National Geographic News
Protesters march in support of the girls kidnapped by members of Boko Haram in front of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington May 6, 2014.

Protesters march in support of the kidnapped schoolgirls outside of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington.


Heidi Schultz

National Geographic News

Published May 7, 2014

Outrage over the kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls continued to intensify Wednesday as relatives and supporters of the girls planned a protest in the capital, Abuja. The kidnapping has drawn global attention to the Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram, which President Obama this week called "one of the worst regional or local terrorist organizations."

On Tuesday U.S. officials announced that they would lend military and law enforcement help in the search for the girls.

The 276 girls still missing were taken from their school in a remote area of the country more than three weeks ago, and this week a Boko Haram leader officially took responsibility for the kidnapping, saying in a video that members of his group would marry girls as young as nine or sell them as slaves.

So what is Boko Haram and what does it want? Here are some answers:

What is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram—which means Western learning is forbidden—is a Nigerian Islamist militant group made up of dispersed cells and factions in the northeast of the country. It began with a group of young Islamic radicals in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, more than a decade ago, and its current incarnation as a violent insurgency dates to 2010.

What are its objectives?

Boko Haram aims to make northern Nigeria an Islamic state. Although it has ties to other African terrorist groups, it has few jihadist ambitions beyond Nigeria. Western interests are rarely targets of its attacks.

Why did Boko Haram arise in northern Nigeria?

Bad governance, corruption, persistent economic hardship, and rising inequality have fostered the growth of radical extremist groups. A Nigerian bishop characterized Boko Haram as "a resistance movement against misrule rather than a purely Islamic group."

According to a recent USIP and CLEEN Foundation study, the three major reasons young men join Boko Haram are unemployment and poverty, manipulation by extremist religious leaders, and a lack of awareness of the authentic teachings of Islam.

Whom does Boko Haram target?

At first it attacked institutions of the Nigerian government: police stations, security officers, and military barracks. The first large-scale attacks were in 2010, intended to exact revenge for the state's killing of leader Mohammed Yusuf and hundreds of his followers in July 2009. Since then, the militants have moved on to civilian targets: churches, schools, bus stations, and mosques. The group doesn't distinguish between Christians and Muslims in its attacks.

People gather near the rubble of houses after a bomb attack in Ajilari-Gomari near the city's airport, in Maiduguri March 2, 2014.
People gather at the site of a bomb explosion on March 2, 2014, near the airport in Maiduguri.

Who is Abubakar Shekau?

Abubakar Shekau was Mohammed Yusuf's deputy. He took control of a Boko Haram faction in Kano state after Yusuf's death in 2009. Shekau is now one of several Boko Haram leaders—and the most notorious in the international media after a video aired on Monday in which he claimed responsibility for the abduction of nearly 300 girls from their boarding school in April and threatened to sell them.

What effect has Boko Haram had on the population in northeastern Nigeria?

More than 5,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict associated with Boko Haram, at either the hands of insurgents or of government security forces. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes because of the violence, and fear permeates the air. As James Verini wrote in a November 2013 article for National Geographic, "Boko Haram has become something more than a terrorist group, more even than a movement. Its name has taken on an incantatory power. Fearing they will be heard and killed by Boko Haram, Nigerians refuse to say the group's name aloud, referring instead to 'the crisis' or 'the insecurity.'"

Does Boko Haram have links to other terrorist organizations?

Although most of Boko Haram's attacks have been on Nigerian targets and most of their objectives have been national, its leaders do have connections to other African Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Somalia's Al Shabaab, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

What has been the Nigerian government's response?

President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency from May 2013 through May 2014 and is considering extending it. In 2013 he also declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization. The federal government deployed Joint Task Force (JTF) troops made up of police, soldiers, and agents from the State Security Service to combat Boko Haram on the ground and fighter jets to bomb Boko Haram camps from the air. The meagerly funded response was supplemented by vigilantes from civilian JTFs. The JTFs largely drove Boko Haram from cities, but rural areas continue to be attacked. JTFs are responsible for at least half the violent deaths in northeastern Nigeria and have been accused of multiple human rights violations.

Aamir Hameed
Aamir Hameed

They are just a bunch of terrorists who want to fulfil their own filthy motives. They don't have anything to do with any religion. If they talk about Islamic sharia, they should know that according to sharia, they are liable to be punished for their own acts. Islam, in fact no religion allows abduction or killings. They should be crushed!

Aurora Bolivar
Aurora Bolivar

So what's their government doing to find the girls? Is the government really eager to find them or just searching for the sake that they are at least doing something?

Emilio De Luigi
Emilio De Luigi

Where are the Muslim Clerics? Why they don't issue a fatwa against the criminals that in the name of Allah are going to institute again slaves trade in West Africa? 

The only known Muslim that has made her voice heard is Malala, not the pearl of the eye of the Moslems. Shame!

Joseph Tassone
Joseph Tassone

This is a white wash. The are Wahhabi educated fundamentalists who follow Mohammed's example. Research it.

Carolann MCCallion
Carolann MCCallion

It literally makes me shudder to imagine what those young women will be experiencing. What sickens me nearly as much about this story, is that the Nigerian Govt initially took little interest in the kidnappings. There was no instant police or military reaction, no official search. Probably too focused on their upcoming Economic Summit.  For all it's recent jump up the wealth charts there are still more living in poverty than in comfort. And it's a sad fact that wherever it can be said " life is cheap", a womans life is generally 'cheaper' than a mans. I hope that some if not all of them can be found and brought home.

anthony lazzaro
anthony lazzaro

These acts are allowed when the people allow it. If the country men would stand up against it then I believe it will end. But then again I don't live there so maybe it is more difficult then I think

Helen Bamford
Helen Bamford

A lack of the awareness of teaching of Islamic teachings.. Unemployed, uneducated & poverty stricken. Militant group not aware of pure Islamic teaching.How terribly sad. We should hope & pray for their safety.


hy is Sharia not mentioned in the article? Is NGM also under an incantaion?

Parastoo G.
Parastoo G.

Wow,this is horrible. It is hard to believe that human is civilized!!!Poor girls must have been scared to death.Poor families. God help them.:-\ 

Rick Hammack
Rick Hammack

@Aamir Hameed -

They killed people, they should be killed!

uh huh...right. sounds like a perfectly crafted solution for it all, why didnt we think of that sooner? :p

Carolann- it also brings tears to my eyes and aches to my heart to think about the pains those innocent girls will feel. :(

Endeley Konboye
Endeley Konboye

@Carolann MCCallion as a nigerian let me make it clears , the military may have been a bit slow, but the bottom line of this atrocities are politics from the nothern nigerian politicians , since after independent of nigerian from the british  the north have been in power , this is the only southerner that have rule the country  , which the northers feel cheated , and swear to make the country ungovernable for him , this northerner are have been ruling this country for the past 35 years , so when u talk about corruption mismanagement  and the underdevelopment of nigeria , you have to look back from where it started  , nigerians want miracle over night , they are expecting so much from this government , under 4 years , while for the past 35 years most of the common thing like electricity, railways, portable water, health care system , educational institutes where abandon , so it not possible for this thing to be revived in 4 years after 30 to 38 years of abandonment


@Carolann MCCallion I wouldn't say in this case "the life of a woman is cheaper than a mans" than the lives of the poor are cheaper than the lives of the wealthy and powerful.

If these young women had been the daughters of politicians, the entire Nigerian military would have been mobilized from the first second it was known they had been taken to recover them.

Kunal Das
Kunal Das

@anthony lazzaro  No situation is created in one day. And common people generally learn to manage anyway within their situation. It's always difficult to change any situation with revolutionary influence - be it good or bad.


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