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Who are Boko Haram?

What you need to know about the group that kidnapped 276 school girls in Nigeria

Heather Saul
Friday 09 May 2014 13:55 BST
South Africans protest in solidarity against the abduction three weeks ago of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram and what protesters said was the failure of the Nigerian government and international community to re
South Africans protest in solidarity against the abduction three weeks ago of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram and what protesters said was the failure of the Nigerian government and international community to re

The mass abduction of almost 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram has captured the attention of the nation, taken social media by storm and thrown the terror group directly into the forefront of the public's consciousness. But what is Boko Haram, and why is the group only making headlines now?

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram is a militant Islamist group based in the northeast of Nigeria, north Cameroon and Niger.

The group's official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic translates as: "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad".

Founded in 2001 by Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden" in the local Hausa language, began their insurgency in 2009 in Nigeria’s Borno state.

Now led by Abubakar Shekau after Yusuf was killed in 2009, the group is fighting to overthrow the government in order to create an Islamic state and promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram” for Muslims to partake in political or social activity associated with Western society.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau (AFP)

Since its insurgency began, Boko Haram has carried out increasingly deadly attacks on schools, pupils and teachers in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria.

What is the current situation?

On 14 April, 276 girls aged between 16 and 18 were kidnapped from the Government Girls Secondary School in rural Chibok, in the north-eastern Borno state. Boko Haram later claimed responsibility for the abductions in a video, where Shekau threatened to sell the girls as slaves and marry them off because God had "instructed" him to sell them. "They are his properties," he said, "and I will carry out his instructions.”

A further eight school girls were abducted from a Nigerian village by the group this week. Many fear some of the girls have already been trafficked into neighbouring neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.

Is this the first time such an attack has taken place?

No. Boko Haram has stepped up its campaign against Western education in recent years and most recently attacked a boarding school in Yobe, where gunman killed 59 pupils in February. In September 2013, the group killed 44 male students and teachers during a night-time raid at an agricultural college in the state.

Why is Boko Haram’s insurgency suddenly attracting so much attention?

Social media appears to be a driving force behind the world-wide attention focused on this particular attack, with many media-friendly celebrities using the hashtag #bring back our girls on Twitter to raise awareness. Oscar-winning actress Anne Hathaway recently used the hashtag to lead a demonstration in America calling for their safe return, while Angelina Jolie used the premiere of her latest film to condemn the abduction as "an unthinkable cruelty".

What is the #bring back our girls hashtag and how did it start?

The ‘bring back our girls’ hashtag was first used by Nigerian lawyer in Abuja, Ibrahim M Abdullahi, who tweeted the call during a speech by the vice-president of the World Bank for Africa. The hashtag was quickly adopted by desperate mothers of the missing girls who would write it on placards during protests, before high profile celebrities, including Michelle Obama posted images holding cards reading #bringbackourgirls.

How has it made an impact?

The hashtag has been tweeted more than one million times since it began trending two weeks ago. It appears to be keeping the abduction in the public eye, but its effectiveness has become a point of debate. Many have argued simply tweeting a hashtag will not assist the search efforts for the missing girls, while others have accused famous figures of exploiting the campaign and using it to generate self-publicity.

Why are world leaders becoming involved?

World leaders have appeared reluctant to intervene in Boko Haram's activities despite the many atrocities the group has claimed responsibility for in the past.

But this well-publicised attack has seen the international community step forward and very publicly offer their assistance in the search.

The US has agreed to send a team of up to 10 military personnel comprising experts in logistics, communications and intelligence planning, to join State Department and Justice Department officers and British SAS liaison officers are understood to be already in Abuja, where they are looking at ways to assist rescue efforts.

But some have argued rescuing the children should be the responsibility of Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan, who has been widely-criticised for failing to take the girls’ predicament seriously until domestic and international pressure forced him to do so some two weeks after the 14 April incident.

Others have criticised countries for not sending more support. Parents of the missing school girls have pleaded with world leaders to send more help in order to locate their missing children. One mother, Shettima Haruma, said parents need "the government to get American people to come and help us".

"We beg Nigerians, those in another country like America or (Britain) ... it's three weeks, nearly one month ... (and we haven't) seen any letters from our daughters," Ms Haruma told Sky News.

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