Skip to main content

Boko Haram: A bloody insurgency, a growing challenge

By Faith Karimi and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
A video of Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, is shown in September 2013. Boko Haram is an <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/27/world/africa/nigeria-year-of-attacks'>Islamist militant group waging a campaign of violence</a> in northern Nigeria. The group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government. Click through to see recent bloody incidents in this strife-torn West African nation: A video of Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, is shown in September 2013. Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group waging a campaign of violence in northern Nigeria. The group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government. Click through to see recent bloody incidents in this strife-torn West African nation:
HIDE CAPTION
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Boko Haram's aim is to impose strict enforcement of Sharia law in Nigeria
  • The name translates to "Western education is sin"
  • The group was founded 12 years ago by Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic cleric
  • Nigerian police killed him in 2009 in an incident captured on video and posted online

(CNN) -- Boko Haram's escalating danger is indisputable.

The militant group has bombed schools, churches and mosques; kidnapped women and children; and assassinated politicians and religious leaders alike.

This week, the group kidnapped at least 185 women and children and killed 32 in a raid on the village of Gumsuri in northeastern Nigeria. Militants shot down men and threw petrol bombs before herding women and children together and taking them away in trucks, a local government official said. One survivor reported militants had "destroyed almost half the village."

In April, gunmen abducted more than 200 girls in the town of Chibok, a short distance south of Gumsuri. After a fierce gunbattle with soldiers, the militants herded the girls out of bed and onto buses, and sped off. Only a few dozen of the girls have escaped.

What exactly is Boko Haram, and why has it turned into a Nigerian synonym for fear and bloodshed?

What does 'Boko Haram' mean?

The name translates to "Western education is sin" in the local Hausa language.

The militant group says its aim is to impose a stricter enforcement of Sharia law across Africa's most populous nation, which is split between a majority Muslim north and a mostly Christian south.

Exclusive interview with kidnapped girl
He kept fighting for missing girls
Weeks after the April 14 kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, worried families and supporters blamed the government for not doing enough to find them. Their cries spread worldwide on social media under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement. Weeks after the April 14 kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, worried families and supporters blamed the government for not doing enough to find them. Their cries spread worldwide on social media under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement.
'Bring Back Our Girls!'
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
Bring Back Our Girls Bring Back Our Girls
Escaped Nigerian schoolgirls speak out

In recent years, its attacks have intensified in an apparent show of defiance amid the nation's military onslaught. Its ambitions appear to have expanded to the destruction of the Nigerian government.

How long has it been around?

The group was founded 12 years ago by Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic cleric who called for a pure Islamic state in Nigeria. Police killed him in 2009 in an incident captured on video and posted to the Internet.

The crackdown, some say, made Boko Haram more violent and defiant.

Abubakar Shekau took control of the group and escalated the attacks. It murdered and kidnapped Westerners, and started a bombing campaign that targeted churches, mosques and government buildings.

Why not just kill Abubakar Shekau?

One word: elusive.

Questions have swirled about Shekau, including whether he's dead or alive. Even his age is unknown -- estimates range between 35 and 44.

In recent years, the Nigerian military has touted his death, only to retract its claim after he appeared alive and vibrant in propaganda videos.

He uses the alias Darul Tawheed, and analysts describe him as a ruthless loner and master of disguise. He does not speak directly with members, opting to communicate through a few select confidants.

Why would an Islamist militant group target the Muslim north?

Despite its religious fanaticism, Boko Haram does not consider all Muslims as supporters and allies.

There have been suggestions that it attacks certain mosques because members have spoken out against it and helped federal officials with their crackdown. Its attacks are aimed at striking fear at the heart of the local population to prevent cooperation with the government, analysts say.

Does the north support the group?

Although the northern populace mostly abhors the violence, there is considerable local sympathy and support for Sharia law, seen by many as the only way to end what is widely regarded as a corrupt and inept government. Poverty is prevalent in the northern region, and as the military struggles to halt Boko Haram's attacks, the militant group is winning perhaps its most important battle: making Nigerians question government competency.

Rights groups have accused local authorities of human rights violations in the fight against the group, adding to the anti-government sentiment.

What's the West doing to help?

The United States has put a $7 million bounty on Shekau's head. It also designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist network last year. Though it has provided technical and financial support to the Nigerian teams battling the insurgency, there has been a reluctance to put boots on the ground unless there's a direct national security threat to the West. Boko Haram's attacks have been limited primarily to Nigeria.

I don't live in Nigeria, so why should I care?

With a population of 175 million, Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation and is considered a political and economic powerhouse in the continent. The key U.S. partner is rich in oil, a major trading partner with China, and is the hub of global business in the region.

And as we've learned with Mali, any unresolved local Islamist insurgency has the potential of spiraling into a world problem.

Last year, Shekau released a statement vowing to attack the United States and Europe.

"Our strength and firepower is bigger than that of Nigeria. Nigeria is no longer a big deal to us, as far as we are concerned. We will now comfortably confront the United States of America," he said.

Does it have ties to al Qaeda?

The U.S. says Boko Haram has links to the al Qaeda affiliate in West Africa and to extremist groups in Mali.

What other attacks has the group conducted?

In April, a massive explosion ripped through a bus station in the Nigerian capital, killing at least 71 people. In a video, Shekau said the group was behind the attack.

In November, the group abducted dozens of Christian women, most of whom were later rescued by the military. Some were pregnant or had children, and others had been forcibly converted to Islam and married off to their kidnappers.

In 2011, a Boko Haram suicide attack on the United Nations building in Abuja killed at least 25 people.

Boko Haram: The essence of terror

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Boko Haram
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1633 GMT (0033 HKT)
What exactly is Boko Haram, and why has it turned into a Nigerian synonym for fear and bloodshed?
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 0946 GMT (1746 HKT)
Nigeria says that more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram in April are to be released.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
Six months after more than 200 schoolgirls vanished in Nigeria, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has faded. But this man hasn't.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1124 GMT (1924 HKT)
CNN's Jessica King looks at how a social media campaign may have influenced the government to take action.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Despite government claims of a ceasefire, alleged Boko Haram gunmen attack two villages and a town.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
Journalist Sarah Topol spent time with some girls who managed to escape. She gives her reaction to CNN.
October 12, 2014 -- Updated 0601 GMT (1401 HKT)
27 hostages freed from Boko Haram have arrived in the capital of Cameroon. Lynda Kinkade reports.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1008 GMT (1808 HKT)
Nigerian forces battling Boko Haram have killed a man suspected of acting as the group's leader, Nigerian officials said.
October 19, 2014 -- Updated 1035 GMT (1835 HKT)
In April the world was shocked to learn that Boko Haram had abducted more than 200 girls from their boarding school in Chibok.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1040 GMT (1840 HKT)
With every attack by Islamist militants in northern Nigeria, Daniel Ayuba relives a nightmare.
May 12, 2014 -- Updated 1318 GMT (2118 HKT)
The terrifying news began to spread before the gun-wielding Islamist militants made it into Chibok.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Here's a look at Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group working out of Nigeria, whose purpose is to institute Sharia, or Islamic law.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1053 GMT (1853 HKT)
Nina dos Santos talks to the chief spokesman of a Nigerian opposition party about the challenges his country faces.
ADVERTISEMENT