April 24, 2018

IntelBrief: Boko Haram Today 

Nigerian soldiers man a checkpoint in Gwoza, Nigeria.  (AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi, File).
  • Although driven from much of the territory it once held, Boko Haram remains a threat to the residents of Nigeria’s impoverished rural Northeast.
  • The terror group’s two major factions are pursuing similar objectives but deploying slightly different tactics. Neither is likely to fade away in response to vague amnesty offers.
  • Boko Haram is not the only threat to security in rural northern Nigeria; increasingly violent disputes among farmers and herders and between ranchers and thieves have killed thousands.
  • Violence in rural northern Nigeria is likely to worsen in the months ahead and may spread southward.


Four years have passed since the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, formally known as People Committed to Propagating the Prophet’s Teachings and to Jihad, grabbed international headlines by kidnapping 276 schoolgirls. Most have returned, but some 113 are dead, prefer lives as jihadi wives, or have chosen not to return to communities that will reject them. Boko Haram began in 2002 as an extremist—but not unusually violent—group that rejected the authority of the Nigerian state.

After Nigerian police extrajudicially killed its leader, the group reconstituted in the forests and became deadlier. Some Boko Haram members developed a close association with al-Qaeda and its Sahelian affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Eventually, Boko Haram split into two factions, and one aligned with the so-called Islamic State. While no longer controlling a swath of territory roughly the size of Belgium as it once did, Boko Haram’s two factions continue to threaten rural areas and small towns across much of northeastern Nigeria.

Since 2014, Boko Haram has been responsible for over 20,000 deaths. Violence has often spilled into neighboring Chad, Niger and, particularly, Cameroon. While precise numbers cannot be obtained, this conflict has displaced at least three million people, most of whom are subsistence farmers. Several hundred thousand live in internally-displaced persons (IDP) and refugee camps, several of which are near major cities. Boko Haram occasionally sends suicide bombers—often girls and young women—to attack these camps and to attack security checkpoints, wreaking havoc for those in the camps and disrupting normal activity in the adjacent cities.

Boko Haram is not the only threat to civil security in northern Nigeria today. Deadly fighting between farmers (often Christians) and herders (often Muslims), and between settled ranchers and rustlers, left some 5,000 dead during 2016 and 2017—over twice the number of victims attributed to Boko Haram during that period. Sophisticated automatic firearms, many likely flowing from the counterterrorism fight in the Northeast, often feature in these struggles over land use and land tenure as the country’s population expands. Allegations are rife that some herders are actually Boko Haram members and/or that Nigerian military units are giving them cover.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), with ties to Iran’s radical clerics, is stepping up protests against the irregular detention of its leader. The IMN has been subject to occasionally violent repression and there are fears that it, or some of its members, could radicalize. There also have been reports of herders attacking villages outside of the North. With planting now underway in much of the country, the risks of even greater rural violence are high.

Nigeria’s leaders must devote more resources to fighting Boko Haram and other violent groups. Long Africa’s most populous country,Nigeria is now its largest economy as well. Recovering crude oil prices give Nigeria’s leaders fiscal room to tackle security challenges more effectively. But the endemic corruption that saps the vitality, credibility, and readiness of the security forces must be contained and rolled back. Reducing wasteful purchases of expensive weapons platforms—in favor of training adequately-equipped police who speak local languages to secure the countryside against terrorists and criminals—would be a good start.


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