Boko Haram made headlines this week with its incursion into Cameroon, where the terrorist group kidnapped 80 people. This after they slaughtered 2,000 people in Nigeria recently. What is Boko Haram? Where are Nigeria and Cameroon? Why does any of this matter to you?
Let’s begin with some background.
“Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden.” The group known by this name is officially Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Their organization was founded in 2002, setting up a mosque and Islamic school which have been used to recruit jihadists. They began military operations in 2009. Their founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in 2009 and succeeded by Abubakar Shekau.
The group has killed more than 5,000 civilians since beginning terrorist attacks in 2009. It has abducted more than 500 men, women, and children, and caused 1.5 million people to flee their homes and homeland. They control towns and villages in 20,000 square miles of Nigeria and have now begun incursions into neighboring Cameroon.
What is their goal? The Qur’an states, “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors” (5:44). Radical Muslims interpret this statement to mean that leaders who do not govern by strict Sharia law are not true Muslims and must be overthrown. This doctrine, made popular by Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones (required reading by radical Muslims the world over), motivates jihadist groups.
As a result, Boko Haram wants to overthrow the government of Nigeria and establish an Islamic state there. In 2014 they announced that the areas they had captured were now part of an Islamic caliphate. They forbid voting in elections, believing that democracy is heresy since humanity has received the laws of God in the Qur’an. They also forbid wearing shirts and trousers, secular education, and schooling for women (hence their kidnappings of girls to deprive them of education).
Why are they relevant to Christians around the world?
One: Boko Haram represents and resources the larger jihadist movement advancing across the globe.
The group has, until recently, confined its activities to the northeastern region of Nigeria. This alone makes them noteworthy on the world stage, since Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the seventh-most populous nation on earth, with 174 million residents. Located on the western coast of central Africa, its oil reserves have played a significant role in its emergence on the world stage. However, there is an enormous division between the wealthy south, where Christianity is the majority religion, and the impoverished north, dominated by Islam. Many in the north remember Nigeria’s days as a colony of Great Britain and resent Western intrusion.
According to Boko Haram leaders, their aggression is in response to Western oppression against their nation and the larger Muslim world. In the same way, jihadists who attacked journalists in Paris blamed France’s operations in Syria. The Taliban claims to be fighting Western oppression in Afghanistan and Pakistan; al Qaeda claims the same with regard to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Middle East, and northern Africa. ISIS points to the millions of Syrians killed or displaced by a civil war it blames in part on Western incursion.
Boko Haram is now aligned with al Qaeda and with ISIS, using the latter’s flag and symbol as their own. They are in fact becoming the West African version of ISIS. Their popularity and success continue to fuel the hatred and fervor of radical Muslims around the world, including those living in the West.
Two: the group has begun expanding outside of Nigeria. Their recent incursion into Cameroon (located to the north and east of Nigeria) is chilling. It shows that the terrorists’ tactics—attacking unarmed villages, killing the men and taking hostages—will work outside the region they already control.
The group is financed largely by such activities. They rob banks and take hostages for ransom. For example, in the spring of 2013 they kidnapped a family of seven French tourists on vacation in Cameroon, receiving $3.15 million to release them and 16 others. They receive an estimated $1 million for each wealthy foreigner or Nigerian they kidnap.
They also receive funds by trafficking drugs from cartels in Latin America. And they traffic in elephant and rhino poaching. These strategies provide them a sustained source of funds, and make them increasingly difficult to police. And such strategies can be exported to other terror groups around the world. It will not be surprising to see Boko Haram-style kidnappings increase in the West.
Three: what hurts one of us hurts all of us.
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Many of Boko Haram’s victims were Christians, up to 500 slaughtered just in one raid on June 2, 2014. But whether their victims are Christians, Muslims or people of no religious commitment, all are grieved by the One who made them.
In Matthew 25, Jesus pointed to those who are hungry, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned. He then taught us that what we do for “the least of these,” we do for him. What we refuse them, we refuse him.
Imagine your grief if terrorists murdered or kidnapped one of your children or grandchildren. That’s how God feels about every person Boko Haram kills or enslaves.
“Lord, break my heart for what breaks yours.”