YOLA, Nigeria -- Ijidai Dawa was barely awake when Boko Haram attacked his town.
“I was just washing my face when I first heard the shots, and suddenly everyone was running in all directions,” he said, sitting in the empty classroom that functions as an office for an informal camp created by internally displaced people, 150 miles (250 kilometers) away from his home in Lassa.
Members of the radical Islamist militia had swarmed the village, rounding up most of the men. The elderly Dawa, 89, managed to avoid capture by hiding behind a group of women.
Before fleeing to Yola, he and others watched as 37 men were decapitated in the main market square. But during the three-hour ordeal, most Boko Haram members were busy doing something else: looting.
“They came in with their vehicles, and loaded them up with everything,” Dawa said.
While a handful of Boko Haram members were occupied killing hostages, the vast majority were busy going from house to house in groups, taking everything from computers and cell phones to food and medicine.
Eyewitness accounts gathered in Yola, where hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Boko Haram are living as internally displaced persons, are unanimous. In the opinion of those who have seen the group in action, it has nothing to do with Islam.
In their telling, and despite leader Abubakar Shekau’s recent pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State group, Boko Haram resembles an especially large criminal group, funded primarily by old-fashioned bank heists, ransoms and looting on a massive scale, rather than a militia organized on religious grounds.
Though they outwardly maintain a mantra of Islamic zealotry, the recent actions of Boko Haram militants have been anything but religious. Their penchant for looting has earned them the condemnation of local Muslim authorities.
“They just wear the cloth of religion,” Adamu Saidu Hamidu, an imam based in Yola, said. “But ... they come and kill Muslims, Christians, anybody. If they are religious, how could they do that? We cannot agree they’re fighting about religion.”
Boko Haram gained international notoriety last year when it kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the city of Chibok, resulting in a massive international protest and a military intervention by the African Union with some Western support. But the group has been active in Nigeria’s northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe for years, with roots going back more than a decade. And though it had begun as a radical Sunni militia bent on enforcing Shariah law, making money through criminal activities has been a part of the group’s DNA for more than a decade.
By the 1990s the majority of Nigerians were worse off than they were at independence in 1960, despite the country’s oil wealth, thanks to rampant corruption, a declining agricultural sector and a severe lack of infrastructure and security in most parts of the country. That was especially true in the majority-Muslim, rural North.
“Frustration and alienation drive many to join ‘self-help’ ethnic, religious community or civic groups, some of which are hostile to the state,” according to research from the International Crisis Group. “It is in this environment that the group called Boko Haram (usually translated loosely as ‘Western education is forbidden’) by outsiders emerged.”
The man generally considered its founder was Mohammed Yusuf, who gained a reputation in the late 1990s as a firebrand preacher that galvanized young people. “He was brilliant,” is how Borno deputy governor Adamu Dibal described him. “He had this kind of monopoly in convincing the youth about the Holy Koran and Islam.”
By 2002 he had become a noted public figure and amassed a group of followers calling themselves the Yusufiyya, or “followers of Yusuf.” That year a radical faction, led by Abubakar Shekau, broke off from the main group, claiming Yusuf was too soft. Calling itself the Nigerian Taliban, it made a name for itself as a violent gang, eventually graduating from clashes with locals on the Niger river about fishing rights to raids on villages and police stations.
Yusuf, and his militia, had in the meantime turned to politics. His influence had attracted the attention of Ali Modu Sheriff, a wealthy politician and businessman from a prominent family in the state capital Maiduguri. In 1999 Sheriff had won a senatorial seat in northern Borno, and was close with state governor Kachalla, who had promised to let Sheriff take over after one term. But Kachalla reneged on the agreement, and Sheriff recruited the support of the Yusuf militia to defeat him in the 2003 election.
“Sheriff denies any agreement, though many politicians and observers say Yusuf gave massive support to his campaign, reportedly including fiery attacks that portrayed Kachalla as a bad Muslim uninterested in Shariah,” according to Crisis Group and local media reports.
Sheriff won the governorship, and repaid the support of the Islamist militia by making Yusuf-supporter Alhaji Buji Foi head of the state’s religious affairs commission, which came with a substantial budget. Foi later become a high-ranking member and financial backer of Boko Haram.
However, the relationship turned sour.
“According to Boko Haram members, [Sheriff] reneged on his promise to implement Shariah fully in the state, limiting its courts to social matters and refusing to allow traditional criminal punishments such as flogging for theft and fornication, amputation and stoning to death for adultery,” the Crisis Group report reads. “Yusuf began to direct sermons against Sheriff and his government, ultimately branding him an apostate.”
Yusuf was regularly arrested, which only made him more popular. Eventually he was charged with terrorism in 2008 by the Borno government. Though he was let out on bail, this final act solidified the anti-government stance of his followers.
“Clashes in summer 2009 escalated in July into a full-scale armed insurrection targeting police headquarters, stations and officer’s homes to establish an Islamic state in Maiduguri and some cities in the north including Bauchi, Potiskum and Kano,” according to the Crisis Group.
That’s also when Muslim leaders started distancing themselves from the group, condemning the violence and clashes that had led to more than 700 deaths.
Yusuf was arrested in July 2009 and was killed while in police custody. Officials say he was shot while trying to escape, but Boko Haram members maintain he was murdered. The incident sent group members underground and provided a chance for the radical Shekau to come back the the forefront, at the head of a Boko Haram remade into a hyper-violent militia which re-emerged in September 2010 with attacks on police and military centers, meant to avenge Yusuf’s death. But soon it started attacking other targets, including the United Nations and both Christian and Muslim leaders.
Since then, the group has continued to expand its influence and targets, gaining resources and territory, but also distancing itself even further from its origins as a militia focused on enforcing a strictly interpreted version of Shariah. Criminals began to join Boko Haram, hoping to use the group as a “cover for their illegal behavior,” according to the Crisis Group.
The group has grown in size and brutality in recent years, culminating in the Jan. 3 attack on the border city of Baga that may have killed up to 2,000 people. Looting contributes prominently to the funding of guerrilla war on such a vast scale.
Though Boko Haram started with a substantial war chest from Yusuf’s government days, analysts say its primary funding sources come from looting and bank robberies, while weapons come primarily from what militants steal during raids on police or military armories. But the group does not need a large budget to keep running. Expenses are relatively low in the poorest part of a nation where 50 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day, according to the World Bank.
“The key is to understand that, given the social and economic situation in northeastern Nigeria over time -- a situation aggravated by the insurgency -- it does not cost much to operate” a guerrilla movement, J. Peter Pham, head of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said.
Adamu Ibrahim, 32, who recently fled to Yola from the town of Michika after a Boko Haram attack, said he knows of a dozen people who joined the group. None of them did for religious reasons, including his 25-year-old nephew, who he said may have joined the group “because of some material gains, I can’t think of anything else.”
“It’s not in the Quran, what they are doing,” Ibrahim added.
His two wives, who stayed behind after he fled, corroborate their husband’s account of Boko Haram as interested in nothing but loot.
His first wife, Hadiza, 22, said the militants scoured the town looking for plunder on a regular basis, eventually moving on from electronics, cars and cows to blankets, curtains and even doors.
“They took our neighbor’s door,” she said, allowing herself a small chuckle at the memory. “I couldn’t believe it, they took it off the hinges and just carried it away.”
“It’s not an issue of religion, if they see a Muslim they’ll just kill them and do other terrible things,” she said. “Mostly they just want to take everything.”