The group Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad, known the world over as Boko Haram, is an extremist Islamic sect in Nigeria that has created havoc across the north of the country and in the capital, Abuja. Its violent attacks on government offices, the United Nations, and churches threaten to destabilize the country. A range of conflicting narratives has grown up around Boko Haram, and the group’s origins, motivations, and future plans remain a matter of debate. This report addresses the questions stemming from these narratives and suggests how the group can be contained.

308

Summary

  • Boko Haram is an Islamic sect that believes politics in northern Nigeria has been seized by a group of corrupt, false Muslims. It wants to wage a war against them, and the Federal Republic of Nigeria generally, to create a “pure” Islamic state ruled by sharia law.
  • Since August 2011 Boko Haram has planted bombs almost weekly in public or in churches in Nigeria's northeast. The group has also broadened its targets to include setting fire to schools. In March 2012, some twelve public schools in Maiduguri were burned down during the night, and as many as 10,000 pupils were forced out of education.
  • Boko Haram is not in the same global jihadist bracket as Algeria's al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or Somalia's al Shabab. Despite its successful attack on the UN compound in Abuja in August 2011, Boko Haram is not bent on attacking Western interests. There have been no further attacks on international interests since that time.
  • Following the failed rescue of hostages Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara in north­eastern Nigeria in March 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan played up the connections between the group and international terrorism. However, links between Boko Haram and the kidnappers are questionable.
  • It is difficult to see how there can be meaningful dialogue between the government and the group. The group's cell-like structure is open for factions and splits, and there would be no guarantee that someone speaking for the group is speaking for all of the members.
  • Tactics employed by government security agencies against Boko Haram have been consistently brutal and counterproductive. Their reliance on extrajudicial execution as a tactic in “dealing” with any problem in Nigeria not only created Boko Haram as it is known today, but also sustains it and gives it fuel to expand.
  • The group will continue to attack softer targets in the northeast rather than international targets inside or outside Nigeria. It is also likely to become increasingly involved in the Jos crisis, where it will attack Christian indigenes of the north and try to push them out. Such a move would further threaten to destabilize the country's stability and unity.
  • Now that the group has expanded beyond a small number of mosques, radical reforms in policing strategy are necessary if there is to be any progress in countering the group. Wide­spread radical reform of the police is also long overdue throughout Nigeria. As a first step, jailing a number of police officers responsible for ordering human rights abuses might go some way to removing a key objection of the group.

About the Report

The group Jama'atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda'Awati Wal Jihad, known the world over as Boko Haram, is an extremist Islamic sect in Nigeria that has created havoc across the north of the country and in the capital, Abuja. Its violent attacks on government offices, the United Nations, and churches threaten to destabilize the country. A range of conflicting narratives has grown up around Boko Haram, and the group's origins, motivations, and future plans remain a matter of debate. This report addresses the questions stemming from these narratives and suggests how the group can be contained. The report is based on the author's extensive research and reporting on Boko Haram. In March 2011, he conducted an interview with a senior member of the group in the city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, the center of Boko Haram's area of influence. The report also draws on interviews with Nigerian journalists who have covered the group (and who asked to remain anonymous in this report) and on information provided to the author by other researchers working on Boko Haram.

About the Author

Andrew Walker is a freelance journalist who has covered Nigeria since 2006. He lived in Nigeria for four years, working first at the Nigerian Daily Trust newspaper and then for the British Broadcasting Corporation's news website.

Related Publications

The Latest @ USIP: What’s at Stake in Nigeria’s Elections?

The Latest @ USIP: What’s at Stake in Nigeria’s Elections?

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

By: Mahmood Yakubu

Mahmood Yakubu, the chairman of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, discusses how his team is working to ensure free, fair and credible elections — as well as why the support of young people and political leaders is crucial for maintaining the longest period of uninterrupted democratic governance in the Nigeria’s history.

Type: Blog

Democracy & Governance

Barriers for Young Women in Northern Nigeria

Barriers for Young Women in Northern Nigeria

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

By: Rachel Simon-Karu

We are constantly reminded that the youth are “leaders of tomorrow.” But when it comes to their involvement in governance and development, tomorrow never comes. In Nigeria, this has created an unsustainable system. Currently, about 70 percent of Nigeria is under the age of 30, with girls under 30 alone comprising nearly one-third of the total population. Based on their sizable role in the country’s demographics, you would think youth and young women specifically in Nigeria should have more of a voice in decision-making processes. Yet, both are often underrepresented and excluded as collaborators in all sectors of society.

Type: Blog

GenderYouth

Amid Nigeria’s Turmoil, an Election Could Alter its Democracy

Amid Nigeria’s Turmoil, an Election Could Alter its Democracy

Thursday, July 28, 2022

By: Oge Onubogu

In mid-summer 2022, Nigeria is just seven months away from elections that could strengthen, or set back, its democracy. Good news includes a surge in voter registrations and a wave of civic engagement among young Nigerians who in recent years have often despaired of better governance through elections. Yet dangers loom: risks of electoral violence or disputed election results in a country where political and criminal violence has reached new levels. To help Africa’s most populous nation pivot toward stability — and to indirectly bolster democratization across the continent — the United States and other international partners should provide diplomatic, political and technical support for Nigeria’s electoral authority.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & GovernanceElectoral Violence

Amid Nigeria’s Violence, a Local Peace Process Advances

Amid Nigeria’s Violence, a Local Peace Process Advances

Thursday, February 10, 2022

By: Matthew Reitman;  Terfa Hemen

Next week opens a high-stakes season of risk for Africa’s demographic giant, Nigeria: the one-year countdown to a presidential election to be held amid the upheavals that have killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of people over the past decade. Nigeria’s escalated regional and local conflicts risk fueling a similar escalation in the country’s pattern of election-related violence. But hope for reducing this combined risk is visible in the work of still-young peacebuilding agencies established by several of Nigeria’s state governments. In one region, these agencies have achieved a peace accord to halt a communal conflict that burned down villages and uprooted thousands of people.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace ProcessesFragility & Resilience

View All Publications