Boko Haram, whose name roughly translates to “Western education is sin”, is a terrorist organization that has tormented Nigeria for the past decade. Beginning originally as a cross between a peaceful protestation of Nigeria’s corrupt government and a biker gang, Boko Haram has quickly grown into the deadliest terror organization in the world, having claimed over twenty-thousand lives and displacing approximately 1.5 million others. Boko Haram’s power is derived from unrest between Nigeria’s impoverished, Muslim north and the Christian south; having Africa’s largest economy and most populous country in conjunction with its 350 ethnic groups proves difficult for the Nigerian government to control on its own. Empowering the underrepresented Muslims of the north, Boko Haram easily amassed a following by promising prosperity for Nigeria through the establishment of a caliphate governed by Sharia law, which they believed would root out corruption from Nigeria’s government. Boko Haram also taps into general anger towards the remnants of Nigeria’s colonial past, most likely using the Sokoto caliphate of the early 20th Century as a model.
Founded by the overtly charismatic Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram quickly gained traction and incited many protests, some of which became violent. Worried that this new movement was undermining its authority as a government, the Nigerian government used these outbursts of violence as justification for the kidnapping and extrajudicial execution of Boko Haram’s leaders, forcing the group to go underground, as it had no real direction without Yusuf’s command. Despite the arguably aggressive nature of Boko Haram, the global community condemned the Nigerian government’s response to the uprising, with the Human Rights Watch condemning the barbaric fashion of the killings, in which the bullet-ridden corpses of the victims were publically displayed as a warning sign to other insurgents.
The death of Yusuf served as a turning point for Boko Haram, and fueled by revenge and the rising tensions between Nigerian Muslims and Christians, it was driven to Islamist violence. Beginning with a series of suicide bombings and lone wolf attacks, Boko Haram slowly gained more sophistication in 2013, orchestrating mass violence: murdering college students while they slept, beheading truck drivers on a Nigerian highway, and killing of hundreds of civilians on the roads of northern Nigeria. The savagery reached its climax in April, 2014 when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the rural village, Chibok, which attracted international attention and put even more pressure on the Nigerian government to quell the hysteria.
Teaming up with its neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, the Nigerian government launched a successful military campaign against Boko Haram, pushing it out of urban areas into the rural North and forcing it to relinquish the majority of its territory by 2015. Tremendously weakened and in need of supplies and reinforcements, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, an Islamist insurgency in Syria, that same year, despite Boko Haram’s declaration of its own caliphate but a year prior. Many members of the global community believe that this merger is superficial; a way for Boko Haram to cling to some legitimacy, but it may in fact serve as a symbolic precursor to the emergence of a more globalized terrorist organization.
Boko Haram has lost the majority of its media attention, but still poses a threat to the Nigerian government and continues to terrorize its civilians, having killed more than twenty people this year so far, in a series of suicide bomb attacks. There are signs it is weakening, however, with the Nigerian military recovering the majority of the Chibok girls kidnapped nearly four years ago along with other victims of Boko Haram’s tirade.
It is truly difficult to categorize Boko Haram as an organization. It is comprised of numerous factions; all working ultimately toward the same goal, but also operating on separate fronts, whether it be increasing its territory into Nigeria’s neighboring countries or supporting other Islamist insurgences such as the one in Mali. Boko Haram relies heavily on its social hierarchy and rituals to maintain some sense of authority, enforcing titles and initiation rituals that mimic those of gangs. On the other hand, Boko Haram shows more sophistication than its Middle Eastern counterparts, utilizing firearms over crude pipe bombs as means of attack and focusing its attack predominantly on the Nigerian military instead of its civilians. Boko Haram can be most appropriately called an insurgency, for it fills the void of strong Islamic leadership that the northern part of Nigeria lacks, as well as for its combatting of a government that is nearly as violent and as corrupt as the organization itself. The future of Boko Haram is also uncertain, it had appeared to have almost completely died down, thanks in part to the joint efforts of the Nigerian government and its neighbors, even resulting in the release of 1,130 hostages. This weekend, however, a story developed out of Dapchi, Nigeria, where approximately 100 schoolgirls were kidnapped on February 19th, 2018. Military might can only do so much when combatting an ideological warfare that stems from economic inequality and religious oppression, two factors which allow for fractured groups such as Boko Haram, to thrive.