Who Are The Boko Haram Islamists?

Published January 24, 2015
Updated October 31, 2019

As the world reacted to the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, Boko Haram terrorists slaughtered thousands. Who are they?

While the media and public were fixated on the January terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo’s Paris headquarters, a village in the northern Borno State of Nigeria was the site of a five-day bloodbath committed by the radical Islamist and terrorist organization Boko Haram.

Some estimate that 2,000 people died, but the Nigerian government will not confirm any more than 150 deaths. The president, Goodluck Jonathan, is up for re-election in February and has done little to address the rising death toll as the group burns a swath of terror across northern Nigeria, killing countless civilians.

So, who are the Boko Haram Islamists? Where did they come from and how have they been able to commit their crimes under the media radar?

Boko Haram Group
Boko Haram was established by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002 in Maiduguri, a city in northern Nigeria. Nigeria is divided along religious lines, with majority Muslim populations in the North and Christians in the South. Source: The Guardian

Boko Haram Unit
The name of the group translates to “Western education is forbidden.” Given Nigeria’s colonial past (parts of northern Nigeria fell under British control in 1903, and Nigeria only became independent in 1960), anti-Western sentiments make some sense. Yusuf championed that ideology, and hoped to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. He decried the corruption of the Nigerian government, which gained him many followers. Source: Bella Naija

Boko Haram Map
The group remained relatively peaceful until 2009, when police seized Boko Haram headquarters and discovered bomb making supplies and weapons. Source: The Daily Mail

Boko Haram
Yusuf was suspiciously killed while in police custody and Boko Haram has been on the warpath to create an Islamic State ever since. Churches, police stations and prisons have been burned in retaliation. Source: SFC Gate

Boko Haram Abu Bakar
The organization’s current leader, Abubakar Shekau, took power after the death of Yusuf. He shows up periodically in videos released by the group. Source: The Daily Mail

Boko Haram Baga Attack
Under his leadership, the terror group has been connected to nearly 4,700 deaths within the country. In 2013, the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in northern Nigeria, and sent in troops to oust Boko Haram. Source: The Guardian

Boko Haram Car Fires
Their tactics haven’t worked. Citizens are afraid of both the terrorists and the military meant to protect them. Groups have banded together to form militias that carry out extrajudicial killings. Source: BBC

Following multiple bombings in the capital city of Abuja in 2014, the Nigerian government spent $470 million on Chinese CCTVs to monitor its citizens, but the system doesn’t work. Source: Front Page Mag

Boko Haram Goodluck Jonathan
Goodluck Jonathan finally visited the northern state of Borno, the stronghold for Boko Haram, two weeks following the five-day massacre in Baga. He stated that the government is working to combat terrorism, but did not give any specifics. Source: The Guardian

Boko Haram Car Bomb
An estimated 27 Nigerians were slaughtered every day in terror-related attacks in 2014. Why are people not more worried? Source: The Daily Mail

Boko Haram Victims
Nigeria’s modern history is fraught with military dictatorships, so it’s no surprise that it has Africa’s largest standing army. Due to its status as Africa’s top oil producer, Nigeria is also Africa’s largest economy (in terms of GDP). And yet, throwing money at the problem doesn’t seem to be helping. Source: Naijagists

Boko Haram Hospital
Aside from shoddy Chinese surveillance, the country has spent 20% of its overall budget on bomb detection units, communications and transport to the tune of $5.5 billion. Boko Haram still thrives. Source: The Nation Online

Boko Haram Church
Elections will take place in February 2015 and Goodluck Jonathan has a tough fight. Jonathan is an evangelical Christian, and his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari is a Muslim from the northern part of the country, and once led a military coup. Source: BBC

Boko Haram Children
Buhari has earned a solid reputation for fighting corruption, and given their vulnerability and fear, citizens may look to Buhari to save them from the horror of Boko Haram. Source: Trust

Boko Haram ATV
Source: This Is 50

Boko Haram Debris
The group has maintained steady attacks since 2011, bombing diverse targets including churches, markets and even mosques. Source: National Geographic

Boko Group
The group also brought suicide bombing to the country, employing the tactic in an attack on a police station and the UN headquarters in Abuja. Source: CBC

Once uncommon, suicide bombers were only used by Al-Shabaab in Somalia and very rarely by AQIM in Niger. Source: Al Jazeera

Boko Haram Hunters
Local hunters have taken up arms to defend their villages against Boko Haram. Source: International Business Times

Boko Haram Embassy
Between the rapes and murders committed by Boko Haram and the extrajudicial killings and denial of human rights by the government, Amnesty International has been critical of local security forces and Boko Haram. Source: National Geographic

Boko Haram Obama
Boko Haram opposes the education of girls and has enacted mass kidnappings. In April 2014, the group kidnapped approximately 276 girls from Chibok, Nigeria, which spurred an international outcry along with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, inspiring public figures like Michelle Obama to take a stand. Source: Wikipedia

Boko Haram Girls
While some managed to escape, at least 200 more remain missing, and could be held in camps outside of Nigeria. Shekau stated that he would sell the girls into slavery. Source: The Daily Mail

Boko Haram Mosque Attack
In November 2014, Boko Haram attacked the Kano Central Mosque in Kano, Nigeria, killing more than 100 worshippers. Source: The Daily Mail

Boko Haram Deaths Chart
Most of the attacks committed by Boko Haram have been focused on private citizens, not education or religion. Source: BBC

Boko Haram Escapees
Boko Haram members kidnapped French tourists along the Cameroon border in 2013. They were later released along with 16 other hostages for the sum of $3.15 million. Source: The Guardian

Boko Haram Cameroon
French and Cameroonian negotiators brokered the deal but didn’t divulge who made the payment. Cameroonian soldiers, pictured here, keep patrol along the border with Nigeria. Source: BBC

Boko Haram Destroyed Truck
Boko Haram stays well funded with donations from sympathizers. Recent reports also link Boko Haram with the elephant poaching industry and drug-trafficking into Europe. Source: Breitbart

Boko Haram Jos Attack
Boko Haram announced the existence of an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria in August of 2014. Said Shekau, “We are an Islamic caliphate. We have nothing to do with Nigeria. We don’t believe in this name.” Source: The Telegraph

Boko Haram French Cement
In December, they raided villages along the Cameroonian border, seizing children to convert into child soldiers. Source: Arab News

Boko Haram Satellite
Prior to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram was laying waste to the village of Baga. The offensive lasted five days and as satellite photos show, there’s nothing left of the town. Source: The Guardian

Boko Haram Protest
Daily rallies by Bring Back Our Girls demonstrators continue in Abuja despite police attempts to shut them down. Meanwhile, Boko Haram keeps pushing its malevolent agenda. While analysts concede that Nigeria has a history of producing militant Islamist groups, none have been as tenacious, ambitious and long lasting as Boko Haram. Unless the Nigerian government takes measures to reduce northern Nigeria’s chronic poverty and develop an education system that local Muslims support, analysts think it’s unlikely that Boko Haram will disappear any time soon. Source: Foreign Affairs

Below, a BBC reporter speaks with people who knew Boko Haram's current leader, Abubakar Shekau:

Al-Jazeera looks into the historical context of Boko Haram:

Susan Sims
When she's not fighting crime or cleaning the garbage disposal, you can find Susan writing about travel, science and things that go bump in the night.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Sims, Susan. "Who Are The Boko Haram Islamists?." AllThatsInteresting.com, January 24, 2015, https://allthatsinteresting.com/boko-haram. Accessed May 27, 2024.