International Relations Boko Haram
Jason Warner, Ellen Chapin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0293


When referring to the terrorist group known as “Boko Haram,” observers are broadly pointing to a violent, Salafist-jihadist group (in its various incarnations and often encompassing its offshoots) based in northeastern Nigeria, which seeks to establish a caliphate ruled by sharia law in northeastern Nigeria and its environs. The group that served as its predecessor was founded in 2002 in Maiduguri, Nigeria, by Mohammed Yusuf, and was named “Jama’atu Ahil as-Sunna li ad-Da’wa wa al-Jihad,” or “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” (JAS). By the time that the group became violent in 2009—also the year that Yusuf died and the group was taken over by Abubakar Shekau—observers had begun to refer to the group as “Boko Haram,” broadly meaning “Western education is sinful” or “forbidden.” Even after the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and became the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) in March 2015, and later faced the breakaway of a splinter group in 2016, observers have still referred to these iterations as “Boko Haram.” In other words, this article, which is ostensibly about “Boko Haram,” is more generally about the various incarnations of the above-referenced group, the nature of its violence, its cycles of leadership, its shifting global and regional affiliations, and the offshoot groups which it has engendered, all of which continue to be referred to by more casual observers as “Boko Haram,” even though none of the above iterations of the group referred to themselves as such, at least formally. While this article is one that seeks to provide an overview of the best literature available on the emergence, evolution, and current activities of the “Boko Haram” phenomenon, given the multi- and interdisciplinary study of the group—most commonly undertaken by scholars of political science, history, religion, and conflict and security—there is no singular, unifying intellectual framework by which to study the group. Instead, writings on Boko Haram have occurred across disciplines, and as we articulate in the subsections below, have been defined by two general approaches. On one hand, scholars of Boko Haram have often written comprehensive histories of the group, attempting to understand the organization writ large, while on the other, others have written about particular facets of the group relating to Boko Haram’s emergence, ideology, patterns of violence, treatment of gender and age, and interactions with global jihadist organizations, and impact on communities in which it operates. In the pages below, we detail what we view to be the most rigorous pieces written to date in each of these two broad categories, keeping in mind that given space restrictions, we were not able to include sections on every facet of the Boko Haram insurgency.

General Overviews

While a number of shorter, article-length general histories of Boko Haram exist, what is notable about the nature of scholarship on Boko Haram is that many rigorous book-length works have been written about the group, in general, improving—as one would expect—over time. While one of the first and best long-form pieces was Pérouse de Montclos 2014, an edited report, some of the first book-length works giving overviews of Boko Haram were written by Westerners, especially researchers and journalists, including “early” works by Comolli 2015, Walker 2016, and Smith 2015. These works set the stage for subsequent, even more rigorous, scholarship on the group. Capitalizing on the work prior to it and adding greater primary source research, the book Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement (Thurston 2017) gave the intellectual community studying Boko Haram the most thorough and authoritative history of the group to date. This was followed by Kendhammer and McCain 2018, an overview of Boko Haram, which, readable and more attuned to the cultural responses of the Boko Haram insurgency, has been a strong addition to the canon, which was joined recently by Zenn 2020. And, though book-length treatments of Boko Haram writ large have tended to be dominated by Western writers, this is not universally the case, as excellent work has been done by non-Western scholars, as in the case of the edited volume Mustapha and Meagher 2020, Anugwom 2018, and Koungou 2016 work. Outside of books, one particularly good overview of Boko Haram is the edited volume Zenn 2018, from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Collectively, these works—and many others that have not been cited—underline that there is no paucity of scholarship on Boko Haram generally.

  • Anugwom, Edlyne Eze. The Boko Haram Insurgence in Nigeria: Perspectives from Within. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    This book describes the emergence and growth of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and details some of the root causes behind its origins.

  • Comolli, Virginia. Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency. London: Hurst, 2015.

    A good history of Boko Haram, written relatively early in the group’s history.

  • Kendhammer, Brandon, and Carmen McCain. Boko Haram. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2018.

    An excellent and highly readable account of the emergence and evolution of the Boko Haram insurgency, this book differs from many other accounts by also giving attention to the processes of cultural production in response to the insurgency.

  • Koungou, Léon. Boko Haram: Parti pour durer. Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 2016.

    A shorter, earlier overview of Boko Haram by Cameroonian political scientist Koungou.

  • Mustapha, Raufu Abdul, and Kate Meagher, eds. Overcoming Boko Haram: Faith, Society, and Islamic Radicalization in Northern Nigeria. London: James Currey, 2020.

    A wide-ranging edited volume co-produced by the late Mustapha, this work investigates the various religious, economic, and sociopolitical factors that led to the group’s emergence and perpetuation.

  • Pérouse de Montclos, Marc-Antoine, ed. “Boko Haram: Islamism, Politics, Security, and the State in Nigeria.” In African Studies Centre (ASC) and Institut Français de Recherche en Afrique (IFRA) West African Politics and Society Series. Vol. 2. Leiden, Netherlands, and Ibadan, Nigeria, 2014.

    One of the first and best long-form, rigorous investigations of Boko Haram.

  • Smith, Mike. Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War. Bloomsburg, PA: Bloomsbury, 2015.

    A solid, relatively early account of Boko Haram by journalist Mike Smith, whose history of the emergence and evolution of Boko Haram is told through interviews with numerous Nigerians affected by the group.

  • Thurston, Alexander. Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

    In what is arguably the most authoritative history of Boko Haram, Thurston uses a variety of sources in Arabic and Hausa—including rare documents, propaganda videos, press reports, and interviews with experts in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger—to detail the history and evolution of Boko Haram.

  • Walker, Andrew. “Eat the Heart of the Infidel”: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram. London: Hurst, 2016.

    Journalist Andrew Walker takes the reader through the history and changes that gave rise to Boko Haram, paying special attention to the social and political history of northeastern Nigeria.

  • Zenn, Jacob. “Boko Haram beyond the Headlines: Analyses of Africa’s Enduring Insurgency.” Washington, DC: Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 2018.

    A useful and wide-ranging report edited by Jacob Zenn but with chapters from some of the leading scholars of Boko Haram, this piece has useful and unique chapters on topics including Boko Haram’s ideology; its perception of gender; its leadership; counterinsurgency efforts against the group; and its degree of regional connections with other terror groups.

  • Zenn, Jacob. Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 2020.

    In the most wide-ranging recent account of Boko Haram’s emergence and evolution, pays particular attention to the group and its various iterations and relationships with members of global jihadist networks of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

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