Nigeria's Boko Haram: Who Are They and What Do They Want?

What drives Nigerian militants to kidnap schoolgirls?

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."

Graphic: Nigeria's Economic Divide

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 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?

Map: Nigeria's Insurgent North

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.