Soldiers of the 7th Division of the Nigerian Army meet at a cross road in Damboa, Borno State northeast Nigeria on March 25, 2016.
The Nigerian army recently announced it was preparing to launch what may be the “final attack” on Boko Haram, bringing about its end. Stevenson Olabanji, the Acting General Officer Commanding GOC 8 Task Force Division, said they were arranging to “clear the remnants of Boko Haram.” Following that, the Nigerian army's chief of staff gave his men a 40-day ultimatum to produce Abubakar Shekau, dead or alive.
Such announcements suggest Boko Haram is nearing its end, but is victory for the Nigerian military imminent? And would military success equate to the group’s demise?
Nigeria’s leaders have often declared victory over Boko Haram. In December 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said the group had been “tactically defeated,” while also indicating that his government was ready to negotiate the release of the Chibok girls. In December 2016, Buhari claimed the Islamist group had been removed from Sambisa forest. The Nigerian army has claimed to have killed Abubakar Shekau at least four times, but the insurgents denied such claims each time. This most recent ultimatum on his life is an open admission that Shekau is indeed alive.
In recent years, Boko Haram has been under considerable military pressure and attack. Although it has been weakened in the process, it remains very much active.
On Eid al-Fitr this year, Boko Haram released a video clip of tens of its fighters, including a teenager clutching an AK47, reiterating their commitment to the group’s cause, challenging reports of its demise, and promising an unprecedented spate of attacks. Last month alone, the group killed more than 80 people and the Nigerian army raised alarm over a new Boko Haram tactic of stopping children carrying out errands, strapping them with explosives, and sending them back home to commit attacks.
Boko Haram is still an active threat
Reports indicate that the insurgents are establishing new forest camps and setting up new cells in different states, such as Kano and Kogi. In the past few months, Boko Haram militants have made several attempts on Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, including an attack on Eid al-Fitr.
Last Tuesday, the group ambushed an oil exploration team consisting of staff from the University of Maiduguri, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), and the army. Around 50 people were killed, including at least nine soldiers and two professors. The attackers took a cache of arms and vehicles, and abducted several individuals. Two days later, they released video of three of the abductees (two lecturers and a driver), appealing to the university community and the government to negotiate their release.
Evidently Boko Haram is still an active threat.
In order to defeat Boko Haram, security services can learn from how the group responded to previous setbacks. In the 2000s, the group’s founder Mohammad Yusuf’s rejection of the government and Nigerian law brought him into collision with the security forces. This led to the first open confrontation between the group and security agents, resulting in the death of tens, if not hundreds, of members of the group – then referred to as the Yusufiyya movement. Its headquarters were destroyed and its founder was extra-judicially killed by the Nigerian police.
This confrontation sent the group into lull for some time. While it was thought to have been completely defeated, it went underground, rebranded itself as Jama’tu Ahlus Sunnah lid Dawatiwal Jihad, re-strategised, and re-surfaced with a guerilla-styled warfare. Initially members conducted targeted assassinations of security officials, before attacking opposing scholars, political and traditional leaders, government employees, women, and children. Kidnappings and suicide bombings were incorporated into the strategy, methods the group previously opposed.
Following the time underground, Boko Haram emerged stronger and caused greater devastation. From 2010 to 2015, the group repeatedly took on the military and police, and appropriated security agents’ arms, ammunition, and vehicles.
This culminated in Boko Haram being labeled the deadliest terror group in 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Index. Between 2014 and 2015, the jihadi group gained control of local government areas in the north-eastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa (an area of about 20, 000 square miles), put up its flags, and declared an Islamic caliphate. The group’s operations then spread to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
In the last quarter of 2015, a Multinational Joint Task Force(MNJTF), consisting of military units from Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, was reinvigorated and mandated to fight Boko Haram. The MNJTF launched a major attack on the militants, gradually reclaiming all the areas under the jihadis control and pushing them into Sambisa Forest, a 60,000 square kilometer area south-east of Maiduguri. The task force liberated all the villages captured by Boko Haram and rescued hundreds of women from the group’s custody. The extremists’ capacity has since been impeded to such an extent that it is less able to launch large-scale attacks.
Boko Haram has long benefited from widespread corruption within Nigeria, porous border control, and poor military coordination. It is vital that these factors are addressed, otherwise the threat of resurgence remains.
But the group’s actions are based on an ideological stance that validates violence as an appropriate means to establish a ‘caliphate’ and instill an extreme version of Sharia law. This ideology is a product of perverse interpretation of a religion. The group’s members are convinced that theirs is a worthy cause for which they are not only ready, but also happy, to die.
Just as was seen when the Yusufiyya movement was defeated militarily before, the ideas remained and actually developed to become more extreme. Evidently the military set-back did not mean members stopped believing in the cause. Killing Shekau, or scores of militants for that matter, will not be the end of Boko Haram. History has shown it could well be the very beginning of a new chapter in the history of this evolving group.
The situation is not, however, hopeless. As the actions are largely based on a perversion of scripture and scholarship, mainstream Muslim scholars and leaders must be further empowered and encouraged to counter the extremist narratives to prevent others from joining the jihadi movements. To do this effectively, we must first understand the methods and messages from the group to offer a strong an effective response.