On Christmas day, a bomb was detonated at St. Theresa's Catholic Church on the outskirts of the Nigerian capital, Abuja, killing at least 35. Two other bombs exploded at Christmas ceremonies across Nigeria, killing five more. Soon after the bombings, a spokesman for Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group based in northern Nigeria, claimed responsibility.
"By the grace of God, we are responsible for all the attacks," a man known as Abul-Qaqa, who claims to be a spokesman for the group, told a Nigerian newspaper. "There will never be peace until our demands are met. We want all our brothers who have been incarcerated to be released; we want full implementation of the sharia system and we want democracy and the constitution to be suspended."
The Christmas attacks by the group, whose name translates to "Western education is a sin," are the latest in a yearlong campaign of violence against Nigerian Christians and the Nigerian government. Just days before the holiday, more than 80 people were killed in clashes between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces. In November, in a city called Damaturu, members of the group exploded a car bomb outside of military barracks, burned down five churches, and mounted attacks against police stations. At the same time, in a city to the east called Maiduguri, Boko Haram members detonated a suicide bomb outside of the headquarters of the military unit tasked with fighting the group. Three other bombs exploded soon after. In August, the group detonated a bomb at the United Nations compound in Abuja that killed 24 people. And last Christmas, Boko Haram bombed five churches, claiming 32 lives.
In 2011, the group is responsible for 504 deaths, according to the Associated Press.
Even as the bloodshed has escalated, President Goodluck Jonathan has repeatedly downplayed the Boko Haram threat. "We have challenges as a nation; even this morning, a very ugly incident happened in a Catholic Church," Jonathan said after the Christmas attack. "The issue of bombing is one of the burdens we must live with. It will not last forever; I believe that it will surely be over."
Despite Jonathan's assurances, Nigeria's growing turmoil has drawn the attention of the international community. Pope Benedict immediately condemned the Christmas attacks, as did U.S. President Barack Obama. The United States has reportedly begun training Nigerian troops in counterterrorism techniques and providing Nigerian defense forces with weapons and other equipment. French Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Juppe has also offered military support and intelligence sharing in the fight against Boko Haram.
Of course, these measures aren't just to protect Nigeria's internal stability. Western governments' interest has been piqued by links between Boko Haram and larger, international terrorist networks. Abul-Qaqa has asserted the group has ties to al Qaeda, but did not offer proof. His claims was bolstered by Algeria's Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel,who announced in November that Algeria had discovered links between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an offshoot of the global terror network that operates throughout North Africa. "We have no doubts that coordination exists between Boko Haram and al Qaeda," he said. "The way both groups operate and intelligence reports show that there is cooperation."
But other than the group's own proclamations, which connect their ideology to broader radical Islam, and the assertion of the Algerian government in which no hard proof was offered, there is little evidence to support the claim that the Boko Haram movement is connected to a larger terrorist networks. And a close examination of radical Islam in Nigeria shows that the group's resentment toward the government has simmered for three decades and has little to do with a broader Islamic agenda.
Boko Haram's story began in the 1970s, when a young Cameroonian preacher known as Marwa arrived in Kano, the largest city in northern Nigeria. He quickly gained a sizable following among the city's poor by preaching against Nigeria's secular government, institutional political corruption, and the moderate religious establishment. His movement was known as Maitatsine.