What is Boko Haram?


What is Boko Haram?

Emily Mellgard

02 Oct 2015

Jihadi organisation Boko Haram continues to ravage Nigeria's northeast and the Lake Chad Basin. The origins and ideology of the group are examined by Emily Mellgard.

In January 2015 Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin relaunched the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) with Nigeria, under the auspices of the African Union and United Nations to tackle the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria and wider Lake Chad Basin. Nigeria's neighbours joined the campaign in reaction to Boko Haram's increased cross-border attacks and heightened threat to regional social, economic, and political stability, to which the Nigerian military response had been lacklustre. Between February and March 2015 the MNJTF managed to evict Boko Haram from many towns it had claimed in the latter half of 2014. A formal alliance with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham ( ISIS), announced in March, provided a propoganda victory for the group, and may influence its future direction. President Muhammadu Buhari, who was inaugurated on 29 May 2015, has made the destruction of Boko Haram a priority for his administration. When he appointed new military chiefs in August 2015, he gave them three months to destroy the group. 

Boko Haram disdains Western education. 

Boko Haram began  in the 1990s in northeast Nigeria, in a very different form. The group eventually settled in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Mohammed Yusuf was the founding leader and ideologue. He emphasised the need to isolate Muslims from secular society, to purify Islam of Western and secular influences and to implement Sharia law in its entirety. Yusuf's group was one among many at the time that believed that if Sharia law was implemented, corruption and inequality would be eliminated.

In 2009, tensions between Yusuf's followers, local politicians including Borno's governor Ali Modu Sheriff, and the security services erupted into full-blown conflict to which security services responded violently. An estimated 800 of Yusuf's followers were killed. Yusuf was captured and extra-judicially killed by the police. Surviving members melted back into the community. In 2010 the group reemerged under the leadership of Yusuf's deputy Abubakar Shekau and launched a violent campaign against the security services and those perceived to be opposed to Boko Haram's ideology, aims and methods. Boko Haram has been involved in at least 26,287 deaths between May 2011 and September 2015, and directly responsible for at least 14,226 over the same period.


Mohammed Yusuf was the founding leader of Boko Haram. He was a charismatic malam (Islamic teacher) who taught a vision of Islamic purity similar to Wahhabi teachings, but did not advocate violence in the beginning. Yusuf's deputy, Abubakar Shekau, replaced him as Boko Haram's leader in 2010. Shekau is a much more thuggish character. Under Shekau's leadership the group has acquired a more ethnic quality, at times prioritising Kanuri tribal issues. He has not been seen in public since 2009, sparking periodic rumours that he is dead, and that 'Shekau' has become something of a nom de guerre for multiple people or Boko Haram's leadership council collectively. However, there are periodic video and audio messages released by the group purporting to show Shekau.

State institutions can be violent and repressive.

The leadership structure of the group remains murky and amorphous. It is likely that Shekau has spiritual influence over the group, but that members and cells do not necessarily feel beholden to follow Shekau's orders or seek his approval for their own operations. More likely, the dual pillars at the centre of Boko Haram's ideology (social justice and implementing Sharia), which resonate widely in the region, connect the disparate components of Boko Haram.


Boko Haram's formal name is Jamaat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Dawah wal-Jihad, meaning 'People of the Ways of the Prophet for Proselytisation and Jihad.' The large following attracted to Yusuf was centred at a mosque in Maiduguri's Railway Quarter. Yusuf's followers gained the nicknamed 'Boko Haram' because of the emphasis in Yusuf's teachings on rejecting of Western education and influence. Members do not call themselves by this name. 'Boko' in Hausa, the linga franca of northern Nigeria, means 'book' and is commonly used for secular education. 'Haram' is Arabic for something that is religiously forbidden.

Many fighters appear to glory in violence.

Boko Haram developed within a specifically Nigerian Salafi-jihadi ideological context, which focuses on rejecting the authority of the Nigerian state. Yusuf taught that partisan government, democracy, and Western-style education – including any subject perceived to contradict the Quran – are exploitative and colonial impositions intended to degrade Muslim society, traditions and values, and convert Muslims to Christianity. This draws on a deep-seated suspicion of democracy in northern Nigeria, a disdain for Western education and assumption that Islamic education and Sharia are superior. This however, is juxtaposed against a sense of inferiority prevalent among northern Muslims and anger resulting from their marginalisation from the modern Nigerian economy and development due in part to inadequate levels of education.

The group's ideology also developed along takfiri lines, meaning that it is permissible to kill everyone who rejects its own interpretation of the Quran. Indeed many fighters appear to glory in violence. Shekau's rhetoric is particularly graphic: "Now our religion and our way of worship is nothing but killings, killings and killings! Kill and slaughter but don't eat them." Special anger is reserved for the security forces and symbols of the secular government, Muslim leaders who openly disagree with the group, schools (buildings, teachers and students), and places of worship (mosques and churches). It does not have a concrete political agenda, but rather uses ideas of social justice wrapped in religious rhetoric to gain support and recruits.

Boko Haram Radicalisation & Recruitment

Boko Haram is thought to number over 15,000 fighters. Their reasons for joining are diverse. Many are drawn to the call for social and economic equality, as well as religious purity. However, recent studies suggest that Boko Haram's literalist religious ideology is less critical in the recruitment process than a perception of the marginalisation of the Northeast region and the inequality and corruption rampant nationwide.

Almijiri (Quranic street schools for the poor) students are also commonly cited as easy recruits for Boko Haram because they have minimal education, and what they have been exposed to is often solely memorisation of the Quran and very literal interpretations of it. Recent studies suggest however, that Almijiri students, while present among Boko Haram ranks, are not necessarily pre-disposed to radicalisation. Some members, especially young, unemployed men, join Boko Haram because it offers financial compensation in a region with few economic opportunities.

Boko Haram wraps ideas of social justice in religious rhetoric.

Still others join Boko Haram as the safest option. Campaigns by the security forces rarely distinguish between civilians and Boko Haram fighters. Joining Boko Haram can offer a veneer of security. Boko Haram's vitriolic rhetoric against the security services also resonates with many who experience state institutions as indiscriminately violent and repressive. This contributes to grassroots-level support for Boko Haram's ideology and aims, even if many disagree with its violent methods. Some members have been radicalised in prison and join or are forced to join after Boko Haram sets them free. According to surveys conducted by the Nigerian National Security Advisor's office, much more common in the radicalisation and recruitment process, are familial and community ties. Brothers, cousins and school friends often join together. Husbands often pressure their wives to join with them. There is evidence that some of the recent girls used as human bombs are daughters of Boko Haram members. 

Boko Haram Territory & International Links

Throughout much of its five and a half year insurgency against the Nigerian state, Boko Haram lived embedded in urban communities, carrying out guerrilla-style attacks on soft targets (such as schools and places of worship), and on symbols of the Nigerian state (police stations, banks, and check points). In May 2013 the federal government claimed for the first time that Boko Haram had captured several towns in northeast Nigeria and a state of emergency (SOE) was established to allow a Joint Task Force of military and police to tackle the insurgents. Under the SOE, the security forces managed to evict Boko Haram from most urban areas, depriving it of its support and resource networks, forcing it to begin preying on communities for whom it had previously claimed to fight.

Familial and community ties are key and recruitment.

In August 2014, Boko Haram began a campaign of territorial conquest. This was potentially in imitation of ISIS, which had similarly seized territory in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, and in June 2014 announced the establishment of a ' caliphate.' At its peak, Boko Haram had seized much of Borno state and parts of Yobe and Adamawa states. It appears that the group did not attempt to administer much of its territory, focusing instead on denying the Nigerian state control.

Shekau did designate Gwoza, a historic cultural and religious centre, as the group's ' capital.' Throughout the autumn of 2014 there were signs of communication between Boko Haram and ISIS, and Boko Haram messaging began to develop along similar stylistic lines to ISIS. In March 2015 this culminated with Shekau swearing bayah to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, formally linking the Nigerian group to the international jihadi network for the first time. The MNJTF has continued throughout this period to confront the group in the Lake Chad Basin.

The implications of the alliance between Boko Haram and ISIS remain unclear. The group has proven resilient to eradication over the past two decades, however, and their ideology continues to resonate with large sections of the northern Nigerian Muslim population, even as most find the group's glorification of violence abhorrent. The group continues to carry out guerrila-style attacks on villages and military positions, and it has increased its use of suicide bombings, including using young girls as human bombs. 

This backgrounder was first published on 14 April 2015. It was updated on 17 August 2015.


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