In March, Nigerians elected two-time runner-up Muhammadu Buhari as the country’s next president. A Muslim from northern Nigeria, Buhari was nevertheless endorsed by many Christians, who hope he will be more effective than his predecessor at defeating Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist organization.

Since the beginning of 2014, Boko Haram has killed more than 7,300 civilians, according to Open Doors, which ranked Nigeria No. 10 on its 2015 World Watch list. Although the group repeatedly targets Christians in church massacres, bombings, and school shootings, its fighters have also murdered scores of Muslims.

Unlike its new ally ISIS, Boko Haram has made little effort to promote its message through the media. To learn about the enigmatic group, CT editorial resident Morgan Lee spoke with Virginia Comolli, the author of Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency and a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Why are the origins of Boko Haram so unclear?

During my research, I was struck by the amount of confusion and contrasting views among high-level politicians and members of the military. There are people who believe it is a group purely motivated by violent religious extremism. Other people say it is a political movement. Other people think it’s an opportunistic criminal entity.

However, if we look at the history of northern Nigeria in the post-colonial period, you’ll see the emergence of a number of groups framing their discourse in religious-revival terms, with people advocating a return to true Islam as a way of addressing societal evils. But although these critics were speaking in religious terms, they were all critical of the corrupt government. They also represented those from the north who were socioeconomically and politically marginalized.

These groups have been responsible for large-scale riots in northern Nigeria, with lots of people being killed and ruined. But every time groups like this emerged, the government’s response was very heavy-handed, without ever addressing those socioeconomic grievances. There has not been enough appreciation for why violent groups have come into being.

What does Boko Haram see as its goals?

Boko Haram wants to Islamize Nigeria and ensure that all of Nigeria is under strict Islamic law. Nigeria is a federation of 36 states. The 12 Northern states already have Shari’ah law; nine of them have it completely, while in the other three it only applies to certain aspects of public and private life. But even then this is not enough for Boko Haram. In fact, they’ve also been targeting Muslim leaders who are accused of having gone astray, of being too pragmatic, of being too close to the government.

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Now, increasingly, they want to Islamize parts neighboring states. We’ve seen increasing activities in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.

Why has it been hard to research this group?

During the very early days of Boko Haram, the original leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was pretty friendly to the media. There were big journalists who were able to interview him early in the 2000s.

When, in 2010, Abubakar Shekau became the leader, the group took a completely different and more radical and violent trajectory. Shekau is very secretive. He has not been seen live in public for years now. Most Boko Haram militants don’t have direct contact with him and have never seen him. He trusts his new lieutenants to pass orders and collect and distribute money.

There’s also an issue with the Nigerian media. The quality of information coming out from Nigeria is varied. Some newspapers don’t do any fact checking and publish conspiracy theories. At times, they simply reproduce military or government press releases verbatim. Additionally, several years ago, when the government launched its main offensive against Boko Haram, it was very hard to get information about the campaign because no journalists were allowed to visit those sites. If they were allowed, they were closely monitored and weren’t allowed to ask questions to civilians.

Boko Haram has also attacked cell phone communication in many places in the northeast. Because mobile phones are the primary mode of communication, if you can’t use your phones, it’s very hard to get information out.

Who are some of the most well-known personalities in the group?

They key person is Abubakar Shekau. Shekau was Mohammed Yusef’s second-in-command until 2009, when Yusef and about 800 fellow members were killed by the police, and the group was pushed underground. When the group reemerged a year later, it was led by Shekau. Shekau has always had the reputation of being less educated and less charismatic. Unlike his predecessor he’s a very violent and mentally unstable person. There are accounts suggesting that when his wife died, he experienced some serious mental problems that led to him being put in chains because he was violent and out of control. His drug problems don’t help.

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He has always been violent and extreme in the messaging he puts out. He has tried to link Boko Haram’s struggle to the struggle of other militants around the world. His speeches mention the “Brothers” in Palestine, Yemen, and Iraq. He has threatened various world leaders, from Barack Obama to Queen Elizabeth to Benjamin Netanyahu to President Francois Hollande of France. Unsurprisingly, the US has been a key target of his hate speech.

What are Boko Haram’s primary sources of funding?

Boko Haram is very adaptable and resilient when it comes to funding. The original leader was a wealthy man who came with his own finances. He was also involved in microfinancing, where he could attract people who were unemployed and give them money. After helping them start their own businesses, he would collect revenue. Wealthy businessmen and politicians from the North provided support.

Over time, those sponsors realized that Boko Haram had become a monster. The group would engage in criminal activities such as bank robberies, extortion, racketeering, and weapons smuggling, and receiving funding from al-Qaeda. They also started kidnapping foreigners and wealthy Nigerians.

Nigeria just elected a Muslim president. Will this impact the odds of defeating Boko Haram?

In theory, it doesn’t make a difference, because Boko Harm isn’t fighting for Muslim control of the current government. It is opposed to the very concept of democracy and the modern state, because it sees these developments as incompatible with Islam.

However, for many, many years, the northern part of Nigeria has been neglected. Now that there is a Muslim president from that region, it’s much less likely that this will continue. Really working on the rejuvenating the economy of the Northeast (and not just focusing on military efforts) could help reduce some of the economic and social grievances that fuel the insurgency. It may be that some people who are unemployed and see no prospects in their future will sense options other than violence.

To what extent has Nigerian Christianity changed as a result of Boko Haram?

That’s an interesting question. This is not only pertinent to Nigeria but to other countries which have witnessed religious insurgencies. Some people have exploited the insurgency to build on the religious divide between Christians and Muslims. Some have bought into the narrative that Boko Haram is only waging a war on Christianity. But I’m not sure that’s correct, because Muslims have been targeted repeatedly.

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From a practical point of view, Boko Haram has made the lives of Christians living in the North much more difficult. Most of the girls kidnapped from Chibok (the catalyst of the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign from last year) were Christians, and there are other Christian communities in the North.

To what extent have Christians organized their own violent alternative?

About three years ago, a group of local vigilantes—young men and some young women—took up arms and tried to fight Boko Haram: not so much specifically with Christians, but with the local population. People felt that they were stuck between two evils, because Nigeria’s military is known for human rights violations. During the anti-Boko Haram campaign they routinely arrested people without evidence. People were beaten, killed, or tortured for forced confessions, even when they were innocent.

How will Boko Haram’s new relationship with ISIS change things?

This is the key question right now. Boko Haram just changed its name to Islamic State’s West Africa Province. In theory, they should have received a visit from the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who would give them guidance. In practice, I’m not sure if this is going to happen. It’s doubtful that Shekau, knowing his personality, would accept the roles imposed by an outsider.

To me, Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS was a sign of weakness. When they made that commitment, the military had actually made some progress. They had retaken control over many towns and cities that had fallen to Boko Haram. By pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, they were trying to reassert their relevance. They know the power and prestige ISIS has. By showing that they’re affiliated with the big guys, they’re trying to improve their credibility and say, “We are part of the elite club.” This could be a mistake, because the world is paying so much attention to the Islamic State and so many countries are involved in the fight against it. If the world associates Boko Haram with the Islamic State threat, they could be under greater pressure militarily.

How has Boko Haram treated children?

Children have been targeted repeatedly by Boko Haram. We’ve seen students burned alive and their throats cut. Children and teenagers have been used to carry out attacks. Increasingly, we have seen reports of young girls being used as suicide bombers. I think they’re trying to catch the security forces off guard. The security forces normally focus on young men. They wouldn’t necessarily search women or children, so it’s easier to use them to conduct suicide attacks or smuggle weapons.

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As for the kidnappings of the Chibok girls and other girls, Boko Haram needs someone to cook and carry out chores. Many times, the girls are forced to marry the fighters and become sexual slaves. One way to keep the militants happy is to give them wives, although these wives might be very, very young. Some girls have been targeted for being Christian and forced to convert to Islam. I’ve heard reports of fighters targeting schools, dividing the Muslims and Christians, and systematically raping the Christian girls.

Should the West do anything to stop Boko Haram?

The Nigerian government has relationships with a number of countries, including the United Kingdom for historical reasons. Its relationship with the United States worsened under President Goodluck Jonathan. I know, from some private conversations, that Buhari is determined to improve that relationship. His government will welcome the United States to have a bigger presence in Nigeria, both in economic and security terms.

I think this is a welcome development. Nigeria really needs to improve its reputation internationally. Many Western countries have commercial interests in Nigeria—but there have been threats against foreign citizens, and some foreigners have been killed or kidnapped. The West has a role to play.

However, when I think about military operations, especially given the human rights record of Nigeria’s military, it’s far from clear whether Western powers can share intelligence and ensure that suspects will receive a fair trial.

What type of interactions have major Nigerian churches had with Boko Haram?

During my research, I’ve been meeting with the Christian Association of Nigeria, an organization that includes many of the country’s Christian denominations. They’ve been very vocal against Boko Haram, but they’ve also been very critical of the government because they felt that there wasn’t any compensation for the victims of Boko Haram violence. These sorts of accusations were very common when there was discussion of an amnesty to Boko Haram. Some Christians said, “You’re prepared to offer amnesty for those who have been involved in all this violence, but how are you going to compensate the Christians who have been killed?” This has been a sticky issue, though amnesty doesn’t seem to be in the cards now.

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How has Boko Haram used the media to spread its message?

Compared to other groups like the Islamic State and Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram has not used the media in a very sophisticated way. They’ve issued several videos over the years. Up until very recently, Shekau was the only person in those videos showing his face—all others would cover themselves. Recently, other members have begun showing their faces, and the videos have grown more sophisticated. They even started a Twitter account. This seems to suggest that someone from outside the group has coached them on how to do things.

How does the average Nigerian Muslim feel about the Boko Haram?

They are so tired of living in fear. There are places in the Northwest where the schools have been closed for months. The economy is suffering. Markets are being bombed, and people are too afraid to do any buying and selling. People are suffering, both from physical violence and psychologically from living in fear for so long.

People are really fed up. The increased brutality and indiscriminate targeting has really angered the population. At one point, people might have said, “We don’t condone the violence, but we kind of understand where they’re coming from with all their grievances.” But by becoming so ruthless, Boko Haram has lost their support.

Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency
Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency
208 pp., 19.65
Buy Boko Haram: Nigeria's Islamist Insurgency from Amazon