Violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is drawing the country ever closer to a religious war. The instigator of this conflict is Boko Haram, an Islamist movement whose very name means "Western education is forbidden." If the Nigerian government can't stop this conflict from spiraling out of control, expect the United States to step in -- albeit with a relatively light hand -- to tip the scales against Boko Haram.
The situation in Nigeria hit a crisis point on June 17, when Boko Haram attacked three churches in Nigeria's north-central Kaduna state -- killing 21 people during services. Christians were quick to respond, and sectarian clashes ignited almost immediately. After four days of unrest, roughly 100 Nigerians lay dead.
Terrorist violence is nothing new for Boko Haram, a group that U.S. officials suspect of having links to al Qaeda. As the U.S. State Department has noted, attacks by Boko Haram and associated militants have taken more than 1,000 lives over the past 18 months. Nor is sectarian strife new to Nigeria: The country, predominantly Muslim in the north and Christian in the south, has a history of sectarian violence in its religiously mixed middle belt. Past riots killed more than 100 people in 2002 -- again in Kaduna -- when Muslim youths protested the Miss World pageant being held in Nigeria, and they also claimed scores of lives in 2006 following Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's publication of controversial cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed.
Recent events show that Boko Haram's attacks are only becoming more deadly. The organization is in the midst of a tactical evolution: Whereas Boko Haram used to employ such tactics as assassinations and massed assaults on security forces, suicide bombings now feature prominently in its arsenal, and Christian targets -- which are most frequently attacked while church services are ongoing -- have moved to the top of the group's target list.
The Nigerian government has had some successes. Boko Haram was the target of violent suppression in July 2009 when its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was summarily executed by Nigerian security forces following his capture that month, and roughly 800 members of the sect were killed, according to Nigerian military estimates. As scholar David Cook's useful study on Boko Haram details, however, the group re-emerged with a vengeance the following year. It engaged in "a high profile campaign of assassinations and attacks throughout northern Nigeria," Cook writes, and began to employ suicide attacks in the summer of 2011. Further, Cook notes, Boko Haram's attacks and threats have focused "more and more on interests that touch U.S. economic concerns in the region."
In line with Boko Haram's tactical evolution, it has frequently employed suicide bombings in its onslaught against Christian targets. Prior to the June 17 attacks, Boko Haram had perpetrated a number of other terrorist assaults on church services. On April 29, gunmen attacked services on Bayero University in the northern state of Kano, killing at least 16 people. The group also took credit for a June 3 suicide attack on a church in northeastern Nigeria that killed 15 people and wounded 40 more. The following Sunday, June 10, two church attacks rocked the cities of Jos and Biu, killing three people and wounding over 40. Once again, Boko Haram claimed responsibility.
Such attacks have provoked a response from Nigeria's Christian community. Christian youths reportedly assaulted local Muslims around Jos in response to those attacks, but that retaliation paled in comparison to the wave of violence that followed the June 17 attacks. As Boko Haram's attacks on church services continued from one weekend to the next, Christian and Muslim leaders have tried to stop the religious violence from escalating. Jamaatu Nasril Islam, an umbrella group for Nigerian Muslim organizations, released an open letter to the government that condemned the church attacks, describing them as "barbaric."