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The Rise of Boko Haram

Why the Christmas Day bombings in Nigeria could be the harbinger of much worse to come.

By , a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2014-2017.
Sunday Aghaeze/AFP/Getty Images
Sunday Aghaeze/AFP/Getty Images
Sunday Aghaeze/AFP/Getty Images

On Christmas day, a bomb was detonated at St. Theresa's Catholic Church on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital, Abuja, killing at least 35. Two other bombs exploded at Christmas ceremonies across Nigeria, killing five more. Soon after the bombings, a spokesman for Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group based in northern Nigeria, claimed responsibility.

On Christmas day, a bomb was detonated at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital, Abuja, killing at least 35. Two other bombs exploded at Christmas ceremonies across Nigeria, killing five more. Soon after the bombings, a spokesman for Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group based in northern Nigeria, claimed responsibility.

"By the grace of God, we are responsible for all the attacks," a man known as Abul-Qaqa, who claims to be a spokesman for the group, told a Nigerian newspaper. "There will never be peace until our demands are met. We want all our brothers who have been incarcerated to be released; we want full implementation of the sharia system and we want democracy and the constitution to be suspended."

The Christmas attacks by the group, whose name translates to "Western education is a sin," are the latest in a yearlong campaign of violence against Nigerian Christians and the Nigerian government. Just days before the holiday, more than 80 people were killed in clashes between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces. In November, in a city called Damaturu, members of the group exploded a car bomb outside of military barracks, burned down five churches, and mounted attacks against police stations. At the same time, in a city to the east called Maiduguri, Boko Haram members detonated a suicide bomb outside of the headquarters of the military unit tasked with fighting the group. Three other bombs exploded soon after. In August, the group detonated a bomb at the United Nations compound in Abuja that killed 24 people. And last Christmas, Boko Haram bombed five churches, claiming 32 lives.

In 2011, the group is responsible for 504 deaths, according to the Associated Press.

Even as the bloodshed has escalated, President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly downplayed the Boko Haram threat. "We have challenges as a nation; even this morning, a very ugly incident happened in a Catholic Church," Jonathan said after the Christmas attack. "The issue of bombing is one of the burdens we must live with. It will not last forever; I believe that it will surely be over."

Despite Jonathan’s assurances, Nigeria’s growing turmoil has drawn the attention of the international community. Pope Benedict immediately condemned the Christmas attacks, as did U.S. President Barack Obama. The United States has reportedly begun training Nigerian troops in counterterrorism techniques and providing Nigerian defense forces with weapons and other equipment. French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppe has also offered military support and intelligence sharing in the fight against Boko Haram.

Of course, these measures aren’t just to protect Nigeria’s internal stability. Western governments’ interest has been piqued by links between Boko Haram and larger, international terrorist networks. Abul-Qaqa has asserted the group has ties to al Qaeda, but did not offer proof. His claims was bolstered by Algeria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel,who announced in November that Algeria had discovered links between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an offshoot of the global terror network that operates throughout North Africa. "We have no doubts that coordination exists between Boko Haram and al Qaeda," he said. "The way both groups operate and intelligence reports show that there is cooperation."

But other than the group’s own proclamations, which connect their ideology to broader radical Islam, and the assertion of the Algerian government in which no hard proof was offered, there is little evidence to support the claim that the Boko Haram movement is connected to a larger terrorist networks. And a close examination of radical Islam in Nigeria shows that the group’s resentment toward the government has simmered for three decades and has little to do with a broader Islamic agenda.

Boko Haram’s story began in the 1970s, when a young Cameroonian preacher known as Marwa arrived in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria. He quickly gained a sizable following among the city’s poor by preaching against Nigeria’s secular government, institutional political corruption, and the moderate religious establishment. His movement was known as Maitatsine.

Relations between Nigerian authorities and the Maitatsine movement deteriorated though the 1970s and the group turned violent. Marwa was killed in 1980 during a confrontation with police and the group disbanded. After his death, isolated pockets of extremism retreated to remote areas in the north. Two decades later, in 2000, these factions coalesced into a national movement known as the Nigerian Taliban. This group advocated for the imposition of sharia law across the north and rallied against what it considered to be the malign influence of Western culture on domestic society. The group was active until 2004, when it clashed with police in the northeastern state of Borno, resulting in dozens of deaths. The Nigerian Taliban disbanded soon after.

Soon after, a preacher named Mohammed Yusuf, who taught unemployed and disaffected youth in Borno, then took up the radical Islamic cause. He founded a fundamentalist Islamic school in 2002, attracting students from across northern Nigeria. Among these students were the original members of Boko Haram. Like the Nigerian Taliban, their goal was to impose sharia across northern Nigeria.

Members of the group are known for their strict interpretation of Islamic law, as well as their propensity for violence. In the early years, they operated freely across the north, launching attacks against police and military installations. In 2009, Nigerian security forces, which had ignored or dismissed Boko Haram previously, began to investigate the group, leading to Yusuf’s arrest. He died while in police custody. The police claim he was shot while trying to escape, but human rights groups alleged that he was executed. News of his death caused riots in four northeastern Nigerian cities that left 700 dead.

Following Yusuf’s death, Boko Haram leaders left Nigeria and settled in neighboring Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. It was during this period that some believe they established connections with foreign militant groups, including AQIM and Somalia’s al Shabab. The group returned to Nigeria in 2010 with a broader mission to impose Islamic law, not just in the north but across the country. It began a campaign of violence, attacking federal and state security installations, assassinating politicians, and massacring Christians. This campaign garnered international attention with the August 2011 attack on the U.N. building in Abuja.

Following the U.N. attack, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo reached out to members of Yusuf’s family, who were associated with Boko Haram’s more moderate faction and wanted the violence to end. Yusuf’s father-in-law, Babakura Fugu, offered a list of demands, leading to optimism that peace could soon be achieved. But a radical Boko Haram member killed him two days later and talks fell apart.

According to Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria and who helped to facilitate early talks between the government and Boko Haram, the group is now split into three factions. One is willing to negotiate peace with the government. The second wants an amnesty payment, similar to the one offered in 2009 to militants in the Niger Delta. The third faction, responsible for the continued violence, wants to continue to wage war against the government and impose Islamic law across the entirety of Nigeria. "They have foreclosed any attempts at mediation," Sani said of this latter group. "They are ready to fight the government to the end."

The leader of the hard-line faction is a man named Abubakar Shekau, formerly Yusuf’s second-in-command. Nigerian authorities thought he was killed in 2009, but a series of recently discovered audio recordings made by Shekau proves he is alive. He leads the group from outside Nigeria, moving between Chad, Cameroon, and Niger (though Boko Haram is only tactically operational in Nigeria).

The group uses guerrilla warfare tactics similar to those used by al Qaeda. Unlike militants in the Niger Delta, who are well-trained in traditional military tactics, Boko Haram favors suicide bombings against law enforcement targets, assassinations, random violence against Christians, and destruction of Christian houses of worship.

But evidence of actual ties between the groups is circumstantial at best, according to Comfort Ero, the Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group, who has done extensive research on Nigerian militancy. "Supposed links to al Qaeda doesn’t cover up the fact that Boko Haram is very much a Nigerian problem," Ero said. "It should be understood within Nigeria’s own endemic problems."

These problems are especially acute in northern Nigeria, which has historically been ignored at the expense of the country’s south. Ninety-five percent of Nigeria’s foreign revenue is generated in the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta, located in the country’s south. The government has concentrated development efforts there in an effort to appease Niger Delta militants and to keep oil flowing out of the country.

The northern half of Nigeria is desert, making farming nearly impossible. Polio has yet to be eradicated there. Most citizens in the north don’t have clean drinking water. Electricity is unreliable. Power fails multiple times each day. Economic growth there is non-existent. According to the World Bank, half of all Nigerians are unemployed. Seventy-one percent of young people don’t have jobs. Boko Haram generally doesn’t speak specifically about these issues, but these conditions make northern Nigeria ripe for extremism.

So far, Jonathan’s government has appeared flat-footed in its response to Boko Haram. A federal panel suggested an amnesty after talks between former president Obasanjo and Yusuf’s family collapsed. Jonathan rejected the suggestion, electing instead to send the Nigerian military to confront the group. He continues to insist that the Boko Haram threat is overstated and will be quickly eradicated.

Evidence of the government’s military campaign effectiveness is difficult to find. Few Western reporters operate in northern Nigeria. Nigerian news services have also scaled back reporting after the group claimed responsibility for the October murders of a Nigeria Television Authority cameraman and reporter.

"The government’s response has been reactive," Ero said. "There has to be a review within the government on how to deal with the wider issues that compel Boko Haram."

As fighting continues, human rights groups are raising concerns about the possibility of abuses by the Nigerian military. In the past, Nigerian security forces have been heavy-handed in their pursuit of the group, indiscriminately shelling Boko Haram strongholds and killing innocent bystanders.  According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Nigerian police and security services have also carried out extrajudicial executions in its pursuit of the group — including Yusuf’s 2009 murder.

In addition, according to Sani, Muslim elements within the Nigerian government and military tacitly support Boko Haram and want the violence to continue. Politicians from Nigeria’s Muslim north remain upset with the reelection of Jonathan, a Christian from the Niger Delta, last spring. Traditionally, the presidency rotates between the north and Christian south. Jonathan’s reelection disrupted that cycle.

Nigerian security services have already linked people within the government to the group. In November, Nigerian Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume, who hails from Borno, was arrested for acting as a spokesman. And Boko Haram has also claimed it has the support of other within the Nigerian government.

Boko Haram has repeatedly threatened to attack southern Nigeria. And in addition to anti-government attacks, Nigeria may soon be facing violence between militant groups. In recent interviews, the leaders of Niger Delta Christian militant groups said that although they were sympathetic with Boko Haram’s grievances and supported its struggle against government injustice, any incursion into the Delta would lead to war.

"They should not do something against the southern part of Nigeria," a man who calls himself Eybele, a general in the Movement to Emancipate the Niger Delta, told me recently. "In our struggle we don’t target individuals. We don’t have anything against them unless they touch any of our citizens."

"If Boko Haram don’t stop their illegal and unconstitutional acts, we will face them very soon," added a man called JB, a general in the Icelanders, a militant group that controls large areas of waterfront slums in Port Harcourt, the Niger Delta’s largest city.

Ero said she believed Boko Haram violence could be contained to the north, and that civil war could be averted if Jonathan becomes more proactive in dealing with the militant group. But she warned, "Any incursion by Boko Haram into the south would lead to a situation of serious violence and security concerns for Nigeria."

This incursion now seems increasingly inevitable as radical Islamic elements of Boko Haram cement control over the group. With each successful attack, the group gains more confidence. The worst of all possible outcomes may not be long in coming: attacks against civilians in the south, a heavy-handed Army response up north, with Delta militants declaring war and moving north in an offensive against Boko Haram.

Civil war is not foreign to Nigeria: a three-year war that began in 1967 between the Nigerian military and Biafra, a separatist state in the south, lead to the deaths of an estimated three million people. A similar conflict between Boko Haram and Delta militants — a fight that Nigeria’s weak central government and military would be powerless to stop — could have equally disastrous consequences. It would be a holy war for the future of Nigeria.

David Francis was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2014-2017.

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