10/19/2013 09:26 am ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

The War For Nigeria (PHOTOS)

The blast at Kano's bus station happened around 5 p.m. It was mid-March and luxury buses were ready to set out across the country when suicide bombers blew up their car amid the mass of travelers, porters and ticket vendors.

Witnesses said dozens were killed in the attack, although official numbers remain hard to come by. What survivors did agree on, though, was the perpetrators: Boko Haram.

Reporter James Verini and photographer Ed Kashi traveled to Nigeria for National Geographic in the wake of the assault. They compiled a portrait of the elusive militant group and the way it is perceived within the country.

Verini writes in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine:

In the Sahel, home to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and to the jihadists who until recently controlled northern Mali, Boko Haram has emerged as the nastiest of a nasty new breed. Calling for, among other things, an Islamic government, a war on Christians, and the death of Muslims it sees as traitors, the group has been connected with upwards of 4,700 deaths in Nigeria since 2009. And although Nigeria, with 170 million inhabitants, is the continent’s most populous country (one in six Africans is Nigerian) and has sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest economy, even by its immense standards the carnage attributed to Boko Haram is immense.

So much so that unofficially, in the national collective consciousness, Boko Haram has become something more than a terrorist group, more even than a movement. Its name has taken on an incantatory power. Fearing they will be heard and then killed by Boko Haram, Nigerians refuse to say the group’s name aloud, referring instead to “the crisis” or “the insecurity.” “People don’t trust their neighbors anymore,” a civil society activist in Kano told me. “Anybody can be Boko Haram.” The president, Goodluck Jonathan, an evangelical Christian, wonders openly if the insurgency is a sign of the end times.

Even so, Verini notes that much of Boko Haram remains outside of public's grasp. Few know for certain who belongs to the group or for which attacks it is responsible. Competing narratives battle about the group's creation and its motivation. "As I continued reporting, it became apparent that the insurgency’s gravest toll on Nigeria isn’t physical. It’s existential. Boko Haram has become a kind of national synonym for fear, a repository for Nigerians’ worst anxieties about their society and where it’s headed," Verini writes.

Take a look at Ed Kashi's photos out of Nigeria in the slideshow below. The full report and gallery appear in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine and on the National Geographic website.