Who Are Boko Haram and Why Are They Terrorizing Nigerian Christians?

The African terrorist group has been in the news lately, but they're more complicated than you might think.

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A car burns at the scene of a bomb explosion for which Boko Haram took credit at St. Theresa Catholic Church at Madalla / Reuters

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria - Boko Haram. If you've heard of them at all, you probably know them as the ultra-secretive, yet hyperactive Islamist sect seemingly bent on murdering Nigerian Christians and bringing down the young democracy of Africa's most populous nation. In the span of little over a year, they've gone from local oddity to national terror. Yet no one seems to quite know who they are or what to do about them.

To help separate myth from reality, the following is a brief introduction to Boko Haram.

Origins

Boko Haram is actually the nickname in the Hausa language for the group officially known in Arabic as "Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad"--the People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad. Coined by northern Muslims and subsequently picked up by the press, the name Boko Haram translates loosely as "Western education is forbidden" and is derived from one of the chief tenets of the teachings of Muhammad Yusuf, the group's early leader, who claimed that western style education ("boko" in Hausa) and the holding of government jobs are religiously forbidden, or haram, under Islam.

One of a number of young Nigerian clerics who embraced Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi/Salafi strain of Islam in the mid-1990s, Yusuf called upon Muslims to remove, by force if necessary, Nigeria's secular government and replace it with an Islamic state. Though he remained ambiguous enough to avoid prosecution for outright treason, his aggressive rhetoric, the growing ranks of his followers, and fears--later to prove well-founded--that the group was stockpiling weapons soon began to worry local authorities.

After years of tension and a series of minor incidents, things finally exploded in July 2009 when a group of Yusuf's followers were stopped by police in the city of Maiduguri--Boko Haram's traditional home--as they were on the way to the cemetery to bury a comrade. The officers, part of a special operation aimed at stamping out violence and rampant crime in northeastern Borno State, demanded that the young men comply with a law requiring motorcycle passengers to wear helmets. They refused and, in the confrontation that followed, several were shot and wounded by police.

Yusuf responded by unleashing an armed uprising, breaking into a prison and attacking government buildings and police stations. Fighting quickly spread across five northern states and lasted several days.

The response from the federal government was severe. Federal soldiers deployed to rein in the group were filmed summarily executing suspected militants in the streets. Yusuf was killed while in police custody. His body was discovered still wearing handcuffs. In total, over 1,000 people died in the fighting.

Boko Haram was subsequently banned by the government. Its mosques were demolished, and its surviving members scattered and went underground.

The return

After a year-long lull, Nigeria's Muslim-dominated north witnessed a distinct surge in violent attacks beginning in mid-2010. Several churches were bombed on Christmas Day that year in the central city of Jos, long a flashpoint of violence between Christians and Muslims. Militants bombed party offices and assassinated office seekers seemingly at will in the run-up to the April 2011 national elections. In June, they managed to detonate a bomb inside the heavily guarded national police headquarters, then made international headlines in August when a suicide bomber plowed an explosive-laden car through two security barriers and into the lobby of the United Nations' offices in Abuja, killing nearly two dozen people and wounding another 80. Finally, they capped the year by bombing churches and government compounds for the second Christmas in succession.

Meanwhile, thousands of federal troops, deployed to northeastern Nigeria in early 2011 in an effort to deprive Boko Haram of a secure base from which to operate, quickly found themselves bogged down in a sustained insurgency, complete with suicide bombings, hit-and-run attacks and IEDs.

What do they want?

Here's where things get complicated.

As all of this has been going on, Boko Haram has for the most part kept quiet. So in the absence of any solid, verifiable demands, speculating about the group's true aims has become a national--if not international--obsession.

In the choosing of churches as targets for bombings, many see an attempt to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims and perhaps push Nigeria into a civil war fueled on both sides by religious extremism.

Some observers, struggling to come to grips with the dramatic growth in both the sophistication and frequency of attacks, have begun to suspect the influences of external groups bent on opening a new front in the Global War on Terror. In August 2011, General Carter Ham, the head of the U.S. military's Africa Command, claimed Boko Haram was collaborating with the Algeria-based Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And a report published by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence in November 2011 suggested that Boko Haram may have also forged links with Somalia's Al-Shabab.

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Joe Bavier has covered West and Central Africa for the past six years, reporting on armed conflict, famine, and political crises. Until December 2009, he served as Reuters correspondent in Democratic Republic of Congo, and was a regular contributor to The Economist.

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