Since January 2014, more than 10,000 have been killed in the fighting it has triggered, a count that rivals civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The horrific violence is only intensifying. Like the Islamic State, Boko Haram says it aims to establish an Islamic caliphate. The group has captured a territory in northeastern Nigeria the size of Maryland, and as it has extended its operations to Cameroon and Niger, the threat has taken on a regional character.
In late 2010 a resuscitated Boko Haram went back to Nigeria. What had started as a religious protest movement turned into a full-blown insurgency. The group signaled a grander ambition by renaming itself Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, meaning in Arabic “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. Communiqués challenged the elected government’s legitimacy and demanded a sterner application of sharia law, which was already supposed to have been enacted in northern Nigeria’s Muslim-majority states.
Yet Boko Haram’s fundamental outlook had not changed. Two grievances continued to drive it. The first was the indiscriminate killing of its members. In return, Boko Haram’s leaders encourage its members to target people and institutions that have harmed it: policemen, officials, prison guards, clerics and journalists who speak out against it. Its members have twice attacked This Day, a newspaper close to the government. During September the group felled at least 20 mobile-phone towers belonging to telecom companies that facilitate government surveillance. For the insurgents, revenge is sweet.
Boko Haram’s other big grievance is economic inequality. It blames the government at every level for corruption and greed. Nigeria earns roughly $50 billion a year from its southern oil yet its northern citizens hardly benefit at all. “Boko Haram is a resistance movement against misrule rather than a purely Islamic group,” says Josiah Idow-Fearon, the Anglican bishop of Kaduna, one of Nigeria’s biggest northern cities.
In the past five years, Boko Haram’s tactics have become more sophisticated. Whereas it used to shoot at policemen from the back of motorbikes, now its leaders dispatch members prepared to commit suicide in car-bombs filled with industrial explosive to buildings such as the national police headquarters in Abuja.
For years most Nigerians thought there would be no home-grown suicide bombers. At the same time, the group has vastly expanded its geographical reach. The campaign has accentuated the misery that led to Boko Haram’s rise in the first place. Food prices have soared in the north. Farmers are afraid to go to markets. Government salaries are paid even later than before. Funds to repair roads have disappeared. Businessmen who sell bulletproof doors for about $800 are among the few who prosper. In hospitals patients have to bring their own drugs and needles. Polio may well rise again, since immunization has dwindled. With the police diverted, rape and robbery have shot up. Aid agencies now rarely send staff to the north. Diplomats almost never go. Southerners are also feeling the heat. In Lagos roads leading to churches, a favorite target, are often closed on Sundays. The occupancy rates of hotels in Abuja have plunged.
It is past time for Nigeria, West Africa, and the West to recognize Boko Haram for what it has become: a complex terrorism threat on a scale comparable to the Islamic State, embedded in Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation.