Following the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, Boko Haram gained notoriety as the deadliest terrorist group in the world. Where is Nigeria today in the war against terrorism?
On 14 April 2014, Boko Haram abducted more than 250 female students from their dormitories in Chibok, Borno State. Despite increased offensives by the Nigerian military, Boko Haram has continued to pose a persistent threat to Nigeria and its neighbouring states. Although the movement split into two different factions in 2016, Boko Haram and its offshoot, the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), have remained largely responsible for militant jihadist group activity in the Lake Chad region. Both factions’ audacious attacks on civilians and on security posts, as well as the negative spill-over effects of the groups’ activities on vulnerable populations, including children, demonstrate the groups’ flexibility and their ability to adapt to the challenging security situation resulting from over a decade of national and regional military campaigns against the group.
BOKO HARAM’S TRAJECTORY
Founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf in the city of Maiduguri, Boko Haram, also known as Jama’atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da’awati wal-Jihad, was originally labelled the Nigerian Taliban by locals because of its fundamentalist ideology and its adherence to the theology of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Over time, however, the group earned the nickname Boko Haram, derived from the combination of two words, the Hausa word ‘Boko’ (Book) and the Arabic word ‘Haram’ (forbidden), which loosely translates to Western education is forbidden to reflect its belief in the supremacy of Islamic culture. It was also during this period that the movement created its own socio-political institutions that guided the lifestyle of its members. In its nascent years, Boko Haram was known for providing welfare, food, and shelter, which attracted individuals who were mostly refugees from the Lake Chad region and unemployed Nigerian youths to its cause. Although there were occasional clashes between the movement and the local government when it failed to respect local ordinances, the bulk of the group’s activities during this period was peaceful and non-violent. However, following the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, Boko Haram gained notoriety as the deadliest terrorist group in the world. Domestic and foreign media coverage of the Chibok kidnappings, as well as global outrage calling for the release of the girls with the social media hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, gave the movement the attention it desired. Since then, the group has continued to target and recruit children as foot soldiers and suicide bombers, as well as young girls as sex slaves in reported Boko Haram camps.
The tipping point for Boko Haram’s ultra-violent nature can be traced to Yusuf’s arrest and his death in 2009. Both occurred following the group’s confrontation with state security forces after its members refused to obey the newly introduced motorcycle helmet law. Yusuf’s death—coupled with the failure by the Nigerian government to prosecute the security personnel responsible for the extrajudicial killing of the leader—resulted in the movement retreating underground, with several members seeking refuge in neighbouring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. This also enabled the group to transform into a network of terrorist cells under the leadership of deputy commander, Abubakar Shekau.
Resurfacing in 2010, Boko Haram has also shown itself to be highly adaptive, employing a wide array of tactics and methods. At the height of the group’s insurgency between 2014–2015, Boko Haram demonstrated that it had the capacity to seize and hold towns and villages. Since 2015, however, the group has lost most of its territory due to the Nigerian government’s sustained counterterrorism operations. But even though the group has reverted to its hit-and-run terrorism tactics, Boko Haram retains a strong comparative advantage. The difficult terrain of the North East—specifically the group’s strongholds in the Sambisa Forest, the Mandara Mountains, and the marshlands that surround Lake Chad—have made it difficult for the Nigerian military to operate in the terrain without the local knowledge that the ranks of Boko Haram possess. This difficult terrain, combined with the members’ familiarity with it, has facilitated evasion from military forces pursuing combatants.
Additionally, although there have been reported internal rifts within the group, the movement and its splinter group, ISWAP, have been able to launch attacks in multiple countries. The data in the graph above, for example, illustrates a total increase in violent attacks (especially since 2018), with more than half of the groups’ violent events occurring in Nigeria, 34 per cent in Cameroon, 12 per cent in Niger, and 3 per cent in Chad. The data also shows a steady increase in the number of fatalities since 2018, despite the decline in fatalities in 2015, with Nigeria reporting a 77-per-cent increase in militant jihadist activity in 2020 (617 events vs. 348 in 2019).
NIGERIA’S STRATEGY AGAINST BOKO HARAM
Following the abysmal handling of the Chibok kidnapping by government authorities along with the increasingly violent and ruthless nature of Boko Haram, in 2015, the Nigerian government adopted a more ambitious, coordinated response with its federal agencies, neighbouring countries, and other partner countries to combat Boko Haram. This new strategy has been relatively successful in weakening Boko Haram.
A new counterterrorism strategy
The implementation of the country’s new counterterrorism strategy is organized around five work streams—Forestall, Secure, Identify, Prepare, and Implement. This new strategy aims to reduce the capability of Boko Haram and ensure an environment where ‘people can go about their lives freely and confidently.’ As a result, Nigeria’s recent offensive military tactics have included the controlled use of force against local communities to avoid alienating them in the military’s effort to gather intelligence and information about Boko Haram. For example, in interviews I conducted with senior-level military officers about the country’s military strategy, an officer noted that the Nigerian military’s capacity to collect intelligence in the early years of combating Boko Haram was limited because of the government forces’ lethal, often sporadic use of force against local populations. Soldiers viewed the population and each individual as a potential Boko Haram recruit. But with the military’s new training in asymmetrical warfare, the use of force was increasingly designed to weaken Boko Haram without generating a significant backlash from the local population. In countering the group, the military has embarked on an Attitudinal Change Campaign to reorient soldiers and officers on efficient and service-oriented soldiering, with this tactic generating a positive effect on intelligence gathering in military operations against the group, especially post 2015.
Empowering local communities
Additionally, in countering Boko Haram, the Nigerian military trains and arms civilians through its support of local vigilante groups called the Civilian Joint Taskforce (CJTF). Considering that many of the soldiers and officers deployed in the North East are from the southern part of the country and are unfamiliar with the language or terrain of the North East, the vigilantes have proven useful in providing the military with intelligence on what deviates from normal, thus assisting the Nigerian force in detecting potential Boko Haram threats. The Nigerian military has also developed media campaigns to improve its image and to counter militant jihadist ideologies that can influence local youths perceived to be the main targets of Boko Haram (regardless of faction). Such campaigns have therefore been geared towards enhancing civil-military cooperation in countering and preventing violent extremism.
International partnerships and multilateral regional cooperation
Asymmetrical warfare training assistance from partner countries like the US, Brazil, and the United Kingdom have included joint jungle-warfare training exercises, training in counter-improvised explosive device (IED) operations, and training in airfield defence to support the operations of Nigerian military troops in improving the military’s ability to respond to the Boko Haram threat.
The Nigerian military has additionally sought the cooperation of its neighbouring countries in its combat operations, utilizing the regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which is primarily funded by the Nigerian government, to limit the cross-border movement of Boko Haram members who have frequently made use of the borders in the Lake Chad area to evade Nigerian government forces. Moreover, intelligence support from domestic and international partners has been crucial in informing the military’s counterterrorism operations against the group. The military’s combined use of the Civilian Joint Task Force to provide the much-needed knowledge of the local terrain and the Nigerian forces’ use of signals intelligence, as well as imagery intelligence provided by US drones (to the MNJTF), has played an important role in countering the group and in increasing the Nigerian government’s presence in the North East since 2015.
Military operations such as Operation Safe Corridor (OPSC)—designed to de-radicalize, rehabilitate, and reintegrate surrendered insurgents—also demonstrate the new flexibility and training of the Nigerian military in coping with the complexities of Boko Haram. OPSC, for example, is part of the Nigerian government’s effort to introduce non-military frameworks that complement military offensives in addressing the negative impacts of Boko Haram’s activities on vulnerable populations.
The super camp strategy
Furthermore, the Nigerian government’s new super camp strategy of concentrating soldiers in fortified bases from which they can respond quickly to Boko Haram’s incursions and attacks is indicative of the military’s new flexibility. Under this strategy, Nigerian military personnel are based in garrison camps, which presumably cannot be overrun by Boko Haram combatants. The Nigerian military has described the concept of its 20 super camps as ‘the concentration of formidable fighting forces in strongholds that have the capacity for swift mobility [which] requires the forces to be proactive, dogged, and capable of making bold offensives at all times to defeat the adversary by denying freedom of action.’
ASSESSING NIGERIA’S STRATEGY
The Nigerian military strategy has experienced some notable success in the fight against Boko Haram. The weakening of Boko Haram—as indicated by the ability of the Nigerian military to recapture territories previously held by the group, the arrest and killing of Boko Haram’s foot soldiers and key commanders, as well as the surrendering of Boko Haram insurgents to state security forces—demonstrates the effectiveness of the coordinated response of the Nigerian military with other federal ministries and agencies, the community, foreign governments, and civil society. As a result, officers and state leaders have continued to regard the country’s military strategy as successful, although former Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai noted, ‘We have defeated insurgency, but [are now] facing the challenge of terrorism.’
Despite its successes, the Nigerian military strategy against Boko Haram, especially the military’s new super camp strategy, has in instances eroded the ability of the military to protect civilians in remote areas. Recent reports show that the withdrawal of troops from remote areas into super camps has left both Boko Haram factions free to reorganize, deepening their roots in those communities and strengthening their supply chains. In 2020, especially following the government’s coronavirus lockdown measures, Boko Haram was able to take advantage of the limited presence of military personnel to expand to north-western Nigeria as well as escalating attacks on internally displaced persons’ camps, humanitarian workers, and local communities. Civilians in these communities reportedly felt abandoned and disappointed in the new strategy, increasing the mistrust between the population and army.
The super camp approach has also not stopped Boko Haram from targeting military troops. Boko Haram fighters have been able to adapt to the strategy, employing precision attacks, and ambushes on military patrols and escorts because of the difficulty to successfully attack or overrun super camps. This is not to say that the super camp strategy has stopped Boko Haram from targeting these strongholds. However, these attacks have generally been unsuccessful as seen with the unsuccessful attack and capture of Damasak, Dikwa, and Marte.
Furthermore, a lack of development progress on several fronts resulting from years of neglect from national development plans and investments in north-eastern Nigeria has continued to hinder the ability of the military to adequately address the Boko Haram conflict. Under-governed spaces as a result of ineffective governance, inadequate basic services (roads, schools and hospitals), and a sense of isolation from the federal government have continued to foster a permissive environment conducive to Boko Haram’s activities and alternative state structures in the region.
Additionally, in the last five years, non-state armed groups in other parts of northern Nigeria have increasingly adopted Boko Haram’s strategy to target schools and abduct children as seen with the kidnapping of over 300 schoolboys in Kankara, Katsina State on 11 December 2020 and at least 317 schoolgirls in Jangebe, Zamfara State on 25 February 2021. Targeting school children has continued to prove an effective tool for the negotiation for the release of arrested members and the transfer of huge sums of ransom that can be used to purchase weapons and fund operations. Additionally, groups who have used this strategy have been able to gain local and international attention to show their strength and have been able to amplify their demands on state authorities, even though the government has claimed that it does not see negotiations as a means to deal with the worsening security conditions in the country.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST, PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
Over a decade since the group emerged, Boko Haram has continued to prove that it remains a threat to the Nigerian state. Despite recent reports of a group of Chibok schoolgirls escaping from Boko Haram—after Nigeria launched an offensive attack against a Boko Haram base in the Sambisa Forest earlier this year—more than 100 schoolgirls remain missing. Some are believed to be dead. Global advocacy for the missing schoolgirls is also fading. Parents of the remaining abducted schoolgirls have reported a lack of political commitment by Nigerian authorities in ensuring that all the girls are accounted for and/or found. Moreover, Chibok continues to be targeted by Boko Haram with property damage reported and residents and security operatives killed and abducted.
Although the Nigerian military has recorded successes against the movement, Boko Haram’s two factions have demonstrated their ability to reorganize, mobilize, expand, and attack civilians and state security forces. The flexibility and continued activities of Boko Haram also demonstrate the need for Nigerian state leaders to move away from relying solely on military institutions to address governance issues that have continued to plague the region.
Boko Haram did not emerge overnight, and as such will not be defeated overnight. The war against Boko Haram will be long. However, addressing the stabilization of north-eastern Nigeria requires state leaders to address the many development issues that have resulted in the rise of terrorism in Nigeria. These sort of development initiatives may be able to at least address and decrease the ability of Boko Haram to mobilize recruits/foot soldiers. In the government’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of its citizens in the fight against Boko Haram, military approaches must, be implemented side-by-side with non-military measures, and not after the fact⎈
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