Boko Haram (“western education is forbidden”), formally known as Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (“People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad”), is a jihadist terrorist organization based in the northeast states of Nigeria. It was founded in 2001 by Muhammed Yusuf in Maiduguri. Boko Haram reveals how the members view the world and their place in it through the group’s name. In order to create a “pure” Islamic state ruled by Sharia, Boko Haram wages a war against who they perceive “corrupt, false Muslims.” Their attacks mainly focus on police, military, government targets, as well as on Christian churches and schools and Muslim individuals who are critical of the group. Even though Boko Haram was originally identified as a guerrilla group for their clear political motivation and later as a terrorist group by the UN, the US, and other countries in the 2010s, the features of its structure, financing system, and warfare strategies and effects place Boko Haram in a category of a gang rather than a government.
The cell-like structure of Boko Haram allows it to develop into various factions and offshoots, and the repercussion for disloyalty within the group is execution, which is similar to many gangs. In August 2016, nearly a year and a half after Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS under Shekau, the second leader of Boko Haram, ISIS unilaterally announced a replacement for Shekau. This was because Shekau’s indiscriminate use of violence that affected Muslims. The new candidate was Abu Musab al-Barnawi, son of Yusuf. The group split into two: Boko Haram or ISWAP led by Shekau and ISWA led by al-Barnawi. Several conflicts between the two fractions occurred in the following months, resulting in deaths of several Shekau’s associates, resembling gang warfare where its members kill or maim members of different gangs in turf fights or simply because of respect issues. Boko Haram shows no tolerance towards the members who are weak or disloyal. Mamman Nur, the military chief, was allegedly killed by his own men after failing to exact a ransom before releasing the kidnapped Chibok girls. Ali Gaga, leader of Boko Haram, was killed by his own men because he allegedly plotted to escape along with over 300 Boko Haram captives and to surrender to the Nigerian military. “Once in, hard to quit” is a typical feature in gangs, which is also shown within Boko Haram.
Another hallmark of gangs are their finance sources, which are through various illegal dealings. Similar to that, Boko Haram’s finances heavily rely on lucrative criminal activity, particularly kidnapping for ransom and extortion. In April 2014, Boko Haram militants kidnapped around 276 teenage girls from a boarding school in Chibok in Borno with a demand of $50 million for ransom. This incident sparked global outrage and a #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media. It is also believed that Boko Haram finances itself through bank robberies, protection money from local governors, and foreign donations.
Since Boko Haram changed strategy in 2011 when it adopted suicide attacks, there has been an increase in frequency and magnitude of killing and injuring many innocent people, which moves the group further from operating like a government. The effects during the past ten years are disastrous: more than 10,000 Nigerians have been killed; a lot of people have been maimed; women have been kidnapped and raped; family members of Boko Haram victims have undergone severe psychological trauma. Out of a total national population of 160 million, there are about 10 million Nigerian youth not in school, along with 19,000 teachers fleeing in fear. Beyond social and educational consequences, Boko Haram also affects Nigeria’s economy. Banks, markets and shops do not open regularly due to the fear of attacks, leading to a reduction in commercial activities. Similar to the effects of gangs in general, the chaos and disruption Boko Haram has brought to Nigeria’s citizens’ lives fear and terror.
The operating systems and beliefs of Boko Haram, where conflicts occur between fractions and no betrayal is allowed, along with its financing source through illegal activities, are similar to a predatory gang. Moreover, while a government should protect its people from threats and maintain a functional system within the society, Boko Haram destroys the Nigerian economic system, education, and basic social structure. Ruling and controlling some villages with fear and terror, Boko Haram has not been successful at acting like a common gang rather than a government.