The Rising Threat from Nigeria's Boko Haram Militant Group
By Scott Stewart
The U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, issued a warning Nov. 5 indicating it had received intelligence that the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram may have been planning to bomb several targets in the Nigerian capital during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, also known as Eid al-Kabir, celebrated Nov. 6-8.
The warning specifically mentioned the Hilton, Nicon Luxury and Sheraton hotels as potential targets. The warning came in the wake of a string of bombings and armed attacks Nov. 4 in the cities of Maiduguri, Damaturu and Potiskum, all of which are located in Nigeria's northeast. An attack also occurred in the north-central Nigerian city of Kaduna. The sites targeted in the wave of attacks included a military base in Maiduguri and the anti-terrorism court building in Damaturu. Militants reportedly attacked these two sites with suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). The Nigerian Red Cross reported that more than 100 people were killed in the attacks, while some media reports claimed the death toll was at least 150.
According to AFP, a spokesman for Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the attacks Nov. 5 and threatened more attacks targeting the Nigerian government until "security forces stop persecuting our members and vulnerable civilians." On Nov. 7, a Boko Haram spokesman claimed that his group employed only two suicide operatives in the attacks and not 12 as reported by some media outlets.
Though Eid al-Kabir passed without attacks on Western hotels in Abuja, a deeper examination of Boko Haram is called for, with a specific focus on its rapidly evolving tactical capabilities.
Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sinful" in Hausa, 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. The group officially is known as Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for "group committed to propagating the Prophet's teachings and jihad." Some in the country have referred to Boko Haram as the Nigerian Taliban in reference to the group's call for Shariah throughout Nigeria. (At present, only the northern part of the country adheres to Shariah.) In June, a spokesman claiming to represent Boko Haram amended this demand, instead calling for what the group defines as a stricter form of Shariah in the northern Nigerian states where Shariah already is the law.
With approximately 150 million people, Nigeria is the most populous African country and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It has some 250 distinct ethnic groups, with the dominant groups being the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa-Fulani, along with a smaller but critical fourth group, the Ijaw. These groups are in constant tension as they attempt to dominate the nation's politics and the allocation of its natural resources. Approximately half the country is Muslim and half is Christian (though many Nigerians follow traditional religions). As reflected by the adjacent map, which depicts the sites of the Nov. 4 attacks as well as the Nigerian states governed by Shariah, the Muslim population predominates in the north while Christians predominate in the south. The Muslim north is parched and devoid of significant resources (agriculture is the north's economic mainstay). This contrasts sharply with the economic environment in southern Nigeria, an area that includes Lagos, the country's vibrant commercial capital and the business hub for much of West Africa, and the Niger Delta region, home to about 90 percent of the country's large crude oil and natural gas sector.
In addition to ethnic tensions, Nigeria has experienced frequent and intense bursts of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims, especially in the areas where the two religions overlap, like Jos in the northern tip of Plateau state. This struggle pits the powerful Hausa-Fulani from the north, which tends to be Muslim, against a number of smaller local ethnic groups that tend to be Christian. Indeed, Boko Haram has been involved since its inception in several outbursts of inter-communal violence, including the November 2008 violence that saw some 800 people killed in Jos, the July 2009 violence that saw more than 700 people killed in Jos, and the January 2010 violence in Jos that claimed 450 lives.
Following the July 2009 violence, which brought Boko Haram to the world's attention, Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf and his deputy, Abubakar Shekau, were both killed. Yusuf died in police custody, allegedly during an escape attempt, though his followers have called his death an extrajudicial execution.
Since the destruction of Boko Haram's leadership, the exact structure and makeup of the group has been unclear. Boko Haram now seems to lack organizational structure or strong leadership. If the group has any central leadership, it has maintained a very low profile since Yusuf's killing. It may even be in hiding, possibly in a neighboring country. Mixed messages have emerged from various individuals claiming to speak for Boko Haram. Some figures have come across as more moderate and willing to negotiate, while others have been more strident, rejecting talks. This difference makes it appear that Boko Haram comprises a loose confederation of militants operating relatively independently from one another, rather than a cohesive, hierarchical organization pursuing a unified set of objectives.
Boko Haram initially was involved mostly in fomenting sectarian violence. Its adherents participated in fairly rudimentary attacks involving clubs, machetes and small arms. By late 2010, the group had added Molotov cocktails and simple improvised explosive devices to its tactical repertoire, as reflected by the series of small IED bombing attacks against Christian targets in Jos on Christmas Eve in 2010.
Boko Haram also conducted a number of armed assaults and small IED attacks in 2011. The IEDs involved in these attacks were small devices either thrown from motorcycles or left at the attack location.
On June 16, Boko Haram made a huge operational leap with the detonation of its first suicide VBIED. The attack was directed against the police headquarters in Abuja. While it proved largely ineffective — security kept the vehicle in a parking lot away from the targeted building — the attack nonetheless represented a significant tactical development in that it demonstrated that Boko Haram had mastered a completely new aspect of terrorist tradecraft. Employing a suicide VBIED is a far cry from throwing a few sticks of dynamite with a piece of time fuse at a police station or leaving a small IED with a crude timer outside a church. The VBIED was also quite sizable; it destroyed some 40 vehicles in the parking lot.
Significantly, the attack occurred outside Boko Haram's traditional area of activity, proving the group can now project power at least as far as Abuja. Reports emerged in September indicating that Boko Haram was threatening to conduct attacks in the Niger Delta, though these threats have yet to materialize. The Niger Delta is significantly farther from Boko Haram's base in the north than Abuja, which is in central Nigeria. Distance aside, ethnic and linguistic differences would make it difficult for Boko Haram members to operate in the Delta without being detected.
Recruiting and training a suicide operative who can conduct successful missions when an organization has no history of such operations is no small feat. Frequently, poorly prepared suicide operatives back out of missions. By being able to recruit, indoctrinate and then send out a suicide operative who can complete his mission, Boko Haram enjoys a great deal of operational latitude.
Taken together, these facts illustrate the large operational leap Boko Haram accomplished in 2011. It is very unusual for a militant group to achieve such a significant operational leap absent outside training or assistance. In many past cases, that outside assistance came from state sponsors. For example, the Soviet Union and its allies assisted various Marxist revolutionary groups, Iran and Syria have assisted Hezbollah, and the United States and Pakistan aided the Afghan mujahideen. Non-state actors also have been involved in such training, however, with Hezbollah having taught al Qaeda how to construct large VBIEDs and al Qaeda trainers having taught others how to construct IEDs in their training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On June 14, 2010, Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud, the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), told Al Jazeera that his group would provide Boko Haram with support and weapons to build strategic depth in Africa. We initially viewed the claim with some skepticism, as al-Wadoud had made previous unfounded claims that his group was going to expand. Following that announcement, however, we continued to receive reports that Nigerians associated with Boko Haram had been seen at AQIM training camps in the Sahel and that some of them even had received training from the jihadist group al Shabaab in Somalia.
While we have not received hard confirmation of these reports, we believe that the rapid uptick in Boko Haram's bombmaking capability provides strong circumstantial evidence that such an interchange did indeed happen between Boko Haram and one, or perhaps both, of those African jihadist groups.
On Aug. 26, Boko Haram conducted a second suicide VBIED attack in Abuja, this time attacking a U.N. compound. This attack proved far more successful than the June attack against the police headquarters. The VBIED driver managed to enter the compound by ramming an exit gate, then maneuvering his vehicle into a parking garage before detonating it. The attack also stands out in that the U.N. compound was located in the diplomatic district of Abuja, where numerous high-profile facilities are located, demonstrating that Boko Haram possessed the ability to spot a soft target amid harder targets like foreign embassies and government buildings. The group's preoperational surveillance efforts also permitted it to accurately identify a security weakness — the exit gate — which it then successfully exploited. This attack was Boko Haram's first attack against a transnational target rather than against a government or sectarian target. Boko Haram sees the many U.N. development programs in Nigeria as an affront, as have the various jihadist groups in places like Algeria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan that also have attacked the United Nations because of its programs.
The Hotel Threat
All of this, then, helps us place the recent hotel threat into perspective. While Boko Haram's attacks against hardened targets largely have proved unsuccessful, the group has clearly displayed the ability to conduct attacks against soft targets in Abuja. It also has demonstrated a desire to hit transnational targets.
As we have previously discussed, measures taken to harden diplomatic facilities have caused militant groups to come to regard hotels as attractive targets. Striking an international hotel in a major city like Abuja would allow militants to make the same kind of statement against the West as they could by striking an embassy. Hotels often are full of Western business travelers, diplomats and intelligence officers. This makes them target-rich environments for militants seeking to kill Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate the extreme security of a hard target like a modern embassy.
While it is possible that the intelligence report referenced by the U.S. Embassy was inaccurate, or a ruse by Boko Haram, someone in Boko Haram quite plausibly was planning such an attack. Jihadist groups have launched multiple attacks against hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, in July 2009, in the Jordanian capital of Amman in November 2005, and in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula in July 2005. Even the November 2008 armed assaults in Mumbai targeted multiple hotels. With Boko Haram's U.N. attack mirroring jihadist attacks against the United Nations elsewhere, the group similarly could be planning to mirror attacks by jihadists against hotels elsewhere.
In the wake of the Nov. 5 U.S. Embassy warning, security has been ramped up around hotels in Abuja and especially around those hotels mentioned as specific targets. Given the long history of violence in Nigeria, Nigerian authorities have gained much experience in dealing with militancy. Their tactics often have been quite brutal. Therefore, we are doubtful that Boko Haram successfully could strike these specific hotels in the immediate future. If, however, the group has prepared VBIEDs for such an operation, they would likely employ them against other, softer targets in the near future. Once a VBIED is prepared, it is vulnerable to detection. Militant groups do not like to leave such devices assembled for very long given the risk of losing such a valuable asset. Instead, VBIEDS tend to be employed shortly after being constructed.
It is quite possible, however, that these hotels will remain on Boko Haram's target list. The attack plan could be revisited once security around the hotels is reduced or once Boko Haram's operational leadership evolves to the point that it possesses the sophistication to plan and execute attacks against harder targets.
On Nov. 2, Nigerian authorities claimed to have thwarted a bomb plot planned for the Eid holiday. A man they arrested in connection with the plot allegedly possessed explosives that he planned to use to create package bombs. Whether the man was in any way linked to the string of attacks that occurred Nov. 4 or if he was planning an independent operation remains unknown. At the very least, the arrest did not allow authorities to foil the many attacks executed Nov. 4. The arrest probably resulted from the house-to-house searches in Maiduguri that resumed after an arms amnesty for militants ended Oct. 31. These security operations in Maiduguri have reportedly caused some Boko Haram members to move elsewhere, such as neighboring Yobe state.
While the Nigerian government did uncover a warehouse on the outskirts of Abuja used to construct VBIEDs while investigating the U.N. bombing, Nigerian authorities do not appear to have identified the operational planners and bombmakers responsible for the high-level VBIED attacks, much less arrested them. The longer these individuals are allowed to operate, the more experience they will gain — and the deadlier they will get. It will be important to watch the tactical details of the next Boko Haram attacks for signs that its leadership is maturing as terrorist planners.