The Salafist cleric Mohammed Yusuf established Boko Haram (BH) in 2002 in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno. The organization’s goal is to transform all of Nigeria, whose population is predominantly Muslim in the north and majority-Christian in the south, into an Islamic state governed by strict Sharia law.
In the Hausa language of northern Nigeria, the name “Boko Haram” means “Western Education Is Sin,” a motto reflecting the group’s non-negotiable rejection of Western cultural, political, and scientific traditions.
Offering further insight into its core value system, BH also dubs itself Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Its followers, who are called Yusuffiya, consist largely of northerners who are especially influenced by the Koranic phrase: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.”
During its first several years in existence, BH was most active in the northern Nigerian states of Yobe, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Kaduna. Thereafter, it also stepped up its activities in central regions such as Plateau State and the capital city Abuja, and further south in Lagos.
In 2004, BH moved its headquarters to Kanamma in northern Nigeria’s Yobe State, where the group established a base called “Afghanistan” and used it as a launching pad for anti-government activities in the region. Prior to 2009, those activities generally urged Nigerian Muslims to mindfully limit their contact with—and allegiance to—their country’s government, which Mohammed Yusuf deemed illegitimate because it was not modeled on Sharia law. Violence, however, was not yet BH’s principal modus operandi.
But when Boko Haram members in July 2009 refused to obey a newly enacted motorbike-helmet law, a heavy-handed police response sparked an armed BH uprising in the northern state of Bauchi, which then spread into other northern states like Borno, Yobe, and Kano. By the time the Nigerian army was able to suppress the violence, 800 people lay dead. Nigeria’s security forces seized BH’s headquarters, captured many of the group’s fighters, and put Mohammed Yusuf to death in a televised execution.
According to UC Santa Cruz sociology professor Paul Lubeck, “an Islamist insurrection under a splintered leadership” had now emerged in Nigeria, with BH playing a central role. In this new era, BH sought to foment civil unrest and overthrow the Nigerian government through violence. Suicide bombings and assassinations of police officers, politicians, and Christian preachers became commonplace, as did attacks on bus stations, bars, military barracks, religious buildings, and all manner of public institutions. Many of BH’s assaults were carried out by gunmen on speeding motorbikes.
In 2010, BH set free more than 700 prison inmates in Bauchi, and the following year it carried out and a suicide attack on a United Nations building in Abuja that killed 25. By 2013, some analysts were noticing that BH operations showed increasing signs of influence from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, based in western North Africa).
In May 2013, the Nigerian government assembled an emergency joint task force of military and police units to fight BH in three northeastern states—Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Thousands of ground troops, backed up by aerial bombardments of suspected BH hideouts, succeeded in driving many of the terrorists out of cities like Maiduguri and into the Sambisa forest, along Nigeria’s eastern border with Cameroon. But BH terrorists now began to use that region as a base from which to launch mass attacks on Nigerian targets. A particularly horrific measure employed by BH was the burning of entire villages, which was intended to warn rural people not to collaborate with the government’s security forces.
Week after week, the litany of BH atrocities mounted: chainsaw beheadings of truck drivers; the slaying of hundreds of people along the roads of northern Nigeria; and in September 2013, the murder of 65 students while they slept in their dorms at the agricultural college in Yobe State. In November 2013, the the U.S. State Department designated BH as a foreign terrorist organization.
In February 2014, Borno State governor Kashim Shettima, acknowledging BH’s formidable military capacity, lamented: “Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat Boko Haram.”
In April 2014, BH bombed a bus station in Abuja that killed nearly 100 people. Soon thereafter, the terror group abducted more than 200 mostly-Christian schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria and forced them to convert to Islam and marry hardened jihadists. And on November 10, 2014, a BH suicide bomber disguised as a student blew himself up during a school assembly in Potiskum, killing almost 50 and injuring 79.
Over the course of its history, BH has killed many thousands of people (10,000 in 2011 alone) and caused more than a million others to be displaced. U.S. officials now believe that the group has ties to the aforementioned AQIM, as well as to Al-Shabab (in Somalia) and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, security officials in Nigeria and elsewhere suspect that BH has splintered into two factions—one that is focused on local grievances and another that aspires to regional expansion.
BH’s putative leader today is the Islamic theologian Abubakar Shekau, a former deputy to the late Mohammed Yusuf. In 2013, Shekau released a statement vowing to annihilate the West: “Our strength and firepower is bigger than that of Nigeria. Nigeria is no longer a big deal to us, as far as we are concerned. We will now comfortably confront the United States of America.”
Shekau’s whereabouts, however, are unknown. According to the Council on Foreign Relations: “Nigeria’s military claimed to have killed Shekau at least three times, yet videos of the leader threatening his enemies, congratulating his jihadi comrades in Iraq and Syria, and declaring an Islamic state continue to emerge. Nigerian officials and many experts are convinced that Shekau has become a brand adopted by leaders of different factions of Boko Haram, and that the men in the videos are actually look-alikes.” CNN reports that Shekau is a master of disguise who uses the alias Darul Tawheed and communicates with outsiders only through a few select confidants.
During January 3-9, 2015, BH unleashed its deadliest attack to date, indiscriminately opening fire on 16 northern Nigerian villages and murdering as many as 2,000 people and destroying some 3,700 homes and businesses. Some who tried to hide in their homes were burned alive. In the aftermath of the carnage, BH leader Abubakar Shekau said: “We are the ones who fought the people of Baga, and we have killed them with such a killing as He [Allah] commanded us in his book…. This is just the beginning of the killings. What you’ve just witnessed is a tip of the iceberg. More deaths are coming…. This will mark the end of politics and democracy in Nigeria.”
BH is also infamous for its widespread destruction of Christian churches in Nigeria. Between early 2011 and early 2015, the terror group destroyed approximately 1,000 such houses of worship.
Beginning in 2014, BH began to make increased use of women as suicide bombers. Then, in January 2015 the organization used its first child—a girl about ten years old—to detonate powerful explosives concealed under her veil at a crowded market in northern Nigeria, killing as many as 20 people and wounding many more. The following month, BH used a girl of about seven in a suicide bombing that killed 5 people in a market in the northeast Nigerian city of Potiskum.
On March 7, 2015, BH leader Abubakar Shekau pledged his group’s allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist army that was rampaging through vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. Said Shekau: “We announce our allegiance to the Caliph of the Muslims, [IS leader] Ibrahim ibn Awad ibn Ibrahim al-Husseini al-Qurashi” (better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).
In 2018 alone, BH’s genocidal campaign killed at least 1,200 people while displacing nearly 200,000 others in northeast Nigeria. As of August 2019, almost 30,000 had been killed and two million had been displaced.
In late April 2021, it was reported that BH had forcibly seized at least 50 villages near the Nigerian capital of Abuja over the preceding three weeks. “In a brazen attack, 100 kilometers [62 miles] from Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, Boko Haram terrorists sacked 50 communities in Niger State and hoisted their flag in Kaure village,” Nigeria’s Leadership newspaper reported on April 26. The governor of Niger State, Alhaji Abubakar Sani Bello, said: “They have taken over the territory. They have installed their flag. I am confirming to you now that they have taken over the wives of the people by force.”