Explaining Boko Haram, Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency

The New York Times/November 10, 2014

Boko Haram is an Islamist extremist group responsible for dozens of massacres of civilians and the abduction of more than 500 women and girls in its five-year insurgency in Nigeria.

When a suicide bomber dressed as a student infiltrated a high school in northern Nigeria on Monday and detonated explosives in a backpack, killing almost 50 students and teachers, suspicion quickly focused on Boko Haram, which had carried out similar attacks in that part of the country.

The militant group had stepped up its onslaught since the Nigerian authorities announced a cease-fire last month and the possible negotiated release of more than 250 schoolgirls kidnapped in April. In fact, the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in a videotaped message that there would be no cease-fire and that the schoolgirls kidnapped by his group would not be returned.
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“All of them have accepted Islam and are now married,” he was quoted as saying. “Anybody that said plans are underway for the release of the girls is just daydreaming.”

The deadly bombings and brazen kidnappings are the hallmarks of the insurgent group, which has terrorized local populations and regularly engages the Nigerian military in bloody combat. It aims to destabilize and ultimately overthrow the government, then establish an Islamic caliphate in its place.

The day after the government’s announcement of a cease-fire deal in October, at least 60 young women were reported to have been kidnapped by militants in Adamawa State, just south of the Boko Haram stronghold near Maiduguri. Numerous other attacks that followed have been attributed to the Boko Haram militants.

Such official announcements have been greeted with broad skepticism in Nigeria, where the government has regularly promised a resolution to an insurgency now in its sixth year. The Nigerian government and the military have been roundly criticized for failing to stop Boko Haram, which was founded in Maiduguri in 2002 by the Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Boko Haram was largely contained to the northern part of the country in the beginning, before expanding its reach with the help of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist organization’s affiliate in West Africa.

Clashes between Muslims and Christians, common in Nigeria, radicalized the group, as did frictions with local authorities that escalated into retaliatory attacks. After the group’s founder was killed by the Nigerian police in 2009, his followers went underground, swearing vengeance.

Since then, Boko Haram has carried out a number of increasingly lethal attacks on villages, government buildings, police stations, prisons, churches and even mosques. By 2011, the heavily armed group had expanded its attacks to other parts of the country, carrying out audacious strikes in the capital, Abuja, where a car bomb detonated at the United Nations headquarters killed nearly two dozen people in August 2011.

In early 2012, Boko Haram conducted a series of attacks in Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city, killing more than 100 people, then the group’s deadliest strike. The group continued to engage in mounting battles with the Nigerian military. Earlier this year in Maiduguri, more than 500 people were killed when security forces responded to what the military portrayed as a jailbreak attempt by Boko Haram.
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In its effort to overthrow the Nigerian government, Boko Haram militants have tried to violently root out Western influence by attacking schools. Roughly translated, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden.”

Last February, Boko Haram slaughtered 50 teenage boys — some burned alive — at a college in northeastern Nigeria. That atrocity, like many others, was quickly forgotten in Nigeria and barely noticed outside of it. But the group attracted international attention, when, on April 15, militants marched into a girls’ school in Chibok, in the remote northeast corner of the country, kidnapped more than 250 teenagers, loaded them onto trucks and drove them into a dense forest at night.

The government’s failure to respond to the enraged parents of the girls prompted a rare, grass-roots protest movement to pressure President Goodluck Jonathan to take action. Several hundred women marched on the Parliament building in Abuja, and a social media campaign employing the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls took off.

The situation has worsened since then: a Human Rights Watch report released in October estimated that at least 500 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since it began its insurgency in 2009. The failure to rescue the girls “appears to have emboldened Boko Haram to step up abductions elsewhere,” Human Rights Watch reported.

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