By Nick Tattersall
LAGOS, July 30 (Reuters) - Security forces in northern Nigerian battled the remnants of an Islamic sect loosely modelled on Afghanistan's Taliban movement, following days of unrest which have killed more than 180 people.
Members of the group -- known as Boko Haram -- have attacked police stations and government buildings as well as rampaging through residential areas armed with home-made guns, petrol bombs, machetes and knives in four states in northern Nigeria.
The violence first erupted on Sunday in Bauchi state after some members of the group were arrested on suspicion of plotting to attack a police station.
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Following are questions and answers on who the group are, what they want, and whether their ideology is widely followed.
WHO OR WHAT IS BOKO HARAM?
Sometimes referred to as the "Nigerian Taliban", the group's members are followers of a self-proclaimed Islamic scholar, Mohammed Yusuf, who is radically opposed to Western education and wants sharia (Islamic law) to be adopted across Nigeria.
Based in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern state of Borno, his followers include former university lecturers and students in other northern states including Kano, Yobe, Sokoto and Bauchi, as well as illiterate, jobless youths.
Boko Haram means "Western education is sinful" in the Hausa language spoken across northern Nigeria and sums up the main pillar of the group's ideology. Some of its members resigned their jobs as lecturers when they joined the sect.
Yusuf himself, who is thought to be in his mid-30s and have considerable private wealth, had a Western-style education, but his followers -- who come from diverse ethnic backgrounds in the predominantly Muslim north -- say he was also educated in Iran.
Boko Haram followers pray in separate mosques in cities including Maiduguri, Kano and Sokoto, and wear long beards and red or black headscarves.
They believe their wives should not be seen by any men other than themselves and are not supposed to use Western-made goods.
Anybody who does not follow their strict ideology -- whether Christian or Muslim -- is considered an infidel.
WHY DID THE VIOLENCE ERUPT?
President Umaru Yar'Adua has said the security agencies had been tracking the sect for several years, describing them as a "potentially dangerous group" who have been gathering weapons and intelligence to try to force their views on Nigerians.
Violence broke out in Bauchi state on Sunday when some members of the group were arrested on suspicion of plotting to attack a police station. Unrest quickly spread to other cities across northern Nigeria.
Yar'Adua ordered the security forces to use all necessary means to control the situation after sect members armed with machetes, knives, home-made hunting rifles and petrol bombs went on the rampage attacking churches and government buildings.
IS THERE A HISTORY OF SECTARIAN VIOLENCE IN NIGERIA?
Africa's most populous nation is roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims and more than 200 ethnic groups generally live peacefully side by side, although civil war left one million dead between 1967 and 1970.
The stricter enforcement of sharia in 12 of Nigeria's 36 states in 2000 alienated sizeable Christian minorities in the north and sparked clashes which killed thousands.
In 2002 at least 215 people died in rioting in the northern city of Kaduna following a newspaper article suggesting the Prophet Mohammad would probably have married one of the beauty queens at a Miss World contest being held in Abuja.
A Muslim protest against Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in the northern city of Maiduguri ran out of control in 2006, sparking a week of rioting which killed at least 157.
There have also been clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs in central Nigeria, a region known as the Middle Belt, most recently last November in the wake of a disputed local government chairmanship election, although the hostilities were more about politics than religion.
DOES RADICAL ISLAM HAVE A FOOTHOLD IN WEST AFRICA?
West Africa has a strong tradition of moderate Sufi Islam whose brotherhoods are renowned for their tolerance, particularly in the Sahel -- the southern fringe of the Sahara desert stretching across the northern edge of Nigeria.
Salafist insurgents from Algeria, Tablighi clerics from Pakistan and Wahabist missionaries from Saudi Arabia -- all seen as potential threats by Western intelligence services -- have tried to gain a foothold in the region in recent years.
By and large they have failed.
Islamic jurisprudence in Nigeria is based on the moderate Maliki school of Sunni Islam, and Boko Haram's ideology is widely dismissed by the country's Muslim leaders and believers.
The main militant threat in the Sahara is seen as al Qaeda's North African wing, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which grew out of Algeria's civil war in the 1990s and was formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
Nigeria arrested a group of Islamists with suspected links to al Qaeda in 2007 and some Western diplomats have expressed concerns that -- with its huge population, widespread poverty and strategic importance as an oil supplier to the West and to China -- it could become a target for radical Islamic groups.
Boko Haram's apparently chaotic tactics have little in common with those of Islamic militant groups elsewhere and no conclusive evidence of al Qaeda's presence in Nigeria or of links to the Taliban in Afghanistan has been made public.
(For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (Additional reporting by Ibrahim Mshelizza in Maiduguri, Faruku Umar in Sokoto, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi)