Understanding the Boko Haram Kidnappings in Nigeria

  • Copy by: Amy Purtill
  • image via: TIME

By now, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is all too familiar. On April 15, the kidnapping of 218 Nigerian school girls captured the world’s attention, and prompted viral activism as a form of pressure on the Nigerian government; the campaign started on the White House website, on Change.org, and on Facebook, demanding to Bring Back Our Girls. Is it working? It’s worth a try. So by now we know what this group did, but why did they do it? Here’s some background on who the Boko Haram really are, where they came from, and what they want. 

Boko Haram is not the group’s official name. It’s actually a nickname given to them by locals in the city of Maiduguri, where they group began. Their official name, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, is Arabic and means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Phophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Meaning roughly, “Western education is forbidden” which already clues us in to their motives for kidnapping the girls. 

Nigeria’s religious and economic divides follow pretty straightforward geographic lines. The southern states are generally Christian, and since the industrial and financial infrastructure is largely concentrated in the south, they tend to be much more affluent than the Northern states, which are mostly Muslim. This group’s roots extend back to British Imperialism. In 1903, the region came under British control, bringing many of the hallmarks of the western world into the area for the first time — including western education. Since this first exposure, there has been resistance to the presence of western schools from some local Muslims.

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2002: Formation of Boko Haram
Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic Muslim cleric in Maiduguri, capitalized on a hundred years of distrust and resentment towards Western influence in the region when he formed the group and opened a large religious complex. His complex included an Islamic school, which attracted students from around Nigeria and even the neighboring countries of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. Since the group’s ultimate goal is the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria, the school quickly became a recruitment ground for young Jihadists.

2009: Turn to militarism 
Boko Haram’s militarism began in 2009, with a series of attacks on police stations and government buildings in the city of Maiduguri. The attacks led to shootouts between the Jihadists and police in the streets, in which hundreds were killed, and thousands of residents fled the city to escape the violence. In retaliation, the Nigerian military raided the group’s headquarters in the religious center and arrested Mohammed Yusuf. He later died in police custody. The military declared victory over the group, but they quickly reorganized under a new leader, Abu bakar Shekau, who steered the group in a more radical-militarist direction. 

2010: Christmas bombings
On Christmas Eve, 32 worshippers were killed in Boko Haram bomb attacks in the central Plateau state, which is located between the Christian south and Muslim north. It was to be the first of a number of attacks on Christian holidays, including another attack on Christmas day in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, and another attack on Easter services in the northern city of Kaduna in 2012.

2011: Suicide bombings begin
June – A Boko Haram member rams a car into the police headquarters in Abuja, killing eight people before joining the convoy of the city’s police chief and detonating a bomb, killing himself. The police chief, Gen Hafiz Ringim, was quickly fired for his failure to protect his own policemen. 

August – The group explodes a car bomb at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, killing 23 people. This attack was clearly directed at the UN as an international organization, and was the first indication that Boko Harm sees itself not as a local group but as a part of a global Jihad. 

2012: Mosque bombings
January – In the first weeks of 2012, the group carries out its bloodiest attack yet, in coordinated bombing and gun attacks in the city of Kano, which is the largest majority-Muslim city in the North. 185 people were killed.

July – A suicide bomber targets a mosque in Maiduguri after Friday prayers, killing five worshippers. The attack was indicative of Boko Haram’s tactics of violence and intimidation not only of Christian worshippers, but also more moderate Muslims who refuse to support the group.

2013: The first abductions
February – A French family is abducted as they return from a trip to Waza national park in neighboring Cameroon. Boko Haram announce that they have kidnapped the family of seven, including four children aged 5 to 12, in retaliation for France’s intervention against Islamist militants in Mali. The family is released two months later. 

May – The group captures their first large group of women and children, and announces that they will be treated as slaves. The group announces in a video that the abductees have been taken in response to the arrest of members’ wives and children. President Goodluck Jonathan declares a state of emergency in the states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa to combat the group’s increasingly audacious attacks.

2014: School girls kidnapped
April – On the night of April 15, gunmen break into a girls’ school in Chibok, abducting more than 200 students. The following day, the Nigerian military confirms the event, but says that most of the girls managed to escape, and only eight girls are still missing. Two days later, Major General Chris Olukolade admits that the first report was incorrect, but argues that it was not intended to mislead. Parents insist that over 200 girls are still missing, and the military has not rescued any of them. The school’s headmistress, Asabe Kwambura, says that at least 190 girls are still missing. The number of girls suspected missing raises to 276 by the end of the month.

May – Parents of the missing girls stage a protest in Chibok, calling on the government to do more to find them. 53 of the initial abductees escape safely. On May 4th, President Goodluck Jonathan makes his first remarks regarding the kidnapping, saying that his government is looking for help from world powers to deal with that he called Nigeria’s “security challenge.” By May 7th, the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag reaches one million tweets. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shakau releases a video on the 12th, saying that he would agree to release the girls only if the Nigerian government free about 100 Boko Haram members being held in prison. The video showed approximately 100 of the girls sitting on the floor, fully covered in robes and headscarves. Shekau claims that many of them have already converted to Islam. 

June – Parents continue to express frustration with the Nigerian government’s perceived lack of action, and no progress has been made in finding the girls. Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby tells reporters on the 27th, “We don’t have any better idea today that we did before about where these girls are.” Meanwhile, Boko Haram has stepped up attacks in the area, including in Chibok. On the 25th, an attack near a shopping center left at least 22 people dead. 

July –  On the 7th, it is reported that 63 women and children have escaped after being held as hostages by Boko Haram. They were not affiliated with the school girls, but were captured after a four-day siege of their village of Kummabza when 30 men were killed and the village was destroyed. 

Human rights watch believes that Boko Haram has killed more than 900 people since 2009.

But who are we really dealing with here?
One of the problems of understanding Boko Haram is that it’s hard to know who they really are. There are a few different groups, all with different motivations, claiming to be Boko Haram. For some in Nigeria, Boko Haram is a convenient cover for all kinds of corruption. At the core of the group is still the original followers of Yusuf, working to carry out his vision and bring revenge on the state for his death. However, there are at least three other groups who identify as Boko Haram. First, there are a number of politicians in the region who have plenty to gain from its continued existence, and a number of high-profile politicians have been linked to elements of the group. Second, there are private security forces in the area, whose political and religious affiliations may be completely out of line with the terrorist group, but who are fighting on its behalf for financial gain. Additionally, the Nigerian government is spending a huge amount of money on private security forces of their own in the area, and there are rumors of security agents going rogue to increase demand for their contracts from the government. Finally, there are plenty of your regular, run-of-the-mill thugs and criminals who are currently using Boko Haram’s name as a cover for bank robberies and other crimes for financial gain. What all of this means at the end of the day is that Boko Haram is an incredibly powerful force to be reckoned with. 

What about the Nigerian government?
One of the most frustrating parts of this tragedy is the Nigerian government’s seemingly blundering response, from the dramatically incorrect initial reports to President Goodluck Jonathan’s lead feet in making a statement.  

One possible answer is that it seems that President Jonathan and his supporters have picked up the idea that this entire thing is a hoax, created by rival political forces in the north of the country, which was designed to embarrass him – next year is an election year in Nigeria, after all.  President Jonathan’s wife, Patience Jonathan, even went so far as to accuse advocates for the parents of the girls of being Boko Haram members themselves and called for their arrests. Political delusions aside, the girls’ capture has embarrassed Jonathan’s government in a second way, by drawing attention to the weakness of the Nigerian military. The military in Nigeria is terribly corrupted, which means that much of the money allocated to it winds up being spent on anything but the military. Soldiers have complained of a lack of food, shelter, equipment, and pay. All of this exposes soldiers to increased dangers themselves, as their security can rarely be guaranteed, which of course makes the soldiers themselves much less willing to go barreling after a famously brutal fighting force.

So what can be done?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there are many options for getting the girls back. As we’ve already seen, we shouldn’t be holding our collective breath for the Nigerian government to make it happen. So what, then? Foreign troops could go into the region, but even if they knew where the girls were, it’s pretty much universally agreed that simply charging in and taking them would not be possible. Boko Haram generally do not go down without a fight, and such an attack could wind up killing and injuring more girls than it saves. Boko Haram has already stated that they would release the girls in a prisoner exchange with the government. If President Jonathan met that request, the best we can do is hope that Shekau stays true to his word and releases the girls. Although the famous George W. Bush refrain of “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” rings in our ears, it may be that the best way to bring these girls home.

Also see: Understanding the Crisis in Ukraine


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