The Specter of Boko Haram Returns to Nigeria

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A man walks through the ruins of a zonal police headquarters after a bomb attack in Nigeria's northern city of Kano, 21 January 2012. More than 100 people were killed in bomb attacks and gunfights in Nigeria's second largest city Kano late on Friday, a senior local government security source told Reuters, in the deadliest coordinated strike claimed by Islamist sect Boko Haram to date. (Photo: REUTERS - Stringer)

By: Imad Estito

Published Tuesday, January 24, 2012

After being crushed by the Nigerian army, which killed hundreds of its fighters in 2009, Boko Haram has made a comeback recently by launching attacks on churches and security forces, threatening to sink the country into civil war.

It is not the first time and it likely will not be the last that the group Boko Haram strikes. Their attacks and bombings have targeted a number of cities and towns in Nigeria recently.

On Friday, the group struck Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city, with a series of bloody organized attacks that targeted a number of centers in the majority-Muslim city. These targets included police stations and the offices of the citizenship and immigration services.

The attacks killed more than 200 people and came in retaliation for the Nigerian government’s refusal to release Boko Haram detainees.

Attacks by Islamist groups have become more frequent and deadly in the past few months. The attack this past Christmas on a number of Christian churches claimed hundreds of victims. A prior attack on the UN headquarters in Abuja, Boko Haram’s first international target, was intended to send a message to the Western allies of the regime.

The government of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country as well as its top oil producer, has been holding its breath as it is expecting the worst from one of the most violent militant groups in the region. President Goodluck Jonathan has even declared a state of emergency in a number of areas.

Boko Haram first became active in 2002. It was started by Imam Mohammed Yusuf in the majority-Muslim city of Maiduguri, in Northern Nigeria. Their ideology resembles other militant Salafist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. The name Boko Haram – which in the Hausa language of the region means “Western education is forbidden” – can help explain where the group is coming from and what they stand for.

Boko Haram is seeking to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria and implement a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) throughout the country, including in the predominantly Christian south that has historically marginalized the Muslim north.

The group started out as a fairly elitist movement. Its early members were middle class and wealthy individuals who were well-educated and held university degrees. They were drawn in by Yusuf, who had founded and directed a school for teaching the Quran to children of the lower classes.

Boko Haram began as a camp of about 200 individuals near the Niger border in the village of Kanamma, operating under the name of People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad. They carried out several major operations against police stations where they killed and abducted local security personnel.

However, their attacks did not take on a radical character until after the assassination of Yusuf in 2009. Before Yusuf’s death, Boko Haram had launched a series of bloody attacks on a number of northern Nigerian cities on July 26. The authorities recognized the threat posed by the group and initiated a military campaign at that time to wipe them out entirely.

The army eventually entered into a fierce battle in the Maiduguri region that lasted five days. Boko Haram suffered a high number of casualties and the army managed to push them out of the region. Of the more than 700 fighters killed in the battle, most were from the ranks of Boko Haram.

Yusuf was then arrested and executed in prison by the army. Nigerian television aired images of his dead body, and the government announced that they had entirely wiped out the organization. This was far from the truth. Boko Haram’s new leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared war on the government and promised retaliation after acknowledging defeat in Maidughori.

With the government exerting increasing pressure on Boko Haram, a large number of them were forced to flee to neighboring countries such as Chad and Niger. The organization went into a months-long hibernation in order to regroup.

In 2010, they successfully carried out an attack on Maiduguri prison and freed hundreds of their supporters. The number of suicide bombings and assassinations targeting politicians, military leaders, the police, and Muslim clergy who oppose their jihadist ideology multiplied, while Christians and their churches became a main target of Boko Haram.

Until May of 2010, Boko Haram’s activities had been limited to Northern Nigeria, but the organization expanded and began to target other parts of the country as well, especially the capital of Abuja.

They also began to develop stronger ties to other groups that share a similar ideology and practice. The group announced that a number of its fighters had trained with Al Shabab in Somalia and for the first time hinted at links to al-Qaeda. Boko Haram’s change in behavior and adoption of suicide bombings point to a direct relationship and coordination with al-Qaeda in north Africa.

Boko Haram’s leader has said that attacks on Christians are a “justified response to what Muslims have been subjected to in Nigeria.” On the other hand, Nigerian Muslims denounce the acts of the organization.

Many questions have been asked regarding the funding of Boko Haram and its ability to persevere all this time despite government pressure. Nigerian intelligence has suggested that major support for Boko Haram is provided by some politicians in the North who are dissatisfied by the fact that the country is headed by a Christian president, especially since Olusegun Obasanjo was president from 1999 to 2007.

At this time, the threats continue, and the measures taken by the authorities to contain the organization have failed. Meanwhile, fears are mounting that another civil war could ensue in Nigeria should Boko Haram make good on its threats to target the South.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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