Boko Haram: A Primer

Boko Haram: A Primer


Logo of Boko Haram (Source: Wikicommons/ArnoldPlaton)Source: Wikicommons/ArnoldPlaton


The movement commonly known as Boko Haram (initially Jama’atu Ahlus Sunnah Lidd’awati wal Jihad, and more recently Wilayat Gharb Ifriqiya) has undergone a dramatic evolution since its humble beginnings in the city of Maiduguri, located in the northeastern corner of Nigeria. Initially consisting of a group of followers united by the radical preaching of Muhammad Yusuf, today Boko Haram is considered one of the most deadly terrorist groups in the world, and the Islamic State’s only true sub-Saharan African province.[1] Throughout the story of its rapid rise, one constant has emerged: Boko Haram is a highly adaptable movement, and often reinvents itself in accordance to local dynamics or shifting objectives. In this sense, while recent military pressure has ensured that Boko Haram is facing one of the more serious crises in its short history, assuming its imminent demise or inability to rebound would be unwise.

Boko Haram’s Origins

Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf was born in Yobe state in 1970, and bounced around a host of northern Nigerian Islamist movements before settling in Maiduguri and creating a brand for himself. His fiery anti-establishment sermons quickly garnered popularity, cutting across class lines to attract the poor and more prosperous alike. Yusuf diagnosed the ills afflicting Muslims in Nigeria as a legacy of the colonization process, which destroyed traditional systems and resulted in an illegitimate post-colonial state. Yusuf argued for a return to a society strictly governed by the divine word of the Quran rather than manmade law, and railed against the Nigerian Government, Christians, and foreign influence. His tirades earned his group the local moniker Boko Haram, or ‘Western education is forbidden,’ which symbolized a larger aversion to foreign ideas that contradicted his vision.

Yusuf’s message resonated with segments of society fed up with corruption and mis-governance, and his rhetoric ostensibly put his movement on a collision course with the Nigerian Government; nonetheless, Yusuf’s early fortunes were the result of government connivance. After fleeing the country following a series of clashes between a breakaway faction of his movement and local police in 2003-04, aspiring-Borno state governor Ali Modu Sheriff enlisted Yusuf’s support for his gubernatorial campaign, in return for the implementation of strict sharia law in the state.[2] While that agreement ultimately floundered as Sheriff backed down from his pre-election promise, it allowed Yusuf to preach openly in Maiduguri and build up a strong support base.

In July 2009, a seemingly minor dispute between Boko Haram members and the police turned violent, escalating into a multi-day paroxysm of violence across four northern Nigerian cities, resulting in more than 800 deaths. While the spark may have been this clash, preparations for a more violent approach were likely already underway. Yusuf’s sermons made frequent reference to the obligation of jihad, while some of his followers were reportedly caught with explosives and arms in the lead up to the uprising.[3] In this sense, the seeds of confrontation may have already been in place, with the July 2009 clash serving as the instigating event that heralded Boko Haram’s decision to undertake a path of dedicated violence in pursuit of group objectives.

During the clashes Yusuf was captured by the army, but then handed over to the police and extra-judicially killed. Despite an outcry over his execution,[4] with Yusuf’s death and the heavy-handed quelling of the uprising, the Nigerian Government appeared to have defeated the movement, and little was heard from Boko Haram for more than a year.

Boko Haram Rebounds

Many Boko Haram members who were not killed during the uprising escaped to neighboring countries, with some even traveling further afield to receive training from jihadist groups in places such as Somalia, Algeria, and Mali.[5] In addition, after recovering from a bullet wound, Yusuf deputy Abubakar Shekau became Boko Haram’s new leader. Laying low for over a year, Boko Haram announced its return with a massive prison break in Bauchi state in September 2010, in which more than 700 hundred inmates, including Boko Haram members, escaped.[6] Around the same time, other Boko Haram elements began to return home to begin the next phase in the movement’s battle.

NigeriaNigeria and the Surrounding Nations

Violence increased leading up to the summer of 2011, primarily in Maiduguri but also other locations, and focused on government institutions and employees, traditional leaders who had identified Boko Haram elements in their communities, Nigerian security forces, and Christians. Boko Haram conducted the first suicide attack in Nigeria in June 2011, targeting a police building in Abuja, followed by another in September 2011 at the United Nations headquarters. The ability to strike the nation’s capital, over 500 miles from Maiduguri, along with the introduction of suicide bombers, came as a shock, and immediately raised concerns regarding external influence and support.

The UN attack in particular revealed a more international outlook in terms of targeting, and the use of previous explosives devices reportedly bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda.[7] While a seminal event, it is nonetheless important to note that the organization did not conduct a similar operation in the ensuing five years, marking the UN incident as an outlier rather than regular occurrence. In this sense, Boko Haram’s struggle during this period remained predominately concerned with domestic dynamics, despite the likely infusion of some external support.

Thus, Boko Haram had emerged as a stronger force by 2011, driven by feelings of revenge against the Nigerian Government in response to the brutal events of July 2009, and a desire to implement its Islamist project. Violence continued to expand following the Abuja attacks, in terms of attack types, location, and targets. Large-scale citywide coordinated assaults became part of the group’s arsenal, such as the operation on January 20, 2012 in Kano, northern Nigeria’s largest city. That attack killed more than 150, but also drew criticism for the amount of Muslim casualties. The offshoot movement Ansaru has its roots in this period, as fliers emerged in Kano announcing its emergence directly following the attacks.[8] In addition, the criticism affected Shekau enough to the point where he released a video statement claiming that any civilians killed were the fault of the security forces, denying his group’s responsibility and playing on tensions between Nigerian civilians and security actors often accused of human rights abuse. The concern for civilian casualties in this example is also a far cry from current dynamics (see below), and indicative of Boko Haram’s constantly shifting calculus.

The expansion of violence was partly driven by local grievances. Prior to attacks in Kano and Sokoto, Boko Haram messaging warned leadership in those locations to release sect members that had been imprisoned, or face the consequences. While a Boko Haram message threatening Kano in early 2011 led to the release of militants in August of that year,[9] a second message in late 2011 went unheeded, resulting in the January 2012 assault on the city.[10] Shortly after the Kano attack, Boko Haram spokesman Abul Qaqa issued a similar threat to Sokoto, which experienced its first attacks in July of that year.[11] Nonetheless, the inability of Boko Haram to inflict near-daily violence in Sokoto similar to what occurred in Kano, signaled a westward limit to Boko Haram’s violence, likely the result of weaker support networks far from its Maiduguri home base, providing one of the first checks on the group’s expansion.

Targeting also expanded during this time. While continuing an anti-state bent, the sect also targeted simply anyone that opposed it, including other Muslim and even salafi clerics. Additionally, campaigns of attacks against the media, cell phone companies, educational institutions, and even polio workers typified the overall enlarged target radius. Nonetheless, this expansion of target groups can be explained in terms of overall sect goals, with warnings to the media following the reporting of perceived inaccuracies regarding the group, similar calls to cell phone companies reportedly working with security officials to track down group members, empty school classrooms burned at night given reported mistreatment by security forces to Islamic schools, and polio workers attacked as part of a larger distrust of the vaccine in northern Nigeria.[12] In this sense, targeting for the most part did not emerge haphazardly, but followed a strategic process in line with group objectives, and many of the newfound recipients of sect’s violent wrath were warned ahead of time via group messaging.

One other major target group was Nigeria’s Christian population. Boko Haram seized on sectarian divisions in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, which has often suffered from bouts of violence between Muslim and Christian communities. Boko Haram attempted to insert itself into this dynamic, frequently targeting churches during Sunday services with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), and conducted messaging in which Shekau presented his group as the defender of Nigeria’s Muslims against a larger Christian conspiracy.

Boko Haram was able to expand in large part due to an ineffective response from the Nigerian Government. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration was plagued by reports of corruption, security force abuse, and inadequate supplies. A major corruption scandal in which $15 billion was stolen, including through fake arms deals to equip troops fighting Boko Haram, was indicative of the state of Nigerian armed forces during this period.[13] While the Nigerian Army was being eroded from within, Boko Haram was likely gaining in strength through new weapons and tactics via ties to Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other militant groups. The use of “technicals”—pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons—and rocket-propelled grenades, first sighted in early 2013, were likely advances resulting from this relationship, a stark contrast to the army’s declining capabilities.[14]

Boko Haram Reinvented

While attacks ebbed and flowed, Boko Haram remained active along these lines up until the summer of 2013, when two major changes transformed Boko Haram into the movement we know today, demonstrating group adaptability. First, local vigilante groups began to emerge at the neighborhood level in Maiduguri, quickly spreading to other areas and coalescing into the ‘Civilian Joint Task Force’ (CJTF).[15] These vigilantes, fed up both with Boko Haram and accusations from security forces for perceived collaboration, took matters into their own hands, patrolling their neighborhoods in order to identify and root out terrorist elements. At the same time, the Nigerian Government declared a state of emergency across the three northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, allowing for additional manpower and equipment to combat Boko Haram in its area of origin.

These events transformed Boko Haram, as sect members fled urban confines for rural hideouts. Boko Haram had primarily been an urban phenomenon up until this point, and the rural flight drastically changed group dynamics. With the departure from cities, security in urban centers of Borno and Yobe state dramatically increased, but at the expense of rural insecurity. Boko Haram responded with a more brutal outlook towards civilians, increasing targeting in response to perceived complicity with vigilante actors, and routinely slaughtering dozens if not hundreds in attacks on lightly-guarded or unprotected rural communities.[16] In this sense, while the state of emergency and rise of vigilante actors led to a reduction of overall attack radius, as violence was largely confined to the three northeastern states, attacks became deadlier as undefended civilians were easy prey for militants who now implicated them as part of a conspiracy against their Islamist project, a far cry from Shekau’s denial of civilian casualties following the January 2012 Kano attack.

This period ushered in other adaptions as well. To compensate for declining popularity due to increased civilian brutality, Boko Haram began forcefully abducting recruits to replenish its ranks. In addition, the advent of rural camps led to other needs: the movement preyed upon local communities for supplies such as food and other basic goods, while male fighters searched villages for female captives, highlighted by the now-infamous April 14, 2014 seizure of over 200 girls from a school in the town of Chibok.

Boko Haram also began to expand outside of Nigeria’s borders during this time, emerging as a true regional threat. The sect had already used southern Niger, northern Cameroon, and parts of Chad along Lake Chad as a safe haven, logistics supply zone, and source of recruits. Nonetheless, the group had not conducted violent operations in any of the countries, aside from a spate of foreign national kidnapping for ransoms in northern Cameroon in 2013-14. Similar to dynamics that led to the expansion of violence internally in Kano and Sokoto states, a Boko Haram flier in early 2014 warned Cameroon against limiting the sect’s activities, or risk becoming a target itself.[17] With that warning seemingly unheeded, Boko Haram first attacked Cameroon in March 2014, and increased violence to near-daily levels by 2015. That same year, Niger and Chad suffered a similar fate following warnings regarding involvement in a regional anti-Boko Haram force.[18] In this sense, Boko Haram’s expansion of violence at the regional level could be viewed as a defensive reaction to the curtailment of its non-violent activities. Nonetheless, the sect’s desire to use those territories also demonstrates its overall creeping expansion outside of Nigeria’s borders, a presence unlikely to remain peaceable in the long-run.

The summer of 2014 saw another important strategic adaptation. While the sect had established rural hideous for the better part of a year and largely operated with impunity in much of Borno and Yobe state, it had demonstrated little appetite for governance, preferring instead to retreat to camps after attacks, rather than stay put in small towns and villages. This changed in July 2014, when Boko Haram made an attempt to take over Damboa, an important town in southern Borno state.[19] While that foray was ultimately repulsed weeks later, the strategy took effect in many other parts of the state, with the sect counting nearly 20 local government areas under its control by year’s end. In August 2014, Shekau also declared Gwoza as the capital of his Islamic empire, while some cities were renamed and appointed new leadership.[20] Nonetheless, eyewitness accounts indicate that despite these cosmetic ventures and public punishments for violators of sharia law, Boko Haram did little actual governing. Instead of providing services, militants rather engaged in predatory behavior, spurring a massive humanitarian crisis as over two million fled their homes.[21]

Despite the lack of governance, the push for territorial control was reminiscent of the Islamic State’s rapid expansion in Syria and Iraq just months prior, which may have inspired Boko Haram’s change in tactics. Early 2015 also saw major shifts in Boko Haram messaging quality, content, and dissemination, spurring speculation regarding external support from the Islamic State and/or sympathizers. Matters came to a head on March 7, 2015 when Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged his support to the Islamic State via its newest messaging technique – a Twitter account. Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepted the pledge five days later, rebranding Boko Haram as the Islamic State in West Africa (Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyah), and heralding the group’s official entrance onto the international jihadist scene.

Boko Haram Today

Despite Boko Haram’s repositioning as a wilayat of the Islamic State, current dynamics have been driven more by domestic and regional factors, and particularly electoral currents within Nigeria. By early 2015, Chadian troops partnering with Cameroon and Niger, began operations to push Boko Haram back from border areas, even crossing into Nigerian territory on occasion. This decisive action was largely driven by frustrations concerning the inability of Nigerian security forces to stem Boko Haram’s advance. Building on these external efforts, however, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan instigated a campaign to drive Boko Haram from territorial control in March 2015, in a last-ditch attempt to gain support for his re-election campaign. While he ultimately failed in his political objective, incoming President Muhammadu Buhari continued the newfound focus on the homegrown insurgency, largely seizing the initiative back from Nigeria’s neighbors. Buhari has also worked to repair frayed regional relationships under the pursuit of a common objective, and continued military pressure from security forces has made serious gains in eroding sect capacity, although Boko Haram remains far from “technically defeated” as advertised in December 2015.[22]

The military has worked to reduce overall attacks, remove remaining villages from Boko Haram control, free hostages from rural camps, and interdict logistics networks, including by placing restrictions on local trades thought to be benefitting militants.[23] Attacks in Chad and Niger have slowed, while current violence in Cameroon is largely the result of fighters crossing the border from Nigeria, an indication of where safe havens lie. Improved regional coordination under Buhari has resulted in coordinated operations between Cameroon and Nigeria, a significant uptick on previous relations. Nonetheless, regional coordination is dogged by continued distrust and mutual suspicion, to the effect that a Multi National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) comprised of units from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Benin has yet to begin truly operating as cohesive entity.

The effects of Boko Haram’s pledge to the Islamic State have also been minimal to date. Outside of messaging production quality, little support has materialized, with an intercepted arms convoy from Libya at the Chadian border in April 2016 serving as the only true piece of evidence. Nonetheless, U.S. officials have expressed concern regarding shifts in training and tactics, which have origins in ties to Islamic State-allied militants in Libya, and are similar to shifts witnessed after ties to militants in northern Mali in 2013. Additionally, reports of West African nationals attempting to make their way to join Boko Haram may also be an underlying effect of the increased legitimacy garnered by the pledge, with the prospect of Boko Haram becoming a more regionalized threat in the future.[24]  

While Boko Haram today has been scattered throughout the region, with hideouts in natural safe havens such as Sambisa Forest, the Mandara hills that run along Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, or the swampy marshlands of Lake Chad, the group has continued to adapt to the situation at hand. Retreating from territorial control and large-scale armed assaults in favor of a return to traditional asymmetric warfare tactics, the group has reinstated dynamics similar to its struggle prior to 2013. The reliance on female suicide bombers, a tactic first deployed in June 2014, embodies this shift, utilizing predominantly young women to detonate explosives at security installations or civilian soft targets throughout northeast Nigeria and bordering areas, rather than direct confrontation. This adaptive practice has been a disturbing but successful trend, revealing Boko Haram’s ability to exploit local vulnerabilities and either recruit or force young women into killing themselves at the expense of others, illustrating a continued danger despite consistent battlefield losses.

Nonetheless, Boko Haram is undeniably on the defensive, and many are pushing to initiate large-scale reconstruction efforts targeting the devastated countryside, a signal of the improving security situation. One key aspect of Boko Haram throughout its history, however, has been its ability to adapt and rebound. While persistent military pressure reduces space to navigate, previous downturns in violence were followed by a rebound shortly thereafter, once Boko Haram was able to regroup. Nigeria and regional governments must remain aware of this threat, as some Boko Haram elements will continue the fight in whatever manner they can. Nigeria and its neighbors must not let up pressure, but rather be prepared for whatever adaptations might present themselves next.

[1] “Global Terrorism Index 2015,” Institute for Economics & Peace, November 2015

[2] “Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” International Crisis Group, April 3, 2014, p.11-12

[3] Andrew Walker, “Join Us or Die: the Birth of Boko Haram,” The Guardian, February 4, 2016; Yusuf followers were also reportedly arrested in Biu with explosives devices weeks before the uprising, while another was killed in an explosion at his house, presumably while experimenting with explosives, Ahmed Salkida, “Sect Leader Vows Revenge,” Daily Trust, July 27, 2009

[4] “Video Shows Nigeria ‘Executions’,” Al Jazeera, February 10, 2010,

[5] For example, Boko Haram’s third in command Mamman Nur reportedly spent time training in Somalia, while other notorious leaders such as Adam Kambar and Khalid al-Barnawi linked up Al Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb; Treasury Sanctions Senior Boko Haram Leaders,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 1, 2015;

“Terrorist Designations of Boko Haram Commander Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar,” U.S. Department of State, June 21, 2012,

[6] “Attack On Bauchi Prison – Boko Haram Frees 721 Inmates,” Leadership, September 8, 2010,

[7] “FBI Links Al-Qaeda to Abuja Blasts – Bomb Scare in Lagos, Motorways Building Evacuated,” Daily Independent, January 6, 2011,

[8] Ansaru issued messaging criticizing Boko Haram for a number of reasons, but which primarily revolved around the Muslim casualty issue. The group undertook a series of operations in late 2012/early 2013, but little has been heard from the movement since. Some speculate its leaders have reintegrated into Boko Haram, despite the continued presence of occasional messaging critical of the sect.

[9] “Boko Haram Writes Gov, Emir, Others … Threatens to Bomb Kano,” iReports-NG, July 29, 2011,; Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, “Governor Kwankwaso Wants Boko Haram Members Released,” Leadership, August 31, 2011,

[10] Ibrahim Shuaibu and Michael Olugbode, “Police Seize Would-be Suicide Bomber’s Car,” This Day, December 19, 2011,; “Boko Haram: Why We Struck Kano,” Sahara Reporters, January 22, 2012,

[11] Ndahi Marama, “We’ll Attack Sokoto, Boko Haram Warns Sultan, Tambuwal, Others, Vanguard, January 29, 2012,

[12] The polio vaccine in particular has been a source of distrust in northern Nigeria, under suspicion that is part of a conspiracy to render Muslim women infertile; “Boko Haram Threatens to Bomb MTN, Airtel, Glo, and NCC,” Information Nigeria, February 14, 2012,; “Boko Haram claims responsibility for telecoms attacks, vows to destroy more schools,” Premium Times, September 6, 2012,; David Smith, “Polio workers in Nigeria shot dead,” The Guardian, February 8, 2013,;

“Breaking News: Boko Haram threatens to attack VOA, Guardian, Daily Trust others,” Premium Times, May 1, 2012,

[13] “Nigeria’s vice president says $15 bln stolen in arms procurement fraud,” Reuters, May 3, 2016,

[14] Drew Hinshaw, “In Nigeria Battle, Militants Reveal Bolstered Firepower,” Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2013

[15] The name is a complement to the military’s ‘Joint Task Force (JTF) patrolling the streets of Maiduguri at the time

[16] For example, an Amnesty International report in 2015 also described how towns in Borno state with a civilian vigilante presence, such as Gwoza and Bama, were heavily targeted by Boko Haram, compared to towns like Dikwa that didn’t have similar groups and thus suffered less violence “Our Job is to Shoot, Slaughter, and Kill,” Amnesty International, 2015, p.30

[17] “Boko Haram Met en Garde le Cameroun,” Le Septentrion, February 6, 2014,

[18] “Boko Haram Leader in New Video Talks Tough,”  PM News, February 9, 2015,

[19] Lanre Ola, “Boko Haram Moves Unopposed in Strategic Nigerian Town,” July 23, 2014,

[20] “Gwoza – Boko Haram, DHQ Trade Claims Over New Video,” Leadership, August 25, 2014,; Umar Yusuf, “Boko Haram renames occupied Mubi town,” Vanguard, November 5, 2014,

[21] In contrast, the Islamic State has instituted a more rigid set of rules and bureaucratic governance in areas under its control, and even al-Shabaab in Somalia routine provides services to the population under its control. While the degree of Boko Haram governance appeared to vary on the whims of local leadership, little beyond an occasional redistribution of looted supplies has been noted; Mark Doyle, “Chad: Lake Chad – New Violence, New Displacement,” September 24, 2015,; “Our Job is to Shoot, Slaughter, and Kill,” Amnesty International, 2015, p.15; Monica Mark, “This is How Boko Haram is Trying to Turn Captives into Suicide Bombers,” Buzz Feed, February 15, 2016,

[22] “Nigeria Boko Haram: Militants ‘Technically Defeated’ – Buhari,” December 24, 2015,

[23] For example, both the pepper and fish trade have come under suspension in the Lake Chad Basin region out of concern that Boko Haram profits from it, while some local markets where Boko Haram members reportedly trade have been shut down. The group is also known to sell stolen cattle throughout the region; “Unpatriotic Elements Aid Terrorists, as Soldiers Arrested with Unauthorized Military Items,” PRNigeria, February 9, 2016,; “Niger: Le Poisson Fumé, Source D’importants Revenus Pour Boko Haram,” RFI, February 25, 2015,; “Tchad: Boko Haram Accusé De Vol De Bétail,” RFI, September 9, 2014,; Pierre Pinto, “Niger: Les Habitants De Diffa Souffrent Des Restrictions,” RFI, July 13, 2015,

[24] Echos De Nos Marches Avec Tamani : Kayes : Le 1er Arrondissement A Interpellé Hier 4 Suspects Jihadistes,” Mailweb, January 27, 2016,; Sanna Camara, “In Sweeping Offensive, Senegal Arrests Imams, Women With Suspected Links To Boko Haram,” Premium Times, November 13, 2015,; “La Mauritanie Extrade Discrètement des Présumés jJhadistes au Sénégal,” Seneweb, February 19, 2016,; Helene Cooper, “Boko Haram and ISIS are Collaborating More, U.S. Military Says,” New York Times, April 20, 2016,