#BringBackOurGirls: Who is Boko Haram?
“I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market… There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women…”
It is with this statement, in a video first obtained by the French news agency AFP and translated by CNN that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau announced himself to the Western world.
On April 14 the terror group took up arms and entered a girls dormitory, kidnapping nearly 300 girls from a Nigerian school in Chibok, in the country’s Northeast. While sources disagree on the exact number of girls kidnapped, most agree that more than 200 remain in custody of the group.
So who is Boko Haram? What led them to kidnap nearly 300 girls from a school so they could be sold like property rather than educated? The answer is, unfortunately, that this horrible act is well within the believable for the Islamist group that has made a name killing and maiming throughout Nigeria.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Boko Haram was founded in 2002 in Maiduguri, a Northeastern city about 80 miles from Chibok, where the girls would be kidnapped 12 years later. Among the group’s chief aims is the establishment of a fully Islamic state in Nigeria, including the implementation of Sharia criminal law penalties for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It was founded by Islamist preacher Mohammed Yusuf, a former leader of a radical youth group in the 1990s and an avowed Salafist — the Islamic school most widely associated with violent Islamic jihad.
In 2013, Boko Haram was designated a terrorist organization by the United States Department of State. According to a department press release, this designation was due to links with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (al-Qaeda’s Northern Africa affiliate) and an “…ongoing and brutal campaign,” that included “indiscriminate attacks in Benisheikh, Nigeria in September 2013 that killed more than 160 innocent civilians, including women and children…international targets, including a suicide bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja on August 26, 2011, that killed 21 people and injured dozens more…”
While it may seem odd that there is an 11-year gap between the group’s founding and its designation as a terrorist organization, Boko Haram did not always advocate a violent overthrow of the Nigerian government. Before 2009 the group believed in withdrawal from what it saw as an non-Islamic, western-style Nigerian government. In 2009 violent clashes between Christians and Muslims (ttok place) and what Human Rights Watch described as “widespread corruption in the Nigeria Police Force…rang(ing) from arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention to threats and acts of violence, including sexual assault, torture and even extrajudicial killings…”
This culture of police corruption and brutality would eventually lead to a harsh crackdown on Boko Haram when the group refused to follow a law forcing the Nigerian populace to wear helmets while riding on motorcycles, culminating with the publicly televised execution of Yusuf. After the death of the founder and other movement insiders, the group emerged near-leaderless and fractured with a new focus on violent overthrow of the Nigerian government.
So why did the group target schoolgirls?
The answer to this question is evident from the group’s name. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Mohammed Aly Sergie and Toni Johnson, “…the sect calls itself Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “people committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teachings and jihad.” It’s widely known as Boko Haram, which colloquially translates into ‘Western education is sin.’”
This explains the midday raid on the girl’s school in Chibok. Guardian columnist Jill Filipovic said,“…Boko Haram, the Nigerian Muslim militant group linked to al-Qaida that allegedly carried out this latest kidnapping, adopted a name meaning, ‘Western education is sinful.’ There’s no question that the schoolgirls were targeted precisely because they were in school.”
Boko Haram is opposed to all western institutions. This focus on the “haram” or “forbidden” elements of western society goes much deeper than education. According to the BBC, Boko Haram objected in the past to other western constructs considered abominations such as participating in democratic elections or wearing shirts and pants.
How has Nigeria responded to the kidnappings?
In the three weeks that have passed since armed Boko Haram gunmen kidnapped nearly 300 girls from their dormitory in Chibok the government response has been deplorable. President Goodluck Jonathan and his inner circle have been accused of infighting and bickering rather than attempting to solve the horrific problem at hand. The failures of the Nigerian government have led to massive protests and the internationally prominent twitter campaign “#BringBackOurGirls.”
For now, more than 200 girls remain missing and a terrorist organization said it will sell them into forced marriage. This event has highlighted the brutality of Boko Haram and the danger girls can experience simply for seeking an education. For now, the U.S. and U.K. have offered assistance to the Nigerian government in locating the girls. It is unclear whether Nigeria will accept. If Jonathan and his government are committed to the safe return of the girls, they should put pride aside and accept all available assistance.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.