Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a suicide attack June 16 that targeted police headquarters in Abuja with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. Boko Haram's first-ever suicide attack demonstrates heretofore unseen capabilities by the group, which indicates it may have received training from transnational jihadists such as al Shabaab or al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The Nigerian government had already committed to escalating a security crackdown against Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, and the June 16 attack will only intensify such efforts.
A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) detonated shortly before 11 a.m. June 16 in a parking lot near Nigerian police headquarters in Abuja. Though conflicting reports have emerged on the number of casualties, it appears only a security guard and the bomber himself were killed while several others were wounded. Prevented by security from approaching the main building, the driver set off the device in a parking lot, damaging more than 70 cars. A Nigerian police spokesman immediately named Islamist militant group Boko Haram as the main suspect in the bombing, a charge that was subsequently confirmed by a Boko Haram leader. Given the recent escalation in rhetoric from the northeastern Nigerian Islamist militant group and the apparent target — Police Inspector-General Hafiz Ringim, who had just arrived at the building and has promised in recent days to take a hard line with the militant group — it was unsurprising that the police wasted no time in pointing to Boko Haram as the culprit. This is the second attack in Abuja attributed to the group since Dec. 31, 2010, and its first-ever suicide attack. The staging of this attack demonstrates an increased operational area and also could indicate some form of training from transnational jihadists. Nigerian media reports provide several conflicting accounts of what happened, but this much is clear: Around 10 minutes before the attack, a convoy that included Ringim drove into the police headquarters, possibly returning from a recent trip to Maiduguri in Borno state, the epicenter of recent Boko Haram activity. Another car either attempted to follow the convoy or arrived a few minutes later, presumably to target Ringim in the attack. Only two days before this attack, an order was issued for nonofficial cars to be directed into a nearby parking lot not in the immediate vicinity of the main police building. The suspect's vehicle was diverted to this location by a police security guard, at which point the device detonated. Though initial eyewitness reports said up to 30 people had been killed, it appears that the blast killed only the driver and the security guard. (Nigerian media outlet NEXT reported that two people were in the vehicle, but all other reports as well as official statements from police said it had only one occupant.) Vehicles damaged in the June 16 suicide blast at an Abuja police station The extent of damage caused by the blast is consistent with a VBIED, which is capable of carrying much larger quantities of explosives than an individual can carry on their person. It completely destroyed as many as 40 nearby cars and damaged around 30 other vehicles, but it only caused superficial damage to the building from flying debris. It is likely that the blast involved a significant quantity of explosives, possibly military grade judging from the initial photos of the scene. The bombing also indicates that Boko Haram has had contact with more experienced militants, as it has not displayed this level of capability in any of its previous attacks. That Nigerian police immediately identified Boko Haram as the main suspect — as opposed to the previous habit of blaming elements linked to the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta for any and all attacks — is an indication of just how serious the recent deterioration in northeastern Nigeria's security environment has become for the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan as well as the Nigerian security establishment. (The Niger Delta, meanwhile, has been relatively calm.) Two days prior to the June 16 attack, Ringim visited Maiduguri, which has been the site of most of the recent Boko Haram attacks, to receive 10 armored personal carriers from the Borno state governor for use in restoring order to the area. Ringim said during the visit that Boko Haram's days were numbered and vowed to eliminate the group. On June 15 the Nigerian government announced the formation of a new joint task force designed to combat Boko Haram. The task force will be based in Maiduguri and comprise units belonging to the Nigerian army, navy and air force as well as the Department of State Security and the police. (click here to enlarge image) Ringim's pledge generated an immediate response from Boko Haram. Hours after the speech, leaflets printed in the local Hausa language were distributed to local journalists warning that the group would soon wage jihad against the Nigerian government and police. The leaflets claimed that Boko Haram militants had recently returned from Somalia, where they had trained with members of Somali jihadist group al Shabaab, something they had never before claimed. A leading Boko Haram figure named Usman al-Zawahiri reiterated this claim shortly after claiming responsibility for the attack on the police headquarters, adding that the militants had come home just five days before and were now scattered across northern Nigeria and the capital, preparing to wage attacks. STRATFOR has long been monitoring for signs that al Shabaab may be attempting to carry out more transnational attacks, and though unconfirmed, al-Zawahiri's claims that the Somali jihadist group is attempting to train militants in other arenas to conduct attacks cannot be discounted. Boko Haram has previously been rumored to be cultivating ties with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb as well, though there has yet to be evidence that confirms this. Either way, the evolution of Boko Haram militancy indicates that the group has received training from foreign militants of some variety. Two days after Ringim's declaration that Boko Haram's days were numbered, the June 16 VBIED was set off at the Abuja police headquarters, with Ringim the apparent target. It should be noted that the attack had likely been planned well before the announcement on the joint task force's formation or Ringim's threats, as these sorts of operations typically take longer than 48 hours to prepare. However, the timing of the attack will allow the group to claim it was a response to the government's increasingly hard-line approach.