April 1, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Nigeria: Boko Haram Surge in Capabilities & Activity

• Boko Haram has proved that its armories include anti-aircraft missiles and armed personnel carriers and that it can field between 500 to 1000 militants in operations

• Its leader, Abubakar Shekau, appeared in a video displaying these weapons after the attack on Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri, Borno State on March 14

• Shekau’s use of English language (instead of Hausa or Arabic) to warn that Boko Haram will launch attacks on refineries in the Niger Delta and in Lagos and Abuja suggests he is seeking the attention of Western-educated and English-speaking Nigerian political and religious leaders

• Boko Haram’s attack on the presidential compound in Abuja on March 31 shows that the group is already making good on its threats.


Abubakar Shekau has been Boko Haram’s leader since the start of the insurgency in northern Nigeria in 2010. Although the group maintains a high level of secrecy around its leader, who has not been seen by the Nigerian military or reporters since 2010, Shekau has still managed to issue several dozen videos in the past three years. Shekau’s first videos were likely filmed in a Boko Haram hideout in the capital of Maiduguri, Borno State. Starting in early 2012, however, Shekau’s videos were of higher quality, displayed photos and moving graphics along with the Boko Haram logo, and featured Shekau seated with several militants.

Since late 2012, Shekau appears to have become even more militant in his videos. The videos feature Shekau in camouflaged army uniforms while engaging in training with up to a dozen militants in deserts and forested areas. One explanation for the possible change in environment is that Shekau has shifted location from Boko Haram’s bases in the Sambisa Forest of Borno to the deserts of Niger or Mali, where Nigerian intelligence reported he was based in 2012, although now he is likely back in Nigeria or its borderlands.

On February 15, Shekau issued a 28-minute video, in which he stands on top of an armored personal carrier flanked by two pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns while ten militants fire gunshots in the air. Shekau threatens to kill prominent Northern politicians, religious and traditional rulers and to attack refineries in the Niger Delta. The camouflaged pattern on the uniforms of Shekau and the militants match those that the Nigerian army uses. In March, Boko Haram followed up with two videos: one with Shekau claiming the attack on Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri on March 14, and a second one showing hundreds of soldiers entering Giwa Barracks with mounted weapons on 4 x 4s and rocket propelled grenades.



Shekau’s recent videos are intended to send several messages to different audiences. The captured armored personnel carrier and camouflaged army uniforms, which appear to be taken from the Nigerian army, serve to embarrass Nigeria. As in previous videos where Boko Haram militants claim to have stolen heavy weaponry from the Nigerian military’s armories, Shekau’s video from February 15 reinforces his claims that Boko Haram is over-running Nigerian military barracks at will and stealing weapons. The videos also seem to verify reports from Borno State that Boko Haram is setting up checkpoints on highways while wearing Nigerian army uniforms and then massacring civilians who stop at the checkpoints. Often, these civilians are Christians or part of the “Civilian Joint Task Force (Civilian JTF)” that cooperates with the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram. In his March 14 video, Shekau called the Civilian JTF “civilian trouble” and promised to sell Christian women “as slaves on the market.”

The militaristic appearance of Shekau and member of his group in the February 15 video shows the maturation of Boko Haram, which was once known as a “knife-wielding mob” but is now Africa’s most lethal insurgent movement. The placement of a black-and-white al-Qaeda-style banner on the armed personnel carrier instead of the Boko Haram logo also suggests that Boko Haram is portraying itself as something more than a Nigeria-focused movement—even if its rhetoric and attacks are directed domestically. Boko Haram has shown armed personnel carriers and even a Nigerian air force plane in previous videos, but only those that it had destroyed. But displaying new and operable weapons in recent videos shows that Boko Haram is well prepared to continue to escalate its fight against the Nigerian government.

The defining aspect of the recent videos, however, is Shekau’s use of English to threaten the southern Nigeria and its oil refineries, prominent Nigerian Muslim leaders such as the Shehu of Borno, and world leaders, such as US President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shekau also claimed the assassination in Kaduna on February 2014 of the prominent cleric Sheikh Albani, who publicly opposed Boko Haram. The use of English and threats against these influential individuals and southern Nigeria suggests Shekau may be trying to reach a wider national audience and become nationally relevant ahead of the Nigerian presidential elections scheduled for 2015.



• Shekau’s threats toward southern Nigeria and Boko Haram’s continued military successes, assassinations, and massacres of civilians suggest that the insurgency will not abate anytime soon and that it will play a decisive role in influencing outcomes and participation during Nigeria’s election season in 2015; elections in northeastern Nigeria may even have to be cancelled   • The increasing sophistication of Boko Haram’s weaponry and Shekau’s desire to extend the insurgency to southern Nigeria signal that the violence will intensify, with Boko Haram possibly attacking “hard targets,” including military bases, airports, the compounds of religious and political leaders, and, potentially, hotels, business, and even oil installations in southern Nigeria   • Ansaru, a militant faction of Boko Haram with wider geographic range, including in southern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger, may help Boko Haram carry out such attacks.


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