While the Sunni radicals in Boko Haram have carried out attacks in northern Nigeria for several years, recent reports show the militant group has intensified its killing rampages and now controls more land than ever before.

An Amnesty International report released Jan. 15 says Boko Haram attacks carried out between Jan. 3 and 7 are “the largest and most destructive yet.”

On Jan. 3, militants began attacking several small towns in northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram caused extensive damage in the neighbouring border towns of Baga and Doron Baga, leaving over 3,700 homes and buildings damaged or completely destroyed. Satellite images of Doron Baga contained in the report show the scope of the damage.

The number of reported deaths in these attacks vary. An earlier report from Amnesty suggests the death toll reached 2,000 people, while a Nigerian military official reported 150 deaths.

One eyewitness to the attacks told Amnesty that militants shot at people indiscriminately, and also described the killing of a woman in childbirth.

“[Half] of the baby boy is out and she died like this,” the witness said in the report.

Death toll rising

The group, which says it is fighting government corruption and aims to form an Islamic state, has increased its death count since violent attacks began in 2009.

According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, 85 people were killed in 35 separate attacks between July and December of 2010. At least 550 died in 115 incidents in 2011. In the first nine months of 2012, more than 800 died in 215 separate attacks.

Between May and December of 2013, over 1,200 people were killed in attacks according to a UN humanitarian agency.

In the first half of 2014 alone, Human Rights Watch says Boko Haram killed over 2,000 people in 95 attacks.

Watchdog groups say their attacks have grown increasingly violent and audacious, and often take targets by surprise.

Human Rights Watch says Boko Haram has used improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers to attack police facilities. Some insurgents have attacked security personnel by hiding AK-47s or explosive devices under their robes while driving by on motorcycles.

The group also uses women and children to carry out or assist in its actions. In a Jan. 10 attack on a marketplace in Maiduguri, the capital city of the northeastern Borno state, Boko Haram used a 10-year-old girl to detonate a bomb hidden underneath her clothes. The blast killed 20 people and injured several others.

One woman told Human Rights Watch in a 2014 report that the militants forced her to lure targets into an unsuspecting ambush.

Arguably the group’s most brazen act was kidnapping 276 school girls in the northeastern town of Chibok in April 2014. According to their interpretation of Islam, girls should not attend school.

The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau took credit for the kidnappings in an online video message saying, "I abducted your girls...I will sell them in the market, by Allah."

Widespread outrage over the kidnappings sparked the social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls, which helped jumpstart large rallies around the world in support of the girls’ safe return. While some of the girls managed to escape, more than 200 remain missing.

Leadership and organization

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by Islamic cleric Mohammed Yusef, who built a following by teaching a fundamentalist view of Islam that rejects western influence on education and society. Loosely translated, Boko Haram means “western education is a sin” in the Hausa language spoken in northeastern Nigeria.

Nigeria Kidnapped Girls

Boko Haram kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in April 2014. While some escaped, over 200 remain missing. (Olamikan Gbemiga/Associated Press)

After a series of violent exchanges with Nigerian police, Yusef was executed in 2009. Since then, the group has carried out attacks on police and security forces, as well as anyone they believe opposes or criticizes their objectives.

After Yusef’s death, the group’s leadership was assumed by Abubakar Shekau. Although he has not been seen in public since 2009, Shekau frequently appears in online videos wielding firearms and denouncing what the group characterizes as the enemies of Islam.

According to a 2014 BBC report, the group has a very decentralized organization. Shekau gives direction to insurgents through a few select cell leaders but even contact between him and them is minimal.

The Johannesburg based fact-checking organization Africa Check says Boko Haram finances itself “mainly through ransom kidnappings, bank robberies and other illegal activities.” Africa Check also says the group has access to firearms through illegal trafficking operations in Nigeria.

The UK publication The Independent also reported last year that sources of funding come from “local and international benefactors, and links to al-Qa’ida and other well funded groups in the Middle East.”

Territory and influence

According to a Jan. 10 story in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, Boko Haram now controls territory within Nigeria equal to about 50,000 square kilometres -- roughly the size of Belgium.

The group’s base lies in the Sambisa forest in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, along the border with Cameroon. Their territory comprises parts of Borno as well as neighbouring states Yobe and Adamawa.

Hunting Boko Haram Par8058432 Adamawa Dec 4 2014

The Nigerian military's response to the threat posed by Boko Haram has been ineffectual, say many critics. (Florian Plaucheur/AFP/Getty)

In May of 2013, the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in those three states, and have undertaken counterinsurgency measures, but critics say that it has been ineffectual and inadequate.

Speaking on CBC Radio’s The Current, Sola Tayo, an expert on Nigerian politics, said the government had insisted for some time that they had Boko Haram contained, when in fact they did not.

“Basically it looks like the government is sleeping while Boko Haram is taking over the rest of the country,” Tayo said.

After the Chibok kidnappings, a Human Rights Watch report said that the Nigerian government had “failed both to prevent attacks where women and girls were abducted, and to protect victims in imminent danger” in villages and towns where Boko Haram has struck.

In that same report, victims and witnesses said there was a lack of security forces present in the villages and towns most vulnerable to attack, and that the government could have done more to prevent the onslaught.