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What is Nigeria's Boko Haram? 5 things to know


The Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram has generated headlines with a number of bloody attacks. Scott Baldauf breaks down the group's origins, funding, and possible ties to Al Qaeda.


1. Who are they?

Their official name, Jama’atul Ahlu Sunna Lidda’Awati wal Jihad, or the People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad, illustrates this group’s primary focus as a center for resistance against the Nigerian government, and what many northern Nigerians see as the dominant role that Christian Nigerians play in Nigerian politics.

Many northerners nicknamed the group, Boko Haram, or “Western education is a sin” because of the group’s belief that Western influences in education, media, and values, have a corrupting effect on traditional Islamic societies.

Boko Haram draws its membership primarily from clerics, university students, and unemployed youth from the north.

It’s estimated that 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than $1.25 a day, but poverty is more prevalent up north (far from Nigeria’s oil fields and agricultural areas). Some 75 percent of northerners live in poverty, compared with 27 percent of southerners. The great disparity between haves and have-nots, between north and south, appears to be one major draw for recruitment.

Its original leader, Mohammad Yusuf, who founded the group in 2002, was killed in police custody in 2009. His former deputy, Abubakar bin Mohammad Shekau, now leads the organization.

While Boko Haram has about 300 fighters, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a recent report that “the extent of the violence (since 2009) showed that Boko Haram was capable of mobilizing thousands of people and was better trained and armed than government forces had thought.”

2. What do they want?

Many northerners have come to regard the Nigerian government as a failure, too corrupt to be trusted. While power has been shared with the main ruling party, rotating presidential candidates from north to south, most development and job creation occurs in the coastal south, and many northern Nigerians blame the powerful Christian southern elites for the neglect of development in the north.

In the late 1990s, northern politicians began pressing for the introduction of Islamic law in northern states. But Boko Haram leaderMohammad Yusuf played up disappointment with the implementation of sharia, saying that harsh sentences were meted out only to the poor, and not the corrupt elites.

So Boko Haram seeks a restoration of a caliphate, modeled after theSokoto kingdom, over Nigeria.

3. What do they do?

Boko Haram initially carried out small attacks, but it hit the big time in July 2009, when it launched five days of attacks against churches and political leaders in the northern town of Maiduguri that left 700 people dead.

Boko Haram later organized a prison break in 2010, freeing 700 convicts, some of whom joined Boko Haram’s ranks.

Bombs killed 80 people in the northern city of Jos in Dec. 2010. Bombs exploded over several days in May 2011 following Goodluck Jonathan’s inauguration as president. And an August 2011 bomb blast at UNheadquarters in Abuja killed 24.

In June 2011, the group took credit for the suicide car bombing of theNigerian police headquarters in Abuja in June 2011, saying in a statement that the attack was meant “to prove a point to all those who doubt our capability.”

4. Are they connected with Al Qaeda?

Boko Haram’s rhetoric and belief system certainly draws heavily from the Salafist-influenced beliefs of Al Qaeda, including the notion that Islam is in a fight for its survival against an economically powerful (but spiritually bankrupt) West.

Boko Haram’s shift to suicide bombs, from mere gun attacks, also suggests that the movement has recently increased its skill base and ambitions.

In the wake of the UN headquarters bombing in August 2011, Nigerianauthorities said they believed the mastermind of the attack was a known Al Qaeda member, Mamman Nur, who they say had recently returned to Nigeria from Somalia. Security analysts believe that Nigeria’s intelligence community may have infiltrated Boko Haram, but they add it’s impossible to know how accurate their intelligence is.

US Gen. Carter Ham, commander for US military operations in Africa, told the Associated Press that there was evidence – not least of which being Boko Haram’s growing sophisticated techniques – that Boko Haram had begun to establish links with Al Qaeda’s affiliate in north Africa.

5. How are they funded?

For much of its history, funding was a non-issue for Boko Haram, since its weapons were readily available Kalashnikov rifles, and its members tended to live in local communities.

But now that Boko Haram has moved into the use of suicide bomb vests and car bombs, all of which require equipment, expertise, and planning, Boko Haram is likely to require cash.

US, Nigerian, and Algerian security experts suggest that money and technical support comes from Al   Qaeda affiliates in north Africa and theSomalia.

But some Nigerians point out that Boko Haram’s funding may come from local political elites, to further their own domestic agenda.

Boko Haram’s shift in tactics occurred roughly at the time that an increasingly ill northern-born President Umaru Yar’Adua ceded power to his Christian and southern-born vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, and some of Jonathan’s supporters charge that Boko Haram may be paid to serve the interests of northern Nigerian political elites, who want to undermine southern-born President Jonathan by making the country “ungovernable.”

In Nov. 2011, Nigerian police arrested a self-declared Boko Haram spokesman, who claimed to have received money from a northern Nigerian senator – oddly a member of Jonathan’s ruling party – for sending threatening messages to other politicians.

In Jan. 2012, Nigerian Senate President David Mark announced that“Those who are doing this are miscreants, misguided Nigerians, who are being sponsored obviously and if government knows who is sponsoring them, they must pick them out and deal with them once and for all, because we cannot condone it.”