Who are Boko Haram? Nigeria’s militant Islamist group Boko Haram — which has caused havoc in Africa’s most populous country through a wave of bombings — is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state.

Boko Haram’s philosophy: The group promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.

Boko Haram’s enemies: It regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, even when the country had a Muslim president.

Boko Haram’s aims: The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. But residents in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram. Loosely translated from the local Hausa language, this means “Western education is forbidden”. Boko originally means fake but came to signify Western education, while haram means forbidden.

Boko Haram’s roots: Since the Sokoto caliphate, which ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon, fell under British control in 1903, there has been resistance among the area’s Muslims to Western education. Many Muslim families still refuse to send their children to government-run “Western schools”, a problem compounded by the ruling elite which does not see education as a priority.

Boko Haram’s founder: A charismatic Muslim cleric, Mohammad Yusuf, formed Boko Haram in Maiduguri in 2002. He set up a religious complex, which included a mosque and an Islamic school. Many poor Muslim families from across Nigeria, as well as neighbouring countries, enrolled their children at the school. But Boko Haram was not only interested in education. Its political goal was to create an Islamic state, and the school became a recruiting ground for jihadis to fight the state.

The violence begins: In 2009, Boko Haram carried out a spate of attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Maiduguri. This led to shoot-outs on Maiduguri’s streets. Hundreds of Boko Haram supporters were killed and thousands of residents fled the city. Nigeria’s security forces eventually seized the group’s headquarters, capturing its fighters and killing Yusuf. His body was shown on state television and the security forces declared Boko Haram finished.

Boko Haram strikes back: Its fighters have regrouped under a new leader and in 2010, they attacked a prison in Bauchi state, freeing hundreds of the group’s supporters. Boko Haram’s trademark has been the use of gunmen on motorbikes, killing police, politicians and anyone who criticises it, including clerics from other Muslim traditions and a Christian preacher.

International terror ties: In 2011 the group, which had previously launched attacks locally, emerged as a transnational force possibly linked to Al Qaida in 2011. It launched nearly daily deadly attacks in 2011, including one on the UN headquarters in August in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, that killed 24 people. On December 25, the sect claimed responsibility for a series of bombings near churches that killed at least 40 people. The government declared a state of emergency in northern Nigeria and dispatched troops to the region, where the group is based. Boko Haram continued its assault on the Lake Chad basin area in the north throughout 2012, prompting retaliatory attacks by government troops.

A bloody campaign: Fierce — and brutal — fighting between the militants and soldiers in April 2013 in Baga, a fishing village on Lake Chad, left as many as 200 civilians dead and 2,275 homes destroyed. Both sides accused each other of setting homes on fire. The government came under fire for its scorched-earth tactics. In May, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the northern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe, where Boko Haram has been most actively launching attacks. The move allows government troops to hold and question terror suspects. The attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and there is growing concern that Boko Haram is receiving training and backing from Al Qaida-linked militants in other countries.

The latest attacks: Suspected Boko Haram militants wearing army fatigues gunned down 44 people on August 12 praying at a mosque in northeast Nigeria, while another 12 civilians died in an apparently simultaneous attack, security agents said. It was not immediately clear why the Boko Haram would have killed worshipping Muslims, but the group has in the past attacked mosques whose clerics have spoken out against religious extremism. Boko Haram also has attacked Christians outside churches and teachers and schoolchildren, as well as government and military targets.

The bloody toll: Since 2010, the militants have been blamed for the killings of more than 1,700 people, according to a count conducted by The Associated Press.

— Sources: AP, The Guardian, CIA Yearbook, AFP