In Depth

Boko Haram: what is it and how can it be stopped?

Bombing that bears the hallmarks of the Islamist extremists has killed 32 people in the Nigerian city of Yola

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A suicide bombing has killed at least 32 people and injured more than 80 at a market in the north-eastern Nigerian city of Yola.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the deadly attack bares the hallmarks of the Islamist group Boko Haram, says Reuters.

Militants have killed thousands of people since they launched their insurgency in 2009. Their attacks have been concentrated in northern Nigeria, but have also extended into Cameroon and Chad.

Yesterday's explosion ripped through a busy food and livestock market, with witnesses describing scenes of carnage. "The ground near my shop was covered with dead bodies," said one man.  

The attack comes just days after Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari visited Yola to decorate government troops for bravery during the counter-insurgency efforts, and to tour the camps that have been set up to house thousands of people displaced by the uprising.

During his visit, Buhari – who has promised that he will defeat Boko Haram by the end of this year – told troops he believed the extremists "are very close to defeat".

Military efforts to tackle the militants appear to be working, with government forces taking back much of the territory claimed by Boko Haram in the past nine months. 

What is Boko Haram and what does it want?

Boko Haram – which roughly translates as 'Western education is a sin' – is a Nigerian Islamist terrorist group, founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002 in the northern city of Maiduguri. Officially, it wants to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria and the introduction of Sharia law. But it isn't that simple. "Injustice and poverty, as well as the belief that the West is a corrupting influence are root causes of both the desire to implement Sharia and Boko Haram's pursuit of an Islamic state," says a report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Who leads Boko Haram?

Abubakar Shekau (pictured above) claimed leadership of the group in a video posted in July 2010 and has since appeared in a series of videos claiming to be "at war with Christians" and threatening to mutilate and decapitate those who oppose him. The BBC describes him as "a fearless loner, a complex, paradoxical man - part intellectual, part gangster".

How is it funded and where does it get its weapons from?

Boko Haram militants have reportedly received funding from Islamist groups Al-Qaeda and Somali group Al Shabaab, as well as unknown local and international benefactors. The group also has a lucrative "market of selling human beings", according to its leader. Boko Haram loots money from banks, extorts businessmen and government officials and receives millions of dollars in ransom money.

Similarly, it has raided much of its military arsenal – including armoured personnel carriers and rocket-propelled grenades – from police stations and military bases. It also has ties with arms smugglers "in the lawless parts of the vast Sahel region," according to the BBC.  

How dangerous is Boko Haram?

Boko Haram began its campaign of violence in earnest in 2010. The group's worst atrocities include the massacre of an entire town earlier this year, the abduction of more than 200 school girls in Chibok, as well as a series of bombings and co-ordinated shootings at schools, churches and market places across the country, which have killed thousands more.

Will its alliance with Islamic State make it stronger?

In March, Boko Haram released a video claiming allegiance to Islamic State. It marked a "superficially impressive propaganda coup" for IS, The Guardian's Simon Tisdall argued. For Boko Haram, the connection to IS could mean more recruits, weapons, finance, know-how, and intelligence, allowing it to expand its operations in North Africa. For Western governments, the scenario "conjures up their worst nightmare – the prospect of joined-up, globalised jihad".

Can Boko Haram be stopped?

The international community has been reluctant to get involved in the conflict, and despite having the largest army in West Africa, Nigeria's military has struggled to push back the militants. Security analysts pointed to a lack of investment and corruption in the army as key reasons.

But after more than five years of insurgency, the military appears to have turned a corner in the battle against Boko Haram. Troops have reclaimed swathes of territory in the north and rescued hundreds of captured women and girls in recent months.

Much of this success has been attributed to President Buhari, a former army general, and his crackdown on corrupt military officials. The formation of a stronger regional coalition has also helped push back the militants.

"The enemies of humanity will never win. Hand in hand, we will rid our land of terrorism," Buhari said in a statement after yesterday's attacks. But the war against the insurgents is still far from over. Attacks on soft targets like markets, schools and churches remain widespread and Boko Haram insists it has not been defeated. "We are still at [the] battle ground," leader Abubakar said in a recent statement. 

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