Boko Haram

Boko Haram


Howard Adelman

In the third phase of its evolution as a terrorist organization, last April Boko Haram gained universal infamy when it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in the northern Nigerian state of Borno. The 17 April 2014 attack on the girls’ school dormitories received worldwide headlines, especially after Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, released a video announcing with a smile that he was opposed to the girls being educated and intended to sell them as “wives”. The girls’ kidnapping had been preceded by the 14 April 2014 terrorist suicide bomb blast a week earlier in the capital of Nigeria in an Abuja bus station which killed at least 75.

That earlier event received nowhere near the degree of media coverage. Of course, that story was covered by the BBC, CBC, CNN and other major outlets, but the extent of coverage was not as great nor was it given the same prominence as the kidnapping event. Most of all, the story did not continue much past the date of its occurrence in contrast to the repeated references to the kidnapping. This was also true of the even more lethal attack 18 days later on 5 May against the defenceless town near the Cameroon border of Gamboru Ngala northeast of the capital of Borno State, Maiduguri, in the neighbouring state of Adamawa in which up to 300 civilians were killed.

Just before the national elections scheduled in eleven days, Boko Haram once again launched a frontal assault on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, this time initially attacking from the south side either as a diversionary tactic or a shift in strategy. The previous attack took place on 25 January. Once again, the initial attack was repulsed by the Nigerian army reinforced by volunteers. It was probably a diversionary thrust since a later assault took place from the east through the Damboa Road. Though Boko Haram recently suffered defeats in both Chad and Cameroon at the hands of an African Union multi-state force, it still probably controls half of Borno State and parts of Abamawa and Yobe states. and Cameroon at the hands of an African Union.

In addition to abducting school children, this latest move reinforces an understanding of a shift in strategy of Boko Haram – capturing and holding vast swaths of territory in the northeast in imitation of Islamic State. In 2014, Boko Haram declared a caliphate in approximately the same area as the Sokoto caliphate which ruled parts of northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon before the area fell under British control in 1903. Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden” in Hausa, is officially called Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” in Arabic, or, in an alternate translation, “The Congregation of the People of the Sunnah for Dawah and Jihad.” Boko Haram is the Nigerian radical Islamist militant movement that first significantly “upgraded” its strategy of extreme violence in 2009 after Obama became president. In the spring of 2014, Boko Haram entered a new phase of malevolence and terror. Governed by the Koranic proposition: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors.” Haram, “forbidden,” prohibits any social activity associated with Western society, including elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.

A detailed analysis of Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks will be offered tomorrow, but the highlights of its emergence as a radical Islamic terrorist organization are as follows:


  • founded in Maiduguri to oppose Western education by charismatic Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf in a religious complex that included a mosque and an Islamic school
  • Yusuf preached that evolution did not take place, that the earth was not round and that rain was created by Allah and was not the result of evaporation and condensation


  • July Yosuf arrested
  • 26 July Boko Haram storms a police station in Bauchi state
  • 29 July Yosuf escapes with 300 followers but Yosuf is recaptured; 186 killed in the attack on the Maiduguri police station
  • 30 July Yosuf killed in police custody after he was re-captured
  • the week of violence left 700 dead
  • Abubakar Shekau, a former theology student of Yosuf, fluent in Kanuri, Hausa and Arabic, and a specialist in Tawheed, the orthodox doctrine of the uniqueness and oneness of Allah, assumes control
  • Draws its fighters mainly from the Kanuri ethnic group
  • Launches military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state


  • Boko Haram attacks prisons and frees followers held there
  • Bombs Jos killing 80


  • In May, an inquiry and autopsy were ordered into the Yosuf killing and the 2009 week of violence
  • July 2011 five police officers put on trial in Abuja for Yosuf’s death


  • President Goodluck Jonathan declared an emergency in the three northern states – Borno, Yobe and Adamawa
  • declared a terrorist organization by the U.S.
  • Offers reward of $7 million for information on Shekau’s location


  • August Boko Haram declares a caliphate in northeastern Nigeria
  • With 2,924 deaths/injuries for the year, Boko Haram ranks first in lethality worldwide with Islamic State in second place with 1,459 and al-Shabaab third with 1,136

Despite its vast resources, Nigeria ranks among the most unequal countries in the world,

By the end of 2014, Boko Haram had overrun many police stations and military bases in northeastern Nigeria providing the organization with a huge arsenal, including armoured personnel carriers, pickup trucks, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles. Complemented by the funds received by robbing banks and extortion from businessmen and foreigners who had been abducted, Boko Haam was able to purchase additional arms from the arms bazaar based on released munitions stockpile following Libya’s implosion. The bombs they made were crude and inexpensive as they were mostly made from local materials, though some dynamite had been captured by raids on such businesses as cement factories. Nevertheless, with all their actions, they are a very economic insurgency with an estimated budget averaging $10 million a year over the last five years. Until they began capturing villages and towns, they operated from the vast Sambisa forest along the Cameroon border. That base in the last year was used to attack Cameroon targets as well but there have suffered significant setbacks. The extent and intensity and the breadth of their mayhem since 2009 can be grasped in the ten charts of their murderous domestic activities classified according to the targeted group that I will publish in tomorrow’s blog. As will be seen, their murderous activities vary from drive-by shootings, to the use of bombs and suicide bombers and, more recently, frontal assaults. On Friday, as I described, Boko Haram captured Monguno and then used it as a launching pad against the much larger city of Maiduguri, 146 km south.

Boko Haram has evolved significantly over the last twelve years. Before the death of Mohammed Yusuf in July 2009, the primary targets of Boko Haram (BH) were police, police stations and prisons. With the succession of Abubakar Shekau as leader in 2009, BH became far more lethal. For example, before July 2009, attacks were relatively few and far between, and it was not clear whether the attacks were by Nigerian Taliban or by BH. Afterwards, there was rarely any doubt about which organization perpetuated the assaults. After the death of Yusuf and the 800 dead in Maidiguri in July 2009, BH retreated, consolidated and resumed its attacks on police and military targets. In January and June of 2011, BH began to attack Christians and Christian churches, though most of the targets remained Muslim clerics critical of BH. The evolution of Boko Haram will be documented tomorrow.

Throughout the period, the violence was centred in Maiduguri and the three northeastern states of Nigeria, but Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, was not spared. Further, drive-by assassinations from motorcycles remained a right-of-passage throughout for members of BH. As the list of targets expanded, attacks on police and the military remained the main targets, with assaults of police predominating. Attacks on platoons of soldiers only began in March 2011. Further, though attacks on politicians largely targeted the ruling party, sometimes it was difficult to determine whether assassinations of opposition politicians were simply made to appear as if they were the responsibility of BH, such as the 28 January 2011 killing of Modu Fannami Godio, the gubernatorial candidate of the opposition, All Nigeria Peoples Party.

2011 was also marked by the killing of businessmen and merchants who refused to pay extortion, such as the 30 April 2011 murder of a trader in front of his shop. In May, BH began its assaults on international agencies, beginning with the bombing of the Peace Corps offices in Bwari killing three. In that same month, BH proved it could launch simultaneous attacks by much larger forces. 70 BH gunmen attack a police station, a police barracks and a bank in Damboa, Borno killing 4 police and 4 civilians. That attack marked the beginning of BH attacks on financial institutions to obtain money to finance their insurgency.

What stands out is the collateral damage – neighbours, civilians, even children are often killed in the attacks even though they were not the targets. Further, BH suffers relatively few casualties and appears to inflict far more damage than they endure. From the December bomb attack on Jos, to the March 2011 attack on three villages, the strategy seems to shift. BH suddenly seems to be interested in area cleansing and occupation.

One question haunted me as I undertook my research. Why did it take the federal government of Nigeria until 2013 to declare a state of emergency? It is as if Ottawa permitted the Maritime Provinces to become a free fire zone for three years before any systematic full scale military effort was initiated to quell the terrorists.

Tomorrow: The List and Classification of Boko Haram assaults.