Who is the Nigerian Islamist Group "Boko Haram"?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Continental Airlines opens up a new route today, a direct daily flight from Houston to Lagos, Nigeria. The Houston area has a large Nigerian population, and of course, the oil industry has a lot of business over there. But the state department has a serious warning for Americans thinking of traveling to Nigeria. Large areas of the country are off limits to all but essential travel because of the threat from Boko Haram. Boko Haram is an Islamic extremist group that's mounting daily attacks in the north of Nigeria. John Campbell was US ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. He's currently with the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington. John Campbell, who are Boko Haram?

John Campbell: Boko Haram is a movement, a tendency, a trend as opposed to being a tightly organized group. It has no charismatic leader. It does not seem to have a Polit Bureau, and it seems to be quite fragmented.

Werman: Now, is there any connection between Boko Haram and a larger, better known organization like al-Qaeda's chapter in west Africa?

Campbell: I don't think so or at least no significant connection between the two. Boko Haram is inward looking. Its focus is on the secular government in Abuja. It is millenarian, that is to say the desire to establish the kingdom of God on earth, primarily through the imposition of a rigorous form of Sharia. But I don't think we should think of Boko Haram as in some sense of a franchisee of al-Qaeda.

Werman: How concerned is Nigeria's federal government over the existence of Boko Haram and these attacks they're carrying out?

Campbell: It's deeply concerned.

Werman: What are they doing about it?

Campbell: Well, up to now the response has essentially been a very, very heavy handed security presence, lots and lots of military, lots and lots of police, lots of bad behavior by both, which in a sense has made the situation worse. One of the difficult things about Boko Haram is who do you talk to? Again, back to no Politbureau, no charismatic leader. A couple of weeks ago a former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, at the request of the current president tried to open a dialogue with a person who was identified as a leader of Boko Haram. Shortly after their first conversation the person he was talking to was murdered.

Werman: So really nobody to talk to, I mean it's not just that no identifiable character, but it just seems very diffused. I see that the name Boko Haram means western education is forbidden, that's the loose translation. Now there are 75 million Muslims in Nigeria, how many of them see eye to eye with this group?

Campbell: Oh, well, first of all, the label Boko Haram is applied by the government and by the press.

Werman: Oh, so what does the group call itself?

Campbell: They don't call themselves Boko Haram at all. They call themselves roughly, the way of the Sunna and Jihad. Sunna here refers to law. The other thing is the government and the media tend to identify anything that happens in the north that is bad as part of Boko Haram. So that, for example, a bank is robbed, the reference would be made to Boko Haram. Well, the bank robbers may or may not have any contact with the Boko Haram even as loosely identified.

Werman: Let me ask you this, I mean we began talking about this new flight from Houston to Lagos. Is the violence so bad that you're warning friends and relatives who are thinking of going to Nigeria not to go?

Campbell: No, no, certainly friends who want to go to Lagos I think can proceed to do so. There have been car bombings in Abuja and I certainly would not recommend travel in the North. But in the southwest and that's where Lagos is, yes.

Werman: John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria, thank you for your time.

Campbell: Thank you very much.

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