Background Briefing: What Is Boko Haram?

Suspected members of the hardline Islamist group Boko Haram attacked a school in Damaturu, Nigeria, early Tuesday morning, burning or shooting 29 boys, but sparing the female students, news outlets reported. The Council on Foreign Relations offers this backgrounder on the extremist group.

By Mohammed Aly Sergie, online writer/editor, and Toni Johnson of the Council on Foreign Relations

(Updated Feb. 26)


Boko Haram, a diffuse Islamist sect, has attacked Nigeria’s police, military, rival clerics, politicians, schools, religious buildings, public institutions, and civilians with increasing regularity since 2009. Some experts view the group as an armed revolt against government corruption, abusive security forces, and widening regional economic disparity in an already impoverished country. They argue that Abuja should do more to address the strife between the disaffected Muslim north and the Christian south.

Boko Haram’s brutal campaign — including a suicide attack on a UN building in Abuja in 2011, repeated attacks that have killed dozens of students, burning of villages, as well as ties to regional terror groups — led the U.S. Department of State to designate it a foreign terrorist organization. The Nigerian government has dispatched forces to crush the insurgency, but has been ineffective.

The road to radicalization

Boko Haram was created in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno, by Islamist cleric Mohammed Yusuf, who led a group of radical Islamist youth in the 1990s. The group aims to establish a fully Islamic state in Nigeria, including the implementation of criminal sharia courts across the country. Paul Lubeck, a University of California professor studying Muslim societies in Africa, says Yusuf was a trained Salafist (a school of thought often associated with jihad), and was strongly influenced byIbn Taymiyyah, a fourteenth-century legal scholar who preached Islamic fundamentalism and is an important figure for radical groups in the Middle East.

The sect calls itself Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad.” It’s widely known as Boko Haram, which colloquially translates into “Western education is sin,” for its rejection of Western concepts such as evolution and the big bang theories.

Before 2009, the group did not aim to violently overthrow the government. Yusuf criticized northern Muslims for participating in what he saw as an illegitimate, non-Islamic state, and preached a doctrine of withdrawal. But violent clashes between Christians and Muslims and harsh government treatment, including pervasive police brutality, encouraged the group’s radicalization. Boko Haram’s hundreds of followers, also called Yusuffiya, consist largely of impoverished northern Islamic students and clerics, as well as professionals, many of whom are unemployed.

In July 2009, Boko Haram members refused to follow a motorbike helmet law, leading to heavy-handed police tactics that set off an armed uprising in the northern state of Bauchi and spread into the states of Borno, Yobe, and Kano. The incident was suppressed by the army and left more than eight hundred dead. It also led to the televised execution of Yusuf, as well as the deaths of his father-in-law and other sect members, which human rights advocates consider to be extrajudicial killings. In the aftermath of the 2009 unrest, “an Islamist insurrection under a splintered leadership” emerged, says Lubeck. Boko Haram carried out a number of suicide bombings and assassinations, from Maiduguri to Abuja, and staged a prison break in Bauchi, freeing more than seven hundred inmates in 2010.

Attacks continued to escalate, and by 2013 some analysts began to see greater influence by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Boko Haram operations. Terrorist acts against civilians, like the murder of sixty-five students while they slept at the agricultural college in Yobe state in September 2013, chainsaw beheadings of truck drivers, and the killing of hundreds on the roads of northern Nigeria raised doubts about the central government’s ability to control territory and amplified fears of protracted violence in the country.

Nigeria assembled a Joint Task Force (JTF) of military and police units to battle Boko Haram and declared a “state of emergency” in three northeast states—Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa—in May 2013. The move pushed the militants out of cities, but attacks in rural areas continued. The JTF, augmented by vigilantes who were folded into officially sanctioned Civilian JTF units, have been implicated in extrajudicial killings of militants and civilians, which may have galvanized support for the insurgents.

Boko Haram is so diffuse that fighters associated with it don’t necessarily follow Salafi doctrine. Many foot soldiers are drawn from impoverished, religiously uneducated youth, according to Jacob Zenn, an analyst on African affairs at the Jamestown Foundation. Some fighters claim to have been trained in Iran and are part of a Shiite Muslim group, Zenn writes, while others were involved in other conflicts in Nigeria and the Sahel region, and are now caught up in the latest violent extremist group.

Rising against the state

The Nigerian government’s assessment that Boko Haram was an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist movement left it with few options other than using force to deal with the group. Analysts say the focus on a terrorist link ignores the context from which Boko Haram emerged and emphasizes security issues that may only radicalize the group further.

“The problem with understanding Boko Haram is definitional. What do we mean by Boko Haram?” says CFR senior fellow John Campbell. Yusuf, Boko Haram’s founder, didn’t have complete control of the group, and after his execution, his followers splintered into at least five factions. Boko Haram’s putative leader today, Abubakar Shekau, appears to be focused on fighting the Nigerian government in Borno, Campbell says, while other units expanded their attacks in Nigeria and have conducted limited operations in neighboring Cameroon and Niger, signaling an evolving regional vision for the group.

While Boko Haram can’t be neatly characterized as an insurgency or terrorist organization, its origins appear rooted in grievances over poor governance and sharp inequality in Nigerian society. “The emergence of Boko Haram signifies the maturation of long-festering extremist impulses that run deep in the social reality of northern Nigeria,” writes Nigerian analyst Chris Ngwodo. “But the group itself is an effect and not a cause; it is a symptom of decades of failed government and elite delinquency finally ripening into social chaos.”

Efforts to address dissatisfaction among Muslims in northern states, such as the reintroduction of sharia criminal courts, weren’t successful because the courts weren’t considered fair. Human Rights Watch said in a 2011 report that “corruption is so pervasive in Nigeria it has turned public service for many into a kind of criminal enterprise.”

Police brutality and impunity added to the tensions. A 2009 Amnesty International report (PDF) said Nigerian police were responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances each year that largely “go uninvestigated and unpunished.” The group said in a later report that nearly 1,000 people, mostly Islamist militants, died in military custody in the first half of 2013. Human rights advocates say Nigerian authorities are rarely, if ever, held criminally accountable for the public executions of Boko Haram followers. In 2011, the government began to try five police officers connected to Yusuf’s killing, and started the court martial of a military commander responsible for troops that allegedly killed forty-two sect members in 2009, but both proceedings weren’t concluded as of February 2014.

Boko Haram has used the growing grievances to promote the idea that an Islamic state would bring a better and more just government to power.

The North-South divide

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with more than 174 million people and nearly 350 ethnic groups speaking 250 languages. The country is split between Muslims and Christians, with 10 percent of the people following indigenous sects. Nigeria has long grappled with how to govern a diverse nation in which the struggle between Christians and Muslims over political power remains a significant factor in the ongoing unrest. Sectarian violence, particularly in Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, and Benue states, the central part of the country where religious groups as well as farmers and herders collide, boosted the death toll. More than 25,000 people were killed in Nigeria since 1999, according to Human Rights Watch and the CFR Nigeria Security Tracker.

Despite a per capita income of more than $2,700 and vast wealth in natural resources, Nigeria has one of the world’s poorest populations. An estimated 70 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day. Economic disparities between the north and the rest of the country are particularly stark. In the north, 72 percent of people live in poverty, compared to 27 percent in the south and 35 percent in the Niger Delta.

Another crucial factor in economic inequality is oil. In his book Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink, Campbell writes that the “formal politics” of northern Nigeria are “overwhelmingly dominated by Muslim elites, who have, like their counterparts across the country, benefited from oil wealth at the expense of regional development.” He says that the central purpose of the Nigerian state is to divide up the country’s oil wealth among elites, making Nigeria’s politics a “zero-sum game.” In the oil-producing delta, for example, groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which has attacked oil infrastructure, are largely an outgrowth of the feeling that the south should get more revenue than it already does.

The dispute over the 2011 election results, which led to more than eight hundred deaths, also played a role in Boko Haram’s escalating violence. Experts say many northern Nigerians view the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, as illegitimate, arguing that he ignored an informal power-rotation agreement that should have kept a Muslim as president this round. (Muslim president Umar Musa Yar’dua died in 2010, two years into his four-year term.) If Jonathan wins the national elections in 2015, or if there are no elections because of the unrest in the North, political tensions in Nigeria will increase, Campbell says.

Terror ties and policy prescriptions

Experts say Boko Haram’s 2010 prison break, use of propaganda, and the bombing of police headquarters in June 2011 indicate an increasing level of sophistication and organization, which could indicate outside help. U.S. officials say the group has ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in northwest Africa, Somalia’s al-Shabab, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Security officials in Nigeria and around the world are concerned that the group has splintered into two factions: one that is focused on local grievances and another that is seeking regional expansion. Alleged links to al-Qaeda groups have worried Washington, although some experts question the depth of regional terror ties and note that it’s unclear which attacks are actually the work of Boko Haram. (Some acts attributed to Boko Haram may be the work of criminals looking to capitalize on the mayhem.) Analysts say that focusing exclusively on terrorism could distract from policy options needed to address the underlying issues driving the insurgency.

Before the UN bombing in August 2011, the Nigerian government started to look at solutions similar to its quelling of unrest in the Niger Delta, including negotiation and amnesty. But experts say such a solution is unlikely for a group like Boko Haram, because its grievances are more diverse and less material than others. The lack of clear leadership of Boko Haram also hindered peace talks.

President Jonathan appears intent on quelling Boko Haram by force through a “state of emergency” that will continue until May 2014. Many experts argue that Boko Haram can’t be defeated on the battlefield; the group appears to be gaining strength after the crackdown, acquiring better weapons and fielding more fighters than ever. “Boko Haram [is] better armed and better motivated than our own troops,” Borno state governor Kashim Shettima said in February 2014. “Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat Boko Haram.”

The U.S. designation of Boko Haram and Ansaru as foreign terrorist organizations will allow Washington to investigate and prosecute suspects, but there is little appetite for direct intervention. The State Department urged Nigeria to counter these extremist groups “through a combination of law enforcement, political, and development efforts, as well as military engagement.” Analysts say the Nigerian government must do more to win hearts and minds by providing better education and health care services in the north, and including prominent, locally respected northern Muslims in the cabinet.

A version of this backgrounder first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations’ website. We aired more about the attack on Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour.