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Who are Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamists?

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Who are Nigeria's Boko Haram Islamists?

Nigeria - Troubled Giant

Nigeria's militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which said it bombed the police headquarters in the capital Abuja on Thursday, is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state.

Its followers are said to be influenced by the Koranic phrase which says: "Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors".

Boko Haram 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.

Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president.

Mohammed Yusuf, bare-chested and with a bandage on his arm, surrounded by soldiers Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf was killed after his arrest

The group's official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."

But residents in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram.

Loosely translated from the local Hausa language, this means Western education is forbidden.

Boko originally means fake but came to signify Western education, while haram means forbidden.

Since the Sokoto caliphate, which ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon, fell under British control in 1903, there has been resistance among the area's Muslims to Western education.

Many Muslim families still refuse to send their children to government-run "Western schools", a problem compounded by the ruling elite which does not see education as a priority.


Against this background, the charismatic Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf, formed Boko Haram in Maiduguri in 2002. He sat up a religious complex, which included a mosque and an Islamic school.

Schoolgirls walking past a mosque in Maiduguri Boko Haram despises Western education and wants Islamic law imposed

Many poor Muslim families from across Nigeria, as well as neighbouring countries, enrolled their children at the school.

But Boko Haram was not only interested in education. Its political goal was to create an Islamic state, and the school became a recruiting ground for jihadis to fight the state.

In 2009, Boko Haram carried out a spate of attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Maiduguri.

Boko Haram: Timeline of terror

  • 2002: Founded
  • 2009: Hundreds killed when Maiduguri police stations stormed
  • 2009: Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf captured by army, handed to police, later found dead
  • Sept: 2010: Freed hundreds of prisoners from Maiduguri jail
  • December 2010: Bombed Jos, killing 80 people and blamed for New Year's Eve attack on Abuja barracks
  • 2010-2011: Dozens killed in Maiduguri shootings
  • May 2011: Bombed several states after president's inauguration
  • June 2011: Police HQ bombed

It led to shoot-outs on Maiduguri's streets. Hundreds of Boko Haram supporters were killed and thousands of residents fled the city.

Nigeria's security forces eventually seized the group's headquarters, capturing its fighters and killing Mr Yusuf.

His body was shown on state television, and the security forces declared Boko Haram finished.

But its fighters have regrouped under a new, unidentified leader and last year it attacked a prison in Maiduguri, freeing hundreds of the group's supporters.

Its trademark has been the use of gunmen on motorbikes, killing police, politicians and anyone who criticises it, including clerics from other Muslim traditions and a Christian preacher.

In recent months, it has staged several more audacious attacks in different parts of northern Nigeria.

These reportedly include a bombing in December in the city of Jos, a New Year's eve attack on military barracks in Abuja, and several explosions around the time of President Goodluck Jonathan's inauguration last month.

Now, it has attacked the police headquarters, signalling that it is far from finished.

The threat it poses is unlikely to disappear: Poverty-stricken northern Nigeria has a history of spawning groups similar to Boko Haram.

Analysts believe the threat will disappear only if the Nigerian government manages to reduce the region's chronic poverty, and builds an education system which gains the support of local Muslims.

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Updated 6 Years ago

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