DAKAR — The militant group known as Boko Haram has waged a nearly five-year insurgency in northern Nigeria. The government launched a military offensive against the sect in May 2013, but attacks against civilians have intensified, leading some to wonder what Boko Haram really wants and whether the insurgency has spun out of control.
Boko Haram's response to the now 10-month-long military offensive has included an increase in attacks on civilians. Militants have raided villages, slaughtered travelers on the highway and mowed down teenagers in school dormitories.
The governor of Borno state said in March Boko Haram is "better armed and better motivated" than the Nigerian military. The question is: motivated by what?
The radical sect was founded in the early 2000s with the goal of bringing "pure" Islamic rule to the Muslim-majority northeast.
But the brutality of the past year raises the question: Is this a fight for a cause or is it just a murderous rampage?
"That's the question everybody is asking," said Fredrick Nwabufo, a Nigerian newspaper columnist and social commentator. "What does Boko Haram want?"
Some say years of corruption and deepening poverty have fueled the sect. But he argues that Boko Haram was born out of what he calls the "ultra-religiousness" of Nigerian society.
He doesn't think they have lost sight of their original goals, despite what he calls their more "aggressive tactics."
"Now they are trying to bite anyway they can," said Nwabufo. "That is what we are seeing, but it doesn't change the fundamental thing that Boko Haram is fighting for… They are fighting for control. That is what they want. They believe that sharia law should be the rule, should be what guides Nigerians, should be what the state should live by."
Nigeria's military has painted Boko Haram as increasingly disorganized and "on the run." Analysts tell VOA otherwise. They say the pattern and organization of attacks over the past year indicate an intact command structure.
Boko Haram always has been a constellation of factions and cells -- some more moderate than others, some closer to al-Qaida and with more "international" jihadist agendas. A splinter group, Ansaru, has kidnapped and killed Westerners.
And yet, so much about Boko Haram is simply not known.
The group's origins are somewhat clear. The sect's founder, Imam Mohammed Yusuf, had a cult-like following. He preached in the open until 2009. His sermons made the rounds of the north for years via cell phones and DVD's.
He preached against Western civilization and what he said was a corrupt Nigerian elite. He said the solution was a "pure" Islamic state in the north. He preached jihad.
The group launched an uprising in July 2009, sparking a bloody police crackdown in which Yusuf was arrested and killed. At least 700 people died in this initial bout of fighting.
Yusuf's deputy, Abubakar Shekau, then took over the sect. In a video in July 2010, he declared that "jihad has only just begun."
Shekau became the public face of the now clandestine group, sending out messages by video. Experts say a desire for retribution against those who allegedly "betrayed" the group has become a recurrent theme. The group's list of declared enemies has only grown.
But while the sect's tactics have evolved over the years, its core causes have not disappeared. Shekau talks about them in a recent video released in February.
His speech is punctuated by gunshots. "The Quran must be supreme," he said. "We must establish Islam in this country."
He makes some new threats, but he also covers familiar territory. He vows to kill Christians "wherever they find them" and claims responsibility for killing a Nigerian Islamic cleric who opposed them. He threatens other prominent Nigerians.
He calls them "infidels." "What makes you infidels," he says, "is democracy and constitution and Western education."
He said Boko Haram "enjoys shedding their blood." That again raises the question - is all this violence really just a means to an end?