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Q&A: Islamic group spreading terror in Nigeria

January 7, 2012 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Boko Haram means "Western education is a sin"
  • Group seeks stricter enforcement of Sharia law
  • The group exploded onto the national scene in 2009
  • President Goodluck Jonathan has declared state of emergency to contain violence

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) -- Nigeria's president has declared a partial state of emergency to contain a wave of attacks by an Islamic militant group across the country's northeast.

The group, known as "Boko Haram," has been blamed for two months of widespread bloodshed in Nigeria, with churches and police stations among the targets. The group claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on churches on Christmas Day.

Who are Boko Haram, and what are they fighting for?

Boko Haram means "Western education is a sin." Depending on the faction, the group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law -- which is derived from the Koran as the "world of God" -- across the predominantly Muslim north of Nigeria, to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government.

Christians warned to leave Nigeria

Who do they target?

Boko Haram's grievances remain local, but it has proven itself capable and willing to attack international institutions --- such as the United Nations - on Nigerian soil to achieve their aims.

The August 26 attack -- during which a Boko Haram suicide bomber drove a jeep laden with explosives into the U.N. headquarters in Abuja -- was one of the deadliest in U.N. history. Twenty-four people were killed, including 12 U.N. staff.

When did Boko Haram arise?

Armed groups are all too common in Nigeria, often paid by politicians to support their bids for power, and Boko Haram at first was no different. However, the group exploded onto the national scene in 2009 when 700 people were killed in widespread clashes across the north between the group and the military. The uprising was put down, but violence has resurged since national elections in April, with hundreds of people killed in almost weekly bomb attacks, assassinations and killings in the main northeast city of Maiduguri.

The elections are widely regarded by many in the north to have been rigged against the popular northern candidate.

Do they have links to terrorists?

The Nigerian "Underwear Bomber" Umar AbdulMutallab had no connection with Boko Haram -- but his attempt to detonate an explosive aboard a U.S. flight in 2009 highlights the vulnerability of the West to insecurity in Nigeria.

There is concern that Boko Haram has made contact with other extremist Islamic groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Africa. Increasing sophistication in the execution of Boko Haram's attacks, security experts say, indicate such external instruction.

As the group moves further away from its political roots toward an increasing religious dimension, any attempt at dialogue with the group becomes more difficult for the authorities.

What has been the government response?

President Goodluck Jonathan has deployed the military across the region in a bid to contain the crisis, stating after each attack that the government has the situation under control. But with little obvious success in improving the security situation, events seem to be increasingly out of the government's control.

Does the group enjoy support among the people?

Although the northern populace mostly abhors the violence, there is considerable local sympathy and support for stricter Sharia law, seen by many as the only way to put an end to what is widely regarded as a corrupt and inept government.

Northern Nigeria has some of the worst human development indicators in the world despite the country's being the fifth largest oil exporter to the United States. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been stolen by a succession of corrupt governments.

As the attacks continue and the violence spreads from its base in the northeast, Boko Haram is winning perhaps its most important battle: making Nigerians question what most agree is the cause of the problem, their government.

CNN's Tim Lister contributed to this report.

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