Last week, reports surfaced of a massive attack by Boko Haram militants on several villages in northern Nigeria, including the towns of Baga and Doron Baga. Though there has been some dispute over the initially reported death toll of 2,000 (the Nigerian government says the number is much lower), images released by Amnesty International show the “horrific scale” of the raids. More than 3,700 structures and homes were burned or damaged as militants from Boko Haram stormed the communities, opening fire on civilians with grenade launchers and guns.

Since the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls last fall, the radical Islamic militant group has gained new levels of international attention for their campaign of violence and the brutality of their tactics.

We recently spoke with journalist and regional expert Hilary Matfess about what’s behind the rise of Boko Haram, and what can be done to help the people of northern Nigeria. Matfess is a Researcher at the Nigeria Social Violence Project and master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where she works on issues of governance, security and development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Why does Boko Haram target civilians? Is it just part of a territorial strategy?

It’s certainly part of the territorial strategy. If you actually look at Boko Haram’s pattern of attacks since their inception in 2002 and their acceleration in 2009, we do see a shift in the target of their attacks.

When they originally began, it was mostly bank robberies and assassinations with very low casualties focused on Imams and politicians critical of Boko Haram’s ideology. Following the [Joint Task Force] defensive against Boko Haram in 2009, we saw a shift toward more symbols of the state—bombings of police officers, roadblocks, things like that.

Now the targeting of civilians really reflects the evolution of the insurgency as a part of its territorial strategy. But if you look at the rhetoric of Boko Haram, it still sees itself as waging a war against the Nigerian state. These casualties are just coming about in the process of undermining what they consider an illegitimate state.

Can you tell me about why Boko Haram started and how it evolved into the force that it is?

Boko Haram began as a critique of local Muslim leaders. A number of states adopted Sharia law, following the transition to democracy in Nigeria in 1999. And a lot of groups such as Boko Haram came out of a critique of the manner in which Sharia was adopted. Their critique was mostly of these local level politicians and the emirs that cooperated with them.

All this changed in 2009. In 2009, the federal government launched an offensive against Boko Haram. In that offensive, an estimated 700 people, both militants and civilians, were killed. There have been allegations of rights abuses during this sweep. A lot of Northern Nigerians who weren’t sympathetic to Boko Haram felt persecuted and marginalized by the state in this process.

So after 2009, the group sort of gathered itself under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau. It’s under Shekau that we see this shift in rhetoric away from just the local—and a shift in target away from assassinating local imams—toward attacking symbols of the state and experimenting with new styles of attacks. Since the declaration of the state of emergency in May of 2013, however, we see them entering into a lot of village raids on a scale that we just haven’t seen before.

That suggests that the state of emergency has not succeeded in necessarily rooting out the violence, rather it has succeeded in displacing it, and that’s why we’re seeing this rise in village raids.

How do they recruit people to their forces, especially when they’re capable of such atrocities?

So this is a twofold issue. Let’s start with looking at people who join willingly. Northeast Nigerian development statistics make it look like it’s a completely different country: Northeastern Nigeria, and then the rest of the country. Adult literacy is low. Child mortality is high. These people feel abandoned by their state. Unemployment is high. They’re Muslim. They’re being ruled by a Christian president.

There’s a lot of animosity tied up in that, because [President] Goodluck Jonathan came to power following the death of Yar’Adua, who was a Northerner, and seemed to be sort of representing the interests of the Northerners. So you have a large group of unemployed youth who can be easily radicalized behind a purpose.

On the other side of the coin, you have Boko Haram’s fairly frequent kidnapping raids. Most famously, the abduction of over 200 girls in Chibok. But less publicized is the frequency with which they abduct young men in these village raids.

So they both have succeeded in convincing a certain segment of the population to buy into their ideology, while also just forcibly abducting people into their forces.

As someone who follows the movement closely, have you seen misconceptions that have been reported in the media that might not be a reflection of the reality?

A lot of people are trying to draw links between Al-Qaida and Boko Haram, and they are largely unfounded, The evidence doesn’t exist. It’s rhetorical, but there’s been no imitation of attack style, there’s been no evidence of partnerships between Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram.

The second thing is for a long time, this has been portrayed as a Muslim attack on Christians. But if you look at the actual targets of Boko Haram’s violence, in many instances, they’ve killed more Muslims than they have Christians and launched attacks on mosques just as frequently, if not more frequently, than on churches. It’s less a religious war, and more a war over legitimacy and access to power.

For people who are concerned with what’s happening in Nigeria, what kind of activism is most effective?

I think one of the things we need to emphasize is the fact that the Nigerian state is also perpetrating abuses against its civilians. Americans need to work to ensure that our leadership is holding Nigeria’s leadership accountable for violations of the rule of law during a military exercise.

I will say one of the best things for Americans to do now would be to watch closely the Nigerian elections. This will determine what sort of government America can partner with to help quell the Boko Haram insurgency, to make sure election best-practices are abided by. The beauty of social media is that we can have eyes and voices from all over the world tell us what’s happening. And then once that’s reported, we can take action and attempt to hold leaders accountable.