Boko Haram: The Emerging Jihadist Threat in West Africa

  • December 12, 2011
Updated May 9, 2014

Read the full report here: Boko Haram: The Emerging Jihadist Threat in West Africa (PDF).

Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group that seeks to establish an Islamic state in northern Nigeria that will strictly adhere to its interpretation of Islamic law, has raised international concern over its increasingly violent activities and its potential links to other terrorist organizations.

The group, also known by its Arabic name Jama'at Ahl al-Sunnah lil-Da'wah w'al-Jihaad (the Group of the people of the Sunnah for Propagating Islam and Jihad) garnered international attention in August 2011 after claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing at the United Nations building in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in which at least 25 were killed and more than 110 were wounded. Congress held its first hearing on the potential threats posed by the group in November 2011.

The organization gained international notoriety after it abducted between 250 and 300 Nigerian school girls in April 2014, threating to sell them as wives and reitering its opposition to female education and to secular studies in general. The abduction came in the midst of a series of increasingly aggressive Boko Haram attacks, including the destruction of a northern Nigerian town and massacring of approximately 300 of its inhabitants three weeks after the abductions.

Central to Boko Haram's ideology is the notion that many aspects of Western life are antithetical to Islamic civilization. Although the group's name is widely translated as "Western education is forbidden/sinful," Boko Haram's leaders insist that the name refers not just to Western education but also to Western civilization in its entirety.

In its early years, the group was popularly known as the "Nigerian Taliban" due to its shared anti-Western ideology and its willingness to use violence in an effort to impose a strict form of Shariah law. Its public statements declaring solidarity with Al Qaeda and its ideology further attest to its anti-Western views.

While Boko Haram has only minimally operated outside Nigeria, its attack on the United Nations building demonstrates an apparent willingness to align itself with the goals and tactics of established global terrorist organizations. Boko Haram has allegedly established connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al Qaeda's North African branch, and Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic militant group that seeks to create an Islamic state in Somalia.

The group's leadership has also expressed intent to target U.S. interests in particular, citing U.S. support for Israel and what the group describes as American "oppression and aggression against Muslim nations."

Recognizing the potential danger that Boko Haram poses to its citizens, U.S. officials have issued several warnings, increasing in specificity since the United Nations bombing, to American travelers and others with interests in Nigeria. Boko Haram was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2013.


On February 25, 2013, militants claiming to be members of Boko Haram took responsibility for kidnapping a French family in Cameroon. If confirmed, the incident would mark the first time Boko Haram has taken credit for an operation outside of Nigeria.