On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 270 Nigerian schoolgirls from the hostel where they were staying in Chibok, Borno state, the furthest northeast state in Nigeria.  Borno has been part of the area designated in a state of emergency since May, 2013 by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, and is one of the states that has been under Boko Haram’s influence for several years.

Boko Haram is a mishmash of native Hausa and Arabic, combining the Hausa word “boko,” meaning roughly “Western Education,” derived from the English “book,” and the Arabic “haram,” meaning “sin” or “forbidden.” “Boko Haram” is in fact the local nickname for the organization, which is officially named “Jamāʻat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-daʻwa wal-Jihād,” or “The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.”

Founded twelve years ago by Muhammad Yusuf, both in response to accusations by Yusuf that Nigerian government forces were committing ethnic cleansing against the Hausa and Fulani people of the northeast, and in an effort to enforce strict Shariah law and Islamist governance in Nigeria, the group’s attacks have continued to escalate since Yusuf’s death and Abubakar Shekau’s ascension to leadership. They have bombed churches, mosques, and government buildings, and oppose any Westernization of the country.

The attack in Chibok was only the latest in Boko Haram’s attacks on schools; on February 27, they attacked the Shuwa Primary School in Adamawa, Yobe State, just south of Borno State, killing between 20 and 37 (estimates have varied).  The school was run by the local St. Augustine Catholic Church.

Abubakar Shekau has appeared on video, chuckling about the kidnapping, and claiming he has been instructed by Allah to sell the girls at market as wives, since they were receiving Western education.  Appearing in front of what appears to be a BTR, wearing a camouflage jacket with an AK slung in front of him, and scratching himself while grinning widely, he claimed that women are Allah’s property, and therefore he will sell them.*

President Goodluck Jonathan has asked for US aid to help get the girls back, although the US is already pumping considerable aid into the country, as it is considered a major US partner in Africa. The US designated Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2013, and has placed a $7 million bounty on Shekau’s head.  He is extremely elusive, however; he’s been reported dead by Nigerian authorities multiple times, always to crop back up again.

There has been extensive speculation that Boko Haram is connected to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but no solid links have yet been exposed.  Aside from Shekau, there has not even been a solid command structure for the group that anyone can necessarily see; it appears to be “diffuse” and “cell based.”