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A member of Boko Haram in a suburb of Kano, Nigeria, in 2012.
Samuel James—The New York Times/Redux

The militant group Boko Haram has become a target of international outrage ever since it kidnapped more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls last month. A leader of the group recently boasted in a video that “I abducted your girls” and will “sell them in the market.” The United States has vowed to send a team to Nigeria to assist in their rescue, and a social media campaign is seeking to raise the pressure on world leaders to act.

Here are five things to know about Boko Haram.

It began in Nigeria’s poorest corner

Nigeria was formed as a protectorate of Great Britain, but the colonial power concentrated its resources on the coast. The country’s northern half, which extends into the Sahara, was Muslim, and so poor that in Kano, the ancient city walls are being eaten away by people stealing sand. Northerners generally feel under-represented, and Boko Haram began in 2002 as an expression of that. A charismatic cleric named Mohammed Yusuf founded the group as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” The mosque and school he established were presented as an alternative to the government schools he regarded as both alien to Muslims and tools of the elite. That gave rise to the nickname Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is a sin.”

It turned far more violent after its founder was killed in police custody

The group, which advocated reviving an Islamic caliphate and imposing Sharia law, gradually grew more militant, attacking local critics, including Christians, and government representatives, especially police. Government forces struck back with a vengeance in 2009, capturing Yusuf, interrogating him in front of an array of camera phones, then shooting him without trial. Followers went underground but mounted a fierce return, now led by Yusuf’s former deputy, Abubakar Shekau. The group has killed more than 1,500 people since 2009 in attacks that have grown more and more deadly. The 815 people killed in 2012 was more than in the previous two years combined. But it was the April 14 abduction of about 276 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok that drew the world’s attention. This week’s attack on another town, Gamboru Ngala, which left at least 150 dead, might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The military option, while tempting, could make matters worse

“This problem is coming from bad governance, bad governance and bad governance,” says Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. “More troops, more boots on the ground won’t solve anything.”

Crisis Group reports detail the conditions that have nurtured the group, which Depagne notes “moved from a 100-person sect at the end of 2002 to a kind of massive underground force, complete with artillery.” Contributing factors include desertification linked to climate change, and the heavy-handed actions of Nigerian security forces, who worked with local militias dubbed Joint Civilian Task Forces to counter the group. Watchdogs including Human Rights Watch have documented mass arrests and extrajudicial killings by Nigerian forces in Maiduguri, a Boko Haram stronghold.

Sarah Margon, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said the Obama Administration appeared to be taking the right approach by sending a small team from several disciplines, including psychology as well as intelligence and military, to assist Nigeria in finding the kidnapped girls. “The government’s heavy-handed approach has made the problem worse and harder to solve,” she says. The specialists from Washington “have to make sure that the Nigerian security forces don’t go in too strongly,” Margon warns. “The U.S. hasn’t been all that good at sending those messages to Nigeria. I understand some are sent privately, but they need to send a public message as well so the Nigerian people understand what is going on.”

It’s crazier than al-Qaeda

Boko Haram is reportedly linked to al-Qaeda and has been listed since last year by the United States as a terrorist organization. But in the constellation of African insurgencies, Boko Haram appears to have less in common with al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate active in Somalia, than with the Lord’s Resistance Army, the savage cult that has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda for more than 25 years. Both Boko Haram and the LRA kidnap girls en masse, make use of porous international borders, and are led by a warlord who claims to talk with the Almighty. And while LRA founder Joseph Kony claims to be Christian, the faith is no more recognizable to believers than Boko Haram’s brand of Islam, which alarms even jihadists. “Their brutality is kind of a combination of African rebel groups and al-Qaeda in its original incarnation,” says Margon, who previously worked for the Senate subcommittee on Africa. “Al-Qaeda now realizes you have to engage in populations, you can’t just slaughter them.”

In the video announcing he would sell the kidnapped schoolgirls, Shekau comes off as a parody of an African warlord, standing in front of an armored personnel carrier, scratching his head idly as he speaks, amused by the fuss. “Just because I took some little girls who were in Western education everybody is making noise,” he says, and chuckles. A few moments later, the warlord declares, “Either you are with us—I mean real Muslims, who are following Salafism—or you are with Obama, Francoise Hollande , George Bush—Bush!—Clinton.” He pauses to turn a page in a sheaf of what appeared to be prepared remarks, then adds: “I’ve forgot not Abraham Lincoln.”

The social media campaign might actually help

The JosephKony2012 online campaign ended up doing little beyond making a household name of the LRA leader, but that was the creation of a group of outraged Americans. A Nigerian lawyer started #BringBackOurGirls, following the lead of distraught mothers who had taken their case to the streets of Abuja, the Nigerian capital. “I think what you’re seeing from the Nigerian side is that they are pretty well fed up with the way the authorities are handling Boko Haram,” Margon says. And not only did the campaign catch fire—First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted her support on Tuesday—it also served to illuminate the more subtle issues involved, such as the quality of local governance. Protest organizers complained of being ordered detained by Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan after an unproductive meeting with her Monday, the same day the video surfaced publicly. As President Barack Obama said at a town hall meeting while in Africa last year, “It is my strong belief that terrorism is more likely to emerge and take root in countries that are not delivering for their people.” He was answering a question from a Nigerian.

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