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Boko Haram Terrorist Organization: History and Facts Case Study

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Updated: Sep 7th, 2022


Boko Haram is a jihadist terrorist group from Northern Nigeria that was formed in 2002. In Islam, “Haram” means “forbidden” and “Boko” is a Hausa word that can be translated as “fake” with regard to their view of Western education (Thurston, 2018). In that respect, the group’s name means “Western education is forbidden” (Thurston, 2018). According to Thurston (2018), another translation of Boko Haram is “Western influence is a sin or sacrilege”. In Arabic, the group is known as Jamā’atu Ahlis Sunna Lid-da’wati wal-Jihād, which translates to “a group of people committed to promote Islamic teachings and Jihad (Thurston, 2018, p.57). The name Boko Haram was created by the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, to show his opposition to any form of Western influence that he regarded as sacrilegious.


Since the inception of the organization in 2002, the primary goal of Boko Haram has been to impose Islamic rule in Nigeria by promoting a version of the religion that forbids participation in any social or political activity that is rooted in Western culture (Thurston, 2018).

Areas of Operation

Boko Haram is based in the north-eastern part of Nigeria, with its headquarters in the Sambisa Forest, in the state Borno. It was previously headquartered in Gwoza and Marte. Other areas of operations include Northern Cameroon, Mali, Chad, and Niger (Kekilli et al., 2018). It is surrounded by areas of Sudanian Savanna and the Sahel Acacia Savanna. It expands into several states, including Borno, Jigawa, Kano, Yobe, Bauchi, and Gombe. The region’s climate is hot and semi-arid, and the vegetation cover is sparse. The forest includes open woodlands and sections of dense vegetation that comprise thorny bushes and short trees. The population consists of both men and women of all ages. However, the majority of the inhabitants are women and children, thus explaining the increased number of women in terrorist attacks.

Organizational Structure

The group has a well-established organizational structure that is hierarchical in nature. It includes the group’s overall leader, a deputy, the Shura Council, the Executive Council, and cells in different states (Kekilli et al., 2018). Each cell is led by a commander, and it elects an individual for representation in the Shura Council, which is the group’s decision-making unit comprising of 30 members (Thurston, 2018). The top leader also acts as the head of the council. The council is the decision-making unit of the group. Each department in the organization carries out specific tasks and responsibilities, and is overseen by the Shura Council (Thurston, 2018). For instance, some departments offer support to the families of suicide bombers while others are responsible for acquiring financing for the group’s activities. Each department and cell works independently in order to enhance confidentiality (Kekilli et al., 2018).

As mentioned, the group operates as a secret cell system based on a network structure. Each cell comprises between 300 and 500 fighters each, with its membership approximated at between 15,000 and 20,000 (Kekilli et al., 2018). The leadership of Boko Haram is decentralized, even though the group has an overall leader. The organization thrives under this structure because of its common ideology and transnational agenda that inform its actions.

Organizational structure of Boko Haram
Fig 1: organizational structure of Boko Haram (Kekilli et al., 2018).


Muhammad Yusuf was the group’s founder and leader until his execution in 2009. Afterwards, his position was taken over by Abubakar Shekau, who was his deputy (second-in-command) and the current leader (Kekilli et al., 2018). The top leadership of the organization includes Abubakar Shekau, Khalid al-Barnawi, and Mamman Nur. They all have a background in Islam teachings, which led them to join the group. Nur is the ideological leader and al-Barnawi is the head of the operations division (Kekilli et al., 2018). Their role is to handle the executive functions of the group at both regional and international levels. For instance, Nur is the intermediary between Boko haram and international terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and AQIM (Kekilli et al., 2018).

Membership, Recruitment, Levels of Support

Government statistics estimate that the terrorist group has approximately 20,000 members spread across the countries where it operates. Its clandestine structure makes it difficult to know the exact number of members. The founding of Boko Haram was followed by the construction of a religious complex that comprised a school and a mosque. Poor Muslim families enrolled their children in the school and the group gradually transformed it into a recruiting ground (Kekilli et al., 2018). Unemployed and disgruntled young people who have been radicalized through Islamic teachings are also enlisted.

Boko Haram receives support from both regional and international levels. It has developed links with international terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. The International Crisis Group reported that Boko Haram received some funding from al-Qaeda for its objective of imposing Islamic rule in Nigeria (Kekilli et al., 2018). Regional terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab also provide technical and financial support to the organization. The group is shunned by members of the community for its violence towards civilians.

Sources of Funding

Boko Haram’s major sources of funding include the black market, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, robbery, and international as well as local benefactors. Kidnap for ransom is one of the primary sources of money. For example, in 2013, the group received $3.15 million ransom money in exchange for a group of seven French tourists that it had kidnapped (Thurston, 2018). Members extort money from the local and state governments. Black market dealings such as the sale of kidnapped children have also been cited as one of the group’s funding avenues (Kekilli et al., 2018). Links to international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda have also brought financial benefits. For instance, in the early years of formation, the group was one of the beneficiaries of Osama bin Laden’s support to groups that supported al-Qaida’s mission. They also receive funding from regional terrorist groups like al-Shabaab and local al-Qaeda associates.

Tactics and Targets

Initially, the group’s main targets were federal buildings only. However, after the death of Yusuf, they began to attack civilians; schools, hospitals, and religious institutions (Balcescu, 2016). They relied mainly on small arms and arson. However, their tactics have evolved over the years to include explosive bombs, IEDs, and suicide. The group has thrived for many decades because of the constant alignment of its tactics to suit prevailing circumstances.

A few years ago, the use of women in terrorist actions became the group’s trademark as they are less suspicious and their clothes allow them to hide weapons and bombs. Women would either play support roles or engage in violent deeds such as smuggling and suicide bombing (Balcescu, 2016). In recent years, the group has changed its targets to refugees and internally displaced people. Most civilians are afraid of the organization because of its aggression that has shifted from security officers to the masses.

Major Operations/Attacks

On July 1, 2015, Boko Haram launched one of the deadliest attacks in Nigeria that led to 97 deaths. On a fateful day, gunmen stormed Kukawa village in the state of Borno and killed dozens of people. Their main target was mosques that were teaching a form of Islam that they regarded as moderate (Thurston, 2018). The casualties were majorly men and boys who were either praying or undergoing religious instruction. Moreover, they raided homes and killed women and children. On the following day, the group killed 48 more people and injured 17 more in two villages.

Another major attack was the 2015 N’Djamena attacks that were conducted before and during Ramadhan. This operation included four attacks: the first three suicide attacks against police officers led to 33 deaths and a suicide bomber killed 15 people in N’Djamena. In the first case, the suicide bomber was a motorcyclist who blew himself up, wounding more than 100 people.

Triggering Events

Boko Haram was a peaceful organization until the government interfered in its activities. In 2009, the authorities launched an investigation into the allegations that members of the group were arming themselves, and as a result, made several arrests (Balcescu, 2016). The arrests marked the commencement of an era of violence and clashes between the group and government military forces. More than 700 people died and the leader was arrested.

Status and Implications

Currently, the organization is still active and engaging in violence and terrorist activities. In 2015, it became known as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISAWP) after joining Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (Kekilli et al., 2018). The group poses a challenge for future studies on terrorism because of the uncertainty regarding its current leadership as well as international affiliations. It is unclear whether the factions operating in Chad, Niger, and Nigeria are under one leader or exist as independent terrorist groups with distinct objectives. The group might end if the governments of Nigeria, Chad, Mali, Cameroon, and Niger work together with international law enforcement agencies to destroy the group. In addition, leadership wrangles within the group could weaken its operations and lead to destruction.


Balcescu, N. (2016). Tactics used by the terrorist organization Boko Haram. Scientific Bulletin 1(41), 40-45.

Kekilli, E., Omar, K., & Abdoulaye, B. (2018). Web.

Thurston, A. (2018). Boko Haram: The history of an African jihadist movement. Princeton University Press.

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