One of the many unknowns about Boko Haram, the radical Islamist terrorist movement associated with over 150 killings thus far in 2016, is how much popular support it actually enjoys. It is counterintuitive to witness popular support for a movement that brags about (and films) its grisly beheadings, makes use of female and child suicide bombers, and has contributed to some three million internally displaced persons in Nigeria and hundreds of thousands of refugees in adjacent countries. On the other hand, in its current iteration it has been active for five years, shows tactical flexibility, and kidnaps hundreds of women and girls. The more than two hundred Chibok school girls kidnapped in 2014 have never been accounted for, indicating that the movement has some logistical support structures that can feed, clothe, and house them.
Polling by the Pew Research Center may provide some indication of the degree of popular support Boko Haram enjoys. A 2015 poll found that about one Nigerian Muslim in five is favorably inclined toward the so-called Islamic State. A 2014 Pew poll indicated that about 10 percent of Nigerian’s are favorably disposed toward Boko Haram. Polling in Nigeria, especially in a war zone, is fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, Pew Research Center polling has a good reputation.
There is little consensus as to the size of Nigeria’s population or the proportion of it that is Muslim. A frequently cited estimate of the total population is 183 million. The CIA and the Pew estimate that about half of the population is Muslim, and slightly less than half Christian. However, the Muslim birthrate is very high. Other sources estimate that Muslims represent a greater portion of the population of Nigeria.
Whatever the size of Nigeria’s Muslim population, it is huge (the fifth largest Muslim population in the world). If 10 percent of Nigerian Muslims are favorably disposed toward Boko Haram, that would indicate millions of supporters, to a greater or lesser degree. That, in turn, would indicate that Boko Haram has no shortage of potential recruits.