Bottom Line Up Front
- Boko Haram has evolved from a group focused on economic and social development in Nigeria into a transnational terrorist organization, which has targeted the UN, kidnapped nearly 300 female students, and launched suicide attacks to terrorize security forces and intimidate the local population.
- At its peak in 2014-2015, Boko Haram controlled territory roughly the size of Belgium, but sustained counter-terrorism operations have significantly reduced its control.
- In 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Shortly after, there was a major split with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the appointed leader of the so-called Islamic State-West Africa (ISWAP), while Abubakar Shekau continues to lead the other faction of Boko Haram.
- To combat Boko Haram, Nigeria needs to adopt a multi-dimensional strategy that incorporates counter-terrorism operations, humanitarian support and economic development.
Formed in 2002, Mohammad Yusuf established Boko Haram in Maiduguri, Borno state. Initially, the group focused on improving economic and social conditions in the north of the country. However, under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, the group evolved into a transnational terrorist organization that aimed to establish an Islamic State in West Africa and the greater Lake Chad region. For the past nine years, Boko Haram has staged a brutal insurgency, with devastating effect. According to Al-Jazeera, Boko Haram violence has claimed at least 100,000 lives, resulted in the displacement of more than 2.6 million people and caused approximately $9 billion worth of damage. However, on several occasions, the Muhammadu Buhari government has said that Boko Haram is “completely defeated.”
Boko Haram most frequently attacks Nigeria’s northeastern states. The group’s tactics have included suicide bombings, kidnappings and guerrilla-style ambushes. Boko Haram has attacked police, military, villages, religious sites and property, particularly schools. Among many lethal attacks, Boko Haram’s suicide attack against the United Nations in 2011 in Abuja and the kidnapping of 276 female students from Chibok in Borno State received considerable international media attention. But on a more regular basis, suicide bombings terrorize local populations and inflict major casualties on Nigerian security forces. The group has also carried out attacks along the border and into Cameroon, southern Niger and around Lake Chad.
Over several years Boko Haram established significant territory in the northeast of Nigeria. At its peak in 2014, the group controlled approximately 20,000 square miles, a territory roughly the size of Belgium, while controlling a population of more than 1.7 million people. However, the Buhari government responded with sustained counter-terrorism operations against the group. Since 2015, these efforts have been assisted by security forces from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The counter-terrorism operations have achieved success in retaking territory previously controlled by Boko Haram and weakened the group’s operational tempo and organizational cohesion. In 2015, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. Shortly after, there was a significant split in the group with Abu Musab al-Barnawi appointed leader of the Islamic State-West Africa (ISWAP), while Shekau continues to lead the other faction of Boko Haram. ISWAP could have as many as 3,500 fighters under arms, while Shekau’s faction can claim approximately 1,500 militants.
The two branches differ in terms of tactics and ideology, with al-Barnawi refusing to attack Muslims—Shekau’s Boko Haram has no such objection to indiscriminate assaults and violence targeting civilians. This ideological difference is reflected in the group’s attacks. Under Shekau’s leadership, Boko Haram has carried out attacks against the local population, while al-Barnawi focuses on less frequent attacks against the Nigerian security forces, which often result in more casualties. Despite government statements predicting the demise of Boko Haram, the realities on the ground suggest a different scenario. ISWAP is looking to embed itself with the local community and is boosted by its ties to the Islamic State, which likely means a connection to the insurgencies in Mali and Niger, along with the tactical and technical boost received from foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. Over recent months, ISWAP has kidnapped and killed several aid workers. Since July, there have been nine attacks against Nigerian military bases, the majority in Borno State.
One of the biggest challenges that the Nigerian government faces is that Boko Haram is more than just a security problem. It has prospered because of significant economic and social ills in the north of the country. A long-term recruitment boost for Boko Haram was that many in the north of Nigeria feared the military more than Boko Haram. The counter-terrorism operations have successfully retaken significant territory once controlled by the group while simultaneously curbing its operational tempo. However, longer-term success, particularly against ISWAP, will require concerted humanitarian assistance, economic development aid, improvement in education and counter-radicalization programs if Nigeria hope to have any chance of quelling violence and moving toward political stability.