Small Wars Journal

Is Boko Haram an Islamic Terrorist Organization? - A Review of the Literature

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 8:59am

Is Boko Haram an Islamic Terrorist Organization? - A Review of the Literature

Hamid Lellou


Despite its wealth in natural and human resources, and its political and economic influence on the continent of Africa, the Nigerian government struggles to reduce or eliminate insecurity. One of the most prominent security challenges is the Boko Haram terrorist organization which has already resulted in human, infrastructure, and military loses in the north-eastern part of the country. (Ehwarieme 1; Bamidele 7) Nearly all experts agree on the problem, but the differences lie in the analysis of the causes of this terrorism and developing a solution. This literature review aims to examine if Boko Haram is truly religiously motivated, as suggested by the International Crisis Group, who asserts that Boko Haram is an organization that fights the corrupt local government on behalf of Islam (4) or, as proposed by Aghedo, Anydike, and others, it is a self-branded Islamic terrorist organization with its roots causes in corruption and socio-economic disparities.


Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Although composed of many different ethnic groups, such as Igbo, Yoruba, and Ijaw, the Muslim Hausa-Fulani are the majority ethnic group in north eastern part of the country. (PBS News) Before morphing into an armed insurgency in 2009, and then developing into a terrorist group in 2014, Boko Haram started as a peaceful social movement in the early 2000s. Both the central government and local politicians were to blame for Boko Haram’s existence and evolution, the latter due to t unfulfilled electoral promises, and the former because of their corruption and brutal security response to youth’s aspirations. (Vaaseh, 414) "A Case Study of Boko Haram" published in the Journal of Religion in Africa, indicates that in the Hausa language, Boko Haram means western education is a sin, indicating that its motivation could lie in its name.

The Islamic Brand

Trapped between the federal government’s quick and brutal response, and local politicians’ hypocrisy, Boko Haram skillfully branded itself as an Islamic organization, and called itself Jama’atu Ahli Essouna Lida’wati wal Jihad, Prophet’s tradition and holy war group. (Mahmood, 2) This strategic communication paradigm has earned Boko Haram compassion among the local Hausa-Fulani Muslim population, known for its emotional sympathy to whatever is associated with their faith. As a locally rooted social movement group, Boko Haram understood local peoples’ culture, belief, and emotions, which enabled it to promote its narrative - Hausa -Fulani are targeted because they are Muslims, and Boko Haram sells itself as their salvation. In his paper entitled Boko Haram: Religion and Violence in the 21st Century, Voll explains Boko Haram’s Modus Operandi and argues that it uses violence as means to achieve its political goals and religion as justification for its armed attacks, primarily against Muslim followers who don’t abide by their teachings. (1182) In this way, Boko Haram uses religion as an alibi or justification, rather than a cause.

Boko Haram poses security challenges to Nigeria first and then to the region, as well as to the US interests in the region. (Vaaseh, 414) This crisis has created one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in the region. (Withnall) In addition, Nigeria is one of the largest oil producers in the world; its instability may, as proposed by Salifu, pose a threat beyond Nigeria's borders. At greatest risk are Cameroon and Niger, due essentially to shared porous borders, he adds. However, while porous borders allow for transnational terrorism activities, it’s worth mentioning that corruption, particularly among security forces, makes these countries vulnerable to Boko Haram’s threats.

Root Causes and Dynamics

Several studies demonstrate that the causes for Boko Haram’s terrorism are structural and behavioral; however, its leadership skillfully sells it as a socially based phenomenon.  Northern Nigeria is a remote area, where thin boundaries divide religion, culture, social customs, and socio-economic elements. The violence in Nigeria is not solely due to socio-economic, political, and religious factors, but rather to confusion about the real reasons behind that said violence. (Anyadike,12, 13) Anyadike identifies two possible theories that led to Nigeria’s violence. One, on which most experts on Nigeria agree involves internal factors, including socio-economic, political, religious, and vengeance. The other theory identifies external factors as the cause including: the global Islamic jihad and conspiracy theory. Anyadike adopts the conspiracy theory as a hypothesis which he uses as the theoretical framework to investigate the real reasons behind the violence attributed to Boko Haram. The author uses data readily documented and gathered by other sources. The study focuses on the entire country, though the violence imputed to Boko Haram is often limited to the north-eastern part of Nigeria. In his conclusion, Anyadike suggests that two main beliefs motivate Boko Haram violence:  first that politics in northern Nigeria is led by corrupt Muslim leaders (21), and secondly that the central government in Abuja falsely accuses them of being linked to international terrorism to counter a supposed western plot to divide Nigeria by 2015. (22) Like Anyadike, Vaaseh imputes the exacerbation of the security situation to socio-economic, political, and corruption factors as well as to the military’s brutal responses. (405) Given the country’s size and wealth it is understandable that the Nigerian government will look for any excuses to justify its failed policies vis à vis the international community. I argue that Boko Haram can sustain its activities, because the root causes for its existence haven’t been addressed by the government.

Other scholars like Al Chukwuma, from the Federal University Lafia, Nigeria, argues   that, “apart from its idiosyncratic or criminal motivation, terrorism is essentially political.” He adds, “terrorism in its most contemporary understanding is inherently political. Indeed, it is the political essence and characterization of terrorism that distinguishes it from other forms of violence (Barga, 2012).” (40) The problem thus presented, confirms that the root cause is structural and political. Religion is the symptom that masks the reality.

The Way Forward

In his paper entitled, The Politics of Amnesty in Nigeria: A Comparative Analysis of the Boko Haram and Niger Delta Insurgencies, Nwankpa argues that Boko Haram is a rampant terrorist organization that has been damaging Nigerians’ lives in North East of Nigeria since 2009. However, can an organization, largely unknown to the public until recently, perpetuate spectacular and regular attacks against civilians under the watch of one the strongest armies in the region? To answer this question, the author suggests that this organization is the reason that local politicians are still in power. However, he continues his argument saying this political situation doesn’t excuse Boko Haram, and terrorists amnesty is out of question. (73) Aghedo, on the other hand, suggests that, the government of Nigeria should change from its current repressive military approach to more human security approach. (853) To do so, the author also recommends that the central government should envision and adopt an acceptable and pragmatic approach, which includes implementing institutional reforms and tackling socio-economic challenges (867) Other experts such as Anyadike approve Aghdo’s proposal and insists that, Nigerian security forces’ responses to Boko Haram’s actions have always been brutal and inefficient. (22) As terrorist tactics Haram’s actions are always meant to provoke brutal response from the government, which causes collateral damages. An unwanted outcome, thus used by the terrorist organization to justify its behavior. Al Chukwuma concludes that, so far, the Boko Haram issue has resulted in disastrous humanitarian costs, which has become a matter of national security concerns. Therefore, the government of Nigeria should shift its strategy from anti-terrorism to counter-terrorism. (48) So far most of the counter-terrorism policies have been tactical successes, but strategic failures.


Causes and dynamics factors are so confusing that they may appear overlapping. There is strong evidence that shows that Boko Haram has no religious foundations. Like most of the contemporary terrorist organizations, Boko Haram is led by educated and wealthy people. This organization is rampant in a remote region of Nigeria, which has been forgotten by the federal government for decades. In addition to this devastation, local politicians abused their constituency. Taking advantage of this vacuum, Boko Haram first appeared as a legitimate social movement group, aspiring to fight for local peoples’ basic rights. The immediate and brutal Nigerian forces’ response led to insurgency and later to terrorism. Knowing locals’ emotional relation to whatever is religious, Boko Haram skillfully covered its social claims message with Islamic principles.

Works Cited

Aghdo Iro, Osuma Oarhe, “The Boko Haram Uprising: how should Nigeria respond?” Third World Quarterly 33.5 (2012): 853-869. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 28 Feb. 2017. ISSN: 0143-6597

Al Chukwuma, Okoli, and Philip, Iortyer. “Terrorism and Humanitarian Crisis in Nigeria: Insights from Boko Haram Insurgency.” Global Journal of Human-Social Science: F Political Science 14.1 (2014): 38-50. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. ISSN: 2249-460X.

Anyadike, Nkechi O. “Boko Haram and National Security Challenges in Nigeria: Causes and Solutions.” Journal of Economics and Sustainable Development 4.5 (2013): 12-23. International Knowledge Sharing Platform. Web. 02 Mar. 2017. ISSN: 2222-2855

Bamidele, Oluwaseun. “Nigeria’s Terrorist Threat: Present Contexts and The Future of Sub-Saharan Africa.” International Journal of World Peace 15.4 (2013): 7-30. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.

"Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency." Crisis Group. N.p., 16 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

Ehwarieme, William, and Umukoro Nathaniel. “Civil Society and Terrorism in Nigeria: A Study Of The Boko Haram Crisis.” International Journal On World Peace 32.3 (2015): 25-48. questia Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

Ethnicity in Nigeria. Editorial. PBS News. 5 Apr. 2007. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.

Journal of Religion in Africa. The Popular Discourses of Salafi Radicalism and Salafi Counter-radicalism in Nigeria: A Case Study of Boko Haram. Brill Online Books & Journals 42.2 (2012): 118-144. Web. 10 Apr. 2017. ISSN: 0022-4200 E-ISSN: 1570-0666.

Mahmood, Omar S. “More Than Propaganda. A review of Boko Haram’s public messages.” Institute for Security Studies. West Africa Report 20. Mar. 2017. Web. 26. APR. 2017.

Nwankpa, Michael. “The Politics of Amnesty in Nigeria: A Comparative Analysis of the Boko Haram and Niger Delta Insurgencies.” Journal of Terrorism Research 5.1 (204): 67-77. The Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. Web. 4 Mar. 2017

Salifu, Uyo.The Nigerian militant Islamic movement, Boko Haram, poses a threat beyond Nigeria's borders. At greatest risk are Cameroon and Niger.” Institute for Security Studies. (2012). Web. 11 Apr. 2017. 

Vaaseh, Godwin. “Political Uncertainty and Violence in Nigeria: Politicizing the Boko Haram Insurgency in North-Eastern Nigeria.” International Journal of Arts & Sciences 08-08 (2015): 403-416. Web. 28 Feb. 2017. ISSN: 1944-6934

Voll, John O. “Boko Haram: Religion and Violence in the 21st Century.” Open Access Religion 6 (2015): 1182-1202. Web. 05 Mar. 2017. ISSN: 2077-1444.

Withnall, Adam. “Nigeria suffering ‘worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ amid war with Boko Haram, Unicef warns.” 29 Sep. 2016. Web. 14 Feb. 2017.

About the Author(s)

Mr. Hamid Lellou is a linguist, cultural instructor and analyst for Africa and the Middle East Regions, with over 20 years of experience. His extensive experience, working in both the informal and formal business markets in Africa, supervising international nonprofit programs, managing refugee camps, and interaction with numerous foreign government officials, has afforded him the opportunity to develop in-depth knowledge and a multi-disciplined perspective of the regions.