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10:55pm UK, Thursday March 08, 2012
The radical Islamist group Boko Haram, which is thought to have seized and killed hostages Chris McManus and Franco Lamolinara, was founded in 2002 in Maiduguri in the north of the country.
It has a diverse membership which includes highly educated as well as many illiterate and jobless people.
Boko Haram means ‘Western education is sinful’ in the Hausa language and members have an intense dislike of Western culture.
Supporters pray in separate mosques from other less radical Muslims and tend to grow long beards to distinguish themselves.
Since its inception, the group has been pushing for Sharia law to be applied right across Nigeria, even in the predominantly Christian southern half of the country.
During 2004, it began a campaign of low-level violence. By 2009, it was carrying out much larger attacks against police stations and government buildings.
Hundreds of people were killed and the Nigerian army and police became embroiled in a bloody campaign against the group.
Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a 2011 attack in Abuja
Its first leader, Mohammed Yusef, was killed by the army in 2009 after which there was a sharp escalation in attacks.
The United Nations’ headquarters in the capital, Abuja, was attacked and the group said its targets were no longer just the Nigerian state but anyone who supported the government, including outsiders.
There are now shooting and bombings on an almost daily basis which has fuelled inter-ethnic and religious fighting especially on the fault line where the majority Muslim north and majority Christian south meet.
Sky sources tracking Boko Haram believe the gang which kidnapped Mr McManus and Mr Lamolinara was a splinter group which had affiliated itself with al Qaeda.
They say the main Boko Haram group has contact with al Qaeda and was helped to re-establish itself last year after suffering setbacks in its fight against the state.
Neither Boko Haram nor the splinter group are thought to operate outside of Nigeria’s borders, although there are links with groups in neighbouring Chad and Niger.