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date: 29 June 2022

Boko Haram: History and Contextfree

Boko Haram: History and Contextfree

  • Hilary MatfessHilary MatfessSchool of Advanced International Studies - Nigeria Social Violence Project, Johns Hopkins University


Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, better known as “Boko Haram,” is the most violent phenomenon of the Nigerian Fourth Republic. It is responsible not only for a regional food crisis that has devolved into famine in some areas, but also the displacement of millions and the deaths of tens of thousands of people. The insurgency in Nigeria began as a dissident religious sect’s venting of local grievances in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern Borno State. The movement was founded at the turn of the century by Mohammed Yusuf, a Salafist preacher notorious for his rejection of Western education and government employment.

Boko Haram only gained significant international attention in the aftermath of the 2014 abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the remote town of Chibok, but the group did not always employ such deplorable tactics. Although policymakers in capitals the world over have been eager to emphasize the group’s connections to international terrorist groups, the movement is localized and often more akin to an African insurgency than to a prototypical terrorist organization. The group’s initial years were characterized by relatively benign activities like the provision of social services, punctuated by occasional bouts of criminality that, over time, escalated into a series of targeted assassinations that provoked federal government response. A series of violent actions ultimately transformed Boko Haram from a largely nonviolent fundamentalist religious movement into the lethal and resilient force it is today, known internationally for its brutality: notably, the group’s interactions with the Nigerian security sector, categorized by indiscriminate state violence; leadership changes within the insurgency’s ranks that elevated Abubakar Shekau following Mohammed Yusuf’s execution; and regional trends in weapons flows and ideological currents.


  • Political History
  • Religious History
  • West Africa

The conflict between the group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, more recently identified as the Islamic State West Africa Province, but best known as Boko Haram and the Nigerian government has claimed more than 35,000 lives and displaced millions since the group’s founding in 2002—a level of destruction unseen since the country’s civil war in the late 1960s. The reach of the Salafi-jihadist insurgency reach has spilled over across borders, galvanizing the resurrection of the Multinational Joint Task Force to harmonize a regional military effort, marking the first time since the civil war that the Nigerian Air Force has bombed its own territory. Although government officials and military personnel have declared an end to the crisis numerous times, the conflict continues.1

The establishment of an antistate, reformist religious community itself is not an unusual development in the region’s history of insurrection and protest; however, no previous group in modern Nigerian history has perpetrated such widespread or sustained violence. The humanitarian situation in the Lake Chad Basin, a confluence of the violent activities of Boko Haram, the state’s ineffective kinetic counterterrorism strategies, and the resulting food shortage in the region, is among the direst crises in the world—reaching famine conditions in some communities.2

What can account for the incredible rise of this insurgency? What characteristics, both exogenous and endogenous to the group, make Boko Haram a uniquely destructive phenomenon in the region? In tracing the history of the sect, from its founding as a dissident religious community to its current state as a transnational insurgency, it becomes clear that Boko Haram capitalized on long-standing perceptions of political and economic marginalization among the residents of the Northeast, proximate examples of abuse at the hands of the Nigerian security sector, and transnational flows of weapons and ideology to advance its campaign. Furthermore, lethality did not originally characterize Boko Haram; rather, the sect became an insurgency only through its interaction with the region’s heavy-handed security institutions. Shifts in the insurgency’s targets, tactics, and rhetoric can largely be traced back to the region’s trade flows and cross-border cooperation, and the government’s posture toward the group at various points, especially the government’s dismayingly frequent use of indiscriminate violence to counter the sect.

The insurgency can be divided into three phases: foundation, experimentation, and territorialization. Each period is defined by a change in the insurgency’s targets and tactics, resulting from both the resources at its disposal and the opposition mounted by the government.

Foundation of the Organization

The history of Boko Haram cannot be disentangled from the immense political change Nigeria underwent during the 1999 transition to democracy. After decades of vacillating between periods of military rule and democracy, punctuated by coups, the Nigerian Fourth Republic began as General Abdusalami Abubakar peacefully handed over power to Olusegun Obasanjo after democratic elections. The 1999 Constitution was modeled after the Second Republic’s Constitution (1979–1983), which favors a majoritarian political system of federalism similar to that of the United States.3

The transition to democracy was accompanied by an atmosphere of profound hope, but it also raised difficult legal questions regarding the rights and responsibilities of Nigeria’s 36 states. The 1999 Constitution in many ways disenfranchised Nigeria’s states relative to other federal systems around the world. Nigerian states have no police forces of their own and have little say over the federal police force; because of the country’s national economic policies and production basket, which depends overwhelmingly on oil exports, Nigerian states are largely dependent on the federal government for their operating budgets. The transition to democracy provided states the opportunity to test and assert their authority within their boundaries. In the predominantly Muslim north of the country, this initiated a debate about the legality and desirability of sharia law. Though less well documented than the country’s perennial wrangling over the division of oil revenue, the question of whether or not states could individually adopt sharia law became a contentious debate. Through the “Global War on Terror” sharia has become most well known in the West as a repressive set of laws, antagonistic to women’s rights, and reliant on harsh physical punishments for noncompliance. In contrast, when Nigerians are asked about sharia law, they most often mention “issues like public goods provision, the elimination, and improved security.”4 Calls for sharia law in Nigeria were therefore more akin to a demand for better governance than to a call for a religious revival—though religion plays a significant role in Nigerian politics and has done so since the colonial era.

Initially, the debate was a tentative discussion of if and how sharia could be implemented at the state level as pro-sharia politicians were elected to state-level political offices. The discussion soon shifted toward issues involving the implementation of sharia. As is true of any religious tenet, groups differed markedly as to what sharia would look like in practice, making intra-Islamic divisions all the more salient and politicizing religious interpretations. Furthermore, all of the hurdles that existed to the provision of good governance in the region remained; recasting legislation in religious terms did not alter the fundamental characteristics of the region.

This powerful mix of subnational power struggles and religiously oriented identity politics in an uncertain democracy altered the region’s political landscape. This was a particularly significant development considering the increased importance of religiopolitical patronage networks. As politicians sought broad-based Muslim support to win office—often through campaigns promising to implement sharia—various Islamic sects felt all the more pressure to demonstrate that they were valuable partners for politicians looking to garner votes. Religious communities frequently did so by providing commentary on what “true” sharia would look like in their state.

One of the most important figures in this debate, Ahmed Yerima, illustrated the power of these new religiopolitical networks. Yerima successfully campaigned on implementation of sharia, ousting the former National Security advisor, Lieutenant-General Aliy Gusau, in the Zamfara gubernatorial race in the 1999 election.5 Yerima’s success gave rise to a new model of politician in the north. Johannes Harnischfeger notes that this class of politicians “depicted themselves as uncompromising fighters for the cause of Islam,” giving rise to a cohort of self-styled “apostles of sharia.”6 In Borno State, Ali Modu Sheriff was elected governor in 2003 on a sharia platform; he was the first governor in Borno’s history to serve two consecutive terms.7

This atmosphere placed pressure on members of the Muslim community in the north to differentiate themselves from one another, underlining divisions between and within Sufi and reformist religious traditions in the region. Powerful Sufi brotherhoods, most notably the Qadiriyya and Tijaniyya, in the region maintained their reputation as well-connected regional trade brokers. Reformist groups, most notably the Yan Izala, a Salafi group founded in 1978, gained influence during the sharia debate. Yan Izala and other reformist organizations attracted support from those who decried the excesses of society.8 One account noted that the Yan Izala was popular “because it leveled social differences. Nobody should bow before his parents and other authorities, and nobody should command respect only because of his wealth.”9

Although democratization and the subsequent election of pro-sharia politicians brought hope of a brighter future, communities across the Northeast remained largely dependent on subsistence agriculture and mired in poverty. Arguably, democratization did not act as an equalizer but rather entrenched the divide between the haves and have-nots. In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, a major trade hub and the birthplace of Boko Haram, it is striking to compare the large gated homes of civil “servants” with the modest, overcrowded homes of those not well-connect politically.

Amid these intra-Islamic debates, mounting social frustrations, and political jockeying, Mohammed Yusuf gained influence as a preacher in the region. It is also in this context that Yusuf transformed from a charismatic reformist with an enviable status within a powerful Salafi mosque to a violent extremist engaged in a fight against the Nigerian state.

The Founding: Mohammed Yusuf and Boko Haram’s Early Ideology

Mohammed Yusuf was born in Yobe State but as a child moved to Maiduguri with his family. His father was a member of the Tijaniyya, a popular Sufi order; Yusuf, however, dabbled in a number of Islamic traditions (including Shi’ism) throughout his adolescence and into adulthood. Yusuf eventually came under the wing of rising Salafist preacher Jafar Adam and incorporated into Indimi Mosque’s Salafist community as a youth group leader.10 Yusuf’s personal history and personality were well suited for this position. Like many of the young people at Ndimi Mosque, Yusuf had professional aspirations that were stymied by the lack of economic opportunity and the local “old guard.” Childhood friends report that Yusuf had always been interested in pursuing his religious studies, but economic circumstances forced him to work on his father’s farm and engage in petty trade. According to these childhood friends, Yusuf resented having to do such work.

Both Adam and Yusuf were part of the “Izala B,” an Izala subset that was largely composed of younger, often-foreign educated, members of the community who were frustrated by their lack of professional opportunities and limited influence with the sect’s establishment. As an anonymous analyst wrote in 2012, “to compete in this crowded ‘religious marketplace’ ambitious individuals had to possess all the formidable assets of the new generation, or wait patiently to rise through the ranks of Izala. Neither option worked quickly. The attractive short-cut was to start a new religious discourse that would be distinctively different from the established doctrines of Izala A as well as the softened doctrines of Izala B.”11 Whereas Adam gained fame and followers by exercising patience and rising through the ranks of Izala, Yusuf broke away to form his own community.

Yusuf’s decision was driven by grievance, opportunism, and differences in scriptural interpretation. Though theirs was initially a mutually beneficial relationship, Yusuf eventually grew to resent his mentor and the political compromises that he believed the leadership at Ndimi made when advocating for sharia. Yusuf’s frustration reflected those of many in the north who “had grown increasingly suspicious as the months and years wore on that the political enthusiasm for sharia had been little more than a ploy for temporarily buying their support.”12

Yusuf began to preach two controversial, and related, notions: first, that Western education is Quranically forbidden, and second, that employment in service of the Nigerian government was also forbidden. He refused to cede these positions even after the mosque’s elites made a number of visits imploring him to do so. For this condemnation of the West, Yusuf’s followers earned the nickname “Boko Haram” from locals, which is loosely translated to “Western Education Is Deceitful/Forbidden.” (The group’s original official name translates to “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad,” and members generally resented the name “Boko Haram.”)

Many of Yusuf’s grievances can be traced to his perception that the implementation of sharia in Borno State was inadequate. With his founding of Ibn Taymiyyah Masjid mosque near the railway station in Maiduguri in 2002, Yusuf proved that he was far from alone in his frustration with the local elite. This mosque was not merely a place of worship; it also was a center for community mobilization and mutual assistance. Yusuf provided services that the government often neglected. The mosque had its own religious police, cabinet, and farm; Yusuf also arranged affordable marriages for his members. Some of the young men who joined the group had previously been unemployed, underemployed, or relegated to subsistence agriculture; now, as a result of the community support programs, they were able to buy motorbikes and begin working as motorbike taxis (called “okada”). Yusuf expanded the reach of Ibn Tamiyah by traveling throughout the rural Northeast, giving sermons. Through his travels, Yusuf developed a reputation throughout the region as a charismatic preacher and an excellent source of Quranic education for both men and women. Unsurprisingly, many of those who attended Ibn Tamiyah were the city’s poor and lower middle class. Though some have characterized the group as being a “Kanuri revolt,” in which the Kanuri ethnic group are disproportionately represented, the sect’s membership profile was ethnically diverse. According to Adam Higazi:

In Borno and Yobe, the Kanuri form the largest part of the movement, but there are also Muslims from non-Kanuri parts of the north-east involved. Boko Haram also have some support in areas of Borno that were more recently Islamised, outside of the main Kanuri LGAs—including among part of the Babur population in Biu, Marghi in Damboa, and in some villages of the Gwoza Hills (the north-east extension of the Mandara Mountains that straddle north-east Nigeria and the far north of Cameroon). There have also been Boko Haram cells operating in different parts of north-west and north-central Nigeria, as far south as Okene in Kogi State and as far west as Sokoto. People from different groups are therefore involved, from Hausa and Kanuri to Ebira, but the social base is religious, not ethnic.13

This diversity also extended to socioeconomic profiles. Although a significant number of Ibn Tamiyyah’s members were socioeconomically marginalized, the community also attracted elite support. One of Yusuf’s patrons and father-in-law, Baba Fugu Mohammed, was a local “big man” who provided the land for the mosque and helped to finance the group’s operations. Politically, many have asserted that then-governor of Borno State, Ali Modu Sheriff, was also a sponsor of the group. Those who claim that the group was well-connected politically point not only to the impunity with which it resorted to acts of violence and petty crime between 2002 and 2009, but also to the appointment of Fuji Foi, a member of Ibn Taymiyyah, to the position of Commissioner of Religious Affairs for the state. Many believe that, in exchange for this influential appointment, Mohammed Yusuf helped galvanize support for Sheriff’s campaign. Professor Adesoji notes that the widespread belief “that politicians who patronize religious leaders, either for support or protective charms, use them as a tool and later discard them or unleash them on innocent people best describes Yusuf’s situation.”14

Beyond the community’s endeavor to achieve self-sufficiency at Ibn Taymiyyah, the group also held some notable, if not unprecedented, theological positions beyond their condemnation of Western education and state employment. In particular, the group’s adherence to the notion of Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’, interpreted by Alex Thurston and other scholars of Islam as a right to disavow those considered to be “infidels,” paired with an “exclusive loyalty to ‘true’ Muslims.”15 This theological interpretation has been adapted into the political campaigns of other jihadist groups. In Boko Haram’s case, this belief meant that “rejecting secularism and Western-style education was not just a political choice or a religious decision made on a case-by-case basis; this rejection was part of a larger conception of what it meant to be Muslim.”16 Al-walā’ wa-l-barā’ is not merely the declaration that certain groups are unbelievers (takfir), but an analytical “framework for evaluating people, communities, and systems according to what the movement perceives as scriptural dictates.” As such, Thurston argues that this thought pattern was “not just a formula for anathematizing other Muslims but also for cultivating intense in-group loyalty.”17

Boko Haram, even under Yusuf’s leadership, did not boast pristine scholarly and theological credentials. Mohammed Yusuf’s doctrinal book, published in Arabic under the title This Is Our Doctrine and Our Method in Proselytization, was littered with errors and wholesale plagiarism. The researcher Adam Higazi maintains that the errors in the text, including misidentifying the number of quoted suras, are not the kind of mistakes that can be attributed to the fact that Yusuf was writing in a second language. Although there are some references to the particular conditions in northern Nigeria, the text bears remarkably few hallmarks of its origins. According to Higazi, throughout the book “ideas are selectively copied from Arab writers, without any critical interpretation” or application to their implications in northeastern Nigeria.18 The text’s condemnation of democracy is notable because of its prominence within the text, as well as the nascent and contested nature of Nigerian democracy at that time. Higazi translates one passage as follows:

We do not believe in, deal with or use democracy because it is the doctrine of the unbelievers and following it or dealing with it or using its system is kufr, or unbelief. The Muslim cannot run for office, or elect someone else, under the umbrella of this democratic system . . . democracy says that the “rule is by the people”’, hence there are no objections against being ruled by an unbeliever (kafir) or a hypocrite (munafiq) or an immoral person under the umbrella of the democratic system, and this entails great danger and immense evil for all it includes. Therefore we hereby affirm and assert that democracy is a taghut [idolatry] that should not be believed in and should be refused, and it should not be acknowledged, because a worshipper’s faith does not become true unless they disbelieved in the taghut first, and then believed in Allah.19

Yusuf’s increasingly vocal and violent critiques of sharia law’s implementation brought him and the members of Ibn Tamiyyah into conflict with other religious sects and political communities. Between the founding of the religious community in 2002 and 2009, the group’s grievances and responses grew increasingly bold. It went so far as to engage in a number of assassinations of local religious leaders who criticized Yusuf’s extreme Quranic interpretations. A mixture of this creeping violence, Yusuf’s dissatisfaction with the way sharia law was implemented in Borno, and the lack of a proximate need for the group’s support on Sheriff’s behalf all led the two to have a falling out and to the disintegration of whatever support or protection had been levied.

A Turning Point

Tensions between Boko Haram and the state authorities came to a head over a seemingly minor incident: in July 2009, traffic officers stopped a handful of members of the sect who were en route to a funeral over a motorcycle helmet violation. The state’s helmet regulations had previously been a point of contention between the government and Yusuf’s followers, who asserted that the helmets interfered with the proper religious headdresses. The routine traffic stop ended in violence, with fire exchanged between the Boko Haram members and police officers.20 In response to this incident, members of Boko Haram unleashed attacks on police stations in Bauchi and Yobe states. Yusuf himself stoked the tension, recording and distributing “several video sermons in which he explicitly threatened the state and the police with violence.”21 In these sermons, Yusuf expanded the scope of his grievances, arguing that the helmet regulations were just one of the many ways in which state governments were preventing the “pure” practice of Islam, making the state illegitimate.

This escalation in both the group’s violent activities and its antistate rhetoric eventually captured the attention of the federal government, which authorized a response by the security sector. Because of the centralization of the police and military at the federal level in the 1999 Constitution, only the federal government could deploy a security response to the group.22 The government responded to Boko Haram in a brutal five-day crackdown, escalating the antibanditry “Operation Flush” that had engaged in intermittent conflict with Boko Haram to unforeseen heights and lethality. Between 700 and 1000 members of the insurgency were killed in the raid. The operation centered on a door-to-door raid of suspected members’ homes, conducted by a joint force of Nigeria’s military and police. Adam Higazi observes that during this campaign

in Maiduguri the army and especially the police rounded up and executed suspects, without any due process, and at times inflicted what looked like collective punishment on the local population . . . The “mopping up” operation also claimed many lives and generated particular resentment. This was mainly performed by the police, who relied on informants—usually the ward head (maiangwa) within each neighbourhood—whom the Borno State governor and security forces ordered to point out the houses where Yusufiyya members were residing.23

The brutality of this counterinsurgency campaign engendered resentment from the surrounding community. Despite the counterproductive effects of such a heavy-handed approach, the Nigerian security sector has continued to rely on these blunt tactics throughout much of the campaign against the insurgents.

Mohammed Yusuf himself was detained during this raid. After the army captured him, he was turned over to the police, who recorded their interrogation.24 The following exchange between Yusuf and his police interrogator is revealing:

  • Interrogator:
    We went to your house yesterday and we saw a lot of animals, syringes and materials used for making bombs, what were you keeping all that for?
  • Yusuf:
    Like I told you, to protect myself . . .
  • Interrogator:
    (Cuts in) . . . to protect yourself how? Isn’t there the authorities, the law enforcement agencies?
  • Yusuf:
    The authorities, the law enforcement agents are the same people fighting me . . .
  • Interrogator:
    What did you do?
  • Yusuf:
    I don’t know what I did . . . I am only propagating my religion Islam.

Later in the interaction:

  • Interrogator:
    Now you have made us kill people that are innocent. What do you have to say?
  • Yusuf:
    You bear responsibility on all those you killed.
  • Interrogator:
    What about those killed by your followers?
  • Yusuf:
    My followers did not kill anybody.
  • Interrogator:
    What about those killed among your followers?
  • Yusuf:
    Those killed among my followers, whoever killed them are those who committed crime.25

Shortly after the interrogation, the security forces assassinated Yusuf. The government claims that he was killed following an escape attempt, but witnesses report that he was executed.26 His bullet-ridden body was presented to journalists, who snapped photos that were then widely published. The audio of Yusuf’s interrogation, too, was widely distributed in the aftermath of his death. For many people, including those who were not members of Ibn Taymiyyah, these conditions conferred martyrdom status on Yusuf.

Many Nigerians, particularly those within the federal government, believed that this was the end of the insurgency. Certainly, this sort of brutal repression had successfully put down religious riots in the past, including the Maitatsine movement in the 1980s, which is frequently stated to be a precursor to Boko Haram. For just over a year, this appeared to be the case for Boko Haram as well. The Nigeria Social Violence Project documents just six deaths between the July 2009 raid and the group’s reemergence under Abubakar Shekau in the last quarter of 2010.27

Experimentation: Shekau’s Tenure and the Group’s Resurgence

Indeed, Boko Haram did not disappear after the 2009 raid but rather went “underground” and regrouped under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau. Yusuf had named Shekau as his second in command during his interrogation in 2009, though some report that Shekau’s ascent was briefly contested within Boko Haram. Nigerian security forces believed that Shekau had also been killed in the raid, though it appears that he was merely shot in the leg and subsequently recovered from his injuries.28

Information on Shekau is difficult to come by. Many in Borno State believe that following Yusuf’s death, Shekau not only helmed the insurgency, but also married three of Yusuf’s four wives and provided for his children. Shekau’s audio and video propaganda reveal that he is fluent in Kanuri, Hausa, and Arabic, and can also converse in English. These demonstrated capabilities lend credence to the notion that Shekau is relatively well-educated despite his fervent condemnation of Western education. Much of the information circulating about Shekau traffics in the mythic; it appears that he has developed a small cult of personality around him.29 His nickname, Darul Tahweed, expresses his fluency in the Islamic concept of “oneness” and monotheism and conveys authority upon his scriptural interpretations. This reputation for scriptural literacy is surprising in light of his rambling and erratic presence in a number of his propaganda videos. His radicalism is well documented and feared by residents across the Northeast; in a 2012 statement following a brutal attack on Kano, Shekau stated: “I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill—the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams.”30

Although Shekau himself is a mysterious figure, the changes in Boko Haram’s operational characteristics under his leadership are readily apparent. Under Shekau, the group’s grievances, tactics, and capabilities changed drastically. No longer were the group’s primary complaints levied at the inadequacy and corruption of local politicians and religious groups; instead, the group’s primary target became the Nigerian government and those within the population who did not abide by their specific Quranic interpretation.

Boko Haram’s reemergence was marked by a September 2010 prison break in Bauchi State, in which the group freed more than 700 inmates.31 Subsequent to that high-profile event, the group engaged in a series of bombings of government and security installations, as well as explosive attacks on churches, claiming roughly 100 lives. This sort of violence not only differed from that of Yusuf’s tenure in terms of targets, but it also marked a change in tactics; Boko Haram now moved away from targeted assassinations to a variety of new techniques and kinds of attack. Unsurprisingly, given the expanded scope of grievances, increased tactical sophistication, and tolerance for civilian casualties, in these years the insurgency grew more lethal and expanded its geographic scope. Some have argued that, in this era, the group benefited from the patronage of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and developed ties to al-Qaeda central.32 Although some relationship may have developed in this period, resulting in a small number of Nigerian insurgents “training” with terrorists in Mali, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the insurgents remained dependent on local funding, weapons procurement, and recruitment. The political economy of trade in the region, with significant hubs in the Nigerian cities of Kano, Yola, and Maiduguri, is such that interactions between Boko Haram and other organizations cannot be considered evidence of an intentional, cultivated, or significant relationship.

Certainly, these trade routes and regional influences gained even more importance following the 2011 death of Muammar Qaddafi, as foreign fighters returning from Libya looted weapons stores and sought alternative sources of employment and income. The availability of sophisticated weapons through these trade routes dramatically increased the insurgency’s destructive capacity. Consider that in two arms seizures in July 2012, the Nigerian government intercepted 13 rocket-propelled grenades, 10 rocket bombs, 10 AK-47 assault rifles, and 14 improvised explosive devices (IEDs).33 Although these regional influences should not be entirely discounted, it is worth observing, as Higazi did, that “Boko Haram’s . . . sophisticated weapons are obtained in raids on the police and military,” and while “interceptions at the borders show that weapons are coming in from outside . . . the internal arms market is large enough for some also to be acquired within Nigeria.”34

The group’s increased tactical sophistication was accompanied by an emphasis on propaganda about its role as a vanguard of Nigeria’s persecuted Muslim community. In 2011, Shekau released a statement emphasizing the perception that the government was targeting Muslims:

Nobody is persecuting us like this government . . . nobody is persecuting our religion and our Prophet like it. They use their soldiers, their police, their system of unbelief and their collaborators . . . And you people should know that we do not kill those who drink alcohol. It is mere propaganda that we attacked a beer parlor. We had heard that it was purely soldiers who gathered there to drink, and we confirmed it. That was why we went there and killed them . . . We are being persecuted . . . in a village in Kaduna State Muslims were pushed into a dug out hole and petrol was poured on them before they were set ablaze. What did your government do about this? . . . We are aware of how they are persecuting the ordinary people in the city.35

It was also in this time period that Boko Haram experienced some fragmentation, as the splinter group Ansaru (also known as Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan, which translates to “the Association of the People for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa”) emerged in January 2012.36 The group was led by two former members of Boko Haram who, according to reports, had qualms about Shekau’s leadership style and tolerance for violence against Muslims he considered apostate. Ansaru appeared to have more regional connections than Boko Haram itself and, according to some accounts, took issue with the increasing number of Muslims killed by Boko Haram activities.37 Ansaru engaged in a number of kidnappings and attacks for roughly a year before seemingly fading away.

The escalation in the insurgency’s rhetoric, technical capacity, and lethality drew the attention of the central government—though the time it took for the group to attract this attention is puzzling. In May 2013, the government declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states: Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. During this time period, then-president Goodluck Jonathan flagged Boko Haram as a terrorist group. Prior to this time, the Nigerian government had requested that the United States not designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). This shift in Nigeria’s stance may be the result of the collapse of negotiations or the desire to benefit from the international military assistance that could accompany designation.38

Under the terms of the state of emergency, populations were subjected to a strict curfew, and the state’s security forces were deployed in a 2000-member-strong joint task force (JTF) to the insurgency’s urban strongholds like Yola (the capital of Adamawa State), Damaturu (the capital of Yobe State) and Maiduguri. This state of emergency was based on an understanding of the insurgency as an urban phenomenon; this characterization was largely true at this stage but failed to anticipate the group’s ability to transition toward a rural strategy. Furthermore, the counterinsurgency operation was hamstrung by the lack of connection between the security sector and the population. Since both the police and the military are centralized at the federal level, units were deployed to the communities in the Northeast whose members did not understand the local context they were entering. Because the security sector was largely unfamiliar with the communities it was monitoring, members of the force often found it difficult to distinguish insurgents from civilians. Counterinsurgency operations often had high levels of civilian casualties; human rights advocacy groups allege that the security sector engaged in extrajudicial killings, violence, and torture of suspected members of insurgency. The lack of trust in the military and police limited the flow of information from civilians to the security sector, compounding their reliance on blunt tactics and thrusting the region into a vicious cycle of retributive violence.39 Those who lived through the state of emergency recall that the vigilante groups and nonstate security providers gained importance in this era, as residents who felt threatened by both the Nigerian security sector and the insurgents sought security from locally known entities.

The population’s fear and mistrust of the JTF rendered much of the counterinsurgency campaign ineffective. There was also emerging evidence that the JTF worsened the crisis by bolstering the ranks of the insurgency. Interviews with former insurgents suggest that abuses by the security sector against civilians influenced many of those who joined Boko Haram voluntarily during this period. Boko Haram’s propaganda emphasizes the state’s abuses of civilians. Writing to leaders in Kano, Shekau stated: “You all saw on Al-Jazeera TV how unarmed men, youth, women, cripples, and even under age were asked to lie on the ground and were shot in the head and chest by security agents.”40 Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos concluded in Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis that “the repression, continued massacres, extra-judicial killings and arrests without trial” that have characterized the State of Emergency “have widened the gap between communities and the armed forces, to the point where some civilians have sought the protection of Boko Haram, even if they did not initially sympathize with, support or subscribe to the actions and doctrine of the movement.”41

Further complicating civil-military relations during this period were the reports of collusion between the military and the insurgency. The low levels of morale, infrequent pay, and lack of professionalism that characterize some parts of the Nigerian security sector resulted in a number of desertions and even reports from generals of Nigerian soldiers selling military equipment to the insurgents. Some in northern Nigeria reported that a number of Nigerian soldiers were “moonlighting” as insurgents.42 Even if these allegations are unfounded, the prevalence of these rumors underlines the extent of civilian mistrust of the security forces. In this period, the state’s brutality helped shift the insurgency’s target toward the Nigerian state. Combined with an influx of weapons, increased human capital among the insurgents, and a change of leadership, this period was one of urban guerrilla warfare, with the insurgency moving fluidly between tactics including bombing and gunmen raids.

Territorialization: Resilience in the Face of Government Pressure

Demonstrating characteristic resilience and flexibility, Boko Haram was able to shift to a rural insurgency remarkably quickly following the deployment of the security sector to urban centers throughout the Northeast. This may have been done by capitalizing on the networks that the group had been cultivating since Yusuf’s preaching tours in the early years of the new millennium; it was almost certainly facilitated by the general lack of state presence outside of state capitals in northeastern Nigeria. The insurgency’s geographic shift illustrates the organization’s adaptive capacity and resilience, which is further evidenced by the surge of abductions the insurgency committed in this period.43 Although the Chibok abductions, in which the insurgency abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from their dormitory in April 2014, garnered global attention, this was neither the first nor the last such atrocity.44 The insurgents abducted both boys and girls from schools and villages in the months and years leading up to Chibok and have continued the practice since. Though not unprecedented, the Chibok kidnapping marked a turning point for the insurgency, as it appears that “the relative ease with which it carried out the Chibok abductions appears to have emboldened Boko Haram to carry out more abductions elsewhere.”45 In late 2014, for example, the insurgents attacked a primary school in Damask and abducted an estimated 400 women and schoolchildren.46 According to Human Rights Watch, the insurgents overtook the building and “then used the school as a military base, bringing scores of other women and children abducted across the town there as captives.”47

Those who escape from the insurgents after their abduction often confirm that the insurgents practice forced conversion of abductees and strict enforcement of the sect’s decrees. Their accounts provide valuable insight into the functioning of the sect, which seemed less interested in attracting voluntary recruits in this period. Girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that those who refused to convert after their capture were “subjected to physical and psychological abuse; forced labor; forced participation in military operations, including carrying ammunition or luring men into ambush; forced marriage to their captors; and sexual abuse, including rape.”48 Interestingly, these girls also reported that their captors attempted to protect them from sexual predation; which suggests that a political or ideological agenda accompanies the abductions.49 Women who remained sympathetic to the insurgents even after their “rescue” by the Nigerian military reported that the women who were abducted were referred to as the mustadafin, an Arabic term that means the “downtrodden” or “oppressed.” According to these women, the mustadafin were instructed by the insurgents, through daily or near-daily Quranic education, before entering into the insurgency’s ranks (typically as wives).50 This description underlines the sect’s persistent ideological motivations, even at the height of its violence.

Although media attention has focused on the abduction of women and girls, the insurgency also began abducting young men in this period. Human Rights Watch estimates that between 2013 and 2016, the insurgency abducted 10,000 young men.51 Like the girls that have been abducted, the young men are subject to forced conversion to the insurgency’s interpretation of Islam. These young men were tasked with a multitude of responsibilities; some of the abductees reported having to care for other, younger members of the insurgency, others reported having to assist the older fighters with their weapons, and many reported being trained as fighters.52 The abductions in this period likely mark a decline in popular support for the insurgency (abduction-as-recruitment is not uncommon in sub-Saharan insurgencies).53

These abductions have implications for the civilian population across the Northeast and also impact the insurgency’s structure and operational characteristics. Emerging research on insurgent cohesion suggests that groups that fill their ranks through conscription are likely to have lower cohesion and will be more likely to have to depend on material incentives than their ideological counterparts.54 Some also suggest that this results in higher rates of civilian targeting and casualties. Indeed, this period was the most lethal in the insurgency’s history; local academics have noted that the cells that developed and joined the group in this time period were less ideologically oriented than their predecessors and showed greater interest in criminality and material gain.55

The sensational reporting surrounding the January 2015 attack on Baga, Borno State, in which an estimated 2000 people were killed, obscured the regularity with which Boko Haram overran communities in similar raids across the region during this period. While this attack was an especially brutal incident, many displaced people from communities across the Northeast give similar accounts of the insurgents raiding villages, setting buildings ablaze, and engaging in mass slaughter.

Another tactical innovation during the group’s territorialization was the insurgency’s use of suicide bombers, especially the use of female and child suicide bombers. Such attacks are particularly prevalent with targeting civilian outposts in urban centers, like markets and bus depots. The insurgency has depended on female suicide bombers more than any other insurgency in history. Consider that the Tamil Tigers, who were previously the armed group most dependent on such attacks, used 46 women over the course of a decade, whereas Boko Haram deployed more than 240 female suicide bombers between 2014 and June 2017.56 The term “suicide bomber” is problematic in this context:

While the majority of these attacks have been suicide bombings, this is perhaps a misnomer as “suicide bomber” implies that the perpetrator’s decision to martyr oneself is made of his or her own volition. Yet, many of the Boko Haram attacks were conducted by girls too young to have agency; others, such as rape victims and those subjected to psychological trauma, have been robbed of their autonomy to make that choice. In some instances, the bomber may have not even understood what was happening.57

The operational innovations undertaken in response to the state of emergency allowed the insurgency to wreak havoc on a breathtaking scale. By August 2014, the insurgency had overrun territory roughly the size of Belgium and had declared a Caliphate. Shekau expressed an affinity with the Islamic State and declared bayat (allegiance) in an audio message in which he said, “We announce our allegiance to the caliph . . . and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity.”58 Although the insurgency changed its formal name, identifying itself as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), and released more sophisticated video messages, little else changed following this declaration. The overarching recruitment tactics and operational characteristics of Boko Haram do not seem to have been affected by the declaration of allegiance. The one area in which a noticeable change took place was in the social media communications of the Nigerian insurgency; the declaration of bayat took place amidst a shift in Boko Haram’s media strategy, which included the creation of a (short-lived) Twitter account, Al-Urwah al-Wuthqa (which translates to “firm bond” and is a phrase found in the Quran), more sophisticated videos, which included sound effects and slow motion scenes of decapitation, and more aggressive branding of the images it released.59 In 2015, the insurgency was considered the deadliest terrorist group in the world, surpassing even its alleged sponsor, the Islamic State, in the number of people it killed that year.60

The territorialization and spread of the insurgency across national borders into Chad, Niger, and Cameroon attracted attention from other countries in the region, eventually resulting in the revival of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in January 2015.61 The MNJTF at present is a partnership between Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin; it was originally founded in 1998 to counter smuggling and transnational crime between Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. The 2015 repurposing of the group, with African Union approval, was an attempt to legitimize and harmonize ongoing military responses to the insurgency underway by the countries in the Lake Chad Basin. However, this multilateral endeavor has faced a multitude of challenges related to logistics and funding. Authority and responsibility within the group are fragmented and uncertain, and integrated battalions are nearly impossible, as each country’s forces remain based in their respective borders.62 The force is further undermined by limited funding and its delayed disbursement. A senior officer lamented anonymously to Reuters that the funding was only sufficient to cover “11 vehicles and some radio equipment.”63

The Lake Chad Basin countries, acting unilaterally, in tandem, and with the assistance of other international military partners, did manage to dislodge the insurgents from the bulk of the territory they claimed as a caliphate. By July 2016, the Nigerian Army’s spokesman, Colonel Sani Usman, told the media: “We have come to the point that we can beat our chest and decisively say we have dealt with Boko Haram. The situation in the northeast has tremendously improved.”64 Nigeria’s military partners and the displaced community, however, complained that, although Boko Haram had been “cleared” from a significant portion of territory, the Nigerian security sector was not “holding” the cleared area. The result was persistent insecurity, as Boko Haram was still capable of launching attacks on both rural and urban targets.

Whither Boko Haram?

In August 2016, reports emerged that the Islamic State had named a new leader of Boko Haram. The new leader was Abu Musab al-Barnawi, rumored to be the son of Mohammed Yusuf. This announcement was quickly followed by reports of a “schism” in the insurgency. According to some analysts, the group was divided between those loyal to Shekau and those who agreed with al-Barnawi’s critique of Shekau’s indiscriminate brutality, particularly his violence against Muslims, and his relatively decadent lifestyle.65 Dramatic reports about the significance of the schism for the Global War on Terror and the future of the insurgency in the Lake Chad Basin overlook the decentralized, cellular organization of the group and other characteristics that prime it for fragmentation.66

Predicting the group’s future trajectory is difficult, given that much of the sect’s evolution has depended on its interactions with the national militaries and security forces that have responded to it, as well as the remarkable flexibility and resilience that the insurgency has demonstrated. As the Nigeria Social Violence Project concluded: “a close analysis of events data highlights how a deliberate series of choices made by state and insurgent actors has shaped the insurgency, rather than fixed, structural factors such as poverty or ideology. A combination of excessive brutality and deliberate neglect by the Nigerian state,” rather than endogenous qualities of the sect or transnational influences, such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, is responsible for the acceleration of the insurgency.67 The future of the insurgency’s impact thus depends on the ability of security sectors in the region to respond effectively and professionally to the insurgency, while providing off-ramps and effective reintegration for those looking to defect.

The government has taken tentative steps toward reintegrating former combatants through Operation Safe Corridor, which reportedly launched in Spring 2016. The program is intended to be a deradicalization and reintegration program for defected combatants. Soon after the launch of the program, however, reports emerged that the defectors were being taken to Giwa Barracks, the same detention center that captured combatants. Although the government now reports that a rehabilitation center is dedicated to former combatants in Gombe State, the scope and character of the rehabilitation programs remain unclear.

The humanitarian crisis in the region is a more visible and perhaps more pressing concern. Although it was given the highest designation (an L3 crisis) by the UN in the summer of 2016, funding requests remain unmet. Furthermore, the relief services that are funded are limited to areas secured by the government and further complicated by intermittent attacks on humanitarian convoys and displacement camps.

Despite governmental proclamations to the contrary, at the time of writing, Boko Haram remains a potent threat poised to remain a feature of the region’s political landscape for years to come. Further, if the underlying local political grievances that animated Mohammed Yusuf and his followers in the early years of the group’s organizing are not resolved, similar groups are likely to emerge and destabilize the region even after the Boko Haram insurgency is quelled.

Although Boko Haram is often portrayed as a transnational, Islamist insurgency that was predetermined to be a particularly lethal group, a review of its evolution demonstrates that the group’s trajectory is the result of interactions with the state security apparatus and the regional opportunity structure for recruitment and weapons procurement. The group’s remarkable flexibility and the ineffective counterinsurgency strategy pursued by the Nigerian government throughout much of the crisis both contributed to the incredible evolution of the insurgency from a nonviolent dissident sect.

Discussion of the Literature

As a relatively new phenomenon, Boko Haram has not yet enjoyed the sort of analysis that other insurgencies, social movements, and terrorist groups have. Much of the extant work relies on second-hand accounts and newspaper reporting. As the Nigerian military (and its partners) increase the security of the region, making fieldwork more feasible, more robust analysis will surely follow. A literature review for such a new phenomenon must then provide tools for assessing the analysis to come rather than just detail existing accounts.

The best of the existing research contextualizes Boko Haram as a specifically African phenomenon with long historical and social roots in the region. Scholarship on Islam’s history in the region is particularly helpful in contextualizing Boko Haram’s ideological and historical roots. Andrew Walker’s book, Eat the Heart of the Infidel: The Rise of Boko Haram and the Harrowing of Nigeria, probes farther than most contemporary accounts into Boko Haram’s historical precedents, reaching back to the early 19th century. Roman Loimeier’s authoritative Islamic Reform and Political Change in Northern Nigeria, published in 1997, discusses the dominance of Sufi brotherhoods in the regional political economy and provides important context for the rise of Salafism in the region. Paul Lubeck’s analysis of the phenomenon stresses the importance of demographic characteristics, in addition to the region’s religious fragmentation, in facilitating the rise of Boko Haram. Murray Last’s work on the Sokoto Caliphate, as well as his more recent work, “The Search for Security in Muslim Northern Nigeria” in Africa in 2008 and “From Dissent to Dissidence: The Genesis and Development of Reformist Islamic Groups in Northern Nigeria,” are historically well-versed texts that discuss Boko Haram within the region’s tradition of Islamic reformist groups. More recently, Brandon Kendhammer’s Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria explores the implementation of sharia law in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic through the lens of the everyday experiences of residents. Abdul Raufu Mustapha’s volume, Sects and Social Disorder: Muslim Identities and Conflict in Nigeria, pulls together research on religious and ethnic identity, economic dynamics, and regional history to provide a particularly thorough analysis of the conflict’s genesis and evolution. Alex Thurston has shed important light on the insurgency’s ideological predecessors and Quranic justification in his Boko Haram and Religious Exclusivism; his article, “Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis between Boko Haram and the State,” in the journal Islamic Africa; and his book Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics.

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of “gray papers” from domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the region, discussing the characteristics of the insurgency. One of the most methodologically sound and revealing of these reports is Mercy Corps’s Motivations and Empty Promises, which draws upon snowball-sampled interviews to uncover the motivations of those who joined Boko Haram’s ranks. Human Rights Watch also produced an important report, shedding light on the organizational characteristics and gender politics of Boko Haram, in its report “Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp”: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northeast Nigeria. Conflict trend reports from groups like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Nigeria Social Violence Project at Johns Hopkins University, and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project provide important quantitative analysis of the group’s lethality and produce qualitative analysis of changes in the group’s tactics and targets.

In spite of the challenges of researching Boko Haram, a number of probative and engaging reports about the motivations, history, and organization of the sect exist. An anonymous source, writing in the Journal of Religion in Africa in 2012, for example, provides some of the foundational information about the sect’s ideological roots and radicalization process. Accounts from Ahmad Salkida, a journalist, and Fulan Nasrullah, an insurgent-cum-interloper have provided important insights from members of the group and critical perspectives from those who are on the ground; their work is frequently published on their own websites or as guest comments in newspapers.

Unfortunately, there is also a class of weak scholarship on Boko Haram. Such work often relies solely on the Nigerian government’s statements and reports, or ignores the organization’s actual activities to propagate unhelpful tropes about Christian/Muslim animosity in the region. In the aftermath of the insurgency’s declaration of allegiance to the Islamic State, another thread of weak analysis has exaggerated the connections between the Islamic State and Boko Haram. At the time of writing, there is little evidence of significant collaboration between the two groups. Sleeker video production and international affinities, while not insignificant, do not necessarily signify deep operational or tactical cooperation between the two groups. Inoculation against poor scholarship is, in the case of Boko Haram, as important as identifying sound research. Scholarship that portrays the acceleration of violence as predetermined or attributable to ideology alone fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the group.

Primary Sources

A number of primary sources, including religious documents, propaganda, and correspondence, are available. As many of these resources are in Kanuri, Hausa, or Arabic, many Western researchers face a language barrier. However, these documents, videos, and recordings are increasingly being translated into English. Atta Barkindo, for example, has worked to translate some of Boko Haram’s numerous YouTube videos; his report with the Africa Research Institute summarizes his findings on the ways in which Boko Haram uses history and memory to drive recruitment through its video messages. Jacob Zenn, Ryan Cummings, and the Modern Security Consulting Group (MOSECON) intelligence services all frequently translate the group’s propaganda, often within hours or days of its released.

Yusuf’s “Open Letter to the President” provides interesting and important insights into the sect’s original grievances against the government. The debate between Yusuf and Shaykh Isa ‘Ali Pantami, available on YouTube, about the implementation of sharia law in Borno State, helps contextualize Yusuf’s opinions relative to those of others active in political and religious mobilization in this period. Similarly, Yusuf’s “This Is Our Doctrine and Our Method in Proselytization” sheds light on the group’s original ideological orientation.

In terms of more historical primary sources, the Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence has released two of the group’s letters, one from Abubakar Shekau to al-Qaeda core and another from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Abu Zayd to Abdelmalek Droukdel on behalf of Shekau; both provide interesting insights into the nature of the group’s regional and international allegiances and perceptions of the group by international terrorist organizations.

Further Reading

  • Adesoji, Abimbola. “The Boko Haram Uprising and Islamic Revivalism in Nigeria.” Africa Spectrum 45.2 (2010): 95–108.
  • Anonymous. “The Popular Discourses of Salafi Radicalism and Salafi Counter-Radicalism in Nigeria: A Case Study of Boko Haram.” Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012).
  • Higazi, Adam. “Mobilisation into and against Boko Haram in North-East Nigeria.” In Collective Mobilisations in Africa. Edited by Kadya Tall, Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle, and Michel Cahen, 305–358. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.
  • Human Rights Watch. “Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp”: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northeast Nigeria. Abuja: HRW, 2014.
  • Kendhammer, Brandon. Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  • Matfess, Hilary. Women and the War on Boko Haram. London: Zed Books, 2017.
  • Mercy Corps. Motivations and Empty Promises.
  • Montclos, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de. “Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis.” London: Chatham House, 2014.
  • Thurston, Alexander. Boko Haram and Religious Exclusivism. Oxford University Press.
  • Thurston, Alexander. “Nigeria’s Mainstream Salafis between Boko Haram and the State.” Islamic Africa 6 (2015): 109–134.
  • Thurston, Alexander. Salafism in Nigeria: Islam, Preaching, and Politics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Walker, Andrew. What Is Boko Haram? Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2012.


  • 1. The first time this claim was made it was done by no less than the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, in December 2014 during an interview with the BBC.

  • 2. Despite the gravity of the situation, it is perhaps one of the least understood humanitarian crises and struggles to obtain the funding necessary to respond.

  • 3. The Fourth Republic’s early years were characterized by the dominance of a single political party; ethnic tensions were mitigated through the rotation of key posts in the government and to elected office among the three most influential ethno-regional blocks.

  • 4. B. Kendhammer, Muslims Talking Politics: Framing Islam, Democracy, and Law in Northern Nigeria (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2016).

  • 5. M.-A. P. Montclos, Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis (London: Chatham House, 2014).

  • 6. J. Harnischfeger, “Boko Haram and its Muslim critics: Observations from Yobe State,” in Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis, ed. M.-A. P. Montclos (London: Chatham House, 2014).

  • 7. Nigeria’s Governor Forum, Ali Modu Sheriff (NGF, 2011).

  • 8. R. Loimier, “Islamic Reform and Political Change: The Example of Abubakar Gumi and the Yan Izala Movement in Northern Nigeria.” In African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters between Sufis and Islamists, ed. E. A. Evers Rosander and D. Westerlund (London: Hurst, 1997), 286–307.

  • 9. Montclos, Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency?

  • 10. Anonymous, “The Popular Discourses of Salafi Radicalism and Salafi Counter-Radicalism in Nigeria: A Case Study of Boko Haram,” Journal of Religion in Africa 42 (2012): 118–144.

  • 11. A. Higazi, “The Origins and Transformation of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria,” Politique Africaine, 130 (2013): 137–164. Anonymous, “The Popular Discourses of Salafi Radicalism and Salafi Counter-Radicalism in Nigeria.”

  • 12. Kendhammer, Muslims Talking Politics.

  • 13. Higazi,“The Origins and Transformation of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria.”

  • 14. A. Adesoji, “The Boko Haram Uprising and Islamic Revivalism in Nigeria,” Africa Spectrum 45(2): 95–108.

  • 15. A. Thurston, Boko Haram and Religious Exclusivism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • 16. Thurston, Boko Haram and Religious Exclusivism.

  • 17. Thurston, Boko Haram and Religious Exclusivism.

  • 18. Adam Higazi, “Mobilisation into and against Boko Haram in North-East Nigeria” in Collective Mobilisations in Africa ed. Kadya Tall, Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle, and Michel Cahen (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 305–58.

  • 19. Higazi, “Mobilisation into and against Boko Haram in North-East Nigeria.”

  • 20. A. Walker, What Is Boko Haram? (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2012).

  • 21. Walker, What Is Boko Haram?

  • 22. Prior to this event, more than 14 reports about the sect had been submitted to the state and federal government by the State Security Service (SSS), suggesting that all levels of government had been made aware of the threat posed by the increasingly volatile group. It is unclear why this moment proved to be a tipping point.

  • 23. Higazi, “The Origins and Transformation of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria.”

  • 24. Higazi, “The Origins and Transformation of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria.”

  • 25. Naijainfoman, Transcript of Muhammad Yusuf Interrogation Before He Was Summarily Executed by Members of the Nigeria Police. Naijainfoman’s Notes, December 11, 2011.

  • 26. M. Smith, Explaining Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Its Violent Insurgency (Africa Check, 2014).

  • 27. Nigeria Social Violence Project, Summary of Data, 2015. (J. H. SAIS, Producer).

  • 28. L. Jacinto, “The Boko Haram Terror Chief Who Came Back from the Dead,” France24, September 25, 2014.

  • 29. E. Beevor, “Coercive Radicalization: Charismatic Authority and the Internal Strategies of ISIS and the Lord’s Resistance Army,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 40.6 (2016): 496–521.

  • 30. BBC, “Nigeria’s Boko Haram Leader Abubakar Shekau in Profile,” BBC, May 9, 2014.

  • 31. Higazi,“The Origins and Transformation of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria.”

  • 32. D. Gartenstein-Ross and J. Zenn, “Boko Haram’s Doomed Marriage to the Islamic State.” War on the Rocks, August 26, 2016.

  • 33. Al Jazeera, Porous Borders and Boko Haram’s Arms Smuggling Operations in Nigeria (Al Jazeera Center for Studies. Al Jazeera, 2013), 1–8.

  • 34. Higazi, “The Origins and Transformation of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria.”

  • 35. Collected by Jacob Zenn.

  • 36. Higazi, “The Origins and Transformation of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria.”

  • 37. Higazi, “The Origins and Transformation of the Boko Haram Insurgency in Northern Nigeria.”

  • 38. G. Kessler, “Boko Haram: Inside the State Department Debate over the ‘Terrorist’ Label,” Washington Post, May 19, 2014.

  • 39. Amnesty International, Nigeria: Trapped in a Cycle of Violence (Washington, DC: Amnesty International, 2012).

  • 40. Collected by Jacob Zenn.

  • 41. Montclos, Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency?

  • 42. M. Faul, “Nigerian Military: Some Officers Selling Arms to Boko Haram,” (Associated Press, September 4, 2016).

  • 43. The most famous of these abductions, the so-called Chibok Abduction, in which the group kidnapped more than 200 girls from their dormitories during a raid on a school in Chibok, was not the first mass abduction. According to a review by Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson, “this tactic emerged in Boko Haram statements in January 2012.” They note that the shift was marked by a video message featuring Shekau, in which he levied the threat of kidnapping the wives of government officials “in response to the government imprisoning the wives of Boko Haram members.”Zenn’s translation of one of Shekau’s YouTube sermons made in September 2012 reads: “they have continued capturing our women . . . In fact, they are even having sex with one of them. Allah, Allah, see us and what we are going through’ (YouTube, September 30, 2012) . . . Since you are now holding our women, (laughs) just wait and see what will happen to your own women . . . to your own wives according to Sharia law.”

  • 44. Human Rights Watch, “Nigeria: A Year On, No Word on 300 Abducted Children,” HRW Blog, March 29, 2016.

  • 45. Human Rights Watch, “Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp”: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northeast Nigeria” (Abuja: HRW, 2014).

  • 46. C. Alfred, “Boko Haram’s Largest School Kidnapping Has Gone Unnoticed,” The Huffington Post, March 1, 2016.

  • 47. Human Rights Watch, “Nigeria: A Year On, No Word on 300 Abducted Children.”

  • 48. Human Rights Watch, “Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp.

  • 49. It is unclear whether or not the insurgents specifically targeted a specific demographic. Despite loud proclamations in some circles that the insurgency was abducting Christians, there are also manifold examples of insurgents abducting Muslims. Given the sect’s narrow definition of what adherence to Islam entails, it is perhaps analytically unhelpful to consider their abductions through a framework of Islam/Christianity.

  • 50. Author-conducted fieldwork.

  • 51. PBS, “What Happened to 10,000 Boys Kidnapped by Boko Haram?” PBS Newshour, August 13, 2016.

  • 52. PBS, “What Happened to 10,000 Boys Kidnapped by Boko Haram?”

  • 53. See, for instance, the tactics of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone.

  • 54. P. Staniland, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

  • 55. Author correspondence with Prof. Mohammed Kyari of Modibbo Adama University.

  • 56. M. Bloom and H. Matfess, “Women as Symbols and Swords in Boko Haram’s Terror,” PRISM 6 (2015): 105–121. J. Warner and H. Matfess, “Exploding Stereotypes: The Unexpected Operational and Demographic Characteristics of Boko Haram’s Suicide Bombers,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (2017).

  • 57. Bloom and Matfess, “Women as Symbols and Swords in Boko Haram’s Terror.”

  • 58. BBC, “Nigeria’s Boko Haram Pledges Allegiance to Islamic State.” BBC, March 7, 2015.

  • 59. BBC, “Nigeria’s Boko Haram Pledges Allegiance to Islamic State.”

  • 60. K. Pisa and T. Hume, “Boko Haram Overtakes ISIS as World’s Deadliest Terror Group, Report Says,” CNN, November 19, 2015.

  • 61. H. Matfess, “In the Fight Against Boko Haram, What’s the Role of the Multinational Joint Task Force?” Africa Watch, August 18, 2016.

  • 62. J. Bavier, “Regional Armies Struggle in Last Push Against Boko Haram,” Reuters, July 25, 2016.

  • 63. Bavier, “Regional Armies Struggle in Last Push Against Boko Haram.”

  • 64. L. Iaccino, “Boko Haram: Has the Nigerian Army Really Defeated Isis-Affiliated Group?” International Business Times, July 28, 2016.

  • 65. Gartenstein-Ross and Zenn, “Boko Haram’s Doomed Marriage to the Islamic State.”

  • 66. P. Staniland, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

  • 67. Uncirculated draft paper prepared for the American Political Science Association conference in 2015.