By Joe Sommerlad
18 July 2018
Boko Haram continues to terrorise Nigeria
after almost a decade of violence.
The Islamist insurgents – based in the
northern states of Yobe, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Kaduna – have sparked a
humanitarian crisis in the country, leaving more than 20,000 people dead and
displacing a further two million through a sustained campaign of domestic
terror, attacking government buildings, military bases and schools.
Its members seek to overthrow Nigeria's
political establishment and found an Islamic state under strict Sharia law in
West Africa’s biggest economy.
Boko Haram was inaugurated in 2002 by the cleric Mohammed Yusuf in
the city of Maiduguri. He established a mosque and school in order to preach
Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Islam. The organisation’s name in
Arabic was Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which translates as
“People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.
The cult has become more widely known by
its translation into Hausa: “Western education is forbidden.”
Yusuf and his acolytes believed Western
Christian teaching, introduced to the region by British missionaries under
colonialism following the fall of the Sokoto caliphate in 1903, was responsible
for entrenching the status quo in a country in which 60 per cent of the
population live in dire poverty on less than $1 a day.
Nigeria’s wealth is concentrated in the
predominantly Christian south and the group sought to foster and cultivate
resentment among local Muslims, particularly the unemployed. Boko Haram stands
against all aspects of Western culture, prohibiting its adherents from wearing
imported clothing or voting in national elections.
Yusuf’s school quickly became radicalised
as a Jihadi recruitment camp and is rumoured to have received a portion of the
$1.8m (£1.3m) Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda distributed in West Africa to bankroll
Islamist terror in the aftermath of 11 September
Their first known attacks came in December
2003 with a series of assaults on Yobe police stations on the Niger border, in
which 200 militants were involved.
Boko Haram quietly built their regional
influence thereafter before becoming fully militarised in 2009, staging an
uprising in Bauchi that summer that saw its fighters attack police officers.
Seven hundred of their own men were killed
when a military task force responded. Yusuf was arrested and subsequently died
in police custody, officially during an escape attempt but Boko Haram remains
convinced he was murdered.
Yusuf was succeeded by his ruthless deputy
Abubakar Shekau and, over the next five years, the group continued to conduct a
reign of terror, with gunmen on motorbikes carrying out drive-by assassinations
on policemen, politicians or clergymen who dared to speak out against them.
The attacks became steadily more ambitious,
culminating in the car bombing of a United Nations compound in Abuja on 26
August 2011 in which 23 died and 75 were injured.
Further incidents followed including bomb
attacks on villages, markets, bus depots and prisons and the kidnapping of a
French family of seven on holiday at a national park across the border in
Cameroon on 19 February 2013.
Ransoms came to provide a lucrative source
of income for Boko Haram, the group commonly taking hostages as bargaining
chips when negotiating with the authorities. Militants also sold captive women
and children as slaves on Africa’s black market.
This approach made international headlines
when Boko Haram raided a girl’s boarding school in Chibok on 14 April 2014,
taking 276 of the residents’ captive and provoking outcry around the world.
“I abducted your girls. I will sell them in
the market; by Allah... there is a market for selling humans. Allah says I
should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women,” Shekau
said in a YouTube video at the time.
Michelle Obama, the then-US first lady,
spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media but, at the time of
writing, as many as 113 are still being held, presumably in Boko Haram’s Sambisa
Fifty-seven escaped their captors en masse
in July 2014, 21 were released after negotiations with the Nigerian and Swiss
governments and the Red Cross in October 2016, another 82 in further talks in
May 2017, while several girls broke free of their own accord, two of whom bore
infants fathered by captors who had “married” them and displayed the symptoms
of Stockholm syndrome.
Other atrocities carried out by the group
include the use of child captives as suicide bombers, typically under the
influence of drugs.
In August 2014, Shekau appeared in a
propaganda video flanked by masked gunmen to declare: “We are in an Islamic
caliphate. We have nothing to do with Nigeria. We don’t believe in this name.”
The following March, he pledged Boko
Haram’s support for Isis, apparently turning his back on al-Qaeda, an
organisation of whom his spokesman had said in 2011: “[They] are our elder
brothers. We enjoy financial and technical support from them. Anything we want
from them we ask them.”
Around this time, cracks began to show. The
militants were pushed back into the forests by a coalition of fighters from
Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, a retreat that enabled the discovery of a
mass grave containing 400 bodies in the town of Damask.
In April 2015, 450 women and girls were
rescued from their clutches and, in August 2016, Isis released a video claiming
that Shekau had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of
Shekau denied this, insisting he was still
in control, but the communication fuelled speculation that Boko Haram had been
split into two warring factions.
In March 2018, the group lost further
ground when a Nigerian and Cameroonian task force liberated a 1,000 women and
children from the villages of Malamkari, Amchaka, Walasa and Gora.
In mid-July, militants carried out two
attacks in quick succession – one on an army base in Jilli in Yobe, another in
a convoy outside of Bama in Borno.
Counter-terror expert Yan St-Pierre told
AFP that he believed the twin assaults could represent two new divisions
battling for supremacy.
The Rise of Boko Haram
For his part, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu
Buhari, elected on a promise he would rid the country of Boko Haram, insisted
the situation was in “a post-conflict stabilisation phase”.
But Yan St-Pierre is less confident about
the terrorists' waning powers: “The supply of Boko Haram fighters is always
there, either through kidnapping or economic reasons, they tap into a wide pool
of personnel, or they find a way to replenish their strength.”
Boko Haram has been well supplied with cash
and weapons from its earliest days, its men armed with AK-47s and
rocket-propelled grenade launchers thanks to funds received from other terror
groups, ransoms, the sale of slaves and black market ivory obtained through
poaching and from regional bank robberies.