The Deadly Mission of Boko Haram

The kidnapping of 276 Nigerian girls has put Islamist militants Boko Haram on the map. What do they want? Sunday Alamba/AP

I was on a three-week drive across northern Nigeria in 2002, the year Boko Haram was founded.

The Islamist group, which was little known then, has since become world famous for abducting 276 schoolgirls. Boko Haram, loosely translated as "Western Education is forbidden," was founded by a Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf.

The group was influenced by a telling phrase from the Koran: "Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors," meaning that it is forbidden to take part in social or political activities associated with the West. This ban on all things Western includes sending your children to secular, as opposed to Muslim, schools, and even taking part in democratic elections.

In the intervening years, the group has grown stronger and its methods more daring, as shown by the audacity with which it rounded up so many girls and made off with them in broad daylight.

Boko Haram's trademark killing method used to be gunmen on motorbikes who killed police or anyone else who stood up against the group. But the capture of the schoolgirls on April 14 from their school in Chibok put Boko Haram on the international map.

The abduction of the 276 girls provoked a storm of outrage across the world, with anger on many painful levels. According to John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, it was not just the large number of girls but the prospect of them being trafficked into slavery, as well as the assault upon the very notion of educating women.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Newsweek, "The kidnap of the Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram is a disgusting and immoral act. The impunity with which they feel they can act is shocking and must be addressed by the Nigerian authorities. But we all have a role to play."

Hague added, "We have already sent a team to Abuja. And we have offered Nigeria surveillance aircraft, a military team to embed with the Nigerian army in its HQ, as well as a team to work with U.S. experts to analyze information on the girls' location."

Next month in London, alongside U.N. special envoy Angelina Jolie, Hague will host the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Jolie, a human rights activist and mother of three girls, is equally appalled by the crime.

"One of the root causes for the horror of these girls being kidnapped is the culture of impunity," she told CNN. "The perpetrators believe they can get away with it. And if they do get away with this, with the world watching, then it sends a message to others that they too can commit similar attacks."

Jolie added that the "crime cannot go unpunished—otherwise it will happen again and again."

So what is behind the snatching of the girls? How can such horrific behavior be explained? What has Islam got to do with such a despicable crime? And what can be done to prevent such an incident from becoming a regular feature of life in countries where Islam is on the march?

When I began my journey back in 2002, it had been three years since Sharia law was introduced by individual northern Nigerian states, and along with it hudud punishments—stoning and amputation—in an attempt to end corruption and bring justice to ordinary citizens.

But what I saw in northern Nigeria had little to do with justice. Up and down the red, unpaved roads, in and out of villages, shanties and urban centers, a suffocating sensation of fear pervaded everything.

By that point, in the north there had been three amputations and four people sentenced to death by stoning, and 11 children were waiting to have a limb amputated for petty theft.

Nigerians take part in a protest demanding for the release of secondary school girls abducted from the remote village of Chibok, in Asokoro, Abuja May 13, 2014. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Some of the children waiting to have their arms sawn off had stolen a cow. But most had taken only small items, like a shirt. All this savagery was taking place despite the prohibition on cruel punishments, such as stoning or amputation, in the Nigerian federal constitution.

There had always been some form of Sharia in Nigeria, before British involvement in the country between 1900 and 1960 outlawed it. Of the country's 36 states, 12 have Sharia law today. The critical difference is whether it is used for civil or criminal cases.

In Gusau, the state capital of Zamfara in the northwest, I passed a rural courthouse where a man was found guilty of stealing a cheap necklace to sell to feed his family.

He got lucky: Instead of amputation, he was sentenced to 40 lashes with a bullwhip in full public view. We all shuffled outside to witness the man being placed in the stocks, where he was whipped, over and over.

Afterward, the judge let me go to the man, who was in a state of shock and could not talk. "He will never steal again," the judge proudly told me.

Akbar Ahmed, an Islamic commentator, explained to me the discrepancies between what Sharia was meant to achieve and the terror it was actually creating.

"In the ideal, Sharia provides justice and compassion in society. However, the reality today is—from Nigeria to Pakistan—that ordinary people can expect little justice and no compassion. This is particularly true where women are concerned," Ahmed said.

"The Sharia, tribal custom and central government law inspired by Western sources overlap, clash and are juxtaposed. A priority for Muslim leaders must be to bring the different sources of law into consonance with the demands of life in the 21st century," he said.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country and the leading economy in West Africa thanks to its oil reserves, has long been known to be corrupt, with rulers who are elitists with no connection to the people living in misery in the villages, without electricity or clean water. So it seemed natural that the dispossessed would flock to Sharia, which ostensibly offered true justice. But Sharia law imposed by militant Islamist rebels brought a whole other level of terror.

In 2013, the U.S. officially declared Boko Haram, whose goal is to overthrow the Nigerian government and create an Islamic state, a terrorist organization. Since 2009, it has been headed by Abubakar Shekau, a former theology student who stepped up the terror campaign as a reprisal for the government's killing of Yusuf.

While the kidnapping of the 276 girls has brought Boko Haram international fame, the group does not just discriminate against girls. It is opposed to any form of education, unless it is conducted in madrassas, where children are taught solely by memorizing the Koran.

In February, Boko Haram slaughtered 59 schoolboys by slitting their throats. The horrific incident was reported in the Nigerian press but was largely ignored elsewhere. According to Patrick Smith, editor of the newsletter Africa Confidential, "In the last five years, at least 4,000 to 5,000 people are believed to have died from acts of terrorism, [from] firefights between Nigerian troops and Boko Haram." Amnesty International says at least 1,500 people have died this year alone.

In Nigeria, 11 million children do not go to traditional schools, to learn to read and write and all the other things children learn elsewhere. The northern region of the country, where Boko Haram has found support, is home to the majority of them. The children are often sent by their parents to Boko Haram's madrassas, which are a recruiting ground for jihadists.

"Either you are with us…or you're with Obama, François Hollande, George Bush, Bush, Clinton…Ban Ki-moon and his people.… Kill! Kill! Kill!" Shekau taunted in one of his propaganda videos. In another, released after the schoolgirls were snatched, he laughed as he threatened, "By Allah, I will sell them off and marry them off."

Shekau must be taken as a global threat, says Campbell, the former ambassador. "His rhetoric is directed towards the very poor people in the north, who are almost always illiterate. And he poses a direct threat to the integrity of the Nigerian state and the [President Goodluck] Jonathan government," Campbell says.

Islam was established in Nigeria more than 900 years ago, spread by trans-Sahara trading caravans and holy wars. The country is now split down the middle between Muslims and Christians. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, 49 percent of Nigerians are Christians and 48 percent Muslim. Since Sharia bas been arrived, the tensions between the two groups have steadily risen.

"People have become more intolerant," Gabriel Oja, a pastor at the First Baptist Church in Kano, told me back in 2002. He introduced me to one of his few remaining parishioners, Peter Ajayi, whose three children were murdered when Muslim fundamentalists set fire to his home. Ajayi was away on a business trip that deadly night.

"We have come to kill you because you are Christian," the men said, dousing his house with gasoline. Ajayi's wife, Christiane, survived by jumping through a window but was badly burned.

The three children, along with a cousin, perished. The pastor never showed Ajayi the photograph he kept locked up in a safe, which had the four tiny, roasted bodies lying together in the aftermath of the fire.

Slaughter of innocents has become Boko Haram's stock in trade. But the kidnapping appears to have taken everyone, including the Nigerian government, by surprise. This is a crime on such a scale, in such difficult terrain, by such an unfathomable group, that it is not easy to solve.

The prospect of recovering all the girls alive is increasingly remote. While the United States, Britain, Canada and Israel have sent specialist teams to help with negotiations or capture, little is known about where the girls are or in what conditions they are being held.

Experts are poring over the most recent video of them, which shows some of the girls clad in hijabs. It is said that they have been forcibly converted to Islam. "In some cases, their fates will be individual," says Campbell. "Which is grim."

Some analysts agree with Jolie that the roots of the problem must be addressed or there will be more tragic incidents like this one. Until then, the girls' prospects look bleak. In January 2012, after carrying out an attack in Kano in which 180 died, Shekau issued a chilling message: "I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill, the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams."