This week, the world’s deadliest terror group wrought extraordinary carnage on crowds of people going about their daily lives.
The fruit and vegetable market in the northern Nigerian city of Yola was packed with customers buying food for dinner when a suicide bomber struck on Tuesday evening, killing at least 34 people. “The ground near my shop was covered with dead bodies,” Alhaji Ahmed told Reuters.
Then on Wednesday, as afternoon prayers approached, two young women strapped with explosives detonated at a busy mobile phone market in the nearby city of Kano. At least 15 people were killed in the twin blasts, according to The Associated Press.
Both bombings are widely believed to be the work of Nigerian militant group Boko Haram, which rarely claims responsibility for specific attacks but has waged a bloody six-year insurgency in the region.
A new report this week found Boko Haram has overtaken the so-called Islamic State as the “most deadly terror group in the world.”
The Global Terrorism Index said Boko Haram killed more people — 6,644 — in terror attacks during 2014 than any other group. The Islamic State, which is based in Syria and Iraq and this week brought its deadly violence to Baghdad, Beirut and Paris, follows closely behind, at 6,073 deaths through terrorism in 2014.
In March, Boko Haram released a recording pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, but the extent of any cooperation between the groups is unclear. Together, the two organizations were responsible for 51 percent of all terrorism-related deaths around the world last year, the report said.
The Global Terrorism Index is an annual report by the New York City-based Institute for Economics and Peace. It tracks global deaths from terror attacks, which it defines as “an intentional act of violence or threat of violence by a non-state actor.”
The index distinguishes between terror attacks and battlefield deaths, and notes that the majority of people killed by the Islamic State die in combat, including at least 20,000 people in 2014.
The total death toll of Boko Haram violence is also thought to be higher than the terror-related deaths tallied in the report. The highly respected Nigeria Security Tracker, compiled by the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, found that over 6,000 people were killed in clashes between Boko Haram and Nigerian forces in 2014.
Boko Haram emerged in northeast Nigeria around 2002, espousing an extreme form of Islam and capitalizing on alienation and poverty in this region of the oil-rich country. After a series of deadly clashes with the Nigerian government, the group launched a violent insurgency in 2009, which has left thousands dead and parts of northeastern Nigeria in ruins.
Last year, Boko Haram escalated attacks, capturing towns and villages in the northeast and taking hundreds captive. In one incident, which drew worldwide condemnation, the militants stormed a boarding school in Chibok in April 2014 and seized nearly 300 schoolgirls. At one point in 2014, the militants controlled a territory approximately the size of Belgium. Meanwhile, a relentless stream of suicide bombings has terrorized cities around the country, many of them using women and young girls who may be coerced into carrying out attacks.
From 2013 to 2014, the death toll from terrorism-related attacks climbed dramatically in Nigeria, increasing by 300 percent. The Global Terrorism Index called the rise “the largest increase in terrorist deaths ever recorded by any country.”
Yet little news trickles out of the remote and marginalized stretch of northeast Nigeria, where most journalists and officials fear to tread and communication infrastructure is negligible or deliberately destroyed. The details of Boko Haram attacks are often sparse, and death tolls can be vastly conflicting.
“The human fallout of the crisis has been underreported, including the suffering of displaced people and the plight of women,” Nnamdi Obasi, senior Nigeria analyst for the International Crisis Group, told The WorldPost earlier this year. Life in northeast Nigeria, he said, is “hellish.”
Many residents have blamed the central Nigerian government for ignoring their plight. The Nigerian military and a pro-government militia have also been accused by human rights groups of massacring civilians, including more than 7,000 deaths in military detention since 2011.
President Muhammadu Buhari was elected earlier this year after pledging to clean up Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt government and crush Boko Haram with military force. Appraisals of Buhari’s corruption clampdown have been mixed, but he has overhauled the top military brass and pursued top officials, including one who reportedly stole some $2 billion meant for the military efforts against Boko Haram.
Nigeria has also stepped up cooperation with neighboring countries Chad, Cameroon and Niger, where Boko Haram has hidden fighters and attacked civilians, and the U.S. has expanded military support to the anti-Boko Haram effort. Nigeria says the country’s forces have recaptured most of the territory the militants seized last year, and freed dozens of hostages.
As Boko Haram loses its Nigerian stronghold, analysts say that the group is shifting strategy. It has increasingly targeted Nigeria’s neighbors, and its campaign in Nigeria has moved from territorial conquest to suicide and bomb attacks on civilian areas, like the markets in Yola and Kano.
As the death toll mounted in Nigeria this week, people took to social media to express their anger and grief, adding a Nigerian flag to their profile pictures and using the hashtag #PrayForNigeria, as others grieving this week did for Paris and Beirut.