Boko Haram: A Look Inside the Group Trying to Topple Nigeria's Government by Terrorizing Its Citizens

Boko Haram might sound like a Top 40 song or a celebrity perfume to an unfamiliar crowd.

In reality, it is the conversational name of a radical insurgency group (Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad) terrorizing both Muslim and secular communities in northern Nigeria against the backdrop of civil unrest in the religiously and politically divided African nation. The English translation of Boko Haram is “Western education is forbidden” and the group has been known to bomb churches and establishments thought to deviate from “pure Islamic” principles.

Primarily focused on attacking Nigerian military and security forces to further destabilize the troubled country and scare President Goodluck Jonathan’s opaque administration from wielding power, Boko Haram has shifted its strategy in recent months to include attacking regional and local politicians, loosely affiliated government employees, farmers key to supporting Nigeria’s agrarian economy, and school teachers and students of all ages.  

In fact, in northeastern Nigeria, over 19,000 farmers have abandoned their crops amid threats to their personal safety and that of their families, and insurgent attacks on schools across the region have left teachers and children terrified for their lives.  Boko Haram’s members have also been vocal about their intention to kill anyone they encounter affiliated with Nigeria’s current government, voicing a call for all government employees to “resign or die” last week. 

Boko Haram’s countless attacks, fueled by Islamist intentions to rid Nigeria of secular government and education in favor of a Sharia system, are a collateral result of sectarian political unrest, corruption, and instability that has plagued the country and displaced its residents for years.  

Ramifications from the attacks are being felt in neighboring countries and greatly impacting poverty-stricken, but resource-rich Nigeria’s gradual economic development and commercial engagement with external partners.

To members of the international community exposed to reports about the political violence in Nigeria and refugee displacement, Boko Haram looks like a pure terrorist organization despite its largely internal agenda and insurgency status. Accordingly, many have connected the group to Al-Qaeda’s loosely linked African affiliates. 

Although several parallels and sympathies exist between Boko Haram and members of Al Qaeda’s network, the group is believed to be autonomous and operating with a focus inside the borders of Nigeria. 

For instance, the organization is largely decentralized in its governance, allowing for virtually anonymous cells to continue carrying out attacks against civilians until the current Nigerian government is displaced.  

Boko Haram’s figurehead, Abubaker Shekau, has been designated as a terrorist by the United States and actively keeps at least an arm’s length away from his senior officers, giving orders through video messages and secret plans delivered from the mouthpieces of an undefined network of senior members.

Going one step further, Shekau expressed solidarity with Al-Qaeda’s mission a few years ago, but his cryptic video message did not expose direct connections with the terrorist network.

Other than a high-profile attack on a United Nations facility in 2011 in an attempt to release its imprisoned members and jolt Nigeria’s government out of a security crackdown, the group has been unflinchingly determined to carry out its stated mission by conducting attacks on Nigerian citizens, avoiding international collateral damage when possible. This complicates the international community’s ability to lend a hand to Nigeria’s government and the affected civilians.  It also places the news of merciless attacks into a harrowing context of helplessness both for potential victims inside Nigeria and onlookers outside the country, including the U.S.

There appears to be no end in sight to the calculated, daily violence plaguing Nigeria, leaving controversial President Jonathan, his government, and the international community with more questions than answers and many Nigerian people living in terror. Tragically, a path towards peace between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government remains elusive and covered with the blood of innocent civilians.