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Who Are Boko Haram? Extremists Escalate Nigeria Terror Campaign
BY ALEXANDER SMITH
Who Are Boko Haram? Extremists Escalate Nigeria Terror
A recent bomb blast that ripped apart a bus station in
Nigeria's capital was a sign that a bloody al Qaeda-linked insurgency is
intensifying, analysts say.
Boko Haram, an Islamic sect whose name roughly translates to
"Western education is a sin," is widely believed to be behind
Monday's attack that left 71 people dead and more than 120 others injured. It
was the group's first major attack on Abuja in about two years.
In a further display of strength, the group kidnapped more
than 100 girls from a school in the country's northeast just hours later. The
militants duped the students into thinking they were soldiers before driving
them away into a forest.
Early this year, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan
described the the group's insurgency as a "temporary challenge,"
adding: "We will surely overcome Boko Haram."
South Africa's Daily Maverick newspaper said on Wednesday
that "even then, in January, these bold words rang hollow." Now they
seem even more of a distant fantasy.
"The situation is getting progressively worse"
Based in the impoverished predominantly Muslim north, Boko
Haram is waging a brutal campaign of violence against what it sees as the
corrupt, Westernized and oil-obsessed government in the majority Christian
The group has been ruthless in bombing schools, churches and
even mosques. It has burned villages to the ground and beheaded truck drivers
Image: The aftermath of Monday's attack on a bus station in
Abuja, Nigeria EPA
Vehicles burn after a powerful explosion hit a bus station
on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria, on Monday.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in the carnage
since 2011 alone, according to the New York-based Council for Foreign
John Campbell, a senior fellow at the CFR, said some workers
with non-governmental organizations on the ground believe even this figure is
too low – and the real death toll could be five times as high.
"Since 2009, Boko Haram's operations have been increasing
in number and getting bloodier and bloodier in terms of the death tolls,"
he said. "This would seem to suggest the situation is getting
Campbell said the bombing in Abuja, as well as several other
recent incidents in the capital, is a sign the group is no longer confined to
its base in the rural northeast and is capable of bringing destruction to the
relative metropolitan calm of Nigeria's administrative center.
The goal of Boko Haram is the destruction of Nigeria's
oil-driven economy and the establishment of an Islamic state in Africa's
largest country, where 170 million people are divided evenly between Christians
in the south and Muslims in the north.
"People talk about links to al Qaeda but they are
chasing rabbits – this is deeply rooted in Nigeria"
The group was founded in 2002 but initially did not aim to
violently overthrow the government. Under its then-leader Mohammed Yusuf, the
group criticized the Islamic elite for participating in what it called a
“colonial government” and advocated a withdrawal to form a state based on
This changed in 2009 when police clamped down on the group’s
collective refusal to observe a law making motorcycle helmets mandatory,
according to a study published in the Journal Of Humanities And Social Science.
This led to riots across the region and a bloodbath in which
more than 800 people died in one week, according to the study. Yusuf himself
was captured and shot dead in police custody.
The incident was captured on cellphone and went viral
online, giving the movement an organic thrust no speech or rally could hope to
Boko Haram went on a killing spree over the next year
targeting government officials, security agents and religious leaders. This
morphed into the large-scale indiscriminate mass murders seen in recent years.
The group is now under the control of leader Abubakar
The State Department has since classified Boko Haram as a
terrorist organization, citing its alleged links to al Qaeda and stating it had
been "conducting an ongoing and brutal campaign against Nigerian military,
government, and civilian targets."
This was prompted in part by Boko Haram being blamed for a
suicide car bombing at Abuja's United Nations building that killed 21 people in
Image: Abubakar Shekau AFP - GETTY IMAGES
A still from a video obtained by news agency AFP shows a man
claiming to be Abubakar Shekau, the current leader of Boko Haram.
But Campbell was skeptical about the extent Boko Haram
should be treated as a terrorist organization and questioned the actual extent
of its links to al Qaeda.
"To understand what's going on we have to understand
what Boko Haram actually is, which is a grass-roots insurgency with many
different strands," he said.
The "elephant in the living room," he said, is his
belief that while most people in the north are against Boko Haram's violence,
they support the implementation of Shariah courts and reject of the greed and
corruption that has characterized the Nigerian government.
"People talk about links to al Qaeda, but they are
chasing rabbits – this is deeply rooted in Nigeria, and fundamentally Nigerian
in origin," Campbell said.
As undoubtedly brutal as Boko Haram have been, the role of
the government and security forces should not be ignored.
Nigeria is rated one of the most corrupt countries in the
world by most organizations, including Berlin-based monitor Transparency
President Jonathan drew heavy criticism for exacerbating the
situation when he ran in, and won, the 2011 presidential election. He has been
accused of violating a gentleman's agreement to alternate the leadership
between the Muslim north and Christian south. Jonathan is expected to run again
Nigeria's security forces are also culpable for inflaming
the situation, according to Amnesty International.
"How will this campaign end? That's the $64 million
Amnesty has documented what it says are widespread
extra-judicial killings, murders, and executions by Nigeria's police and state
"The scale of atrocities carried out by Boko Haram is
truly shocking creating a climate of fear and insecurity. But this cannot be
used to justify the brutality of the response that is clearly being meted out
by the Nigerian security forces," Amnesty's Africa Director Netsanet Belay
said last month.
According to Campbell, most of Boko Haram's targets have
been Muslims. Boko Haram regards the Islamic elite of the north as having sold
out their religious values in favor of pocketing oil money from the south.
Many of these leaders pledged electoral allegiance to
Jonathan in 2011 instead of a Muslim candidate. This perceived betrayal has
fueled Boko Haram's drive to create an Islamic state.
However, the scale of the group's support is largely a
mystery and the Nigerian government has imposed strict controls on the media,
so reports of incidents are often scant or non-existent.
"We are all profoundly ignorant," Campbell said.
"Where is Boko Haram headed and how will this campaign end? That's the $64