At least six suspected Boko Haram gunmen attacked Baga Market in Maiduguri, Borno state, in Nigeria at around 1:30 p.m. Feb. 20, killing at least 30 people, local medics reported. According to witnesses, the gunmen accused market traders of collaborating with the military the previous week to turn in a member of Boko Haram, then fired at vendors and customers in the market. The Nigerian military claimed that it immediately responded to the situation, killing Boko Haram members and neutralizing three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the area. The military also claimed that no civilians were killed in the incident.
Although the Feb. 20 attack appears to have inflicted dozens of casualties, the attack utilized firearms and explosives that failed to detonate, making it less tactically complex than the coordinated operations employing vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) seen earlier in 2011. Since the Jan. 20-22 Kano attacks, the Nigerian State Security Service (SSS), most likely with the support of local northern Nigerian politicians, has cracked down heavily on elements of Boko Haram, especially in the group's base of operations in Maiduguri. Regional branches of the group have remained active, as demonstrated most recently by a Feb. 26 VBIED attack in Jos that reportedly killed three and injured 38, but this was not an elaborate operation and there have been no other successful VBIED attacks in the past month. This could mean that the crackdown is dismantling parts of Boko Haram's internal structure, causing rifts in the coordination of attacks. However, the group's network of regional bases remains intact, so an increase in attacks could occur at any time.
Security Service Crackdown
The January Kano attacks killed at least 187 people over two days, a number approaching the more than 247 total civilian casualties in 2011 reported by AP. The high casualty count in Kano heightened pressure on local politicians to loosen or cut their patronage ties with Boko Haram and encouraged the northern Nigerian community to cooperate with the SSS.
The SSS campaign has netted Kabiru Sokoto, the alleged organizer of the Dec. 25 church bombings across northern and central Nigeria that killed 39 people, who had escaped the custody of Nigerian authorities once before. The SSS also has captured an individual purported to be Boko Haram spokesman Abul Qaqa. Both men were found at private residences in states outside of Boko Haram's core area. The SSS claims that the examination of call logs and intelligence from interrogations of the men has helped to track down other key Boko Haram figures, leading to the arrest of at least 30 members of the group.
The composition of Boko Haram's leadership is unclear, but the arrest of Sokoto, the man alleged to be Abul Qaqa, and the absence of purported ideological leader Abubakr Shekau since his appearance in a Jan. 11 video suggest that some of the group's internal network has been dismantled and its grip on Borno state may be weakening.
In response to the arrests, members of the group have targeted and killed several local politicians and clerics in Yobe and Borno states who had been part of Boko Haram's patronage network but who may have chosen to cooperate with the SSS.
Boko Haram has traditionally operated from its base in Maiduguri, but the group has also established local nodes in order to facilitate operations in other states. With less guidance coming from Borno state, these local nodes may choose to plan and execute their own attacks. Indeed, the recent attacks seen across Boko Haram's regional network do not appear to have been as tactically coordinated as past attacks or to have had any sort of shared ideological objective.
Moreover, since the SSS operation began, gunmen and simple IEDs — some assembled in tomato cans within large sacks or in soda cans — have been featured in the majority of Boko Haram attacks that resulted in deaths. When attacks with IEDs or VBIEDs were attempted, the explosive devices have often failed or have been neutralized by security services. These failures run counter to the trend of improved bombmaking skills that was evident from the June 16 and Aug. 26, 2011, VBIED attacks in Abuja and the subsequent successful deployment of VBIEDs against government and military installations in the northeast.
Boko Haram's recent attacks have largely focused on freeing members or raiding armories at police stations, robbing banks or striking local churches. The targets and objectives of these attacks are consistent with the less sophisticated attacks of the sort Boko Haram has been conducting in northeast Nigeria since 2010, not the more recent coordinated VBIED attacks. Also unusual is that the group has begun assassinating local political officials. Boko Haram has frequently threatened local politicians, but it has only recently begun to follow through on its threats, coinciding with the breakdown of patronage ties.
The Nigerian government is capable of manipulating media reports to exaggerate the success of its operation against Boko Haram, but indications over the past month suggest that the crackdown has been more effective than those in the past. Personalities who have made statements on behalf of the group have been arrested, but it is still unclear if the SSS has detained Boko Haram's top trainers and operational commanders or if those individuals have simply withdrawn for now. While their current attacks are not tactically complex, they are widespread. As long as the group's regional network of bases remains intact, Boko Haram will retain the ability to re-emerge as it did in 2011 after the death of its founder and leader, Mohamad Yusuf.