Boko Haram: Islamists who sank into extreme violence
With intelligence sources saying the leader of Boko Haram has tried to kill himself to avoid capture by rival jihadists, here is a history of the Nigerian Islamist militant group.
Boko Haram may have begun as a campaign against corruption, but its 12-year insurgency has since devastated the northeast of the country, with massacres and suicide bombings spilling over into neighbouring Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
The conflict has left more than 40,000 dead and two million displaced.
It has also spawned a splinter group affiliated with the Islamic State group.
Boko Haram aims to create a hardline Islamic state in Nigeria.
The group’s name is Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS) but it is commonly called Boko Haram, which loosely translates from the Hausa language as “Western education is forbidden”.
Its founder and spiritual leader Mohammed Yusuf blamed Nigeria’s ills on Western values left by former colonial master Britain.
He also accused the country’s secular leaders of corruption and neglecting northern Muslim regions.
Yusuf built a following among disaffected youths.
He was killed in police custody in July 2009 after an uprising in Maiduguri, Borno state, that prompted a fierce military assault.
Some 800 people died in the action, and Boko Haram’s mosque and headquarters were left in ruins.
Many of its supporters fled the country.
Descent into killing
After Yusuf died his successor, Abubakar Shekau, undertook a violent campaign of deadly attacks on schools, churches, mosques and state security forces.
Some Boko Haram members are thought to have trained with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northern Mali in 2012 and 2013.
Among the group’s most notorious acts was the April 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the remote town of Chibok.
The mass abduction brought worldwide notoriety and came as Boko Haram was turning large swathes of the northeast into a no-go area.
In August 2014 Shekau proclaimed a “caliphate” in the Borno town of Gwoza, and in March 2015 pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
The violence sparked a humanitarian crisis and acute food shortages in the mainly rural northeast.
An offensive since 2015 by Nigerian troops backed by soldiers from Cameroon, Chad and Niger drove jihadists from most of the area.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared in December 2015 that Boko Haram was “technically” defeated.
But the group and its dissident offshoot — the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) — still stage deadly attacks on both military targets and civilians.
Mass trials of suspects started in October 2017 but most were released due to lack of evidence, with some 100 locked up.
Split and resurgence
Boko Haram splintered into two rival factions in 2016 over disagreements about Shekau’s indiscriminate targeting of Muslim civilians and use of children and women as suicide bombers.
The ISWAP faction originally established by Muhammad Yusuf’s son Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi now has the backing of the Islamic State group over Shekau’s fighters.
ISWAP is particularly active on the Chad and Niger borders and has since July 2018 carried out numerous attacks on military bases.
The group is also behind the abduction and killing of Christians and aid workers.
Shekau’s faction continues to stage suicide bombings targeting civilians, but has been under pressure from the military that has bombed its camps and hideouts.
In 2019, a group of fighters known as “Bakura” operating in the Lake Chad area pledged allegiance to Shekau.
In December 2020, Boko Haram claimed to have been responsible for abducting hundreds of young boys from a school in Kankara in the northwest, far from its Sambisa forest base. They were released after a week.
Over the past few months mass abductions have increased in Nigeria, mostly carried out by criminal groups for ransom, some of which are believed to have forged links with jihadists.
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