Boko Haram is an armed group blamed for killing thousands of people in northeastern Nigeria. Many of the attacks have targeted places of worship, often churches, but Muslims have also been killed.

The group began its violent campaign in 2009 in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, although it had been around since 2002. Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, has appeared in video tapes, vowing to press ahead with the war against the government.

In 2004, Boko Haram moved to Kanamma in Yobe state, close to the border with Niger, where it set up a base dubbed "Afghanistan", from which it attacked nearby police outposts.

Boko Haram means "Western education is sin" in the Hausa language spoken in Nigeria's north. It is believed to have a number of factions with differing aims, including some with political links.

The group initially claimed to be fighting for the creation of an Islamic state in the north, but a range of demands by different people have since been issued.

Conspiracy theories

Criminal gangs are also believed to have carried out violence under the guise of Boko Haram. Conspiracy theories abound as well, including whether enemies of President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian who faces strong opposition in the north, have backed the violence.

Attacks blamed on Boko Haram have 
killed thousands of people [Reuters]

The group's first real leader was the late Mohammed Yusuf, who convinced young people to join him despite having only elementary knowledge of the Quran, according to one professor who has studied the group.

Yusuf was captured and killed when police said he was trying to escape from custody - but his body was found in the street, still handcuffed, raising concerns that he had been the victim of an extrajudicial killing. 

Yusuf's former deputy Shekau has since assumed leadership and is believed to be in charge of Boko Haram's main cell, which says it wants to be known by a different name, roughly translated as "People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad".

Boko Haram went dormant for more than a year before re-emerging in 2010 with a series of assassinations. Bomb blasts, including suicide attacks, have since become frequent and increasingly deadly.

In May of 2013, the Nigerian army did launch a major offensive against the group, deploying thousands of troops in the northeast and launching aerial bombardments of suspected Boko Haram hideouts.

Jonathan issued a decree allowing soldiers to arrest people at will and take over buildings suspected of housing fighters.

Analysts have said that at the heart of the surge in violence is dire poverty and political manoeuvring - not religion.

They believe attacks are committed mainly by frustrated, unemployed youths and orchestrated by religious leaders and politicians who manipulate them to retain power.

Despite the deployment of more soldiers and police to northern Nigeria, the nation's weak central government has been unable to stop the killings.

The exact number of people killed in the violence is not known. But the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations estimates that 13,000 people have died since Boko Haram launched its violent campaign in 2009.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies