ABUJA, Nigeria — Boko Haram, the cultlike Nigerian group that carried out the kidnappings of more than 200 schoolgirls in the name of Islam, was rejected long ago by mainstream Muslim scholars and Islamist parties around the world for its seemingly senseless cruelty and capricious violence against civilians.
But this week its stunning abduction appeared too much even for fellow militants normally eager to condone terrorist acts against the West and its allies.
“There is news that they attacked a girls’ school!” one poster wrote on a Web forum used by Islamic militants whose administrator uses a picture of Osama bin Laden. The poster suggested delicately that Boko Haram may perhaps be killing too many noncombatants instead of armed enemies. He prayed that God would “hold them steady to the path” of Islam.
The dismay of fellow jihadists at the innocent targets of Boko Haram’s violence is a reflection of the increasingly far-flung and ideologically disparate networks of Islamist militancy, which now include the remnants of bin Laden’s puritanical camps, Algerian cigarette smugglers and a brutal Somalian offshoot.
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The group is centered on a messianic leader who claims to speak with God and demands that adherents surrender all their possessions to the group. It resembles a cult, like Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, more than it does an orthodox Islamist movement.
Nigeria, an oil-rich nation of more than 160 million, has a predominantly Christian south and a Muslim north.
First formed in the early 2000s, Boko Haram grew out of an ultraconservative Islamic movement of well-educated students. The group grew overtly political only later, under the leadership of its charismatic founder, Mohamed Yusuf.
Its nickname in the African language of Hausa, Boko Haram, is usually roughly translated to mean that “deceptive” or “Western” education is “forbidden.” But scholars say the phrase had a kind of double meaning that was at once religious and social in the context of northern Nigeria.
Western education was available only to a very small elite who typically traveled to British universities and then returned to rule from the capital over the impoverished North. Ending the tyranny of that elite was the main objective of Yusuf’s movement.
Yusuf and Boko Haram tapped into growing anger among northern Nigerians at their poverty and lack of opportunity as well as the humiliating abuses of the government’s security forces, said Paul Lubeck, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies the group. At first, even as Boko Haram turned to violent opposition to the government, the group avoided civilian casualties.
That changed in July 2009, after about 70 Boko Haram fighters armed with guns and hand grenades attacked a mosque and police station in the town of Bauchi. About 55 people were killed in the battle, according to an American diplomatic cable about the episodes that was later released by WikiLeaks.
The next day, Nigerian security forces retaliated with a brutal crackdown that killed more than 700 people, including many innocent bystanders. Security officers paraded Yusuf before television cameras and then summarily executed him in front of a crowd outside a police station — an episode that the group’s adherents often recall with horror as the decisive moment in their turn to wider violence.
Three weeks later, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb — originally an Algerian Islamist insurgency that found advantages in publicly linking itself to al-Qaida’s infamy — issued a public statement reaching out to Boko Haram in a public expression of brotherly sympathy.
Boko Haram’s remaining members scattered to other African countries, where many scholars argue they would have received a welcome from al-Qaida affiliates. The Algerian government has said that some of Boko Haram’s fugitive members received training in Algerian camps from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Boko Haram itself eventually circulated video footage that purported to show some of its members training in Somalia with fighters from the al-Qaida affiliate, al-Shabab.
In late 2010, under the new leadership of Abubakar Shekau, formerly the group’s second in command, Boko Haram began staging more lethal attacks.
Its fighters began to conduct a campaign of assassinations by gunfire from motorcycles. They also drove trucks mounted with artillery. The vehicles, Nigerian officials say, were traded out of Libya after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi.
Boko Haram’s first lethal operation against Western interests came in August 2011, when a car bomb targeted the U.N. headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, killing some two dozen people. In spring 2013, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared an emergency in three Nigerian states and deployed additional troops that have driven Boko Haram from most larger cities and towns.
Shekau has continued to express his admiration for al-Qaida. But it remained “an overwhelmingly locally focused group, recruiting locally,” Lubeck said, adding: “To say that it was part of the international Islamist conspiracy distorts things. There is no systematic or strategic connection.”
Even before the April 15 kidnapping, the U.S. government was offering up to a $7 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Shekau, whom the U.S. has labeled a specially designated global terrorist.
This report includes material from The Associated Press