Who are Boko Haram? The Islamist group that thrives on Nigeria’s opaque system

The Boko Haram of today capitalises on its mystery and exploits Nigeria’s institutional weaknesses that make the verification of even the most basic facts – such as the number of girls abducted – so difficult

 

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Boko Haram, the shadowy, violent Islamist organisation that this week claimed responsibility for the abduction of more than 230 children, is the shorthand name for the group more formally known as “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.

The group is opposed to democracy and secularism, not only Western education as its nickname, which roughly translates as “Western Education is Forbidden”, suggests. The group has drawn international headlines in recent weeks after bombings in the capital, kidnapping schoolgirls – the actual number taken is still unclear – and then threatening to sell them into slavery.

This shocking act is the latest in a long line of extremely violent attacks, including the butchering of boys at their school in February of this year. Is such extreme violence being driven purely by an extreme religious ideology?

Boko Haram emerged in the early 2000s as an Islamist movement. It was not at the outset the lethal organisation that it is today. Clashes in 2009 with the police led to violence across four of Nigeria’s northern states. This “Boko Haram uprising”, as it is now known, was crushed by state security agencies. Its then leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was captured and killed in police custody. His was not the only extrajudicial killing: such impunity is an ongoing challenge in Nigeria.

The 2009 clashes pushed what was left of Boko Haram and its second-in-command, now leader, Abubakar Shekau, underground. It re-emerged in 2010 a more violent and lethal organisation, seeking vengeance perhaps even more than its stated aim of establishing an Islamic state under Sharia law. It views the Sharia system practiced in 12 of Nigeria’s northern states as corrupted.

It hasn’t always targeted children but over time, as violence in the north-east of the country escalated, so its attacks became more severe and indiscriminate.

Read more: Boko Haram kidnaps more girls – and the world asks why Nigeria has done so little

In May 2013, Nigeria’s federal government implemented a state of emergency in three north-eastern states: Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. This has brought major military offensives, the shutting down of mobile-phone networks and curfews. Although the state of emergency successfully squeezed active Boko Haram members out of urban centres, the unintended consequence was to push them into vulnerable rural areas with soft targets. The violence has continued.

Less is known now about the size, shape and capacity of Boko Haram than was in 2009: its first leader Mohammed Yusuf was a known public orator; its members were still rooted in their communities. The Boko Haram of today capitalises on its mystery and exploits Nigeria’s institutional weaknesses that make the verification of even the most basic facts – such as the number of girls abducted – so difficult. There are crucial gaps in information that need closing, such as the profile of its membership and the sources of its finance for example, and which would help to undermine what is an extremely effective PR machine. Boko Haram may not be strong, it may simply be smart: tactical in its targets, effective in goading the government, wise about identifying weaknesses. Whatever its true size and strength, until a light is shone on the shadowy group, framing the right policy responses – whether Nigerian or international – will be a challenge.

Elizabeth Donnelly is a research fellow and assistant head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House

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