The Nigerian Taliban: Boko Haram

On Monday, December 2, hundreds of militants under the banner of the militant insurgent group Boko Haram attacked a Nigerian military airbase in the northeastern city of Maduguri. In addition, hundreds of militants attacked Nigerian Army positions throughout Borno State. The attacks caused widespread carnage and damage, resulting in the Nigerian government instituting a 24-hour curfew in Maiduguri.The UK Guardian reports that the attacks were carried out by up to 500 militants. BBC News reports that “…the large-scale, co-ordinated attack is a big setback for the Nigerian military” (BBC, December 2). In addition to the airbase, Boko Haram personnel attacked other positions throughout the city of Maduguri, specifically targeting Nigerian Army checkpoints. The BBC reports:

“Ministry of Defence spokesman Brig Gen Chris Olukolade said in a statement that two helicopters and three decommissioned military aircraft had been “incapacitated” during the attack which had been repelled.

He said some army bases had also been targeted, while 24 insurgents had been killed and two soldiers wounded.” (BBC News, December 2)

In reporting for BBC News on the attack, Will Ross writes:

“In recent months most of the violence has been in rural areas and Maiduguri had seemed far safer than it used to be.

But this attack right at the heart of the military is an embarrassing setback and ought to lead to tough questions over security lapses.

How is it that significant numbers of well-armed Boko Haram militants are still driving around Borno State causing havoc?” (Ross, BBC News, December 2)

The UK Guardian reports that the attacks cast a negative pall over recent claims that Boko Haram had been beaten back by Nigerian military forces, stating that “The killings dashed recent hopes that Boko Haram has been driven out of Maiduguri and other urban centres into remote rural areas.” (UK Guardian, December 3)

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram (as well as “Ansaru”, a splinter faction formerly aligned with Boko Haram) was officially designated as a foreign terrorist organizations by the United States Department of State on November 13. The name “Boko Haram” translates from the Hausa language as “Western Education is Forbidden” but the group is officially known as “The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”. Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by jihadist militant Mohammad Yusuf and has been conducting attacks on Nigerians and the Nigerian government for over a decade. Christopher Bartolotta of the Journal of Diplomacy Blog notes the remarks of a United States diplomat in his article Terrorism in Nigeria: The Rise of Boko Haram:

“‘Boko Haram is a way of thinking,’ says John Campbell, former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. ‘They are a loosely organized grassroots insurrection against not only the Abuja government but the traditional Muslim establishment as well.’” (Bartolotta, Journal of Diplomacy, September 23, 2011)

Further, Bartolotta explains how Boko Haram grabbed a foothold in Nigeria, making special note of the limited reach of the Nigerian government in providing for the basic needs of the population in many areas:

“While Boko Haram was able to capitalize on Nigeria’s widespread poverty, the lack of economic opportunities is not the only social ill in the country. According to a Human Rights Watch report, corruption in Nigeria has resulted in police abuse, human rights violations, a lack of health care, and political violence. A 2009 report by Amnesty International accused the Nigerian Police Force of hundreds of extrajudicial disappearances and killings each year, all of which have gone uninvestigated. These disheartening factors of failed development combine to create a climate of desperation in Nigeria, especially potent in the north. Few people feel they can trust the state institutions, establishing the perfect recipe for the growth of extremism.” (Bartolotta, Journal of Diplomacy, September 23, 2011)

According to Dr. David Cook of Rice University and writing for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the group was first established in its current form in 2009. Cook describes Boko Haram as having been conceived and created in two phases:

“Phase I: What can be stated with certainty is that the charismatic figure of Muhammad Yusuf, who was killed in July 2009, was the one who initiated Boko Haram’s first phase. This phase was mainly focused first upon withdrawal from society—following the example of Dan Fodio—and establishing small camps and schools in the remoter regions of Borno and Yobe states during the years 2002-2005…

Phase II: There is no doubt that the suppression operation of 2009, and the killing of Muhammad Yusuf by Nigerian security forces in July of that year, was a turning point for Boko Haram… The targeted assassinations are the most revealing, involving political figures, such as Abba Anas bin `Umar (killed in May 2011), the brother of the Shehu of Borno, and secular opposition figures (Modu Fannami Godio, killed in January 2011), but also prominent clerics such as Bashir Kashara, a well-known Wahhabi figure (killed in October 2010), Ibrahim Ahmad Abdullahi, a non-violent preacher (killed in March 2011), and Ibrahim Birkuti, a well-known popular preacher who challenged Boko Haram (killed in June 2011). The shootings of these prominent clerics seem to be in accord with Boko Haram’s purificationist agenda with regard to Islam. It is interesting also that in Boko Haram’s second incarnation there has been no figure who has replaced Muhammad Yusuf as the charismatic leader.Most dramatic has been the transition of Boko Haram toward the use of suicide attacks, starting with the attack on the police General Headquarters in Abuja on June 16, 2011 and then culminating with the attack on the UN headquarters, also in Abuja, on August 26, 2011… Overall, Boko Haram is demonstrating the paradigm of a jama`at group, such as Jemaah Islamiya in Southeast Asia, which had a quietist stage of local amr bi-l-ma`ruf and then transitioned into an activist stage as the result of outside influence. The assassination of the charismatic Muhammad Yusuf seems to have been such a catalyst, and now released from its previous strictures the group is able to expand its field of operations.”  (Cook, Combating Terrorism Center, September 26, 2011)

Colloquially referred to as “The Nigerian Taliban”, Boko Haram is more widely known outside of Nigeria for the group’s adherence to regressive philosophies, specifically the denunciation of Western education and modernization. Among the group’s stated beliefs is an opposition to the notion that the world is round. Widely believed to be linked to Salafi-Jihadist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram came to international prominence with the suicide bombing of the United Nations headquarters in the the Nigerian capital of Abuja on August 26, 2011. The attack left 23 people dead and announced the group’s arrival on the international scene.

Evolution, Fracture, Resurgence

While the killing of the group’s leader, Yusuf, in 2009 by Nigerian security forces significantly impacted the group’s capabilities, Boko Haram has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. Following the death of Yusuf, Abubakar Shekau re-asserted the group’s pursuit of installation of Sharia Law in Nigeria and beyond. (Shekau was killed in fighting in the summer of 2013.)

However, in January 2012, fractures in the previously cohesive philosophical foundation for Boko Haram’s mission emerged. A faction splintered off, asserting new core beliefs and citing attacks on “…innocent non-Muslims” as forbidden. The Jamestown Foundation reported on the fracturing of Boko Haram at the time and noted the differences in philosophies. Writing for The Jamestown Foundation in early 2013, Jacob Zenn observed that Boko Haram had moved underground and further identified with jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda following a period of large attrition to Boko Haram in a four-day period in 2009. In that four-day period, up to a thousand members of the group were killed by Nigerian security forces. In his article “Ansaru: A Profile of Nigeria’s Newest Jihadist Movement”, Zenn states:

“(Mohammad) Yusuf’s closest followers, including his deputy Abu Shekau and third-in-command Mamman Nur, moved underground and began operating clandestinely, evolving from Taliban-inspired Salafists into insurgents identifying with al-Qaeda. When Boko Haram launched an attack on Bauchi prison on September 7, 2010 to free more than 100 members detained in 2009 it also distributed pamphlets signed by Shekau threatening revenge on ‘whoever had a hand in killing our members from the state governor down to ward and district head’ (Daily Trust [Lagos], September 9, 2010).” (Zenn, The Jamestown Foundation, January 10, 2013)

In January 2012, a faction of the group split from Boko Haram and established “Ansaru”, also known as “The Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands”. Ansaru split with Boko Haram over differences in targeting Muslims in attacks. While the two groups have cooperated on attacks such as prison breaks in recent years, their philosophical differences appear to be an irreconcilable fissure in cohesively pursuing common goals.  Zenn writes

“When Ansaru first announced its existence publicly on January 26, 2012 by distributing fliers in Kano after Boko Haram attacks in the city killed approximately 150 Muslim civilians, media reports described Ansaru’s emergence as a reaction to the ‘loss of innocent Muslim lives’ (Vanguard, February 1, 2012). In a June 2 video, Ansaru said that the sin of killing a fellow Muslim was second only to the sin of accepting laws other than the Shari’a and in a November 9 video Ansaru described the killing of Muslims as ‘inexcusable.'” (Zenn, The Jamestown Foundation, January 10, 2013)

Boko Haram’s attacks on civilians have continued to escalate in recent years. Of particular note is the killing of three North Korean doctors in Potiskum, a village in Yobe state. The killing of the health workers came in the wake of the murders of nine women by gunmen in Kano, a northern Nigerian city. The women had been administering polio vaccines.

Derek G of recently noted progress in joint military efforts to combat the group’s growing threat. In his article on September 23, he reports on missions designed to deny Boko Haram personnel safe haven in their historic operational areas of northeastern Nigeria, specifically stating, “The Nigerians are massing on base camps and caches all along the 3 northern states.” (Derek G,, September 23, 2013). Sofrep had additional articles on the group here and here. In this, some similarities could be assessed in citing the recent attack on civilians in a Nairbobi, Kenya mall this past September by Somali terrorist and insurgent group Al-Shabaab. Kenyan military efforts to destroy Al-Shabaab  are believed by some analysts to have been so effective that the high attrition rate in Al-Shabaab’s ranks cornered the group and inspired a desperate response. Some analysts observe that the attack in Nairobi is an effort to gain a measure of revenge for this attrition as well as to re-establish Al-Shabaab as a force in East Africa. We noted the future of Al-Shabaab in our Foreign Intrigue post last February 21.


In the aftermath of the attacks on December 2, world attention is now again focusing on Boko Haram and their efforts to undermine and dislodge the government of Nigeria. World Bulletin reports statements by Nigerian Defense Minister Labaran Maku of Boko Haram’s “…long line of supply…”. After the recent attacks in Maiduguri, the Nigerian online newspaper Daily Post has asserted:

“The party said such a strategy must place emphasis on the gathering of intelligence through which such attacks can be nipped in the bud, adding that failure of intelligence, more than anything else, made Monday’s attack possible.” (Odunsi, Daily Post, December 3, 2013)

Simon Allison, writing for the UK Guardian and responding to the recent attacks in Maidguri, is critical of what he claims is military-focused efforts to effectively marginalize and defeat Boko Haram. Paying particular attention to the armed efforts against the group, Allison earnestly claims, somewhat myopically, that the military efforts must be better integrated into an a plan of action that takes a more full-spectrum approach to combating the threat of jihadist terrorism in Nigeria.  Allison suggests that recent military efforts have proven unsuccessful, notes allegations of rights violations against Nigerian security forces, and suggests a new way ahead in seeking to defeat Boko Haram. Specifically citing an over-reliance on a military solution to the conflict in northern Nigeria, Allison quotes Human Rights Watch and asserts that the military efforts must be integrated into a multi-pronged effort to address what he calls the “root causes of the problems”:

“Having said that, Zounmenou emphasises that the military approach can only work if part of a three-pronged approach that addresses some of the root causes of the problems: in addition to the soldiers, the Nigerian state must address the socio-economic conditions that produce an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish; and address the corruption and lack of transparency within the political elite which has produced a generation that feel disenfranchised, particularly in the north.

Human Rights Watch’s Segun concurs: “Human Rights Watch has consistently called on the Nigerian government to take measures to address factors that give rise to militancy not only in the north east but all over the country. These include lack of equal access to education, health and other social services; endemic government corruption; and the failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible for religious, ethnic and inter-communal violence and killings.” (Allison, UK Guardian, December 3, 2013)

Some analysts assert that the successes of the Nigerian military, in conjunction with international military support, are evident in the sudden attacks this past week in Maiduguri. The slow degradation of the group’s capability and reach could be said to have inspired a sudden effort to re-establish the group as a force in northeastern Nigeria. Other analysts will note the complexity of the attacks on December 2 and assess that an unaffected Boko Haram continues to effectively project its power over a region of Nigeria that the government and military have struggled to maintain security over. As the civilian population of the northern areas of Nigeria continues to fear attacks from the groups, the potential for internal and international displacement of large numbers of civilians should be a significant concern to the international community. Recent efforts by joint forces, to include French and Chadian military efforts in Mali last winter, have been effective in targeting jihadist groups throughout the region. As we noted here at Foreign Intrigue in our article on the first suicide bombing in Mali February 9, Al Qaeda affiliates have targeted Africa as key terrain in their wider global battle. In this context, efforts by jihadist groups in the region are unlikely to wane in the near future. The attacks in Maidguri this week have firmly reminded the world community that Boko Haram remains a powerful group, capable of carrying out complex and deadly attacks that could undermine security and government authority in important areas of Nigeria and beyond.

More resources for further study are available below.

Eric Jones
Editor-in-Chief and Senior Analyst


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Eric Jones

Eric Jones

Director, Co-founder, and Editor in Chief at Foreign Intrigue. Eric researches and writes about international affairs and US foreign policy, particularly Europe, Russia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. You can email Eric at Follow Eric on Twitter via @Intrigue_Jones. Follow Foreign Intrigue on Facebook here: