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What is Boko Haram?

by AFP
HO-Boko Haram—AFP

HO-Boko Haram—AFP

Nigerian extremists’ path from Islamic sect to deadly armed group.

Nigeria’s Boko Haram has over the years morphed from an Islamic sect into an Islamic State-affiliated armed movement waging a deadly insurgency that threatens regional stability. The group, whose name roughly translates from the Hausa language spoken in northern Nigeria as “Western education is forbidden,” aims to create an Islamic caliphate in the territories it controls.

Its first leader was Mohammed Yusuf, who advocated a radical form of Islam and said Western values installed by Nigeria’s former British rulers were responsible for the country’s ills. He attracted countless disaffected youths in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern Borno state, with vocal criticism of a corrupt secular regime that neglected development in the mainly Muslim region.

From as far back as the 1990s, his sermons in mosques attracted followers but Boko Haram is widely considered to have emerged in 2002 when authorities started paying closer attention to Yusuf.

The movement was broadly peaceful but that changed when Yusuf was killed in custody in 2009 after an uprising in Maiduguri that prompted a military assault, which killed some 700 and left the group’s mosque and headquarters in ruins.

Boko Haram went underground, and its surviving senior members fled abroad where they are thought to have been convinced of the need for violence by hardened jihadists. From then on, leaders decided that beyond applying Islamic law in Nigeria, the aim of the group was also to destabilize the state with violence.

Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s right-hand man, replaced him as leader, going on to wage dozens of deadly attacks on schools, churches, mosques, state entities and security forces mainly in the northeast. Some members are thought to have trained with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali in 2012 and 2013. Washington has said the two groups have ties.

But while attacks took place with increasing frequency, it was the April 2014 kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the Borno town of Chibok that brought unprecedented world attention on the insurgency. In August last year, Shekau proclaimed a “caliphate” in the Borno town of Gwoza and on March 7 this year he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group that controls vast areas of Iraq and Syria. Earlier this month, the group published a video calling itself the “Islamic State of West Africa.”

Earlier this year, as Boko Haram started eyeing border areas in neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon, the three countries deployed troops to help Nigeria cope with the insurgents and claimed a series of successes.

Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected as president in March and took office on May 29, has made crushing the group one of his top priorities after a six-year insurgency that has left at least 15,000 people dead. He has since set out to defeat the militants, announcing the transfer of the military command center from Abuja to the strategic city of Maiduguri, visiting Niger and Chad to push for continued cooperation and asking for further global support at a G7 summit in Germany.

Buhari’s nascent presidency has however seen an increase in suspected Boko Haram attacks, with 12 recorded since he took the oath of office and at least 109 deaths.

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