslims, which attracted a wide following in the establishment of his sect called Yusufiyya and then what have been called the “Nigerian Taliban” (13).
Boko Haram’s approach changed further following the clashes between the group and the government, notably after the Bauchi episode in 2009. In fact, under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, the group switched from a fringe religious movement to a terrorist group as it began attacking Nigerian forces, civilians and rival terrorist groups.
International Relations & Potential Alliances
In 2009, the group requested the support of al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which it eventually acquired for training and financial aid (14). The operational linkages between al-Qaeda and Boko Haram have been confirmed by the presence of Boko Haram fighters in Mali alongside The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) (15). Boko Haram’s alliances with other Jihadi groups has produced material, logistical and financial support, as well as capacity-building benefits that elevated the group’s operations and standing.
Eventually, the indiscriminate killings of civilians by the group caused internal divisions. In 2012, Ansaru split from Boko Haram to establish its operational bases in the North-West of Nigeria. Then, in 2016, Boko Haram split into two factions: JAS, led by Abubakar Shekau, and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), led by Abu Musab al Barnawi – the son of Yusuf. JAS has been characterized by more violent methods and it is more active in south-central Borno, as well as along the Cameroonian border. This branch also holds bases in the north-western part of Nigeria (16). On May 19th, 2021, JAS’ leader Abubakar Shekau died in a clash with ISWAP in the Sambisa Forest and since then the group has been led by Ibrahim Bakura (17).
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - CFR, “Nigeria Security Tracker”, March 2022. https://www.cfr.org/nigeria/nigeria-security-tracker/p29483.
(2) - Akali, Omeni. “Lies or half-truths? Boko Haram’s ideology from a social movement theory perspective”, African Security Review, 31:2, 2022, p. 178. DOI: 10.1080/10246029.2022.2027253
(3) - Despite the huge profits from oil exports, Nigeria remains one of the poorest countries in Africa. About 63% live below the poverty line and the poverty rate is considerably higher in the north than in the south. The highest rate is in fact in the northeast (75.4%) and the lowest in the southwest (47.9%). See: Nigeria Economic Report, N. 2, World Bank, Washington, D.C., July 2014. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/19980
(4) - Constitution Of The Federal Republic Of Nigeria, 1999. http://www.nigeria-law.org/ConstitutionOfTheFederalRepublicOfNigeria.htm.
(5) - For a debate about the biographies of the founders and a discussion on the international links see: Bukarti, Bulama, “Revisiting The Beginning Of Boko Haram”, War on the Rocks, January 2022. https://warontherocks.com/2022/01/revisiting-the-beginning-of-boko-haram/. And: Al-Tamimi, Aymenn, “The Islamic State West Africa Province vs. Abu Bakr Shekau: Full Text, Translation and Analysis”, aymennjawad.org, https://www.aymennjawad.org/21467/the-islamic-state-west-africa-province-vs-abu
(6) - Cook, David. “The rise of Boko Haram”, CTC Sentinel, September 26, 2011. https://web.archive.org/web/20120125002843/http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-rise-of-boko-haram-in-nigeria
(7) - Klobucista, Claire. “Nigeria’s Battle With Boko Haram”, Council on Foreign Relations, Last updated August 8, 2018 8:00 am (EST). https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/nigerias-battle-boko-haram#chapter-title-0-4
(8) - Akali, Omeni. “Lies or half-truths? Boko Haram’s ideology from a social movement theory perspective”, African Security Review, 31:2, 174-194, 2022. DOI: 10.1080/10246029.2022.2027253.
(9) - Barkindo, Atta. “Boko Haram: Ideology, Ethnicity, and Identity”, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, September 24, 2014. https://institute.global/policy/boko-haram-ideology-ethnicity-and-identity
(10) - Loimeier, Roman. “Boko Haram: The Development of a Militant Religious Movement in Nigeria.” Africa Spectrum, 47:2‐3, 2012, p. 146. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23350455.
(11) - Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State West Africa Province vs. Abu Bakr Shekau: Full Text, Translation and Analysis”, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, 5 August 2018. http://www.aymennjawad.org/21467/the-islamic-state-west-africa-province-vs-abu.
(12) - Burke, Jason, Abrak, Isaac. “Boko Haram claims responsibility for kidnapping hundreds of boys in Nigeria”, The Guardian, December 15, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/15/boko-haram-claims-responsibility-for-kidnapping-hundreds-of-boys-in-nigeria
(13) - Pate, Amy. “Boko Haram: An Assessment of Strengths, Vulnerabilities, and Policy Options.” Report to the Strategic Multilayer Assessment Office, Department of Defense, and the Office of University Programs, Department of Homeland Security. College Park MD: START, January 2014. https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/assessment-jam-ahl-sunnah-lid-da-wa-wal-jih-d-boko-haram-strengths
(14) - Bukarti, Audu Bulama. “The Origins of Boko Haram and why that matters”, Hudson Institute, January 13, 2020. https://www.hudson.org/national-security-defense/the-origins-of-boko-haram-and-why-it-matters#footNote35
(15) - “Dozens of Boko Haram Help Mali’s Rebel Seize Gao,” Vanguard, April 9, 2012. https://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/04/dozens-of-boko-haram-help-malis-rebel-seize-gao/
(16) - Bukarti, Audu Bulama. “Violent Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons From the Rise of Boko Haram”, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, July 23, 2021, p. 41. https://institute.global/policy/violent-extremism-sub-saharan-africa-lessons-rise-boko-haram