Nigeria – ‘Boko Haram leader calls for more school attacks after dorm killings’ (Guardian, 2013)

By April Williams (2013)

A Critical Analysis of The Guardian Article:

“Boko Haram leader calls for more school attacks after dorm killings”

On 6th July 2013 a group of armed extremists entered a boarding school in Yobe, northern Nigeria and murdered 46 students and staff members as they slept (Appendix). The perpetrators of this attack are known to be the Islamist Jihadist terrorist organisation, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, translated as The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad; most commonly known by their Hausa name Boko Haram. This was neither the first nor the last attack on a school in Nigeria, as Boko Haram continues to wage a war against what they perceive to be ‘a plot against Islam’ (Appendix). Using an article published in The Guardian as a foundation, this essay will critically analyse the motives, legitimacy and outcomes of the Yobe School attack in Nigeria. Firstly it will summarise the article, focusing on its tone, content and the adequacy of this report in order to understand the influence the media has in relation to defining terrorist attacks. Secondly, it will focus on Boko Haram as an organisation and its motives. Thirdly, a definition of terrorism will be considered followed by a discussion as to why this is a clear case of terrorist activity; and finally, it will look at the wider implications of this attack, the consequence and the response by the state.

The article upon which this essay is primarily based was published in The Guardian on Sunday 14th July 2013, just over a week after the attack. This gap period should have allowed the author to develop a detailed report on the wider context in which these attacks were carried out as well as the reactions and consequences of this incident. However, the report is clearly dependent on theatrical stories of unrelated attacks and focusing on Boko Haram’s emphasis on children. There is very little attention paid to the actual attack, simply stating ‘just after dawn on 6th July, a school dormitory was doused in petrol and set alight in north-eastern Yobe. Those trying to flee the flames were shot. The attack left 46 dead, mostly students.’ The tone of the article is at times sensationalist, claiming that one of the men interviewed for the article ‘[looked] nervous at the mention of the militants’. One of the biggest failures of this article is that it fails to provide any indication of a motive. By choosing to exclude this information from the article, the reader is unconsciously left thinking that this was a barbaric attack carried out by inhumane and irrational extremists. However, even though their method of attack may be illegitimate, Boko Haram does have a number of legitimate motives and is jus ad bellum, which the article fails to convey. This is an example of how the media can distort our view of terrorist incidents, instantly depicting them as senseless illogical activists without any wider consideration.

Boko Haram is an Islamist militant sect which has targeted Nigeria’s police, government and public institutions with increasing violence since 2009 and is responsible for over 5,000 deaths (Cohen, 2013, p. 68). Rejecting all forms of secular authority it seeks to establish a ‘pure’ Islamic state ruled by Sharia law (Waldek & Jayasekara, 2011, p. 170) whilst also condemning the westernisation of Africa, which they view as the corruption of Muslims. Members believe that Nigeria has been filled with social vices and so ‘the best thing for a devout Muslim to do [is] to ‘migrate’ from the morally bankrupt society to a secluded place and establish an ideal Islamic society devoid of political corruption and moral deprivation’ (Akanji, 2007, p. 60).

Prior to 2009 the group was lead by Mohammed Yusuf who began peacefully gaining support, mostly through preaching and soon had a large following of disaffected men. However, whilst travelling to the funeral of 2 of its members on their motorcycles, the police stopped the group for failing to wear helmets required by the law. This sparked a furious backlash which quickly escalated into a 5-day gun battle, resulting in over 800 deaths including that of Mohammed Yusuf (Onuoha, 2012, p. 134). This was the turning point as Boko Haram, in the pursuit of vengeance, became increasingly extremist and committed to violent acts of terror to pursue their ideals.

Boko Haram’s trademark modus operandi is traditionally small-scale attacks aimed at government officials and security officers such as the use of motorcycles to carry out drive-by assassinations. However, recently Boko Haram’s attacks have become increasingly sophisticated. This was most clearly demonstrated by their attack in August 2011 when a suicide car bomb was driven into the UN building in Abjua, killing 18 people (Plaut, 2011). This was the first attack that was aimed at an international target. It is feared that this advancement of tactics could be an indication that Boko Haram has developed a relationship with Al-Qaeda, and more specifically Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This concern was intensified when, in an interview with the Guardian in 2012, Boko Haram’s spokesperson Abu Qaqa said, “Al-Qaeda are our elder brothers. During the lesser Hajj, our leader travelled to Saudi Arabia and met al-Qaeda there. We enjoy financial and technical support from them. Anything we want from them we ask them” (Mark, 2012). Furthermore, in late 2012, Boko Haram began to emulate the AQIM by moving into Christian villages during the night and ‘slitting the throats of every man, woman, and child’ (Cohen, 2013, p. 68). Even though this relationship has not been officially confirmed, the mere inclination that the Al-Qaeda franchise has again expanded, this time into a small domestic Sub-Saharan group in Africa, has caused Boko Haram to become a recognised international threat, with the US formally labeling it a foreign terrorist group (FTO) in November 2013 (BBC, 2013).

Defining an act of terrorism is “an exercise in semantics and context, driven by one’s own perspective and world view” (Martin, 2010, p. 46). There is no single comprehensive definition of terrorism that is recognised around the world. This essay will therefore focus on individual factors which are shared by the most common definitions of terrorism in order to provide an outline of terrorism from which the arguments can be based.

An element which is common to all terrorist organisations is that the perpetrators will very rarely accept the title of being a terrorist, instead viewing themselves as freedom fighters, for a noble cause for which they are willing to die a martyr. Boko Haram regard itself to be fighting for the right of all Muslims living in Nigeria, which is roughly half of the population, to be governed by Sharia law. However, what it may see as a duty to the Muslim population, does not enjoy popular support; the local people often refer to Boko Haram as the ‘Nigerian Taliban’, which is used in a derogatory sense (Onuoha, 2012, p. 134), and a number of Muslim clerics have denounced the group as extremists (Aghedo & Osumah, 2012, p. 859). This lack of support and therefore legitimacy, even from its immediate constituency, support the labelling of Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation.

The definitions of terrorism advocated by the League of Nations and Walter Reich express the idea of the creation of terror and ‘instilling fear in the public at large’ (Martin, 2010, p. 43) through the premeditated use of violence as a requirement of terrorist activity. This is designed to have a psychological impact that far outweighs the actual physical damage caused by any attack (Onuoha, 2012). In the Guardian article (Appendix), it accounts how families are relocating due to the attack with one family claiming, “This really shook us up. Students being attacked in their sleep is too disgusting for us to even imagine” which suggests that Boko Haram is achieving its goal of creating a state of terror and therefore, can be described as terrorist.

Another significant feature of terrorism is the targeting of ‘soft’ civilians. Not only was this attack aimed at children but it was also carried out ‘just after dawn’ whilst the students would have been sleeping and therefore were completely defenseless. There is no justification for targeting these students and therefore this was undoubtedly a terrorist attack.

Now that this essay has established that Boko Haram falls within the parameters of being a terrorist organisation, it is necessary to place it into one of the many sub-categories advocated by Gus Martin. This example of an act of terrorism was carried out by a group who claim to share a common faith and are ‘united in the ultimate objective of establishing Nigeria as an Islamic state’ (Onuoha, 2012, p. 134) and therefore this essay will adopt Gus Martin’s (2010, p.172) definition of religious terrorism:

‘A type of political violence that is motivated by an absolute belief that an otherworldly power has sanctioned – and commanded – the application of terrorist violence for the greater glory of faith…one’s religious faith legitimizes violence so long as such violence is an expression of the will of one’s deity’

In 2009 Boko Haram proclaimed itself to be a jihadist group, struggling against the non-believers in the pursuit of the adoption of Sharia law and the creation of an Islamic government. It believes anyone who is not on their side to be against them and therefore is a legitimate target. This religious grounding of the group is also evident in the Guardian article (Appendix) when Mohammed recalls how he fled his village of Dikwa after Boko Haram members took his neighbor’s son to their camp ‘to fight for Allah’. This shows that Boko Haram is legitimising its actions as the will of god.

Generally, religious terrorism occurs between two religious groups such as Christians and Muslims. However, the case of Boko Haram is not quite so clear. It is different from the normal examples as it is a religious group fighting against the state. Therefore, Boko Haram also falls under Gus Martin’s category of ‘revolutionary dissident terrorists’ whose aim is to destroy the existing order, which it see as corrupt and oppressive through armed conflict and to build a relatively well-designed new society ‘on the rubble of [the] existing one’ (Martin, 2010, p. 145). Dissident terrorism is terrorism ‘from below’ and perfectly defines Boko Haram as it is a small non-state movement, which is significantly outnumbered by the states resources and therefore is forced to resort to ‘unconventional warfare to destablise the central authority’ (Martin, 2010, p. 145).

When focusing on religious terrorism it is important to consider whether religion is a primary or secondary motive. In the case of Boko Haram it would be easy to assume that religion is its primary motive, proclaiming that they are pursuing the implementation of Sharia law across Nigeria in the name of Allah. However, when studied deeper it would appear that Boko Haram has a number of other political, ideological and retaliatory motives for carrying out its acts of terrorism. Religion may have been its primary motive under the guidance of Mohammed Yusuf but in recent years Boko Haram has moved away from these roots and engaged in political and ideological issues.

Boko Haram emerged from a number of significant changes in the political landscape of Nigeria. The state was granted independence from the British Empire in 1960 which lead to power being shifted to the Christian south of the state. This has lead to a number of discrepancies developing between the increasingly marginalised north and the more affluent, powerful south. The level of poverty and deprivation in northern Nigeria is higher than the rest of the country with 70% of its population living on less than $1.25 per day (Aghedo & Osumah, 2012) even though it is one of the most successful economies in Africa. This is due in the main part to the wealth that is generated by Nigeria’s oil supply being monopolised by an elite group of southern political insiders. The extent of corruption in Nigeria is alarming with the World Bank claiming ‘40 per cent of Nigerian companies are expected to give gifts or informal payments to government officials in exchange for government contracts, [making] it one of the most corrupt countries in the world’ (York, 2012). This has lead to wide-scale distrust of the government by Boko Haram and what Maiangwas et. al (2012) have defined as the ‘state failure thesis’. The state exists to provide security and law and order but the Nigeria’s corrupt government has failed to perform these primary responsibilities. Therefore, Boko Haram can legitimately confront the government over its failures which need to be addressed for the good of the nation.

The second theoretical framework put forward by Maiangwas et. al (2012) is the ‘frustration-aggression thesis’. In response to Boko Haram’s acts of terror the government has become reliant upon extrajudicial executions as a tactic to deal with them. Rather than handling the suspects in the proper manner the government, on a weekly basis is killing numerous potential insurgents. This disproportionate and oppressive treatment in an attempt to control the terrorist organisation is counterproductive as it is fueling not only Boko Haram’s aggression towards the state but that of the general population as innocent civilians are being killed. A recent Amnesty International report revealed that in the first six months of 2013, 950 people died in military custody due to inhumane conditions. This means that the Nigerian government has killed more civilians this year than Boko Haram (Al-Jazeera America, 2013). This disproportionate level of retaliation by the government is having a wider effect on the civilian population and is therefore generating sympathy and support for Boko Haram’s cause against this oppressive rule.

A final possible motive for Boko Haram’s attack comes from an ideological perspective, more specifically the influence of Al-Qaeda as an ideology not just an organisation. The word ‘Al-Qaedaism’ is being used more frequently in the media as the spread of Al-Qaeda’s anti-western values are adopted around the world. For example, the name Boko Haram was given to this group by the Hausa people of northern Nigeria which is translated as ‘western education is sinful’. This not only directly relates to what the group proclaims, but it also suggests that a likely motive of the Yobe school attack was to destroy western education in Nigeria. It was not simply a random, indiscriminate target but in fact it was attacking the very foundation of what it see as an adversary to Islam, the proliferation of western ideals. Schools have become a common target in Nigeria, by April of 2012 14 schools had been destroyed by Boko Haram in the state of Maiduguri, forcing over 7,000 children out of education and dissuading other children from attending schools for fear of an attack (The Guardian Development Network, 2012). By targeting state-run schools, they are preventing the future generation from learning and perpetuating western values which they regard as polluting Nigeria.

The targeting of schools is also sending a message to the Nigerian people, that they must choose an Islamic education known as Almajari. This does not provide students with any formal qualifications, instead sending children to live and study under renowned Islamic teachers in the search of knowledge of Islam. Students are often forced to live in terrible conditions, with little food forcing them to roam the streets and so, ‘denied of parental care, they form the majority of recruits for extremists such as Boko Haram’ (Onuoha, 2012, p. 137). Therefore, as explained in the appendix the Yobe school attack was ‘part of a two-pronged strategy that plays up the extremists’ ideology against western institutions while also providing a stream of potential new recruits…[as] unschooled and unemployed children are increasingly being recruited’ (Appendix).

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the continents largest oil exporter. The instability that is being generated by Boko Haram is therefore not only having domestic consequences, but also significant global and regional implications. According to the World Investment Report 2013, foreign direct investment into Nigeria plummeted by 21.3% in just one year from 2011 to 2012 (Tochukwu, 2013). This substantial loss will have a direct impact upon the nations economic growth, reverting the developmental progress it has made over the last decade. As the regions second largest economy, Nigeria is of ‘strategic importance to peace, order and regional security in sub-Saharan Africa’ (Tochukwu, 2013). The economies of neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Niger and Chad are dependent upon the economy of Nigeria. Therefore, it is of regional and also global interest that the Nigerian economy is stablised.

In response to this attack the Nigeria government made a number of decision, many of which have now been criticised. Immediately after the attack Yobe State governor Ibrahim Gaidam “directed that all secondary schools in the state be closed down from Monday 8th July 2013 until a new academic session begins in September” (Hall, 2013). By preventing children from attending school, it may be protecting them from another potential attack, but in fact it is inadvertently giving the terrorists what they wanted, the deprivation of education. As previously mentioned Boko Haram describe western education as a ‘plot against Islam’ (Appendix) and are targeting schools to discourage the spread of western ideals.

Prior to this attack Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck declared a state of emergency in the Northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa in May 2013. The military has been deployed to these states in order to crackdown on Boko Haram and restore law and order. However, the military has taken a rather indiscriminate and oppressive response which has lead to wide scale criticism. Security forces have killed hundreds of Boko Haram suspects and other members of the public, arrested and held hundreds of people without trials for months and even years and in some cases they have been detained in inhuman conditions, tortured and even killed. The government has denied all of these allegations, labeling anyone who reports such a crime as a ‘Boko Haram sympathizer’. (Human Rights Watch, 2013) A recent example of this brutal, inconsistent retaliation by the government was on 16th and 17th April 2013 when, following a Boko Haram attack on a military patrol in Baga which killed one soldier and wounded five others, government forces entered the town immediately after killing 183 people and destroyed 2,275 buildings (Human Rights Watch, 2013).

To conclude, this essay has highlighted the complex nature of Boko Haram as a terrorist group. It proclaims itself to be a religious jihadist group but upon analysis it is evident that religion is not the groups’ primary motive. Political factors such as the huge inequality growing between the north and the south of the region, together with concern surrounding the integrity of the government, indicates that this group is also powerfully politically motivated. The influence of Al-Qaeda and the oppressive treatment of the group by the government are also underlying motives for Boko Haram’s campaign of terror against the westernization of Nigeria and in pursuit of an Islamic state. The Guardian fails to indicate any potential motives for the attack, unconsciously inferring that this was a random senseless act beyond any explanation and without any future implications or potential dangers. This leads to a misrepresentation of the overall situation by the media, preventing a thorough understanding of the phenomenon of terrorism.


Aghedo, I., & Osumah, O. (2012). The Boko Haram Uprising: How Should Nigeria Respond? Third World Quarterly , 33 (5), 853 – 869.

Akanji, O. (2007). The Politics of Combating Domestic Terrorism In Nigeria. In W. Okumu, & A. Botha, Domestic Terrorism in Africa: Defining, Addressing and Understanding its Impact on Human Security (pp. 55-65). Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.

Al-Jazeera America. (2013, October 15). Report: Nigerian forces ‘killed more civilians’ than Boko Haram this year. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from Al-Jazeera America:

BBC. (2013, November 13). Nigeria: US ‘to name Boko Haram as a terrorist group’. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from BBC News:

Cohen, H. (2013). Al Qaeda in Africa: The Creeping Menace to Sub-Sahra’s 500 Million Muslims. American Foreign Policy Interests, 35, 63-69.

Hall, J. (2013, July 8). Nigeria Massacre: Boko Haram Islamists Kill 42 at Boarding School in Yobe State. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from The Independent:

Human Rights Watch. (2013, May 1). Nigeria: Massive Destruction, Deaths From Military Raid. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from Human Rights Watch:

Maiangwas, B., Uzodine, U., Wheto, A., & Onapajo, H. (2012). ‘Baptism by Fire’: Boko Haram and the Reign of Terror in Nigeria. Africa Today , 59 (2), 40-57.

Mark, M. (2013, July 14). Boko Haram leader calls for more schools attacks after dorm killings. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from The Guardian: (

Mark, M. (2012, January 27). Boko Haram vows to fight until Nigeria establishes sharia law. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from The Guardian:

Martin, G. (2010). Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Persepctives, and Issues (3rd Edition ed.). London: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Onuoha, F. (2012). The Audacity of the Boko Haram: Background, Analysis and Emerging Trends. Security Journal , 25 (2), 134-151.

Plaut, M. (2011, August 27). Abuja Attack: Car Bomb Hits Nigeria UN Building. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from BBC News:

Schmitt, E. (2013, November 13). State Dept. Calls Group in Nigeria Terrorists. The New York Times .

The Guardian Development Network. (2012, April 24). School attendance falls in northern Nigeria after Boko Haram attacks. Retrieved December 4, 2013, from The Guardian:

Tochukwu, A. (2013, September 26). Boko Haram and its Economic Consequences. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from Fair Observer:

Waldek, L., & Jayasekara, S. (2011). Boko Haram: The Evolution of Isalmist Extremism in Nigeria. Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism , 6 (2), 168-178.

York, G. (2012, September 10). Economic neglect, corruption fuel Nigerian militants. Retrieved December 3, 2013, from The Globe and Mail:


One thought on “Nigeria – ‘Boko Haram leader calls for more school attacks after dorm killings’ (Guardian, 2013)

  1. Very clear and coherent structure, with good intro, conclusion, and signposting, and a clear and logically developed argument throughout.

    The analysis is excellent too. A wide range of aspects are covered in analysing these attacks, and good reflective arguments are developed that demonstrate remarkable critical skills. A couple of aspects could have been probed or developed a little further here or there by perhaps shrinking some of the descriptive sections. The discussion of counter-terrorism, for instance, could have been a little more probing.

    The essay is also very well researched, in depth and breadth, and demonstrates excellent and remarkably balanced knowledge and understanding of the case study and its context.

    In short, some of the descriptive sections could be sharpened so as to allow more space for more probing and further developed reflections, but this is an excellent essay already.


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