Overview

Also known as:

Executive Summary:

Boko Haram is an ISIS-aligned jihadist group based in Nigeria, also operating in Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The group promotes a Salafist jihadi version of Islam and deems Western influence “haram” (forbidden). It is conducting a lethal jihadist insurgency in northern Nigeria to drive out government forces and establish a “caliphate,” or Islamic state. Boko Haram has exploited the government’s weak authority and controls a swath of territory roughly the size of Belgium. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to ISIS in March 2015.

Doctrine:

Boko Haram is a radical Sunni Islamic sect, originally calling itself Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnar Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, which broadly translates to “people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad.” Mohammed Aly Sergie and Toni Johnson, “Backgrounders: Boko Haram,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 5, 2014, http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/boko-haram/p25739. The group’s more widely known name is Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sin,” and was a nickname given by locals based on the group’s strong rejection of Western education as corrupt.

The group's founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was a trained Salafist and follower of Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th century scholar who preached Islamic fundamentalism. Mohammed Aly Sergie and Toni Johnson, “Backgrounders: Boko Haram,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 5, 2014, http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/boko-haram/p25739. Boko Haram aims to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria, including the establishment of sharia courts. However, the group is highly decentralized and not all fighters of the group necessarily follow Salafi doctrine, with many soldiers being poor, uneducated youth. Some claim to be part of a Shiite Muslim group and to have trained in Iran, while others were allegedly involved in other conflicts in Nigeria and the Sahel. Mohammed Aly Sergie and Toni Johnson, “Backgrounders: Boko Haram,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 5, 2014, http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/boko-haram/p25739.

While originally non-violent and preaching a doctrine of withdrawal from what they perceived as a corrupt Nigerian state, Boko Haram increasingly engaged in confrontations with security forces over local disputes and became more radical and violent. Since 2009, the group has carried out increasingly deadly attacks on a wide range of targets.

Despite apparent links to international terrorist organizations, particularly al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Lauren Ploch, “Nigeria: Current issues and U.S. policy,” Congressional Research Service, November 15, 2013, http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc272109/m1/1/high_res_d/RL33964_2013Nov15.pdf, 13. many of the group’s grievances are motivated by failures of local governance, sectarian tensions between Christian and Muslims, and large economic disparity in Nigeria. 

Some analysts have suggested that in recent years, the group has fragmented between factions stressing the need to build stronger links with international terrorist organizations and factions that seek to maintain the group’s exclusively domestic focus with the aim of establishing an Islamic state in Nigeria. Lauren Ploch, “Nigeria: Current issues and U.S. policy,” Congressional Research Service, November 15, 2013, http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc272109/m1/1/high_res_d/RL33964_2013Nov15.pdf, 13. In March 2015, this understanding crystallized as the group pledged allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has reportedly accepted Boko Haram’s pledge.Hamdi Alkhshali and Steve Almasy, “ISIS leader purportedly accepts Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance,” CNN, March 12, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/12/middleeast/isis-boko-haram/.

Organizational Structure:

Boko Haram operates as an underground terrorist group that is believed to suffer from internal power struggles. While Abubakar Shekau claims to remain the leader of Boko Haram, ISIS appointed former Boko Haram spokesman Abu Musab al-Barnawi as the group’s leader in August 2016.“Boko Haram in Nigeria: Abu Musab al-Barnawi named as new leader,” BBC News, August 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36963711. Following the announcement, Shekau rejected the leadership switch and referred to ISIS’s announcement as a coup.Associated Press, “Shekau says he leads Boko Haram, not IS-appointed successor,” Washington Post, August 4, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/shekau-says-he-leads-boko-haram-not-is-appointed-successor/2016/08/04/409a0232-5a63-11e6-8b48-0cb344221131_story.html.

As of mid-2016, Boko Haram is believed to be split between militants that follow Shekau and those that follow ISIS-appointed al-Barnawi.“Hearing to Consider the Nominations of: Lieutenant General Thomas D. Waldhauser, USMC, to be General and Commander, United States Africa Command; and Lieutenant General Joseph L. Lengyel, Ang, to be General and Chief of the National Guard Bureau,” Committee on Armed Services, June 21, 2016, 64-65, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/16-62_06-21-16.pdf. Amnesty International estimated there to be at least 15,000 troops fighting for Boko Haram in total as of early 2015.“Boko Haram at a glance,” Amnesty International, January 29, 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/01/boko-haram-glance/.

Financing:

Boko Haram’s exact funding streams remain unclear as the group largely operates outside the banking system. It appears that Boko Haram relies on a combination of local funding sources and lucrative criminal activity, particularly kidnapping for ransom—the group’s main source of funding—to the tune of millions of dollars annually. U.S. officials estimate that Boko Haram receives approximately $1 million for the kidnapping and release of each wealthy Nigerian. Phil Stewart & Lesley Wroughton, “How Boko Haram is beating U.S. efforts to choke its financing,” Reuters, July 1, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/01/us-usa-nigeria-bokoharam-insight-idUSKBN0F636920140701. Additionally, Boko Haram finances itself by bank robberies, protection money from local governors, and alleged foreign donations (such as Britain's Al-Muntada Trust Fund and Saudi Arabia's Islamic World Society). Peter Weber, “Who’s financing Boko Haram?” The Week, May 12, 2014, http://theweek.com/article/index/261388/whos-financing-boko-haram. It is suspected that the group receives funding from local religious sympathizers and individuals opposing the Nigerian government, but hard evidence for this suspicion is lacking thus far. The group has received limited funding from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but that support has had little impact on Boko Haram’s overall funding. Since the group pledged allegiance to ISIS in March 2015, this source of funding has likely dried up, given enmity between al-Qaeda and ISIS. Boko Haram’s financial relationship with other extremist groups appears limited. Phil Stewart & Lesley Wroughton, “How Boko Haram is beating U.S. efforts to choke its financing,” Reuters, July 1, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/01/us-usa-nigeria-bokoharam-insight-idUSKBN0F636920140701.

Some security analysts have noted that Boko Haram is less reliant on large funding streams because it generally does not purchase sophisticated weapons and runs very low-cost operations. Many of the weapons at its disposal were stolen from the Nigerian military. Phil Stewart & Lesley Wroughton, “How Boko Haram is beating U.S. efforts to choke its financing,” Reuters, July 1, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/01/us-usa-nigeria-bokoharam-insight-idUSKBN0F636920140701.

According to U.S. officials, the tools at the disposal of the U.S. government, which worked very effectively in targeting the financing of other terrorist organizations, have not been effective in curbing Boko Haram’s funding streams. Phil Stewart & Lesley Wroughton, “How Boko Haram is beating U.S. efforts to choke its financing,” Reuters, July 1, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/01/us-usa-nigeria-bokoharam-insight-idUSKBN0F636920140701.

Key Leaders

  • Abu Musab al-Barnawi

    Abu Musab al-Barnawi

    Leader (announced by ISIS in August 2016)
  • Abubakar Shekau

    Long-time leader
  • Mahamat Daoud

    Alleged leader of Ansaru (incarcerated)
  • Mamman Nur

    Third in command (reportedly)
  • Khalid al-Barnawi

    Khalid al-Barnawi

    High-ranking member of Boko Haram; High-ranking member of Ansaru
  • Kabiru Umar | Boko Haram

    Kabiru Umar

    Former governor of Sokoto State
  • Abubakar Adam Kambar

    Deceased: Was allegedly in contact with Osama bin Laden
  • Momodu Bam

    Deceased: Specialist in manning anti-aircraft guns; described as second-in command of Boko Haram
  • Habibu Bama | Boko Haram

    Habibu Bama

    Deceased: Cell leader and mastermind of the 2011 Christmas Day attack on Christian churches
  • Abu Muhammed

    Deceased: Trainee of Khalid al-Barnawi; mastermind of northern Nigeria’s first terrorism-related kidnapping of foreigners

History

 

Violent Activities

Designations

Designations by the U.S. Government:

June 21, 2012: The State Department designates Boko Haram leaders Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi, and Abubakar Adam Kambar as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.“Terrorist Designations of Boko Haram Commander Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar,” U.S. Department of State, June 21, 2012, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/06/193574.htm. November 13, 2013: The State Department designates Boko Haram and Ansaru as Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorists.“Terrorist Designations of Boko Haram and Ansaru,” U.S. Department of State, November 13, 2013, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/11/217509.htm.

Designations by Foreign Governments and Organizations:

Australia—listed Boko Haram as a terrorist organization on June 26, 2014.“Australian National Security,” Australian Government, accessed August 22, 2014, http://www.nationalsecurity.gov.au/Listedterroristorganisations/Pages/Boko-Haram.aspx. Canada—listed Boko Haram as a terrorist entity on December 24, 2013.“Currently listed entities,” Public Safety Canada, accessed August 22, 2014, http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cntr-trrrsm/lstd-ntts/crrnt-lstd-ntts-eng.aspx#http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cntr-trrrsm/lstd-ntts/crrnt-lstd-ntts-eng.aspx#2051.
United Nations—the UN Security Council’s al Qaeda Sanctions Committee added Boko Haram to its list of designated entities on May 22, 2014. “Currently listed entities,” Public Safety Canada, accessed August 22, 2014, http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cntr-trrrsm/lstd-ntts/crrnt-lstd-ntts-eng.aspx#http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cntr-trrrsm/lstd-ntts/crrnt-lstd-ntts-eng.aspx#2051. EU—designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation on May 28, 2014.Official Journal of the European Union, Volume 57, May 29, 2014, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:L:2014:160:FULL&from=EN.
“How Boko Haram is beating U.S. efforts to choke its financing,” Reuters, July 1, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/01/us-usa-nigeria-bokoharam-insight-idUSKBN0F636920140701.

Associations

Ties to Extremist Entities:

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Boko Haram receives limited funding from AQIM. However the support is said to have only a limited impact on Boko Haram’s overall funding.“How Boko Haram is beating U.S. efforts to choke its financing,” Reuters, July 1, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/01/us-usa-nigeria-bokoharam-insight-idUSKBN0F636920140701. Boko Haram members have also allegedly attended AQIM training camps.Robin Simcox, “Boko Haram and defining the ‘al Qaeda network,’” Al Jazeera, June 6, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/06/boko-haram-al-qaeda-201463115816142554.html.
Al-Shabab
According to the U.S. military, there are indications that al-Shabab and Boko Haram are allegedly sharing money and explosive material.David Smith, “Africa's Islamist militants 'co-ordinate efforts in threat to continent's security,’” Guardian, June 26, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/26/africa-islamist-militants-coordinating-threat.
Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)
The two organizations appear to support each other’s operations. Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram’s international connections,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, January 14, 2014, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/boko-harams-international-connections.
ISIS
In March 2015, then-leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS in an audio message.Nima Elbagir, Paul Cruickshank and Mohammed Tawfeeq, “Boko Haram purportedly pledges allegiance to ISIS,” CNN, March 9, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/07/africa/nigeria-boko-haram-isis/index.html. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi accepted the pledge soon after.Hamdi Alkhshali and Steve Almasy, “ISIS leader purportedly accepts Boko Haram's pledge of allegiance,” CNN, March 12, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/12/middleeast/isis-boko-haram/. As of March 2016, approximately 1,000 Boko Haram operatives are believed to be fighting alongside ISIS in Libya. ISIS operatives reportedly hire special smugglers to transport Boko Haram militants quickly from Nigeria to Libya, avoiding typical stops on the smuggling route.Callum Paton, “Isis in Libya: How Boko Haram jihadis are flocking to join Daesh’s holy war in North Africa,” International Business Times, March 5, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/isis-libya-how-boko-haram-africas-jihadis-are-flocking-join-daeshs-holy-war-1547640.

Ties to other entities:

Saudi Arabia
Boko Haram appears to have some connections to Saudi Arabia. The group has allegedly received funding from Saudi organizations and Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf allegedly sought refuge there from Nigerian security forces in 2004.Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram’s international connections,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, January 14, 2014, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/boko-harams-international-connections.
 

Media Coverage

  • Western Media

    Until the kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Chibok in April 2014 leading to a global outcry and large-scale media coverage of Boko Haram, Western...

Rhetoric

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Abu Musab al-Barnawi, interview in ISIS’s magazine al-Naba, August 2016

“[We will] booby-[trap] and [blow] up every church that we are able to reach, and [kill] all of those who we find from the citizens of the Cross.”Dionne Searcey and Eric Schmitt, “Boko Haram May Have a New Leader, ISIS Magazine Suggests,” New York Times, August 3, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/04/world/asia/boko-haram-may-have-a-new-leader-isis-magazine-suggests.html.

Abu Musab al-Barnawi, interview in ISIS’s magazine al-Naba, August 2016

“[Boko Haram] remain[s] a force to be reckoned with.”“Boko Haram in Nigeria: Abu Musab al-Barnawi named as new leader,” BBC News, August 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-36963711.

Abubakar Shekau, audiotape released on social media, September 19, 2015

“Buhari is a liar and has deceived you. The army spokesman is also lying. We are alive, I am alive, this is my voice, more audible than it was before. This is Shekau. He and his footsoldiers always run helter-skelter whenever we come face to face with them... Buhari, you once claimed that you will crush us in three months. How can you crush us?”Agence France-Presse, “Boko Haram leader dismisses Nigerian military claims,” Yahoo News, September 19, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/boko-haram-leader-dismisses-nigerian-military-claims-215252023.html.

Abubakar Shekau, August 16, 2015

“It is indeed all over the global media of infidels that I am dead or that I am sick and incapacitated and have lost influence in the affairs of religion. Gratitude be to Allah and with his help, I have not disappeared. I am still alive and I am not dead. And I will not die until my time appointed by Allah is up.”Agence France-Presse, “Boko Haram leader Shekau says he is ‘still in charge’,” Yahoo News, August 16, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/boko-harams-shekau-says-still-alive-still-charge-163016566.html.

Abubakar Shekau, August 16, 2015

“This ostentatious person, a liar -- I mean Buhari, who raised arms to crush us in three months. You Buhari, why didn't you say in three years? We will certainly fight you by the grace of Allah until we establish Allah's law everywhere on Earth.”Agence France-Presse, “Boko Haram leader Shekau says he is ‘still in charge’,” Yahoo News, August 16, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/boko-harams-shekau-says-still-alive-still-charge-163016566.html.

Abubakar Shekau, threatening the upcoming Nigerian presidential election, February 18, 2015

“This election will not be held even if we are dead. Even if we are not alive Allah will never allow you to do it.”“Boko Haram leader vows to disrupt Nigeria elections,” France24, February 18, 2015, http://www.france24.com/en/20150218-boko-haram-shekau-video-nigeria-elections.

Abubakar Shekau, pledge of allegiance to ISIS, March 7, 2015

“We announce our allegiance to the Caliph ... and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity, in hardship and ease. We call upon Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the Caliph.” “Nigeria's Boko Haram pledges allegiance to Islamic State - audio clip,” Reuters, March 8, 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/03/08/uk-nigeria-boko-haram-caliphate-idUKKBN0M30TA20150308.

Abubakar Shekau, praising the Paris shootings in a YouTube video, January 14, 2015

“We have felt joy for what befell the people of France in terms of torment, as their blood was spilled inside their country.” “SITE: Nigerian Militant Leader Praises Paris Violence,” Associated Press, January 14, 2015, http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/A/AF_FRANCE_ATTACKS_BOKO_HARAM?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT.

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