10 things you need to know about Boko Haram

An image grab on October 31, 2014 from a video obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau (centre) delivering a speech. --PHOTO: AFP 
An image grab on October 31, 2014 from a video obtained by AFP shows the leader of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau (centre) delivering a speech. --PHOTO: AFP 

Boko Haram, the group of militant extremists in Nigeria, is in the spotlight again - this time its gunmen are suspected to have killed 35 people and kidnapped more than 170 women and children from the northeast village of Gumsuri.

Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday (Dec 18, 2014), the act bears the hallmarks of Boko Haram, which abducted 275 girls, aged between 16 and 18, from a school in Chibok town in April. The whereabouts of the girls is still unknown, though Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claims they have been married off to Boko Haram commanders.

Here are 10 things about the group and its violent struggle in Nigeria:

1. The name Boko Haram, loosely translated, means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language. It is actually a nickname bestowed by people in the city of Maiduguri where the group has its headquarters. The group's official name is actually Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad" in Arabic.

2. Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by a charismatic Muslim cleric, Mohmmed Yusuf, who set up a school and a mosque in Maiduguri. He quickly attracted a following in the region, where Muslims perceived themselves to be discriminated against by the Christians. The movement's popularity was also driven by the population's frustrations over endemic poverty and systemic corruption. Distrust of the West is also a historical legacy in the north-east, dating back to the early years of the 20th century when the British gained control over the Sokoto caliphate which then ruled the area.

3. It promotes a version of Islam which makes it "haram", or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.

4. Boko Haram's aim is to overthrow the government and install an Islamic state that will implement Syariah law. Nigeria, which has a population of 175 million, is divided between a Muslim-dominated north and a Christian-majority south. To achieve its aim, the group organised gun attacks as well as bombings in 2009 which drew national and international attention.

5. The high profile violence led to a government crackdown in Maiduguri, with street shoot-outs and hundreds of Boko Haram supporters killed. Nigeria's security forces stormed the group's headquarters, capturing and then killing Yusuf, whose body was shown on state television. The Nigerian government then pronounced the movement dead, a not-unreasonable assumption given the death of its leader.

6. A mysterious successor, Abubakar Shekau, emerged to take over Boko Haram. Very little is known about him, but under his leadership, the group has become even more militant and violent. And he proved the Nigerian government's claims that he was dead to be exaggerated when he popped up in propaganda videos. He appeared in a video in which he claimed responsibility for the mass kidnapping of the school girls and declared that he would sell the girls.

7. The group's latest trend in raiding villages and kidnapping girls is an abhorrent practice. But, in a recent BBC report, African affairs analyst Jacob Zenn pointed out that Nigerian security forces kick-started the vicious circle by taking prisoner the wives and children of Boko Haram members as a way of pressuring the group.

8. Nigeria's military has also been accused of incompetence and of escalating the violence with questionable methods which include summary executions and rape. The military is ill-equipped to deal with the insurgents who are supplied with better weaponry, are better trained and well-funded.

9. The dilapidated structure of Nigeria's government has also allowed Boko Haram to flourish with little interference. A measure of the lack of infrastructure and information can be seen in how long it took for news of the April kidnapping to reach the world, and the confusion over exactly how many girls were snatched. To date, the Nigerian government has been unable to confirm the names of all the missing girls.

10. Little is known of how Boko Haram is funded, where its members are trained or even how big it is. But the United States government officially labelled it a terrorist group in November 2013 and put a US$7-million bounty on Shekau. The US also said that the group has ties to the Al-Qaeda affiliate in West Africa as well as extremist groups in Mali.

Sources: BBC, CNN, The Independent, Los Angeles Times

(This article was first published on May 7, 2014 and updated on Dec 19, 2014)