What To Know: Boko Haram’s Assault On Nigeria

Last April, 276 schools girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist terror cell with links to al-Qaeda. The group, whose official name translates to People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, is committed to eliminating Nigeria’s current political system. Their ultimate goal is establishing a government based on fundamentalist Sharia law. The group was officially organized in 2002, under Islamic cleric Mohammad Yusuf, but research suggests that they have been active in various forms since the 1970s.

It is believed that the group found inspiration in a passage in the Qur’an which states; “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.” This interpretation sheds light on the group’s ultimate goal; the removal of all western influence from Nigeria. Nigeria’s rich oil resources made it a prosperous location for  British colonization, and led to an influx of Western influence. This, combined with the political turmoil Nigeria has experienced since gaining independence in 1960 makes it a prime target for the group. The name Boko Haram was given to the group by residents of the Hausa speaking region of Nigeria. When translated from Hausa, some interpreters suggest that the name means western education is forbidden; although in recent months there has been some debate about the accuracy of this interpretation.

Reports also suggest that Boko Haram receives large financial support from al-Qaeda and supplements those funds through abductions, extortion, robbery, and donations from private individuals. Unfortunately, there is no way to truly know just how large the group is, but the State Department estimates that membership ranges from the several hundreds to the several thousands. What is clear, is that Boko Haram is extremely dangerous, and all previous attempts to eradicate the group have failed. In 2009, Nigeria’s government raided the group’s compound in Maiduguri and captured key leader Yusuf, who was later killed while attempting to escape prison. However soon after Nigeria’s government declared that they had successfully diffused the group, it reorganized under Abubakar Shekau.

The group has a long list of atrocities, dating back to the 1970s. The University of Maryland’s Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that they are responsible for 801 acts of terrorism in West Africa. This makes them the third deadliest terrorist organization in the region with an estimated 3,666 fatalities spanning the years from 1970–2013. The group has increased its presence in Nigeria since 2009, with one car bomb outside the U.N. headquarters in Abuja in August of 2011 killing 23 and injuring 83. Another bombing in January of 2012 killed approximately 185. The kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls was not the group’s first major assault; in February they attacked and burned an all boys school in Yobe, in which 29 boys were killed.

The April 2014 kidnapping of 276 Chibok girls was one of the first times that the group received extensive media coverage. Within a week, #BringBackOurGirls was trending, and the United States began aiding the search. Reports emerged that the girls were being sold as sex slaves and married to soldiers after three girls were able to escape captivity. As the year came to a close Nigeria’s government still had not managed to rescue or negotiate their release, and as of January 2015, amid allegations of corruption within the Nigerian government and human rights violation by its military, the United States withdrew its support.

What is particularly unsettling is that it looks like 2015 is gearing up to be the deadliest year since the group began large scale attacks in 2009. On January 7, 2015, satellite images captured scenes of the towns of Baga and Doron Baga showing thousands of razed structures. Amnesty International, estimates that about 3,700 structures had been damaged or completely destroyed within a five-day period from Jan. 2 to Jan. 7. Amnesty International cites the death toll at 2,000, although the Nigerian government has disputed that report, stating the death toll hovers closer to 150.

Regardless of the number, the images provide irrefutable proof that Boko Haram is only getting stronger and more dangerous. Since New Year’s Day, the group has begun spreading beyond Nigeria’s borders, and on Jan. 18 the group took 80 people hostage in Cameroon. Unfortunately, it appears that the Nigerian government will be going it alone, as the most recent attacks by Boko Haram barely made news in the U.S. However with claims of corruption, human rights violations, rampant poverty, and the ebola epidemic, it appears that the Nigerian government is not prepared or capable of maintaining a strong enough defense against the group.

Satellite images of the town of Doro Gowon taken on January 2 and then again on January 7.
Amnesty International satellite images of the town of Doro Gowon taken on January 2 and then again on January 7.
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