The Development of Boko Haram – An Unstoppable Force?

The aftermath of Boko Haram’s attack in Baga in January 2015. Source: Flickr CC

The origin of the organisation that is today known and feared as Boko Haram was a clash between moderate and militant islamic teachings at the Mahammadu Ndimi Mosque in Northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram’s former leader and founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was a preacher at the mosque, well known for both his charming personality and his radical beliefs. Mohammed Yusuf was later expelled from the Ndimi Mosque Committee due to his radical interpretations of the Quran. Thus, he set out to build his own mosque, and especially focused on attracting primary and secondary school students, hoping that they, in response to his religious teachings, would give up their westernised education.

Yusuf believed such education to be sinful, which is articulated in the group’s (although not official) name; Boko (Western education) Haram (sin). Western education is, however, not the only thing to be deemed sinful by Boko Haram’s interpretation of Islam. All forms of political or social activities associated with Western society are forbidden, everything from wearing trousers to voting in elections.

Boko Haram has previously expressed a clear goal, as stated by the groups official spokesperson, Abul Qaqa, in an interview with Reporters Without Borders: the “application of Sharia law throughout Nigeria … [t]hrough kidnappings, bombings and suicide attacks”. The group has, unfortunately, very much put Qaqa’s words into action, and Boko Haram’s activities are believed to have resulted in approximately 10,000 deaths between 2001 and 2013. In the most recent attack to gain widespread international attention, an estimated 2,000 people were killed in a single attack on the town of Baga in the beginning of January. It is unclear how much territory Boko Haram effectively controls in Nigeria, but the group is carrying out attacks in at least 20 percent of the country.

In 2009, Mohammed Yusuf was killed while allegedly trying to escape from police custody. His arrest was a part of a crackdown on the group and its followers, and is believed to have increased the group’s use of violence. Another important factor in Boko Haram’s increasing violent behaviour is its current leader, described as a “part-theologian, part-gangster”, Abubakar Shekau.

However, recently, information has been circulating which suggests that Boko Haram can no longer be defined as a united group with a united purpose. After its founder Mohammed Yusuf’s death, the group is believed to have split into five or six different groups (different sources provide different accounts), functioning largely independently from each other. While Abubakar Shekau is believed to be wrecking havoc in the northern Nigerian states, other fractions have widened their horizons, expanding their attacks into neighbouring countries Cameroon and Niger.

Map of the Lake Chad region. Areas controlled by Boko Haram in red and areas that have been attacked by Boko Haram in orange. Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to the organisation Combating Terrorism Center, the three most influential leaders in Boko Haram’s network are currently Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur. Nur is believed to be connected to an African branch of Al-Qaeda, and leads a group of Mohammed Yusuf’s hardcore followers with a more international focus. Al-Barnawi, on the other hand, is focusing on kidnappings, cooperating with several other militant groups in the area. Shekau remains the groups divisive “leader”, and still holds some legitimacy due to his former position as Yusuf’s deputy.

Boko Haram’s current organisational structure is not only anarchic, but is also ripe with internal disputes and divisions, which makes tracking down and defeating them an increasingly challenging task for the Nigerian armed forces. However, many experts suggest an interesting situation might unfold if Shekau is actually killed (the Nigerian government have previously announced his death several times). Some believe that al-Barnawi and Nur would attempt to reign together, al-Barnawi operationally and Nur ideologically. Another possibility is that Shekau’s current sub-commanders might attempt to gain control of the organisation.

More importantly, it is also believed that Shekau’s death could create an opportunity for the Nigerian government to initiate talks with other armed groups in the area, which is currently said to be a meaningless affair as Shekau has taken a firm stance against both reconciliation and negotiation. On the other hand, after hostage situations in both Cameroon and Niger, those governments were successful in negotiating with Boko Haram, suggesting that Shekau’s refusal to negotiate with authorities is perhaps not as absolute as the Nigerian government has suggested.

There are many factors that have contributed to the development of Boko Haram; religious extremism, a division between the northern and southern parts of Nigeria, poverty, corruption, an ill-functioning army, charismatic leaders and a governments’ failure to react. Attempting to gain an overview of the situation is near impossible, and expressing it in an article of this size even more so. However, of one thing we can be certain; Boko Haram’s attacks show no signs of decreasing in either quantity or scope, and the Nigerian government no closer to guaranteeing its citizens the security and stability to which they are entitled.


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