An image of Boko Haram who pledged allegiance to th Islamic state in 2016.

An Overview of Boko Haram, the ‘Nigerian Taliban’

#BringBackOurGirls was the result of the actions of Boko Haram, whose desire for a pure Islamic Nigerian state has led to over 60,000 deaths since 2011.

In 2014, Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist organization, abducted 276 female students. This shocked the world and started international campaigns for the Nigerian government to do more to rescue all of them.

The actions of Boko Haram started long before and their methods to spread their message became increasingly violent as the years passed.

Boko Haram

An image of Boko Haram militants in Nigeria
image source:

The Nigerian-based group believes that corrupt, false Muslims seized northern politics. Their mission is to overthrow the Nigerian government and put an Islamic Sharia law-based regime in place, therefore creating a pure Islamic state.

Boko is from the Colonial English word for “book” and haram is an Arabic term meaning “forbidden by Islamic law”. Essentially, “Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden”.

The organization also refers to itself as “Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād” (Group of the Sunni people for the Calling and Jihad) and the “Nigerian Taliban”.

An Overview of Sharia Law

Sharia law is the Islamic legal system that derives from the Qur’an, Islam’s Holy book, and Sunna and Hadith (the deeds and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).

It’s a code of living for Muslims that includes prayers, fasting, and donations to the poor. It aims to guide Muslims in an understanding of how they should lead every aspect of their lives according to God’s wishes.

The Origin of Boko Haram

Muhammad Yusuf founded the organization in 2002 in Maiduguri, Borno state, Nigeria. It started as a Sunni Islamic sect to oppose Western education and established an Islamic sext that follows the Prophet Muhammad’s example.

Yusuf was a well-known preacher and advocate of the Izala sect of Islam. He began radicalizing his speech to reject all non-Muslim aspects of Nigerian society.

Soon after, he opened a religious complex in Maiduguri that attracted students from poor Muslim families across the country. Moreover, some sources report the school’s purpose was also to convert and recruit future jihadis.

They expanded into Yobe state and set up another base, nicknamed “Afghanistan”, near the Nigeria-Niger border in 2003.

In the same year, it became known that the ideologies of and events by individuals and groups around the world, such as Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, inspired Boko Haram further.

The First Attack

A group of Yusuf’s students formed a community near Kanama, Nigeria. These group members, called “Al Sunna Wal Jamma” (Followers of the Prophet’s Teachings), were the first of his followers to instigate violence against the Nigerian government.

However, the Nigerian government overruled the sect.

As a result, on December 24, 2003, Boko Haram conducted its first attack. It occupied a police station and raised the Afghan Taliban flag in Geiam and Kanama in the Yobe state. It remains unknown how many were killed or wounded.

A Turn to Political Violence

Before 2009, the group was less political and focused more on separating themselves from secular society.

In July 2009, there was an altercation between the group and the military and local police forces. The group members were, allegedly, subjected to the excessive use of police force and were unable to get an official investigation into the matter.

The group then launched a series of attacks on police posts and churches and even set a prison on fire, which killed many police officers in the process.

The police couldn’t the situation and called the Multinational Joint Military Task Force, which left more than 700 Boko Haram members dead and destroyed the mosque used as their headquarters.

Later, the military arrested Yusuf and other leaders of Boko Haram and handed them over to the police.

Days later, Yusuf and his colleagues had their bullet-filled corpses displayed in public, infuriating the organization and others. Soon after, Boko Haram seemed to disband. They later resurfaced in 2010 under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s deputy.

A campaign of violence that started in 2010 continues to this day.

Boko Haram in 2010

The attacks grew more frequent, primarily targeting north-eastern and central Nigeria. They targeted government buildings, military barracks, the police, and Christian churches and schools.

Security reports state that Boko Haram had links with other terrorist networks, like al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Police and military pursued the group’s members. Extrajudicial violence and killings were common and resulted in further heightened tensions in the country and, additionally, condemnation by human rights groups.

On September 7, the group attacked a prison in the city of Bauchi. They released 700 inmates, including 10 Boko Haram members.

On December 24, they attacked two Christian churches in Maiduguri and detonated explosives in Christian neighborhoods in Jos, Plateau state, killing more than 30 people.

A High-Profile Target and Christmas

During the presidential inauguration of Goodluck Johnathan on May 29, 2011, as a protest, Boko Haram carried out a series of bombings on the same day.

This started the newly appointed president’s fight against Boko Haram. It grew worse when Boko Haram hit its first high-profile international target in Nigeria. On August 26, 2011, a suicide bomber crashed a car into a United Nations (UN) building in Abuja, killing 23 people and injuring more than 100.

Moreover, on Christmas Day 2011, Boko Haram caused a string of bombings across the country. In the outskirts of Abuja, 37 people died in a church after its roof was blown off.

After the attack on the UN buildings and Christmas Day, President Johnathan declared a state of emergency on New Year’s Eve in local government areas of Jos, Borno, Robe, and Niger and closed the international borders in the northeast.

A Growth in Violence

The violence in Boko Haram’s attacks grew in 2012.

It began with a series of small-scale attacks on Christians and members of the Igbo ethnic group.

The deadliest attack occurred on January 20, 2010. Boko Haram coordinated a series of bombings and shooting sprees in the city of Kano, primarily targeting police stations and government offices, and killed 190 people.

Among their methods of attack were car bombs, suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and uniformed gunmen.

Certain estimates show that Boko Haram and security forces pursuing the group killed over 2800 people.

The Rise of Ansaru

In January 2012, tensions grew between Mamman Nur, leader of an independent faction in Boko Haram, and Shekau.

Members who opposed killing Muslims split from Boko Haram to form Ansaru. Originally, militants who supported Nur’s leadership over Shekau’s were Ansaru, but Nur’s role remains unknown.

Ansaru targeted foreigners in northern Nigeria and its neighbors between 2013 and 2014. They stopped their attacks in 2014 and authorities captured its leaders in 2016, ending its campaign.

Boko Haram in 2013

By 2013, Boko Haram took over many rural local government areas in north-eastern states and gained strength from these takeovers.

Government security forces pursued the group but did not always discriminate between the organization’s members and civilians. As a result, tensions grew in an already on-edge country and encouraged widespread condemnation from human rights groups.

On April 16 and 17, in Baga, Borno state, the organization massacred dozens of civilians and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses during a battle between the organization and the Nigerian army.

Around the same time, Shekau dismissed President Jonathan’s proposal to grant amnesty to Boko Haram members if they disarm. Shekau further declared that the members had done nothing wrong worth needing amnesty.

In May 2013, Boko Haram launched coordinated attacks in Bam of Borno state. These left more than 50 dead and destroyed numerous police, military, and government buildings.

The Government’s Offense

The coordinated attacks released over 100 inmates from a prison in the town. The government responded by launching its largest-scale military offensive against Boko Haram.

On the ground, thousands of troops, along with a campaign of air strikes, were ready to combat Boko Haram. However, even with the government’s offence, Boko Haram continued its violent acts.

In June 2013, President Johnathan officially declared Boko Haram a terrorist group and banned it under Nigerian law. Any members of affiliations of Boko Haram would be prosecuted under the country’s Terrorism Prevention Act. The new law aimed to make it easier for authorities to prosecute members of the group legally.

The attacks continued. Gunmen attacked the Government Secondary School in Mamud, Yobe state, and killed almost 42 people. The majority were students.

By the end of 2013, Boko Haram caused 1200 deaths.

The Town of Benisheik

In September 2013, Boko Haram raided Benisheik.

They entered the city and set fire to numerous buildings. Gunmen, disguised in military uniforms, set up checkpoints outside of the town and shot those trying to flee. They killed 161 people: 142 travelers, 14 citizens, three police officers, and two soldiers.

Many believe they launched the attack in response to the self-defense militias attempting to protect the city.

Boko Haram received further training from al-Qaeda, which intensified its attacks.

Soon after the raid, they gained access to the male hostel in the College of Agriculture in Gujba, Yobe state, and killed 44 people, students, and teachers.

By 2014, their attacks continued, particularly in the northeast, raiding villages, terrorizing and murdering civilians, and setting up bombs in large towns and cities.

Boko Haram and the Education System

A photograph of the Chibok female students in 2014 who inspired the #BringBackOurGirls movement.
Chibok female students in 2014. Image source:

One of Boko Haram’s main targets was schools. They stated they will continue to target them if the Nigerian government continues to interfere with traditional Islamic education.

Due to the attacks, 10,000 children have been unable to attend school.

They’re also known to kidnap female students, whom they believe shouldn’t be educated, and use them as cooks or sexual objects. Many believe this is a result of being heavily influenced by al-Qaeda.

Scholars suggest that Boko Haram may use the kidnapped young women and girls, not only as sexual objects, but to intimidate civilians into compliance.

Female Students of Chibok

Boko Haram received worldwide condemnation after kidnapping 276 female students from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state, on April 14, 2014.

Due to the deteriorating security conditions, the school closed for four weeks (before the attack) but reopened for students to take their final physics exam.

Trucks of Boko Haram militants forced 276 female students, ages 16 to 18, into the trucks and drove towards Sambisa Forest; a nature reserve Boko Haram took over to wage war against the government.

57 girls managed to escape after jumping from the trucks.

Amnesty International condemned the Nigerian government for failing to prevent the kidnappings after receiving a warning four hours before they took place.

The Nigerian military conformed the four-hour advance notice of the attack and stated their over-extended forces were unable to mobilize reinforcements.

In May 2014, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Boko Haram. The Council froze the organization’s members’ assets and issued travel bans and an arms embargo.


The hashtag inspired campaigns on social media to pressure the Nigerian government to do more to rescue the missing girls.

In October 2014, the government announced its negotiations with Boko Haram for a ceasefire and that the girls would be released shortly.

However, two weeks after the announcement, Boko Haram released a video where Shekau denounced the negotiated ceasefire. He claimed the missing girls had already converted to Islam and married off to Boko Haram members.

In January 2018, the Nigerian government negotiated with the terrorist organization. The International Committee of the Red Cross facilitated the release of the girls in exchange for Boko Haram militants, resulting in 106 girls being released.

Following the girls’ release, Boko haram released another video that featured more kidnapped women and the remaining Chibok girls.

Kidnappings by Boko Haram

In addition to the Chibok students, in January 2015, Boko Haram kidnapped 40 boys and young men from the Malari village.

They kidnapped 110 schoolgirls, ages 11 to 19, in February 2018.

In December 2020, masked gunmen took more than 500 boys from a secondary school in Kankara, Katsina state. Boko Haram took responsibility for the abduction. Seven days later, 344 boys were released due to successful negotiations by the Nigerian government.

Two mass kidnappings occurred in February 2021.

The first was when gunmen kidnapped 40 people, which included 27 students, from a school in north-central Nigeria.

The second was the 317 students abducted from the Girls Science Secondary School in Jangebe, Zamfara state.

In March 2021, 29 students, 23 female and 16 male, were taken from the Federal College of Forestry Mechanisation in Afaka, Kaduna state.

According to a UNICEF report from April 2018, more than 1000 children have been kidnapped since 2015.

Boko Haram and the Islamic State

An image of Boko Haram who pledged allegiance to th Islamic state in 2016.
image source:

In March 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in an online audio message that featured Shekau. At the same time, Boko Haram militants traveled by train to an IS military camp.

IS accepted the pledge and referred to Boko Haram as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) and encouraged Muslims to join Boko Haram and other West African militant groups.

On August 3, 2016, IS announced Abu Musab al-Barnawai, son of Muhammad Yusuf, would assume leadership of Boko Haram. Two days later, on August 5, Shekau said that Barnawi’s followers manipulated IS leaders to cut him off in a coup and his followers wouldn’t follow Barwani.

This led to a split within Boko Haram, with Barnawi leading one of the factions.

Some sources say that another reason for the split was because of Shekau’s indiscriminate use of violence against Muslims.

Boko Haram Attacks

A photograph of the 110 civilians killed by Boko Haram in a farming community.
110 of Boko Haram’s victims of a farming community. image source:

Most of their attacks involved suicide bombers detonating in markets, universities, and displacement camps, in addition to militants raiding villages.

Some of their most horrific acts include:

  • January 30, 2016: suicide bombers attacked Dalori and allegedly burned children alive, resulting in 86 deaths and an unknown number of injured.
  • August 15, 2017: three female suicide bombers attack an internal displacement camp and a market in northeastern Nigeria. They caused 20 deaths and injured over 80 people.
  • November 21, 2017: teenage suicide bombers detonated explosives during morning prayer services at a mosque in Mubi. They killed over 50 people.

Statistics show that between 2011 and 2022, Boko Haram caused 35,646 deaths in Borno, 5747 in Zamfara, 5462 in Kaduna, 4097 in Adamawa, 3774 in Benue, 3359 in Plateau, and 3176 in Yobe.

In total, they caused 61,261 deaths across the Nigerian states alone.


A photograph of Nigerians celebrating the return of their lost girls.
image source:

There has been international intervention to help innocent Nigerian civilians combat the horrors they faced under the Boko Haram regime.

Countless families wait for their sons and daughters to return and hope there’s a chance they haven’t been indoctrinated to the point of no return.

Boko Haram, particularly ISWAP, continues to wreak havoc on the country and those who choose to come and help.

HBOMAX released a documentary, Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram, that tells the stories and experiences of the girls taken by Boko Haram and how they adapted to society once rescued.

The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now, do you begin to understand me?

– George Orwell

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