This post looks at the history of Boko Haram, from Muhammad Yusuf to Abubakar Shekau. (If you don’t know who they are, not to worry. You will by the time you finish reading this page.) You can learn more about Boko Haram with full fact sheets, timelines, backgrounders and history here.
In the mid 1990s the Muslim Youth Organization was founded in Borno State. Its goals were non-violent and it can be seen in its initial inception as an Islamic form of nationalism within the region where that religion had enjoyed its golden age in Nigeria.
The original founder of the Muslim Youth Organization left Nigeria for further schooling in Saudi Arabia in 2002 and Muhammad Yusuf assumed the organization’s leadership role. He soon transformed it into what the world would come to know as Boko Haram.
The History of Boko Haram: The Founder Muhammad Yusuf
Muhammad Yusuf was already somewhat radicalized by the time of his taking the leadership reigns of the Muslim Youth Organization but the extremism of Boko Haram the world is familiar with today would not arrive until after his death.
Muhammad Yusuf was influenced by Wahhabi Islamic doctrine but he was also a product and benefactor of the times he was living in. (Wahhabism is an ultra-orthodox and fundamentalist Islamic doctrine named after its founder from the 18th century. It has been propagated throughout the Islamic world today in large part due to Saudi Arabian support and influence.)
The Islamic world of northern Nigeria was ripe for a religious answer to the issues of poverty, oppression, corruption, and hopelessness being experienced by many Nigerians. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 demonstrated ample evidence to such believers that Islam was being attacked by western culture even as al-Qaeda’s attack upon the U.S. demonstrated a radical but potent rising up of Muslims against the west.
Thus the local society and the world at large were both ready for the likes of Muhammad Yusuf and his message of Boko Haram.
Founded in 2002 Boko Haram sought to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state under sharia law including the Christian south. The original message of non-violence persisted for a short time longer until the end of 2003 when Boko Haram launched their first raids against police stations and public building in Yobe State. Attacks on similar targets continued into 2004.
The targets should be recognized as much as an assault upon the perceived corruption in the Nigerian government and leadership as strategic terrorist attacks. Boko Haram was striking out against those who represented the leaders and institutions who had been holding the Muslims of Nigeria down since independence.
Intermittent attacks continued for several more years before Boko Haram exploded onto the Nigerian landscape in 2009.
History of Boko Haram: The Death of Muhammad Yusuf
The turning point between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government came through a state imposed helmet law for motorcyclists. Members of the group refused to obey the law and after several were arrested wide spread riots broke out in the region leading to a strong response from Nigerian security forces.
Hundreds were arrested and Al Jazeera reported as many as a thousand were killed during the crackdown. Most notable to the future of Nigeria and Boko Haram, Muhammad Yusuf was arrested and taken by the police for interrogation.
Stories differ on what followed for Muhammad Yusuf. Some accounts report his being mocked by Nigerian police for living a lifestyle of luxury while preaching against western goods. Other accounts tell of his being taken from a relative’s home to the streets in front of their house. What is certain is that the brutal execution of Yusuf by Nigerian security forces was captured on video and quickly posted to the internet for his followers to view.
Prior to the video being published the Nigerian government announced that Muhammad Yusuf had been killed in a gun battle when he resisted arrest. Their version of events was quickly countered with visible evidence of the leader of Boko Haram in custody, handcuffed, and in cordial conversations with reporters and surrounding security personnel in the moments immediately preceding his death.
One police officer later admitted Muhammad Yusuf was surrendering to the police at the time. Moments later video captured with cell phones showed images of his bullet ridden dead body, still in handcuffs, lying in the street.
While human rights groups around the world began to respond in horror to the summary execution without trial and the blatant attempt at deception by the government forces, the voice of Boko Haram went silent for a short time.
Muhammad Yusuf would be installed as the first martyr of Boko Haram and his death clarified the struggle of the soon-to-be militants and terrorists as one between the true believers of Islam in western Africa against the corrupt forces of the state who had made too long a history of suppressing and oppressing Nigeria’s Muslims.
History of Boko Haram: Going Extreme
The silent period in the history of Boko Haram ended in September 2010 when the group launched a daring attack on a Nigerian prison and freed as many as 700 prisoners.
In 2011 the group gained notoriety throughout Nigeria for a spree of targeted assassinations. Mounted atop motorcycles Boko Haram assassins targeted a large number of secular government leaders and their family members as well as police officers and police stations.
Also, on their target list in 2011 was a number of Islamic clerics who had spoken out against Boko Haram thus signaling the vision of Islamic purity which Boko Haram was pursuing. The initial specificity of this hit list was elaborated over the course of a short time so that Nigerian Christian leaders, education professors, banks and markets and even beer drinkers and gambler were suitable targets for Boko Haram.
Also morphing was the violent methods of the group. While the motorcycles remained a key mode from which attacks were quickly launched upon targets, bombs were added to the standard guns the attackers were using to accomplish their attacks.
In the summer of 2011 the scope and repercussions of Boko Haram poured onto the global stage when it added suicide bombings to its options for violence. Among these first suicide attacks was the bombing of a United Nations building in Abuja which resulted in the death of 23 people. The government of Nigeria now faced rising pressure to respond with greater effectiveness to this terrorist group not only from its own constituents but from the global community as well.
The Nigerian government offered amnesty to Boko Haram if they laid down their weapons. The new leaders of Boko Haram countered with their own offer of amnesty if the Nigerian government surrendered to them.
History of Boko Haram: New Leadership, Abubakar Shekau
Who that new leadership of Boko Haram was after the death of Muhammad Yusuf remained a mystery until January 2012 when Abubakar Shekau, a former deputy of Yusuf who was thought to have died in the 2009 violence appeared on a Boko Haram video posted to YouTube.
Shekau railed against Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan and other Christian leaders and this message as well as those coming through less public channels signaled a strong desire for revenge by the group’s members for what had occurred in 2009.
The violence and danger of Boko Haram not only to Nigeria but to the greater part of western Africa began to intensify to new heights in early 2012. The days of targeted assassinations and hit lists began to fade to the past as Boko Haram began attacking Nigerian civilians throughout the northern part of the country with seeming indiscriminate logic.
Truck drivers who passed through Boko Haram strongholds were hijacked, kidnapped and beheaded with chainsaws. Reports began to surface that links between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda had now been established and the Nigerian organization was receiving training from the infamous organization that was still seeking a global reach after the death of their own leader Osama bin Laden.
If you are enjoying this Boko Haram Explainer and Backgrounder you might also enjoy my Boko Haram Intelligence Brief available at Amazon.
History of Boko Haram: A Global Issue
By 2013 many parts of northern Nigeria were descending into a near Mad Max post-apocalyptic atmosphere as Boko Haram ruled many of the roads and cities with their threat and influence growing by the day.
In 2013 they killed 65 students at the agricultural college in Yobe State. Hundreds were being killed on the roads in the north even while villages were being attacked and burned. Many Nigerians were beginning to seriously question the central government’s ability to challenge and put a stop to the terrorist activity of Boko Haram.
As the violence and attacks began to spread to surrounding countries of Cameroon, Niger and Chad Nigeria’s government was looking increasingly incompetent against the challenge of terrorism and internal or regional security.
The year 2014 would mark a new high for the terrible intents in the history of Boko Haram. Nearly 100 people were killed when a bus station was bombed in Abuja. The attack on a school in northern Nigeria led to the abduction of 200 school girls and a new level of global attention.
Western celebrities and political leaders including the first lady of the United States took to social media posting messages and hashtags of support for Nigeria’s victims with #bringbackourgirls.
United Nations and European powers fearing, along with Nigeria’s citizenry, that the situation was boiling out of President Goodluck Jonathan’s control sent small contingents of military support and advisors into Nigeria.
This was all occurring during the same period as the group ISIS in the Middle East was experiencing its most significant territorial gains to date. Boko Haram leaders pledged an oath of allegiance to ISIS which was duly accepted and Boko Haram was declared the Western African Province of the self proclaimed Islamic State.
In spite of much of the world’s perceiving ISIS as the greater threat among this new generation of terrorists and insurgents, in 2014 the recorded death count at the hands of Boko Haram was greater than that under ISIS.
Nigerians went to the polls in early 2015 and ousted long time president Goodluck Jonathan and brought into power Muhammadu Buhari who promised government reforms and resolution with the threat of Boko Haram. Buhari inherited a threat of almost unimaginable proportion and quickly missed a handful of self-imposed deadlines in which he promised to have Boko Haram contained.
By the beginning of his first year in office, Boko Haram controlled a domain of about 20,000 square miles and 1.8 million people – an area the size of Belgium. Within this area they had re-imposed slavery and massacred thousands of Nigerian citizens.
As of 2015, as many as 1.5 million people had been displaced by Boko Haram violence and 20,000 killed since the outbreak of violence in 2009.
This history and more are covered in explainers and backgrounders through my in-depth look at Everything You Need to Know About Boko Haram.