Boko Haram


2002-2004:  The genesis of the Nigerian Taliban in Yobe took place.

2003-2004:  Disturbances in Kanamma and Gwoza were attributed to Boko Haram.

2009 (July 26-29):  Boko Haram revolted; founder Muhammad Yusuf was killed.

2010 (September 7):  A prison break, the foundation of militant Boko Haram, and the ascendancy of Shekau took place.

2011 (June 16):  The suicide bombing of police GHQ in Abuja occurred.

2011 (August 26):  The suicide bombing of U.N. headquarters in Abuja occurred.

2012 (December 25):  Boko Haram attacked churches, killing at least twenty-seven in Maiduguri and Potiskum.

2013 (September):  A major Nigerian military offensive against Boko Haram was undertaken.

2014 (February 14):  121 Christian villagers in Borno state were massacred, beginning the large-scale Boko Haram massacres.

2014 (April 15):  Approximately 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from Chibok.

2014 (June 2):  Approximately 200 Christians were massacred in and around Gwoza.

2014 (November 28):  At least 120 people were killed by suicide bombing and gunfire at the Kano major mosque.

2015 (January 3-7):  The Baga massacre occurred; approximately 2000 people killed near Lake Chad.

2015 (January 31-February 1):  The final attack on Maiduguri took place; this was a high-point for Boko Haram political control.

2015 (March 8):  Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Islamic State and changed its name to Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiya.


Boko Haram is a Salafi-jihadi organization, whose true name until the organization swore allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015, was Jami`at Ahl al-Sunna li-l-Da`wa wa-l-Jihad (The Gathering of the People of the Sunna for Missionization and Fighting). It is now known as Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiya (State of West Africa). The name Boko Haram means “Western Education is Forbidden,” aname accorded to the group by Nigerians, and by which it still is popularly known.

The group has two very distinct phases: one under the charismatic leadership of Muhammad Yusuf (d. 2009), who founded the group as a protest against secular education in northern Nigeria, and the second under the flamboyant Abubakar Shakau (whereabouts unknown), who transformed the group into an armed insurrection calling for an Islamic state. A third phase, one in which Boko Haram has been subsumed into the Islamic State (IS), is possibly underway, although thus far it is impossible to draw any final conclusions.

Boko Haram has two basic tactical methods: one, which is individual or small group, and focuses upon individualized terror (assassinations, drive-by shootings, local terror and suicide attacks against local targets), and two, which is massive concerted attacks, usually highly mobile utilizing motorcycles or trucks to attack a given smaller or comparatively less-defended target, and then massacring the target population (or in some cases recently taking them captive). Initially, during the period 2010-2011 Boko Haram favored the first tactical method, and even at the present time still utilizes it. But since the beginning of 2014 Boko Haram has favored the massive attack method. The goal of the secondary method is to create a territorial state.

Although the targets focused upon by Boko Haram have shifted considerably during the last five years, it is possible to make some generalizations. During its first two years (2010-1011), Boko Haram favored local targets that were closely associated with its doctrinal positions. These included attacks on educational and medical facilities, attacks on public-order offenses (from a Muslim point of view), which included bars, gambling establishments, marketplaces where the selling of non-halal meat took place. Above all others were the targeted assassinations of Muslim religious figures who had opposed the group. A second broad group of targets constituted “vengeance for Muhammad Yusuf” targets; these included security forces or military targets. During this period Boko Haram in its public statements usually emphasized that it demanded justice for the murder of Yusuf, among other demands.

During the period 2011-2013 Boko Haram shifted its targets somewhat. While local terrorism of the type described abovecontinued, the group projected its power into two areas: the Fulani-Hausa heartland around Kano and Zaria (north-central Nigeria), and the Middle Belt, most especially the flash-point city of Jos. There are frequent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Jos; Kaduna, capital of the major Middle Belt state, and most especially in the federal capital of Abuja. These attacks were mostly spectacular in nature, and many of them were suicide attacks on very distinctive locations (churches, government buildings, Army bases) that obviously were chosen for their symbolic value. Churches and Christian locations were often attacked on Sundays or at other key Christian holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, again in order to maximize the casualties and symbolism.

During the period commencing late 2011, the Nigerian military enjoyed a period of some success against Boko Haram, especially during later 2012 through summer 2013. Boko Haram continued to carry out operations in northeastern Nigeria, but it was unable (or unwilling) to carry out operations elsewhere in Nigeria. This period of comparative containment ended on May 14, 2013, when President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three northeastern states hardest hit by Boko Haram.

Operations conducted by Boko Haram during this 2012-2013 period tended to revert back to low-technological means. During this period operations tended to be carried out by small weapons (knives, machetes, and small guns) rather than the automatic weaponry currently favored. It is clear, once again, that the change occurred with the glut of fighters and weaponry that flooded West Africa in the wake of the fall of Libya’s ruler Qadhafi at the end of 2011. At first these fighters and their weapons aided the rise of al-Qaeda in the Maghrib (AQIM), but with its defeat at the hands of the French in January 2013, apparently a large number of fighters and weapons became available in both Nigeria (to Boko Haram) and in the Central African Republic (aiding in the rise of Seleka in March 2013). It is striking how there is a wave-effect on radical organizations throughout the region; when one is defeated, those fleeing the defeat can cause a great deal of destruction to weaker states.

By the end of 2013, it is possible to see a new phase in Boko Haram’s tactics. The first manifestation of this change is the rise inlarge-scale massive attacks, usually on villages, with a heavy loss of life. At least 2,053 people were killed during the first half of 2014 by these mass attacks. Starting in spring 2014 Boko Haram began a campaign of kidnappings, most famously the some 279 schoolgirls who were kidnapped on the night of April 14-15, 2014 from a boarding-school at Chibok. Although some of the girls managed to escape, it is clear from video taken of them (May 12, 2014), and from the statement of Shekau that the vast majority of them remain under the control of Boko Haram, and most probably as he stated, have either been married to the fighters, or sold into slavery. Nor is this the only kidnapping of women and girls carried out by Boko Haram; a number of other raids have been focused upon this end through the summer of 2014. By the end of 2014, Boko Haram probably had at least 10,000-15,000 soldiers, and perhaps as many as 50,000 supporters.

Another concurrent manifestation of the caliphate phase of Boko Haram has been the reintroduction of suicide attacks, which are reflected in recent mass-casualty attacks. These have been directed against civilian targets for the most part, and the perpetrators include a large number of female suicide attackers. Targets have been mosques, markets, bus stations, schools, military encampments, and residential areas. The numbers of dead from the various massacres have yet to be fully tallied.

Although the Nigerian army’s record during the year of 2013-14 is a miserable one, during the course of which Boko Haram managed to carve out for itself a fairly substantial state in the northeastern three states of Nigeria (Borno, Yobe and Adumawa), after a large-scale attack on the key capital-city of Borno, Maiduguri, was repulsed in January 2015, Boko Haram began to retreat. Most of its important towns were recaptured by the Nigerian military through spring 2015, and many of its bases in the Sambisa Forest (along the Cameroonian border) were overrun during the summer and fall of 2015. However, there is still a core Boko Haram following, and virtually none of its leadership has been apprehended.


Boko Haram is a Salafi-jihadi organization that has its religious-ideological roots in a Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Its name is one bestowed upon the group by outsiders, who identified the primary difference between it and other Salafi groups as beingBoko Haram’s opposition to any forms of secular education. Indeed, Muhammad Yusuf’s book, Hadhihi `aqidatuna wa-minhaj da`watina (This is Our Creed and Method of Proclamation) (c. 2007), does have a substantial section concerning education. Yusuf’s opposition to education stems from the charges that a number of teachings, such as the heliocentric system, the theory of evolution, and other foundational learning methods are un-Islamic. He states, enumerating the negative factors:

1. Mixing of the sexes which is forbidden in our Islamic religion, and its forbiddance is well-known as a necessity.

2. A woman adorning herself, in spite of what God said: ‘Stay in your homes and do not display your finery as the pagans of old did.’ (Q 33:33)

3. Physical exercises which distract from religion, like football (soccer), handball and the Olympic competitions.

4. For the woman to travel alone, without a (male) guardian or a husband, in spite of the forbidding of the Prophet of her, saying: ‘It is not permitted for a woman who believes in God and the Last Day to travel day or night without a (male) guardian or her husband.’

5. Spreading of fornication, and disgusting actions, like forbidden sexual relations (zina), lesbianism, and homosexuality” (Hadhihi `aqidatuna c. 2007: 92-93).

There are sections in the book that detail Islamic opposition to democracy, which is characterized as a religion (similar to the characterization of Abu Musa`b al-Zarqawi, who is cited directly), and there are sections devoted to denouncing Shi`ism and Sufism, as well association with secular government as leading to polytheism.

Yusuf’s thought was fairly marginal within the context of northern Muslim Salafi thought, and it is known that he was taken to task by several scholars, a number of whom were assassinated during the early period of Boko Haram’s activities.

The period of Shekau’s ascendancy has not been characterized by intellectual development. Shekau’s thought is that of a Salafi-jihadi militant, who in contradistinction to Yusuf rarely cites the Qur’an directly, but frequently alludes to Salafi ideas. A good example of his video statements is from the video of May 10, 2014:

“This is a war against Christians and democracy and their constitution; we have not started, we will be in Abuja, and in every state in Nigeria.

This war is against Christians, I mean Christians, generally the infidels. Allah says we should finish them when we get the chance…I am working for Allah and will die for it. No one can stop me. You killed Mohammed Yusuf. Are you not saying he is even better than Shekau? Even if you kill me, other fighters will rise better than me; I am nothing and worthless before Allah, for whom I am working. You are sitting with Christians and saying we are one, saying there is no difference. We are not one with infidels. We are friends with [the Muslims of] Afghanistan, Mali, Yemen and Pakistan, and we are going to wipe out the Christians. Are Christians the people with whom we should play? It is either you are with us or you are with them, and when we see you, we will harvest your neck with knife” (Cook 2014).

Shekau’s style is not an easy one, and although he is capable of producing sensational or chilling quotes for his non-Muslim audience, there is no evidence that his presentation is an effective one in gaining support from his Muslim audience.


The founder of Boko Haram, Muhammad Yusuf, was a charismatic figure, and apparently attracted a number of people in thenortheast of Nigeria by the strength of his personality. It is by no means clear that he achieved complete operational control over the group that would become Boko Haram, however, and there were probably a number of different small cells throughout northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram under Yusuf’s leadership, and during the period 2010-2012 was much more of a broad-based leadership than it was to become during the period 2013-2015. Two leaders, Manman Nur and Khalid al-Barnawi, were both prominent, and at least Nur was Cameroonian. Both seem to have been disaffected by Shekau’s strategy during the period 2012-13, and apparently were the driving force behind the foundation of Ansaru. This latter group had many of the same goals as Boko Haram, but was careful to direct its violence against non-Muslims. However, Ansaru has not carried out operations during the period 2014-2015, and it is not clear whether it still exists. (Zenn 2014)

Abubakar Shekau concentrated Boko Haram around his person, and during the period of his ascendancy, roughly 2011-2015, hewas virtually the public face of the group. Several times the Nigerian military made the claim that he was dead, or that the person on the over forty videos issued during this period was an impersonator. Whatever the truth of these allegations, the person known as Shekau invariably appeared in military fatigues, spoke in an aggressive, belligerent manner, and did not project a high level of Islamic knowledge. The content of these videos was never very sophisticated, and the text more of a ramble rather than a prepared, carefully thought-out statement.

Since May 2015, Shekau has disappeared entirely from Boko Haram’s videos, giving rise to rumors that he might have been removed or has departed for another section of the Islamic State. At this point, November 2015, there does not seem to be a replacement for Shekau. Perhaps Islamic State has chosen a comparatively leaderless image in order to counteract the personality cult that Shekau cultivated.


Boko Haram suffers from several fundamental contradictions: it is basically a Salafi-jihadi organization that is committed to the establishment of an Islamic state throughout Nigeria. However, because of its lack of appeal among the majority Hausa-Fulani Muslim population of northern Nigeria (not to speak of its inability to gain support among Muslims in the south), Boko Haram effectively turned itself into a local, Kanuri group. This fact created a boundary beyond which Boko Haram has been unable to penetrate: although it can carry out operations in major northern and Middle-Belt cities, it has not demonstrated any ability to generate a mass following outside of its ethnic limits.

This fact is compounded by Boko Haram’s methods of violence, and its inability to demonstrate links between violent actions (for example, suicide attacks or large-scale massacres) and the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state. Many of the victims of its violence have in fact been Muslims, and although Boko Haram highlights its attacks upon Christian or governmental targets, the reality is that it frequently targets mosques and Muslim religious leaders as well. Attacks upon Muslim targets are consistent with the doctrines of takfir, but are inconsistent with the larger range of Islam in northern Nigeria, and even with Salafism. Boko Haram has not demonstrated the ability to attract any serious Muslim scholars to its cause.

For the above reasons, the operations of 2014 were critical. Boko Haram was unable to move beyond the Kanuri region of northeastern Nigeria, and therefore was constrained to attack Kanuri regions in the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. These attacks had the immediate result of drawing the governments and armies of these countries into fighting Boko Haram. Especially the militaries of Chad and Niger proved to be quite serious in fighting Boko Haram, and the successes of these militaries may have shamed the Nigerian government into taking the Boko Haram insurgency more seriously.

With the union of Boko Haram and Islamic State, there are a number of challenges for the new province. One is to survive the onslaught of the Nigerian, Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerien forces, which are backed by U.S. and French troops as well. Thus far, Boko Haram has accomplished this task. Presumably its best strategy is to wait the coalition out, until new opportunities present themselves. A second is to find new leadership to replace that of Shekau, whose presence precludes any success for Boko Haram throughout the region of northern Nigeria. As he appears to have been sidelined since summer 2015, most probably this is taking place at the current time. The third is to generate a series of tactics and operations that will be consistent with Salafi-jihadism, but will highlight the divide between the Nigerian government and the northern Muslim population. Logically, such tactics and operations would focus violence upon the Christian population instead of upon the Muslims. This change has not yet occurred. Fourth, Boko Haram has to develop a coherent structure coupled with a media program that can both inspire confidence in its leadership, and communicate its message to the Muslim population. This has not occurred either.

The prospects for Boko Haram in the short-term are not good. However, it is very possible that the Nigerian government will make a mess out of its otherwise successful containment of the group. It remains to be seen, also, to what extent the subservience to Islamic State will affect the group ideologically and strategically.


Cook, David. 2014. “Boko Haram: A New Islamic State in Nigeria.” Accessed from on 15 November 2015.

Yusuf, Muhammad. c. 2007. Hadhihi `aqidatuna wa-minhaj da`watina. Maiduguri. Thanks to Alex Thurston for supplying me with a copy of this work.

Zenn, Jacob. 2014. “Boko Haram: Recruitment, Financing, and Arms Trafficking in the Lake Chad Region.” Center for Combatting Terrorism at West Point. Accessed from on 15 November 2015.

Post Date:
19 November 2015