From an outsider’s perspective, looking into Nigeria’s chaotic, violent mess, one might conclude that it’s because of the religious differences between Muslims and Christians. But as you really dip your head deeper into the murky waters, you’ll find yourself the root cause of this seemingly uncontrollable violence resulting in unnecessary deaths, including innocent children—politics. Nonetheless, religious differences among Nigerians still play a significant role in these tensions, especially in election disputes where there is a clear divide between Muslim and Christian politicians.

And when there is conflict, there’s always going to be someone who rises amongst the affected minority. Someone who can attract exhausted citizens caught in the middle who desperately seek refuge, may it be a place of shelter or through resonating comfort words.

The birth of Boko Haram

In the early 2000s, a young imam named Muhamed Yusuf rose to the occasion. His preaching on returning to “true Islam,” all while refuting the “bid’a” (novelties) of the West, has captivated the hearts and minds of the locals. With his charisma, Yusuf has embedded in the minds of the people, particularly in the northeastern part of Nigeria, that the change in the country, including its culture and the massive corruption in the governing elites, is because of the influence of the West.

His words had an impact, especially in the Northeast, where people have been subjected to “prolonged political and social-economic marginalization.” Thus, in 2002, the Jamatu Ahli AlSunna lil Da’wa Wal Jihad (JAS), also known as Boko Haram, was born.

After a confrontation in 2009 between Yusuf’s followers and Nigerian government forces, what began as a peaceful movement quickly turned violent.

What began as peaceful protests quickly turned berserk after a confrontation happened between Yusuf’s followers and the Nigerian government’s forces in 2009. The tension led to the arrest of its founder, who was killed while in police custody. The death of Yusuf triggered a more armed severe uprising, which also caused a schism within the group.

You see, after his demise, two of Yusuf’s trusted deputies—Mamman Nur and Abu-Bakr Shekau—started competing to reign over the group, which the latter earned victoriously.

“Original” Boko Haram under Shekau’s ruthless leadership

Like Yusuf, Shekau is also charismatic and a visionary. However, the new leader was anything but peaceful, and soon he became a notorious savage leader. He led the reorganization of Boko Haram and cemented its identity as one of the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.

What’s worse is that Shekau treated anyone who rejects the ideology of Boko Haram as his enemies—the group’s “fair targets.” So, regardless of religion and ethnicity (yes, including Muslims and children), he includes them in his mass killings.

Under Shekau’s leadership, the terrorist group has been responsible for dozens of bombing attacks, unsparing abductions, and thousands of deaths across the West African region. Roughly 350,000 people have died in combat-related incidents alone during its rise in the last ten years. Furthermore, over two million citizens have been displaced due to the violent region, which has spread to neighboring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.

Ansaru, the rise of the vanguard for Black African Muslims

Condemning Shekau’s massacre inclusion of Muslims, a portion of the group defied the ruthless leader between 2011 and 2012. This faction, led by Khalid Al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur, has disagreed with Shekau’s extremist stances and created Jama’at Ansari Al-Muslimin fi Bilad Al-Sudan, better known as Ansaru, in affiliation with leaders of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Unlike Shekau’s, Ansaru’s main objective is to restore the “dignity of Muslims in Black Africa” and revive the Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria—the largest known empire to reign in Africa during the 19th century. The group gained its reputation as abductors that targeted Western foreigners in Kebbi, Katsina, and Bauchi, importing them to AQIM. Its most notable kidnapping was in February 2013, when the group took a French family of seven in northern Cameroon.

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Despite declaring its independence in 2012, Ansaru continued to work with Boko Haram until the former slowly and eventually halted its insurgent activities in 2015. The group is now mostly dormant, but some of its members continue to spread its propaganda.

ISWAP, an ISIL-aligned terrorist group

Among the factions of Boko Haram, the Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP) is probably the largest to emerge.

After AQIM abandoned Shekau, he pledged allegiance to his former ally’s biggest rival, the Islamic State (IS). After AQIM left Shekau in the early 2010s, he vowed loyalty to his former ally’s biggest enemy, the Islamic State (IS). In 2015, following the declining activities of Ansaru, its leaders Khalid and Nur reunited with Shekau.

That same year, Shekau received the welcoming approval of IS Caliph Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi and proclaimed the former as the “Waly” (leader) of the newly established ISWAP. Al-Baghdadi remained skeptical of the ruthless JAS leader’s abilities, especially with his history with AQIM.

After receiving a plea letter from Khalid’s son, Musab al-Barnawi—who pinpointed Shekau’s flawed ideologies and incompetent leadership skills—the IS ruler turned over the leadership of ISWAP to Musab alongside Nur. Thus, again, destroying the rekindled relationship with the Boko Haram leaders.

Nonetheless, both groups operate almost identically in terms of harassing Nigerian citizens, including indiscriminate killings, raiding produce from villages, abducting women and children, and rebelling against the Nigerian government forces. A distinct difference would probably be that ISWAP executed more sophisticated, complex, and organized attacks than JAS.

Both factions have also lost men throughout the years as they continued to get in each other’s backs and necks, and this back-and-forth made them each other’s closest rivals—and menace in Nigeria.


According to Global Terrorism Index 2019, there has been a significant decline in Boko Haram’s terrorist activities since its peak in 2014. But it remains the deadliest ranking fourth in the world and the top in Sub-Saharan Africa.