News / Africa

Analysts: Once Fundamentalists, Boko Haram Now Mainly Fighters

FILE - A protester calls for the release of schoolgirls abducted in April by Boko Haram.
FILE - A protester calls for the release of schoolgirls abducted in April by Boko Haram.
Heather Murdock

After five years of what is called Nigeria's "Islamist insurgency," some analysts say the conflict with militant group Boko Haram is no longer about any recognizable ideology, as the majority of victims are Muslims.  It has morphed from a religious sect into a violent movement.

More than 12 years ago in northeastern Nigeria, a group of fundamentalist Muslims led by a man named Mohammad Yusuf quietly formed.  Yusuf told followers that in order to live pure, godly lives, they should reject all things Western, especially education.

FILE - Handout photo obtained on August 5, 2009 shows Mohammed Yusuf surrounded by soldiers at Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, on July 30, 2009 shortly after his capture by Nigerian troops.FILE - Handout photo obtained on August 5, 2009 shows Mohammed Yusuf surrounded by soldiers at Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, on July 30, 2009 shortly after his capture by Nigerian troops.
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FILE - Handout photo obtained on August 5, 2009 shows Mohammed Yusuf surrounded by soldiers at Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, on July 30, 2009 shortly after his capture by Nigerian troops.
FILE - Handout photo obtained on August 5, 2009 shows Mohammed Yusuf surrounded by soldiers at Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, on July 30, 2009 shortly after his capture by Nigerian troops.

Some locals thought the group was a bit odd, and nicknamed them “Boko Haram,” which roughly means, “Western education is sin.”

Years later security forces began investigating the group after reports that they were arming themselves and tensions were high.​

​A YouTube video shows Yusuf being interrogated by police in 2009.  In July that same year, he was killed while in police custody.

A video shows his body, mangled and torn.  Clashes between security forces and sect members erupted, killing hundreds of people that year.  

A violent turn

A year later, Boko Haram re-emerged, heavily armed.  Since then, the carnage has been relentless, with thousands of people killed this year alone.  Hundreds of teenage girls have been held captive for nearly three months now, and hundreds of other schoolchildren have been murdered in their beds.
 

FILE - A video from Boko Haram claims to show the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls in a screengrab taken May 12, 2014.FILE - A video from Boko Haram claims to show the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls in a screengrab taken May 12, 2014.
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FILE - A video from Boko Haram claims to show the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls in a screengrab taken May 12, 2014.
FILE - A video from Boko Haram claims to show the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls in a screengrab taken May 12, 2014.

The spokesman for the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria, Sheik Abdullahi Bayero, says the violence has nothing to do with Islamism, which is the belief that Islam is the best political system.  
 
“The people called Boko Haram, they claim to be fighting for the cause of Islam and the same time picking arms to kill Muslims," said Bayero. "And what do you call that?  Agitating they want to have an Islamic state or rather an Islamic nation?  And you can imagine picking arms and killing the Muslims?  Who will they rule after killing the Muslims?"

Other religious leaders disagree, saying the insurgency is part of a larger religious conflict.  Nigeria is about half Muslim and half Christian, and while every city in the country has Muslims and Christians living together in peace, the two groups are also often separated along political, geographical and tribal lines.  
 
Religious violence

Violence between Muslims and Christians unrelated to Boko Haram has also killed thousands of people in the past four years.
 

Soldiers stand guard outside St. Rita's Catholic church following a suicide bombing in Kaduna, Nigeria, Oct. 28, 2012.Soldiers stand guard outside St. Rita's Catholic church following a suicide bombing in Kaduna, Nigeria, Oct. 28, 2012.
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Soldiers stand guard outside St. Rita's Catholic church following a suicide bombing in Kaduna, Nigeria, Oct. 28, 2012.
Soldiers stand guard outside St. Rita's Catholic church following a suicide bombing in Kaduna, Nigeria, Oct. 28, 2012.

“Basically the offensive is against the church.  It’s against Christianity and Christians," said Ayo Oritsejafor, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria. "But right now, in the last six months or thereabout they’ve started attacking Muslims as well.”

He says Boko Haram targets Muslims that do not agree with their ideology, citing the murders of several prominent sheiks that preached against extremism.
 
“There are also Muslims that give out information to security agents about these people because they don’t believe in it so they give out information.  They also go after those people and kill them,” Oritsejafor said.

Other religious leaders say Boko Haram’s targets are so varied that it is impossible to tell what the group’s real goals are.

“Only those who are in Boko Haram will tell you whether it is religion or not religion.  Only those that are part and parcel of it that knows what they want to achieve,” said Pastor Yohanna Buru, the president of the Peace Revival and Reconciliation Foundation of Nigeria.

FILE - Victims of a suicide bomb explosion at a World Cup viewing center receive treatment at Sani Abacha specialist hospital in Damaturu, Nigeria, June 18, 2014.FILE - Victims of a suicide bomb explosion at a World Cup viewing center receive treatment at Sani Abacha specialist hospital in Damaturu, Nigeria, June 18, 2014.
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FILE - Victims of a suicide bomb explosion at a World Cup viewing center receive treatment at Sani Abacha specialist hospital in Damaturu, Nigeria, June 18, 2014.
FILE - Victims of a suicide bomb explosion at a World Cup viewing center receive treatment at Sani Abacha specialist hospital in Damaturu, Nigeria, June 18, 2014.

Analysts say Boko Haram now appears to be capturing villages and towns, and is increasingly well-armed, with leaders from the northeast - a region that has been under emergency rule for more than a year - saying the group even has helicopters dropping food and arms into the forest.
 
The group still says non-Islamic education is punishable by death, but has not explained what kind of behavior will spare people from its ruthless attacks.

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