Five Facts on Boko Haram

Boko Haram is currently one of the most violent Islamist organizations in the world.  Operating in Nigeria, Boko Haram has abducted hundreds of people, killed thousands (including many civilians), destroyed schools and villages, and attacked the Nigerian media, military, government and international targets, like the United Nations.  As awareness of Boko Haram grows, Learning Life offers the following facts to better understand the group and its context.

1) Name

Boko Haram’s full name is Group of the Sunni People for the Calling and Jihad (“Jama‘atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da‘awati wal-Jihad”). The name “Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden.”   (Boko, from colonial English, means “book.”)  That shorter name was created by neighbors of Boko Haram’s mosque in Maiduguri, a city in northeastern Nigeria.

2) Objectives

Boko Haram seeks to create an Islamic state ruled by sharia law in Nigeria.  The group considers the Nigerian government and the nation’s Islamic religious establishment corrupt, false Muslims.

3) Origins

Some sources trace the origins of Boko Haram back to the 1990s.  In 2002, Boko Haram (not then known as Boko Haram) followers — some of whom were the sons of wealthy elites in northeastern Nigeria — left the city of Maiduguri to separate themselves from what they saw as a corrupt government and Islamic religious establishment.  They formed a separatist community based on hardline Islamic law, and eventually clashed with police, leading to the killing of most of their members, including their leader, Mohammed Ali, in early 2004.

The survivors eventually returned to Maiduguri, building a new mosque and expanding their membership.  They clashed again with Nigerian police in 2009, leading to even more violent and widespread government reprisals and the death of their leader, Mohammed Yusuf.  Boko Haram survivors escaped, but returned to attack Maiduguri in 2010, and have since proliferated their attacks.

4) Nigerian History

After more than 150 years of British influence and direct rule, Nigeria gained its independence in 1960.  A bloody civil war marked by ethnic tensions, then a series of military dictatorships followed, until the establishment of democracy in 1999.  Half of Nigerians identify as Muslims — mostly Sunni, with many living in northern Nigeria — while most of the other half identify as Christians, mostly Protestant due in part to the legacy of British rule.

Nigeria’s population grew rapidly in the 20th century, tripling between the 1970s and 2000s.  Nigeria is now the most populous nation in Africa, and the 7th most populous nation in the world.  Nigeria is also rich in oil, and a major supplier of oil to the world, but that wealth has not spread equitably, enriching some, and embittering many — including Muslim radicals — who view the Nigerian government as corrupt and repressive.

5) “Foreign Terrorist Organization”

On November 13, 2013, the U.S. Department of State announced the designation of Boko Haram as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”  A FTO designation allows the United States to support foreign countries in their fight against the FTO, pursue those who assist the organization, and spread awareness internationally of the organization as a terrorist group.  Click here for a list of the dozens of organizations worldwide that the U.S. has labeled as FTOs since 1997.

Sources for the above facts