The story of the 276 girls who were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria three weeks ago by the Islamic fundamentalist/terrorist group Boko Haram is heartbreaking and infuriating. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and is threatening, if he hasn’t already done it, to sell the girls into slavery., though it’s likely that they’d return them for a ransom (a hefty ransom, plus all the attention this incident has garnered, would make the whole episode very profitable from Boko Haram’s standpoint). The US is getting involved, sending a team of “technical experts” to Nigeria to assist in the search for the girls, but it’s not clear how much that kind of support will matter if the Nigerian government can’t get its act together. So far, the chances of that happening are not looking very promising.
Confession: I’ve been sitting on three paragraphs of a piece about Boko Haram for months now. I decided at some point that I should start researching and writing about North and Sub-Saharan Africa, given the increasing prevalence of Al-Qaeda affiliates or imitators there and the importance the US seemed to be placing on the region (this was in October, right after we’d nabbed a top AQ operative in Libya and attacked a terrorist hideout in Somalia on the same day). But life intervened and I’ve still never gotten much farther than these three paragraphs on Boko Haram and a half-finished piece on Mali and Algeria that I still hope to finish some day. But anything I write about Boko Haram is going to be less insightful than journalist Peter Tinti’s fantastic piece at Beacon Reader, so I would urge you to go and read it if you’re interested in this story. Tinti places Boko Haram within Nigeria’s ethnic, historical, religious, and cultural context and just does a great job of explaining where this group came from and why it adopted its brand of radical fundamentalism from earlier groups.
Tinti doesn’t spend a huge amount of time on the early roots of Boko Haram, which is pretty much all I’d written about, so, if you’re interested, here’s what I had done:
Boko Haram was founded in the 1990s as an activist group called Shabaab, agitating for a separate, Shariʿah-governed political entity in the Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. It was officially reformed/rechristened in 2002 under the official name is Jamaʿat ahl al-Sunnah li-al-daʿwah wa-al-jihad (“Association of the People of the Sunnah for Proselytizing and Jihad”) but informally, owing to its anti-colonialist, anti-westernization ideology, it took the name Boko Haram, meaning “Western learning is taboo” (or, more precisely, “deception is taboo”). This name derives from the Hausa (the main language in Niger and the northern regions of Nigeria) word boko and the Arabic word haram.
Haram’s translation is easy: “taboo,” or possibly “sinful” (though Arabic has another word, mudhnib, that means “sinful”). But boko is more complicated. One view says that it’s derived from the word “book,” and means “Western education” — interestingly, the Latin alphabet that British and French scholars developed in the early-mid 20th century to replace Arabic script for representing Hausa is also called “Boko.” In this view, “Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden/sinful.” However, boko is actually a Hausa word that predates the arrival of Europeans and means “fraud” or “deception.” It then came to be applied to Western innovation — as in, say, education — in the colonial era. “Boko Haram” also could mean “Western education is sinful” in this view, but in the sense that “Western education” is considered a kind of fraud, which seems like less of a statement against Western education itself and more of a statement about the colonial imposition of Western culture.
Boko Haram maintained a quiet operation for the next several years, all the while recruiting, under its charismatic leader Mohammed Yusuf, young men on the fringes of Nigerian society (as well as like-minded young men from neighboring Niger and Chad). These are the kind of people–poor, unemployed, disconnected from society (much of its support seems to come from the minority Kanuri population)–who can be easily radicalized, can be convinced that their personal struggles are attributable to the impiety of the modernist/secularist state, and can be quickly and violently unleashed against that state, so while Boko Haram wasn’t technically doing anything wrong during this period, it was always a potential threat. Indeed, it seems clear that in addition to simply agitating for a separate state, at some point after Yusuf took over the group began recruiting potential fighters to actually try to make that dream a reality.
When the Nigerian government decided in 2009 that it had better look into this organization that was recruiting disaffected youth, teaching them a radical version of fundamentalist Islam, and (allegedly) arming them, the situation quickly turned violent. Clashes between the group’s members and police killed hundreds. Yusuf, Boko’s founder, was captured, then killed while “attempting escape” (despite somehow still being handcuffed). In 2011, now under the control of Yusuf’s top lieutenant, Abubakar Shekau, Boko launched its first terrorist attack, and the sophistication of its techniques rapidly escalated to the point where it has now killed thousands of people over the past three years.