By Mathieu Guidère, University of Toulouse
As terrorist attacks go, it was as shocking for its scale and its choice of target: on April 14, at least 200 people were kidnapped from the Government Girls Secondary School in the Nigerian town of Chibok.
More than a week later, the whereabouts of hundreds of young women remain a mystery. Within local communities of Borno province there is much sympathy for parents, but not a huge degree of shock. For this is just the latest in a series of attacks blamed on one outfit: Boko Haram.
To understand the kidnapping, we have to look at the terror group’s history, how it was formed, and how its ideology developed.
Boko Haram has made itself notorious with a long campaign of bombings and mass murders across Nigeria, often in concert with other Islamist groups. But to properly understand the group, we have to look at the terrorist group’s history, how the group was formed, and how its ideology developed.
In the aftermath of September 11 2001, a 30-year-old man called Muhammad Yusuf founded a new religious preaching group in Maiduguri, capital of Nigeria’s Borno State, and gave it the Arabic name “Jamaat ahl as-Sunnah li ad-Dawah wa al-Jihad” (literally, “The Group of the People of Tradition and Call for Jihad”). This group would later become known in Hausa as “Boko Haram”, meaning “Western education is sinful”.
Yusuf had studied theology in Saudi Arabia and converted to Salafism. He was convinced that the Western education model which prevailed in Nigeria, a legacy of British rule, was to blame for the country’s problems; he pledged to fight against it, and to introduce a model inspired by the Taliban’s Afghan education system.
The group began as a gathering of Muslim followers at a mosque and at a Koranic school. These gatherings were for poor families to send their children to study a different but parallel curriculum to the existing one: they were taught Islamic sciences, prophetic traditions, Koranic commentary, rejection of Darwinian evolution and the like. The number of these “schools” increased, attracting young adult students who failed in the government universities. They then began calling themselves “the Nigerian Taliban” (Taliban literally means “student of theology”).
Boko Haram leader Muhammad Yusuf. TRAC, CC BY
The core principles of the group were an emphasis on “Hakimiyyah” (sovereignty to God’s law); a belief that they are the “Saved Sect”, as mentioned in the prophetic tradition of Islam; a contorted interpretation of the edicts of scholars from the classical tradition; and the prohibition of study in Western educational centres or work in any government institution.
The group quickly became politicised and displayed their hostility to the regime of the late president, Umaru Yar’Adua. On December 31 2003, violence broke out in Damaturu, capital of Yobe State, and Boko Haram took control of a number of areas bordering Niger. From 2004 to 2006, violent clashes often erupted between the Boko Haram militants and the security forces, who tried to prevent the group from taking over various schools and public buildings. In 2006, Muhammad Yusuf declared the application of shariah as the main objective of Boko Haram. He was also arrested several times for “illegal gatherings” and “disturbing of public order”, though he never faced any harsh consequences in court.
But Boko Haram’s real turning point came in 2009.
The jihadi turn
In July of that year, a new round of violence began after the group simultaneously attacked four northern states of Nigeria: Bauchi, Borno, Yobe and Kano. The fighting between Boko Haram and government troops lasted for five days in Maiduguri (the Borno State capital), with president Umaru Yar’Adua determined to eradicate the fundamentalist movement. On July 30, security forces successfully expelled Boko Haram from Maiduguri; Yusuf was captured, and then executed in Maiduguri under mysterious circumstances.
Over the next year, the group was reorganised. It forged contacts with major jihadist groups in Africa, particularly with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in the north and with the Somali al-Shabaab in the East. Several leaders and commanders left Nigeria and joined the ranks of AQIM or al-Shabaab to train in insurgency tactics and gain experience in terrorism. In July 2010, one of these leaders, Abubakar Shekau, recorded a video message proclaiming himself leader of Boko Haram, and calling for jihad against the politicians, the police, and especially Christians.
Shekhau returned to Nigeria, and in September 2010 launched a spectacular attack, storming a Bauchi prison and freeing hundreds of detained Boko Haram members. Over Christmas 2010, Boko Haram waged a campaign of murderous attacks against Christians. One attack in Jos claimed 80 victims alone.
Despite new president Goodluck Jonathan’s willingness to negotiate, Boko Haram continued its armed actions. It claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing against the United Nations office in Abuja on August 26 2011 and the attack at the Christian area of Damaturu that left 130 dead on November 4 2011. Finally, on December 25 2011, the group claimed the attack on a church in Madalla, on the outskirts of Abuja, which killed 27.
Splinters and new connections
But 2012 was marked by a major split in Boko Haram. In January, the splinter group “Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands”, better known as “Ansaru”, was formed. The group’s motto is “Jihad Fi Sabil Allah”: “Struggle in the Path of Allah.” In his first statement, Ansaru’s leader Abu Usmatu al-Ansari described Boko Haram as “inhuman to the Muslim Ummah [nation]”. In another video, the group claimed they would not kill innocent non-Muslims or security officials except in “self defence”, and that they would defend the interests of Islam and Muslims not just in Nigeria, but also in the whole of Africa.
Unlike Boko Haram, which is based in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, Ansaru operates in and around Kano State in northern-central Nigeria, coordinating with the northern Mali-based AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). It carried out a January 2013 attack on a convoy of Nigerian troops on their way to fight jihadist groups in Northern Mali, and on May 23 2013, it took part in an attack on a French-owned uranium mine in Niger.
Ansaru has also specialised in kidnappings for ransom, with the May 2012 abduction of a Briton and an Italian from Kebbi State, the December 2012 kidnapping of French engineer Francis Collomp in Katsina State and the February 2013 kidnapping of seven foreigners from a construction site in Bauchi State. Leader al-Ansari proclaimed the execution of the May 2012 and February 2013 hostages after a failed rescue attempt by British and Nigerian special forces.
While Ansaru was trying to regionalise and internationalise its fight, Boko Haram continued its terror in Nigeria. On May 14 2013, this led Goodluck Jonathan to proclaim a state of emergency in three northeastern states. Despite this, Boko Haram has not forgotten its priority: attacking “sinful education.”
A series of school massacres saw slews of students and teachers killed in the summer of 2013; other massacres were perpetrated throughout the autumn in hopes of starting a civil war. Faced with these massive killings, the army responded with heavy actions against Boko Haram camps.
This caused numerous civilian casualties, and turned local populations against the security forces. By the end of 2013, massacres perpetrated by the army had helped to bring together the splinter groups, leading the more radical leaders of Ansaru to return to the bosom of Boko Haram. The cycle of violence was reinforced.
Since then, the group has moved to the Takfiri ideology, declaring other Muslims as well as Christians as infidels and unbelievers and allowing their murder without any discrimination whatsoever.
Northern Nigeria continues to see an explosion of massacres, a series of attacks that have killed hundreds and show no sign of abating – culminating in the April 14 abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls. Boko Haram’s campaign of murder and violence shows no sign of abating.
Mathieu Guidère does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.