Boko Haram may be on the back foot compared to a year ago, but the group has adapted and bounced back before. It will do so again given the chance.
Shortly after Muhammadu Buhari was inaugurated as Nigeria’s new president in May 2015, he boldly declared that Boko Haram would be defeated by the end of the year.
The Nigerian and international public were rightfully sceptical. The prior administration under Goodluck Jonathan had declared several times that Africa’s most deadly militant group would be “soon be history” or that its leader Abubakar Shekau was dead, only to see both Boko Haram and Shekau re-emerge stronger than before.
However, just before 2015 was over, Buhari announced that he had succeeded in his pledge, claiming that Boko Haram is now “technically defeated”.
Since Buhari came into office, the Nigerian military has recorded several key counter-insurgency successes.
To begin with, Boko Haram has lost almost all the territories it occupied in the “Islamic State” that leader Shekau declared in 2014. Reclaiming this land appears to have been Buhari’s primary objective, and Boko Haram has now abandoned conventional warfare because of the losses it suffered trying to defend territory. According to Buhari, the group can “no longer take towns”.
The Nigerian security forces have also killed several key Boko Haram members and partially disrupted the media coordination between Boko Haram and the Islamic State (IS). Shekau officially pledged loyalty to IS leader Abubakr Al-Baghdadi in March 2015. In recent months, Boko Haram videos have been released at a slower rate than before, and an infographic of its attacks released in December 2015 appeared out of sync with the IS announcement on its daily Al-Bayan News Bulletin.
Another success is that Maiduguri, the main city in northeastern Nigeria, of is no longer at risk from large-scale Boko Haram raids for the first time in several years. As evidenced by the deadly 28 December attack on the outskirts of Maiduguri just days after Buhari’s announcement and involving as many as ten suicide bombers, there are still serious and lingering threats to the city’s security. But the possibility of a “Mosul scenario” – akin to the IS’s takeover of Mosul, Iraq in 2014 – in which Boko Haram could imminently threaten Nigeria’s territorial integrity has significantly reduced.
Despite successes, however, Boko Haram is still far from being eliminated.
The militant group has a vast number of young female suicide bombers, some of whom may be voluntary but many others coerced. These individuals are being trained to continue the series of more than 80 such attacks that have been carried out by more than 120 girls since the Chibok kidnapping. None of the 200-plus schoolgirls abducted from Chibok in April 2014 have been used in bombings as far as we know, though the kidnapping itself appears to have been the turning point after which Boko Haram decided to use girls in suicide attacks. These attacks have led to more than 750 deaths and 1,200 total casualties as they have focused on population centres and shifted from Nigeria into Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Indeed, while Boko Haram’s capabilities may be decreasing within Nigeria, the militant group has increasingly carried out massacres on villages in these neighbouring countries. Boko Haram struck Chad’s capital of N’djamena in June 2015 with four suicide bombings and has attacked islands on Lake Chad with female suicide bombers several times. Boko Haram is now not only a threat to Nigeria but to the entire Lake Chad sub-region.
Furthermore, even if the Islamist militants appear to be on the back foot in Nigeria, this does not mean permanent defeat. Boko Haram may go into hiding like it did after the State of Emergency offensive in 2013 in anticipation that the security forces will let down their guard over time.
Boko Haram could also change its attack strategy and, for instance, target Shias in Nigeria. This would be in line with IS guidance and would take advantage of the increasing anti-Shia sentiment in Nigeria since security forces clashed with the Iran-backed Islamic Movement in Nigeria in mid-December 2015.
Why Nigeria’s strategy has worked
In order for Nigeria to continue to “defeat” Boko Haram, it is important to recognise what has worked.
First, the Nigerian security forces have focused on disrupting Boko Haram logistics routes that send in food and weapons into Borno State from neighbouring countries.
Second, counter-insurgency operations have focused on destroying the camps and safe havens such as in Sambisa Forest where Boko Haram has been able to store weapons and captives, recover from, and prepare for attacks.
Third, Buhari has appointed officers who are from north-eastern Nigeria and know the local dynamics of the insurgency to leading positions in the military, including Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai, which has also increased the morale of troops.
Fourth, Buhari’s anti-corruption and accountability campaign, while controversial in the arrest of the former National Security Advisor, has restored the public and military’s confidence in the Office of the Presidency and military.
Fifth, Buhari has visited or hosted leaders of all Nigeria’s neighbouring countries as well as key international partners, including the US, France and India. This has been a key step in committing to a regional approach. It has enabled Nigeria to benefit from sharing intelligence and equipment, and address other issues of international importance such as relief to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees in the Lake Chad sub-region.
Even with a viable counter-insurgency strategy, long-term challenges will continue beyond Buhari’s first term in office.
There is the need to increase the pace of reconstruction in Borno State, which would allow IDPs and refugees to return home and revive the regional economy. Buhari will need to integrate the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) vigilante militias into the regular armed forces to reduce the likelihood of ad-hoc “justice”, such as torture and abuse of prisoners, and allow the military to gain more “grassroots-level intelligence” on Boko Haram.
And given that use of female suicide bombers has been Boko Haram’s most lethal tactic in the past year, it is important that security forces continue to mobilise women as officers, whose role has been impeded in previous years.
Buhari is thus far vindicated up to a point in his optimism about Nigeria’s counter-insurgency campaign. Boko Haram is not yet “defeated”, but it is not currently able to hold territory like it did in 2014.
Nonetheless, the threat from Boko Haram has ebbed and flowed in the past five years, and while Boko Haram is now on a downturn, the militant group may have new tactics and strategies as well as a plan to return stronger than before. Nigeria’s security forces will need to anticipate this.
Jacob Zenn is a Fellow of The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC and an analyst on security affairs in Africa and Central Asia.