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Is Boko Haram More Dangerous Than Ever?

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By Scott Stewart
Vice President of Analysis

On Nov. 25, Boko Haram, an Islamist militant group from northern Nigeria, attacked a church in Jaji, Kaduna state, using two suicide bombers during the church's weekly religious service. The first bomb detonated in a vehicle driven into the church, and the second detonated approximately 10 minutes later, when a crowd of first responders gathered at the scene. About 30 people were killed in the attacks; the second blast caused the majority of the deaths. The incident was particularly symbolic because Jaji is the home of Nigeria's Armed Forces Command and Staff College, and many of the churchgoers were senior military officers.

In the wake of the Jaji attacks, media reports quoted human rights groups saying that Boko Haram has killed more people in 2012 than ever before. The group has killed roughly 770 people this year, leading many to conclude that Boko Haram has become more dangerous.

However, it is important to look beyond the sheer number of fatalities when drawing such conclusions about a group like Boko Haram. Indeed, a less cursory look at the group reveals that while 2012 has been a particularly deadly year, the Nigerian government has curtailed the group's capabilities. In terms of operational planning, the group has been limited to simple attacks against soft targets in or near its core territory. In other words, Boko Haram remains deadly, but it is actually less capable than it used to be, relegating the group to a limited, regional threat unless this dynamic is somehow altered. 

Boko Haram's Rise

Boko Haram, Hausa for "Western Education is Sinful," was established in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state. It has since spread to several other northern and central Nigerian states. Its official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for "Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad." While Boko Haram is a relatively new phenomenon, Nigeria has struggled with militant Islamism for decades. For example, the Maitatsine sect, led by Mohammed Marwa, fomented violence in the early 1980s in the very same cities that Boko Haram is presently active.

Initially, Boko Haram incited sectarian violence and attacked Christians with clubs, machetes and small arms. But by 2010, the group had added Molotov cocktails and simple improvised explosive devices to its arsenal. In 2011, Boko Haram made a major operational leap when it unexpectedly began to use large suicide vehicle bombs. They were used first in the botched attack against the national police headquarters in Abuja in June 2011, and they were later used in the more successful attack against a U.N. compound in Abuja in August 2011.

The leap from simple attacks in Boko Haram's core areas to sophisticated attacks using large vehicle bombs in the nation's capital skipped several steps in the normal progression of militant operations. The group's progression suggested that it had received outside training or assistance. The sudden increase in operational capacity appeared to have corroborated reports circulating at that time of Boko Haram militants attending training camps run by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

This rapid progression, which came in the wake of a Nigerian operative being involved in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's plot to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner, led to a concern that Boko Haram had the capability and the intent to become the next transnational jihadist franchise capable of threatening the United States and Europe. These fears were further stoked by warnings from the U.S. government in November 2011 that Boko Haram was planning to attack Western hotels in Abuja.

Dynamic Changes

To counter the perceived growing Boko Haram threat, the Nigerian government, aided by intelligence and training provided by the United States and its European allies, launched a major offensive against the group. Since January, the government has arrested or killed several leaders of Boko Haram, disrupted a number of cells and dismantled numerous bombmaking facilities. In addition to government efforts, there has been a grassroots backlash against Boko Haram, as evidenced by the formation of anti-Boko Haram militant group Jama'atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan, or "Supporters of Muslims in the Lands of Sudan," commonly known as Ansaru.

Boko Haram has lashed out viciously against these countermeasures. From June to August, the group conducted nine suicide bombings, mostly directed against churches and police or military targets in its home territory. Since August, the operational tempo of its suicide bombings has slowed to about one attack a month. Boko Haram operatives have also conducted a number of armed attacks and non-suicide bombing attacks. Many of these were directed against churches and police or military targets, but several of them were also directed against mosques that denounced Boko Haram. Despite warnings that Boko Haram would target Western hotels in Abuja, the group has not attacked an international target since the U.N. building in August 2011.

Boko Haram activity has remained heavily concentrated in its core areas with occasional operations in Abuja. There have been only two Boko Haram attacks in Abuja in 2012: a large suicide vehicle bombing attack against a newspaper office in April and a small bombing attack against a nightclub in June. It appears that the group's ability to conduct large attacks in Abuja has been constrained by government operations. 

Tactically, Boko Haram's attacks in 2012 have focused almost exclusively on soft targets. Even its attacks against military and police targets have been directed against police on patrol or isolated police stations with little security or have been a target like the church at the military base in Jaji.

So while Boko Haram progressed rapidly in terms of operational ability in 2011, it is still struggling to conduct sustained operations outside its core geographic territory, and it has yet to successfully strike a hardened target. Even the August 2011 attack against the United Nations, while demonstrating some geographic reach and a focus on an international target, was directed against a relatively soft target instead of a harder target like a government ministry building or a foreign embassy. It is also notable that the group has not conducted an attack in Lagos, Nigeria's most populous city, or in Niger, Chad or Cameroon, which are all closer to the Boko Haram home territories than Lagos.

However, in Nigeria, the use of militant proxies has long been part of the political process. Just as Niger Delta politicians have used groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta for their own purposes, politicians in Nigeria's northeast have supported and used Boko Haram. In fact, an alleged senior member of the group was arrested at the home of a Nigerian senator in Maiduguri in October 2012, and a previous governor of Borno state is allegedly a sponsor of the group.

This type of political and financial support means that despite the efforts of the central government, the group will not be easily or quickly eradicated. Any serious attempt to curtail the group will require a political solution, which will be highly unlikely during the next two years due to the usefulness of such proxies in the lead-up to Nigerian national elections in early 2015. Therefore, the central government's options will be limited. The best it can hope for is to continue to pursue the group to contain it and limit its reach and lethality.

Certainly, Boko Haram retains the capability to kill people, especially in attacks against vulnerable targets on its home turf. But as long as the Nigerian government maintains pressure on the group and as long as the group remains on the defensive, Boko Haram is unlikely to be able to further develop its operational capabilities and pose an existential threat to the Nigerian government — let alone become a transnational terrorist threat.  

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