Terrorism & Insurgency

Analysis: Boko Haram's history of violence provides clues to group's next moves

26 June 2014
Number of attacks and civilian fatalities attributed to Boko Haram in Nigeria Jan 2013 - May 2014. Credit: IHS Jane's

Although militant Islamist group Boko Haram is likely to launch more frequent and increasingly deadly attacks in Nigeria, an analysis of the organization’s past activities suggests it will limit most of its guerilla activities to its stronghold home region, according to IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre.

The abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in Nigeria's Borno State on April 15 focused international attention on the growing threat posed by Boko Haram. However, although shocking, the attack was only the latest instance of an established trend in aggression by the group targeting Nigeria's civilian population.

IHS first highlighted this trend in the months following the May 2013 imposition of a state of emergency in the north-eastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa—Boko Haram's heartland. At that time, the IHS database of terrorism and non-state armed group events revealed a shift in the group's operational patterns, a two-part change that continues to define its activities today.

First, Boko Haram increasingly is directing attacks against ordinary civilians, and its attacks are becoming progressively more lethal. Between January 2010 and March 2013 an average of 2.9 people were killed per attack, while between April 2013 and May 2014 this figure rose to 17.7 fatalities per attack, according to IHS data. In the months prior to the Chibok abductions this trend became even more pronounced, with attacks to date in 2014 resulting in an average of 27.9 fatalities.

Second, the group's area of operations has contracted significantly during the past year and a half, with the majority of attacks across 2013 and early 2014 concentrated in Borno State, where the group originated, and where Boko Haram forces operate under the direct command of the group's overall leader, Abubakar Shekau. Periodic attacks have continued elsewhere, including in central Nigeria, with recent notable attacks in the capital Abuja in April, and in Jos in May.

However, IHS data indicates such attacks are almost exclusively bombings, suggesting that while Boko Haram is capable of projecting force throughout the country, its ability to mount ambushes, assaults, and other guerrilla operations remains largely confined to its established heartland in the northeast, and this tactical pattern is likely to remain evident over the remainder of the year.

The roots of evil

Attacks on secular schools have been a signature feature of Boko Haram’s shift toward targeting the civilian population. Such attacks, in fact, are not so much a product of ideological opposition to Western education—schools were not targeted until 2012, eight years after the group's first attack—but a response to the population's cooperation with the state of emergency, and specifically to the increasing participation of local youths in government-backed anti-Boko Haram vigilante groups.

No negotiations

Meanwhile, there were significant tactical elements differentiating the Chibok assault from previous school attacks, where students were massacred rather than abducted, and the group appeared to avoid targeting females. For example, during a Sept. 29, 2013, attack in Gujba, Yobe—when at least 90 people were killed—militants attacked four male dormitories while sparing the single female dormitory. As a result, the mass abduction of female students suggests that additional factors informed the planning of the Chibok operation, which possibly offers an insight into the group's ongoing evolution.

The abductions may represent a straightforward attempt to force concessions from the government. Still, there is no indication that Boko Haram is interested in talks, and in imposing an impossible ransom—the release of all Boko Haram prisoners—it appears Shekau has no intention of releasing the girls.

Having been ousted from the cities following the May 2013 state of emergency, Boko Haram now operates primarily out of remote bush camps, most notably in Borno's Sambisa Forest, close to the border with Cameroon. It is, therefore, possible that the attack's purpose was to provide the group's fighters with the camp orderlies, and wives, needed to sustain life in the bush—the motive behind similar mass abductions carried out by groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Should this be the case, it would suggest two possibilities: that Boko Haram foresees its immediate future as a rural guerrilla movement, and that its camps are sufficiently established and secure to accommodate as well as necessitate non-combatant camp followers.

International effort targets Boko Haram

Meanwhile, although the Chibok abductions generated an international response—most recently with a June 12 summit in London attended by representatives of Western and African nations—there is little prospect of this translating into security improvements on the ground in the near term.

Even so, there is significant value in efforts to develop cooperation between militaries in the region, given evidence of Boko Haram infiltration into Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

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