April 30, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Nigeria: Boko Haram’s Impunity, Prejudice, and Violence
On April 15, militants stormed a government boarding school in Chibok, Borno State, along the border with Cameroon, and kidnapped over 200 female students. Nigerian security forces were slow to respond, and though some girls escaped from their captors, current reporting indicates that between 120 to over 200 remain captive—the varying figures come from state officials and parents who have reported missing daughters, respectively.
While Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, Abubakar Shekau warned in video statements several weeks before the attack that kidnapped girls would become his servants and that, according to his version of Islam, “infidel [women are] spoils of war [and can be] sold as slaves in the market.”
Chibok borders on Borno’s Sambisa Game Reserve, a known Boko Haram hideout where members retreat and plan attacks. An operation in Chibok on this scale is unlikely without Boko Haram’s complicity, although coordination with Ansaru (al-Muslimin), a Boko Haram offshoot that specializes in kidnapping, is plausible. Ansaru is led by Nigerian militants who sometimes operate in the Sahel with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and it has worked with Boko Haram to conduct kidnappings in Borno State and Cameroon in the past year.
Local sources say Boko Haram warned several weeks prior to the kidnapping that because Muslim female students were receiving Western education, they considered them infidels. Since the abductions, Nigerian officials have reported Boko Haram is using the women as human shields in order to prevent the Nigerian air force from targeting the group’s camps, and that some of the girls may have been forcibly married to group members.
Just one day before the mass abduction, a car bomb detonated in a motor park in a suburb of Nigeria’s capital Abuja, killing over 70, injuring hundreds, and destroying more than 40 vehicles. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, whose villa is near the motor park, visited the scene of the explosion and characterized Boko Haram as a “temporary” problem. Shekau claimed the bombing in a video released on April 21, in which he taunted Jonathan, “I am in your city.” He also said the attack was in response to the killing of Muslims in “Nigeria [and] the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria, Yemen, Mali, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, and Pakistan.”
Boko Haram likely carried out the motor park blast in coordination with international terrorist elements. Shekau’s attack statement was mostly in Arabic, suggesting his message was intended for a broader international audience, rather than just for local Hausa-speaking viewers. In addition, the size of the explosion was on a greater scale than any attacks Boko Haram has previously carried out from its main base in Borno State, suggesting the involvement of outside networks that may be connected to Ansaru or other offshoots.
Ansaru’s base was located in Kaduna, near Abuja, before security forces broke it up in 2012 and killed one of its commanders. Boko Haram’s first two attacks in Abuja—the Federal Police Headquarters and UN Headquarters car bombings in June and August 2011—also involved militants such as the Cameroon-born Mamman Nur, Shekau’s former second in command, who trained in the Sahel and Somalia with AQIM and al-Shabab. Nur was one of Ansaru’s leaders when its formation was announced in January 2012. At that time, Ansaru leadership distanced itself from Shekau due to his killing of Muslims; however, French military intervention in northern Mali in February 2013 reunited elements of Ansaru and Boko Haram when the former sought protection in Borno. Nur may also have led the Boko Haram cell that carried out a similar car bombing in a motor park in Kano’s Christian Quarter (Sabon Gari) in May 2013, which killed more than 20 people.
A key issue related to the motor park bombing is its timing before the World Economic Forum, scheduled to take place in Abuja from May 7-9. Shekau’s video claim coupled with a major terrorist act near the seat of government—far from northeastern extremists’ operating bases—serve to tarnish Nigeria’s image ahead of a major international forum and may have a chilling effect on attendance for this and future events. Shekau yet again moved to control the post-attack narrative.
The kidnapping of the female students in Borno State is not only a humanitarian concern, but also indicative of persistent capability issues for Nigerian and regional security services. The government lost credibility by failing to provide an accurate list of abductees and through inaccurate statements—saying many of the girls had been rescued, although families report many remain missing and are presumed captive of the terrorist group. Rescue operations may become increasingly difficult over time as Boko Haram cells take the victims to separate locations in Borno or into neighboring states.
Boko Haram’s modus operandi is to demand release from prison of its members in exchange for some of the girls, or payment of ransom. Also challenging authorities is the concern that military rescue efforts could result in lethal ambushes by extremists who use Borno’s terrain to their advantage.
• Even though Boko Haram’s main area of operations will remain Borno State, it will continue to pose a threat to Abuja and possibly to Lagos, particularly if it continues to receive training and financial and technical support from other international terrorist groups
• Increased operational coordination between Boko Haram and Ansaru will raise concerns for cross-border attacks, particularly in Cameroon, Niger, and Mali
• The military’s inability to suppress Boko Haram attacks in Borno State, along with less than credible official statements and characterizations of extremist threats, will further undermine domestic and international confidence in Abuja
• Hopes for the Boko Haram insurgency to be contained by the time presidential elections take place in February 2015 appear increasingly elusive.