The roots of Boko Haram and why its terrorist advance won’t stop

Recent attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria show that its hold is still strong. A look at the history and current status of the the extremist terrorist group.

Fears surfaced immediately, despite the fact that this region – northwest Nigeria – had never been targeted by large-scale attacks or mass kidnappings by jihadists before. In a video distributed on 14th December 2020, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the 11 December kidnapping of 333 students from the Government Secondary School of Science, an all-boys’ institution in Kankara, a city in Katsina State. Many Nigerians began sharing social media posts with the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys as they began to realise that the nightmare experienced in 2014 with the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls could be repeating itself.

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Shoes and bags left on the floor in one of the rooms where the kidnapping of 333 schoolboys took place © Kola Sulaimon/AFP/Getty Images

Recent attacks by Boko Haram

Some one hundred extremists carrying AK-47s stormed the school, forcing 800 students to flee to the surrounding woods. Many of them, however, didn’t make it to safety. With many details still needing to be clarified and confirmed, the attack was initially attributed to local armed militias, in a region where kidnappings for extortion are common. The army even claimed to have discovered the group’s hiding place, announcing a military operation to free the boys. State Governor Aminu Bello Masari also claimed that negotiations with the kidnappers were ongoing, a fact that was subsequently denied by the jihadist militants. Finally, on 17th December, approximately 300 students were released.

This saga marks an important turning point in the extremists’ advance into a new geographical sphere of influence, confirming the revival of the terrorist Sunni group. This process extends beyond the borders of Nigeria, as evidenced by an 8 January attack on a village in northern Cameroon, and one on 12 December 2020 in the Diffa region of neighbouring Niger in which 27 civilians were killed.

A week earlier, images from the funerals of dozens of Nigerian farmers made their way around the world. These deaths were the result of a terrorist attack carried out by Boko Haram on 28th November in Koshebe, a village near Maiduguri, the war-torn capital of Borno State. Songs, prayers and sounds of crying rose from the massive crowd as the bodies, wrapped in white sheets, were carried on wooden stretchers towards a mass grave that had been dug in Zabarmari village.

As many as 110 people were killed in the massacre. Many of these were decapitated, and a few dozen people are still reported missing, 15 of whom are women who were likely kidnapped by the assailants. This was undoubtedly one of the bloodiest attacks ever recorded against civilians since the Nigerian group began its armed insurgency over ten years ago.

For some time, local paddy farmers had come to an agreement with the Boko Haram militias: they could farm their land in peace as long as they didn’t report the presence and identity of extremist fighters to the Nigerian army. These kind of agreements are common and inevitable if one is to survive in such highly food insecure regions. At the end of last year, however, the tacit agreement was breached.

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After clashes over police violence, Nigeria has once again been racked by Boko Haram attacks © Leon Neal/Getty Images

Initially, it wasn’t clear whether responsibility for the attack lay with Boko Haram, the group still faithful to former leader Abubakar Shekau, or the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), the Daesh-recognised faction active in the region whose most recent attacks targeting power lines were carried out in the first month of 2021. Three days after the massacre in Koshebe, the Shekau-led group published a video in which it claimed to have killed the farmers as retaliation for having delivered terrorist militants to the authorities.

“We’re accused of being collaborators by both the security operatives and the insurgents, when all we did was look for peace,” said a village elder. “What can we do to stay safe?”

What can we do to stay safe?

Garbati Sani, Zabarmari village elder

This question still has no answer, despite years of promises from the government in Abuja. First these came from former president Goodluck Jonathan, then from former general Muhammadu Buhari, who has led the country since 2015. Time after time, political leaders have claimed victory against the insurgents but have never succeeded in quelling this evil rooted in an area that provides fertile ground for extremism. Northeastern Nigeria is poor and marginalised, endemic corruption stymies any chances of development, and institutions are weak and ineffective. These realities have deepened the sense of frustration felt by uneducated youths in northern Muslim states, reinforcing the sense of a divide with the oil-rich, wealthier and more developed Christian south.

What is Boko Haram?

Since Boko Haram began its armed insurgency in 2009, its onslaught has caused over 30,000 victims and displaced 2.4 million refugees throughout the Chad Basin, overflowing into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. This has led to terrible humanitarian crises and internal migratory movements that have worsened inter-communal conflicts between farmers and nomadic herders, further destabilising the already volatile region.

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Since Boko Haram began its armed insurgency in 2009, its onslaught has caused over 30,000 victims and more than 2.4 million refugees © International Medical Corps/Margaret Traub/Getty Images

The name Boko Haram translates to “Western education is forbidden”. Boko is a Hausa word meaning “fake”, used to refer to secular Western education, and haram is “forbidden” in Arabic. The group’s real name is Jamā’atu Ahli is-Sunnah lid-Da’wati wal-Jihād, meaning “Group of the People of Sunnah for Dawa and Jihad”, and its stated purpose is to eradicate Western culture, from education to behaviour, favouring an entrenchment of Islamist precepts.

Founded in 2002 by a preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, it was created as an extremist sect that aimed to eliminate corruption and injustice – attributed to Western influence – and impose Shari’a law.

Since Boko Haram began its armed insurgency in 2009, its onslaught has caused over 30,000 victims and over 2.4 million refugees

In 2009, after an insurgency organised by the group was quashed by the federal government, causing hundreds of deaths among Boko Haram’s ranks, Yusuf was arrested and sentenced to death. The group fell under Shekau’s control and became an extremely violent Salafi Sunni jihadist organisation. This was the beginning of the hellish situation we’re all too familiar with today. An endless series of attacks followed, targeting schools, hospitals, military bases, government buildings, churches and international organisations. Not to mention mass kidnappings, massacres in villages – the most serious of which, in Baga in 2015, cost almost 2,000 people their lives – and attacks in public places in which kidnapped women and child soldiers have been used as suicide bombers.

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The aftermath of a Boko Haram terrorist attack in 2016 © EPA via Twitter

In 2015, the group pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who officially recognised the group as an “enlargement of his Caliphate”. In 2016, a schism occurred within Boko Haram. The Islamic State appointed Abu Musab al-Barnawi, former Boko Haram spokesman and son of founder Yusuf, as the new leader of its African faction, ousting Shekau (who was seen as excessively volatile and violent). Shekau himself soon denied the legitimacy of this decision and proclaimed himself the imam of Boko Haram. Thus, the two groups active today were formed: Boko Haram, faithful to Abubakar Shekau, and ISWAP, faithful to al-Barnawi (who was then deposed in 2019).

Why Boko Haram’s terrorist advance won’t stop

While northern Nigeria’s socio-economic circumstances, which led to the founding of Boko Haram, are well-known, the debate concerning the group’s religious origins is still open. Some researchers connect Yusuf’s founding ideology to Yan Tatsine, a group led by Cameroonian preacher Maitatsine that was active in the 1980s in Kano State. This group also preached insurgency against the authorities and Western culture.

More likely, however, is the correlation with the advent of Salafi Islamic thought in the 1970s and 1980s. This more fundamentalist school took hold in a region where Sufism, a more moderate and mystical branch of Islam, had always been the principal current. Following independence from the United Kingdom, Salafism was popularised in Nigeria mainly thanks to the Izala Society. As it happens, Yusuf was educated in an Islamic centre founded by an Izala preacher in Maiduguri. It is likely that this experience planted the seed that led the founder of Boko Haram to become radicalised and create the extremist Salafist network around which the terrorist group was built.

Leaving the origins of the Sunni sect and its evolution aside, what is certain is that the Nigerian army and government institutions in Abuja were entirely unprepared for the rise of Boko Haram. They had neither the necessary means nor an effective action plan to counteract the insurgency. They even allowed the group to occupy entire swathes of territory in Borno State, where it imposed Shari’a law, and to expand beyond Nigeria’s borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

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Ababakar Mbomi, an anti-jihadi activist, was shot 11 times with a rifle when Boko Haram kidnapped his wife Babai Mahamat Kolita in 2014. Melea, Chad, 17 October 2018 © Marco Gualazzini

Buhari was elected president in 2015, promising to defeat Boko Haram within two years. The same year, a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) was established staffed by soldiers from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin. These factors contributed to the containment of the group’s activities, but Boko Haram was never truly defeated. A report by the International Crisis Group from July 2020 confirms that the military campaigns carried out between 2017 and 2019 helped free many civilians and enabled humanitarian aid to reach local populations exhausted by conflict. However, militants from the two Boko Haram factions were split into small, hard to locate cells. These were well-organised and deeply rooted in the region, as proven by the Koshebe massacre. This goes to show that better coordination and intelligence sharing between countries is needed to block the group’s supply networks, which are built on raids, robberies, and arms and raw materials trafficking.

The bloodshed in November was also caused by the the Nigerian army’s much-criticised “super camps” strategy: soldiers in villages were moved to larger military bases to avoid losses and increase resistance to attacks. However, this left entire rural regions at the terrorists’ mercy.

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Many villages in Cameroon and Nigeria have been ransacked by Boko Haram terrorists © Karel Prinsloo/Unicef

Nevertheless, it is clear that the solution can’t come from the military alone. The inefficient fight against the extremists and repeated violations of civilian rights by the security forces – with widespread evidence of arbitrary detention and torture, even of minors – have damaged people’s faith in the Nigerian state. This will have to be rebuilt.

Humanitarian and social intervention is also needed to provide people with public services and improve living conditions in the worst-affected areas. Special care has to be taken to protect elders, who are the glue that stops communities from falling apart, as Amnesty International reminds us. Otherwise, the terrorists will take on the role of absent institutions. As they’re doing already.

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