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Boko Haram: A Threat to Nigeria and Beyond

Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Al-Shabaab, Hezbollah, the Haqqani network, and the Taliban are all infamous names to the Western world. These organizations, however, are but a handful of the many dozens of organizations with the official US designation of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” Each organization has its country or region of operations and influence. Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hamas, in Palestine, etc.. Some, like al-Qaeda, are international and intercontinental.  All appear with varying regularity in Western news sources.

These groups stand in contrast to Boko Haram in Nigeria, who receives comparatively little news coverage for their level of violent interaction within its country. Beyond basic news coverage of their bombings and killings, Boko Haram receives little press attention. It is vitally important, however, to understand the nature of Boko Haram for many reasons. The first and most important of these reasons is that it is their brand of Islamism that threatens to spread across much of the African continent. Where there is widespread support for Islamism in Africa, there is widespread violence against all non-Islamists. Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria are but a few of the countries that face the crisis of Islamist organizations on a daily basis. The future of Boko Haram in Nigeria will serve as a barometer for the future of many sub-Saharan Africa. This article seeks to educate readers by explaining Boko Haram’s objectives, history, and potential future.

What is Boko Haram?

In short, Boko Haram is a militant organization that is committed to the establishment of a Shariah-ruled Islamist state, first in Nigeria and then the world. Although their official name is The People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad, the group is known by their name among local Nigerians. This name, Boko Haram, actually means “Western education is sin” or “Western education is forbidden.” Although focused on Nigeria, the group has links with al-Shabaab, Islamist militants in Mali, and the al-Qaeda network in the Maghreb. Through bombings, shootings, and general unrest they have caused well over 1,000 deaths (The Nigerian military places estimates over 3,000). They are the single greatest security threat to the resource-rich and western-friendly Nigeria. Yet, surprisingly, the US and other countries have not designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization. This article will return to the question of their official designation after a review of their history.

Boko Haram became an official organization in 2002 but did not receive much Western media attention until their 2011 car-bombing of the UN building in Nigeria’s capital that killed at least 21 and wounded many dozens more. Both before and after that bombing, however, the organization carried out dozens of deadly terrorist bombings and attacks, mostly against Christian churches and schools in the north of the country.

In the beginning, between 2002 and 2009, Boko Haram was an ideological movement within a number of Mosques in Northern Nigeria. They gained in popularity by speaking out against government corruption, the rich, and the west. They promised a Islamist alternative that was appealing to many Muslims in the region and around the country, particularly among the poor and unemployed youth. In 2009, the Nigerian government launched an investigation after reports that the groups within these mosques were beginning to arm themselves. With the beginning of the investigation came the beginning of Islamist violence in Northern Nigeria.

In July of 2009, Boko Haram launched its first bloodbath by attacking a police station in response to the arrest of a number of Boko Haram leaders. The conflict only ended after a number of police raids and Boko Haram reprisals that together claimed over 1,000 lives. The leader of Boko Haram was taken into custody during the uprising and died while in custody. His death only encouraged the movement. Shortly afterwords, media coverage publicized that over 50 Muslim and Christian religious leaders had tried to warn the government of the impending violence and security issue.

After lesser incidents over the months following the 2009 uprising, 50 Boko Haram militants launched a prison raid, freeing 721 prisoners and killing a number of guards. 150 of the escaped prisoners were members of Boko Haram. From then on, shootings, jailbreaks, and bombings became commonplace in Northern Nigeria. Common targets were and continue to be Christian churches and non-militant Muslims. The attacks have also increased in intensity. In June, militants massacred over 130 villagers at random. Only a week later, Boko Haram bombed three churches, killing over 50. While concentrated in the North and North-East of Nigeria, the attacks are spread throughout the region.

Boko Haram’s Objectives

Since the group’s creation, however, their goal has been clear. Boko Haram is an Islamist organization that seeks to transform Nigeria (and then the world) into a “pure” Islamic state under Shariah law. They are a Salafist organization which means that they believe the early Muslim conquerers to be the model which all modern Muslims ought to follow. The group also forbids interaction with the western world, a position that gives little hope to the current western optimism for dialogue. The wearing of shirts, pants, and voting in elections are all haram, forbidden. Members also do not dialogue with more moderate Muslims and have even assassinated moderate Imams who have come out in opposition to the group’s teaching and practices. In short, Boko Haram supports all of the most extreme Islamist positions.

Official US Designation:

Boko Haram has not yet been designated by the US as an official foreign terrorist organization, in spite of official efforts. According to some experts, such a designation is exactly what Boko Haram wants. The designation could help the group gain recruits, raise additional funds, and increase its international profile. The designation would also, however, force the government to improve their efforts to contain and control the threat. Thus far, all diplomatic attempts by the Nigerian government has failed. Similarly, attempts to use the police and military to stamp out the movement has only fueled the flames of the conflict. An official designation by the US might help the Nigerian government move towards another strategy to stem the violence.

Analysis and Recommendation

As of mid-November, the Nigerian government and representatives declaring themselves members of Boko Haram sect have declared a tenuous cease-fire and have opened limited dialogue. It is unlikely, however, that neither Boko Haram nor the Nigerian government will be satisfied with the governments compromises. The very nature of the organization’s objectives make any peace temporary. Government forces interacting with the organization in Northern Nigeria have already raided and killed a Boko Haram official and six other members since the half-hearted agreement. An “unknown number of civilians were killed in the crossfire,” further diminishing the hope of a lasting ceasefire. Both groups will use a ceasefire to their advantage and they will end it when it best serves their purposes.

Two items further confuse the current situation with Boko Haram. The first is that the government has often dialogued with people claiming to be representatives of Boko Haram. In the past, the militants would reap some of the benefits of the talks and then denounce the speakers as impostors and that they did not represent the Boko Haram. The second intervening factor is the documented police and military brutality against civilians and suspected sect members. Extra-judicial killings and brutality by police have encouraged new members to join the sect and have brought sympathy to an organization that would otherwise have none.

In order to minimize the violence and influence of Boko Haram, the Nigerian government must find a balance on two tactical scales. The first is the strategic intelligence scale. The government must know exactly what Boko Haram is planning and attempting to execute at any given moment. They can not have too much intel on the organization. They cannot, however, alert Boko Haram to the closeness with which they watch. It was a government investigation into the group that first led to violence (albeit in response to Boko Haram’s weapons buildup). This balance will never be perfect but the continual attempt to achieve it will help both to prevent attacks before they occur and to track and contain the spread of their ideology. The second necessity that Nigeria must balance is the forceful removal of Boko Haram militants. The government must clamp down on the militants but not in a way that will further popularize the group and bring it greater international attention and help from international Islamist organizations like al-Qaeda.

If the Nigerian government succeeds in striking a balance, then Nigeria can continue growing into a regional economic and political power. A Nigeria without Boko Haram is a model for African growth, albeit with its own reoccurring political, social, and economic trials. A Nigeria with a growing Islamist movement, however, threatens to fall back into the ranks of other poverty-stricken and un-free African nations at the mercy of political tyrants.


Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OODA analyst with a strong background in international relations, regional studies, and world religions. He currently works on healthcare and economic development projects in Central Africa and the Middle East. Michael speaks English and French.