On 26 July 2009, Boko Haram launched its first series of attacks on several police stations across northern Nigeria, culminating in a four-day standoff with security forces that ended with the death of hundreds of its members including founder and first leader, Muhammed Yusuf. As surviving members went underground to plan a deadly insurgency, Nigerian authorities expressed confidence that the group had been defeated. The following summer, Boko Haram returned under new leadership with an official name and a fresh mode of operation that would prove to be far more sophisticated and lethal than the original.
Over the past 12 years, Boko Haram has grown into one of the most influential and dominant terrorist groups in the world. Though the group has gained notoriety for its violence and mass kidnappings in Nigeria’s North East, Boko Haram is today a transnational threat that has sustained an insurgency despite both regional and international military counterterrorism efforts. Around the Lake Chad Basin, including in Niger, Cameroon and Chad, the militants of Boko Haram stage daily attacks and raids. This is further complicating efforts to manage other conflicts across the Sahel, creating a complex jihadist problem encasing either side of West Africa.
The threat from Boko Haram became more acute following its splintering into three distinct factions between 2012 and 2016, and the past three years have proved the deadliest ever for security forces battling the group. While international actors have long been driven by the view that Boko Haram and its constituent factions would be weakened by the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), this has not come to pass and efforts to defeat the group have fallen short. In fact, the ISIS-allied faction of Boko Haram became stronger after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2019.
Boko Haram started as a local Islamic movement when a group of radical preachers infiltrated religious, social and political circles in northeastern Nigeria. Nearly 20 years later, the power that Boko Haram wields at the local level continues to sustain it. Our report examines the roots of Boko Haram by highlighting key phases in its evolution. It explores the roles of the four individuals who formed the group, defined its ideology, framed its policies and recruited its early followers, eventually commandeering them into violence.
We show how Boko Haram is inherently a homegrown group that has emerged from the socioeconomic, political and religious milieu of North East Nigeria but whose influence can also be traced to the Middle East, where the global jihadist movement originated. We reveal how the founders leveraged mosques and religious networks to build a footprint locally and establish credibility while cleverly exploiting their ethnic heritage to enhance recruitment beyond ordinary Islamic followers – and facilitate expansion beyond Nigeria. We delve into the ways Boko Haram identified social vulnerabilities in and around the Nigerian city of Maiduguri, particularly among those communities lacking education or with low literacy to enable a sweeping radicalisation campaign across the North East. These at-risk communities became integral to Boko Haram’s funding channels, with militants soliciting donations from locals including prominent and respected figures.
Finally, we describe the internal disputes and operational divergences that gave rise to the three distinct terrorist factions active in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin today. Despite numerous changes in leadership and rank, defections to and from groups, variations in territorial objectives and differing affiliations to global jihadi organisations, these factions all sprang from the same violent ideology that arose in Nigeria’s North East almost 20 years ago. This ideology still strives for Islamic systems and government to replace secular ones, with militants fighting under a belief that their violent campaign is a divine project not only sanctioned by Islam but handsomely rewarded by Allah.
As part of the Tony Blair Institute’s Africa Frontiers series, this report draws on primary Hausa, Kanuri and Arabic-language evidence and eyewitness accounts, including the author’s extensive interviews with former classmates and associates of three of the four founders – Muhammed Yusuf, Muhammed Ali and Mamman Nur. Our report benefits from deep personal and professional knowledge of Boko Haram. Hailing from some of the same towns as the group’s leaders, the author is in a unique position to examine first-hand evidence from friends and neighbours who sadly went on to join Boko Haram.
INTERNATIONAL FACE, LOCAL ROOTS
Sub-Saharan Africa’s jihadist landscape is today characterised by myriad al-Qaeda and ISIS factions operating in the Lake Chad region and the Sahel; ISIS-backed insurgencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Mozambique; and the 18-year-long al-Shabaab campaign in Somalia, which is also facilitated by al-Qaeda. While these jihadist threats have an international face, the enemy is a local one. To comprehensively defeat it means understanding the ethnic, social, religious, political and economic contexts within which each faction operates. Like Boko Haram, many emerged from local mosques and community circles, evolving into violent factions by exploiting similar social grievances and channelling gaps in welfare to their advantage. Boko Haram set a precedent in the early 2000s when it showed how a radical Islamic group could become a dominant force for change by radicalising at scale and employing a sustained terrorist agenda. While the Taliban was successful in creating a homegrown violent extremist group, its movement was born out of conflict and war, with militant members benefitting from decades of military expertise. By contrast, Boko Haram’s scholarly founders and ideologues had to learn to love war.
From its origins as a local religious movement to its emergence as one of the biggest threats in the Lake Chad Basin, Boko Haram’s path to dominance isn’t one that jihadi organisations have always followed. But a new wave of Islamist terrorist groups is now emulating the homegrown tactics employed by Boko Haram. Across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, jihadist ideologues are radicalising a new generation en masse, infiltrating mosques and other social establishments, and forging a presence as leading voices in their communities. These contextual realities are what prop up jihadi groups and sustain them in the face of multilateral military efforts.
For counterterrorism and counterextremism policies to succeed in the long term, including prevention programmes, they must recognise the ways in which societies are manipulated into the extremist fold. Boko Haram was the first major terrorist group to emerge in Africa. Two decades on, it is one of the most dangerous in the world. Understanding the story of how its members got there and how they sustain their presence to this day is crucial if we are to defeat Boko Haram and jihadi groups elsewhere.