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Understanding Boko Haram

Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS often come to mind when someone says the word “terrorism,” but there’s another name that you should know: Boko Haram.

Most of the world was introduced to Boko Haram in 2014, when the group kidnapped 276 school girls; however, Nigeria was already well-acquainted with the group through years of worsening attacks.

While the Nigerian government claims that the group has largely been defeated, a series of attacks, including the January 30 deadly burning of a village, prove otherwise.

In light of recent attacks, it makes sense to examine Boko Haram’s beginnings in Nigeria and the challenges the country faces in defeating the group.

The Birth of Boko Haram: 2003

Boko Haram can be traced back to 2003, when a group of men followed a fundamentalist Islamic preacher named Mohammed Yusuf to a remote area of the country called Kanamma. Yusuf taught his followers that the British colonialists who had formed Nigeria had imposed Western and un-Islamic ideals on the nation.

The charismatic preacher soon founded a mosque in Maiduguri. Outsiders began calling his sect Boko Haram, which translates to “Western education is forbidden.” However, the group prefers to be known by the phrase, “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings of Propagation and Jihad.”

Five Days of Violence: 2009

In 2009, a task force called Operation Flush II clashed with Yusuf’s followers and injured at least 17 members of Boko Haram. Yusuf encouraged his followers to rise up. Many of his followers attacked police stations and engaged in gun battles with law enforcement. Eventually, the military was brought in to handle the situation.

By the time it was over, five days had passed and around 800 people had been killed, including Yusuf. Police claim that they shot him when he tried to escape custody, while some witnesses say he was executed. Some witnesses also claim that law enforcement forced people to the ground and shot them merely on suspicion of being members of Boko Haram.

Gone for a Year and Then Back with a Bang: 2010

Boko Haram then disappeared for about a year, before reemerging in 2010 with a new leader: Yusuf’s deputy, Abubkar Shekau. Just a year before, police claimed that Shekau had been killed in the 2009 uprising.

Shekau and his group carried out assassinations and a large-scale prison raid. From there the attacks grew more deadly, as demonstrated by the suicide attack on the UN compound in Abuja. In this car bombing, 23 people were killed. This type of violence became the new normal for northern and central Nigeria.

The situation also grew more dangerous for tourists as Boko Haram and a splinter faction called Ansaru started kidnapping foreigners. For example, Shekau claimed responsibility for kidnapping a French family in 2013.

Attacks on School Children: 2013-2014

Boko Haram is now infamous for the 2014 kidnapping of 276 teenage school girls. Today, over 200 of the girls still remain missing. It’s presumed that the girls have been forced to marry Boko Haram fighters or join the group themselves. Before the group carried out this kidnapping, they attacked schools in northeastern Nigeria and killed dozens of school boys.

Challenges of Defeating Boko Haram

The Nigerian government is working to defeat Boko Haram; however, the group’s structure and issues within Nigeria make this difficult.

Boko Haram has an umbrella-like structure, with organization only at the top. The top levels usually demand the release of Boko Haram prisoners and the creation of an Islamic state. In contrast, the cells at the bottom tend to carry out attacks for their own reasons, usually related to unemployment and poverty.

This loose structure makes it difficult to quantify the number of Boko Haram followers and to find leaders to negotiate with. The varying demands from different levels of the group also make it difficult to negotiate a peace agreement.

There are other issues within Nigeria that make it difficult to stop Boko Haram. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and has the continent’s largest economy, but it suffers from high levels of corruption. Additionally, the country is divided by religion, with Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. The north, where most of the attacks occur, lags behind the south in wealth and education.

A final challenge to defeating Boko Haram is the controversy surrounding the government’s response. The military has been accused of human rights violations, including unlawful killings and indiscriminate arrests. The military denies this; however, groups like Amnesty International see cause for concern.

It’s clear that Nigeria faces great challenges in defeating the terrorist group; however, it must be done. Since 2009, Boko Haram has killed roughly 17,000 people and forced over 2.6 million to flee their homes. These numbers will only go up if Boko Haram isn’t stopped.

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