Boko Haram: The essence of terror

Story highlights

Boko Haram, blamed in hundreds of deaths, added mass abduction to its repertoire in April

Group's promises of weapons, plunder lure Nigeria's young men

There's no evidence that Boko Haram has aspirations beyond Nigeria

But splinter groups may have broader ambitions

CNN  — 

There are many groups listed by the U.S. State Department as terrorists. But few fit the classic definition – threatening and inflicting terror on a civilian population – better than Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. What’s more difficult to work out, beyond Boko Haram’s hatred for everything modern and secular, is its ideology, structure and affiliations.

Boko Haram’s modus operandi is all too clear: brutal and indiscriminate killings of both Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria, the bombings of churches and suicide attacks in the federal capital, Abuja, including the devastating car bombing of the U.N. compound in 2011. Recent attacks in the northeast, mainly in rural areas of Borno state, have left dozens dead. Victims are shot at point-blank range or stabbed and mutilated. Some attacks have lasted hours without any police or military intervention.

In the first three months of this year, Amnesty International estimates, Boko Haram was responsible for the deaths of more than 1,500 people.

In April, the group added mass abduction to its repertoire with the kidnapping of more than 200 girls ages 16 to 18 from a boarding school in Borno.

“Slavery is allowed in my religion, and I shall capture people and make them slaves,” Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, declared in a chilling video released in May.

It was a message typical of a medieval mindset, reflecting the admiration for the Taliban that inspired his predecessor, Mohammed Yusuf.

Boko Haram and other factions have carried out kidnappings on a smaller scale, targeting Western workers and tourists. Rescue attempts – by Nigerian security forces and in one instance in concert with UK special forces – have ended with the deaths of hostages. In one instance last year, Boko Haram allegedly received a substantial ransom (rumored to be in excess of $3 million) for the release of a French family abducted in northern Cameroon.

Why would anyone join a group so focused on killing, maiming and kidnapping civilians, one with such an incoherent, apocalyptic but resolutely backward mindset? Boko Haram, whose real name translates as the Sunni Group for Preaching and Jihad, feeds on the poverty and discrimination felt by many young Muslims in northern Nigeria. Shekau persistently recalls perceived persecution of Nigeria’s Muslims by Christians, among whom President Goodluck Jonathan is the latest “oppressor.”

A lure for young men

In a region where unemployment is pervasive, the promise of a weapon and plunder has been enticing to hundreds of young men. In a recent report, the International Crisis Group noted that “most Nigerians are poorer today than they were at independence in 1960 … and the government is unable to provide security, good roads, water, health and reliable education.”

The central government’s heavy-handed and frequently untargeted anti-terrorism campaign has radicalized enough young men to sustain Boko Haram. The country’s own Human Rights Commission last year accused the military of arbitrary killings, torture and rape in its campaign against the group. Jonathan’s declaration of a state of emergency a year ago in three northern states failed to halt or even stem the tide of killings.

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says, “the security forces have proven remarkably ineffective in securing territory or people within the areas under the state of emergency.”

This makes for fertile territory for Boko Haram, with its demand for Sharia law and rejection of all things Western (especially education for girls).

It is no coincidence that Nigeria and Pakistan see the most militant attacks on schools and colleges.

Among Boko Haram’s targets in recent months: a secondary school in Mamudo, where 42 students were killed, and another on an agricultural college near Damaturu in Yobe state, where more than 40 were killed.

Boko Haram’s outlook and that of the Pakistani Taliban have similarities, even if their origins are very different. Both have thrived in (usually rural) areas where the state’s authority is weak, exploiting corruption and sectarian fault lines. Both have also targeted workers involved in trying to eradicate polio. Both recruit from Islamic schools (whose students are called almajiris in northern Nigeria) where memorizing the Quran is the core of the curriculum.

The emergence of civilian vigilante groups in cities like Maiduguri has driven Boko Haram into the remote northeastern corner of Nigeria, close to the borders with Cameroon and Chad. It has a network of camps in the thick forests of the Sambisa Reserve, which is where at least some of the abducted schoolgirls are likely to have been taken.

Boko Haram and al Qaeda

There’s no firm evidence as yet that Boko Haram has ambitions beyond Nigeria, though its campaign of terror has spilled into remote parts of Cameroon and it appears to have informal links with militant Islamist groups in Mali and Niger. And for a while in 2012, Shekau sought refuge in Gao in northern Mali, a town then held by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, after being wounded in a shootout with Nigerian security forces.

Shekau has declared his allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. But Boko Haram’s structure and ideology are so opaque and its focus so local that al Qaeda’s leadership has thus far – at least publicly – shunned it.

Other factions that have broken with Shekau may have broader ambitions. Jacob Zenn, an expert on Boko Haram and its several offshoots, wrote in a recent edition of the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel that some leaders “are uniquely capable of expanding Boko Haram’s international connections to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabaab” in Somalia and other militant groups.