Boko Haram is a radical Sunni Islamist sect occupying strongholds in the north of Nigeria. Its official name is ‘Jama’atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda’wati wal Jihad’ meaning ‘people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad’[1]. The name Boko Haram has not been chosen by the sect itself. Rather, it has been assigned from outside observers because of its extreme anti-Western stance. The Hausa word ‘boko’ means ‘book’ and the Arabic word ‘haram’ carries the meaning ‘forbidden, ungodly, sinful’. Thus the literal translation is ‘book is sinful’, however, of greater importance is the underlying notion that Western education, Western culture, and modern science are sinful[2]. According to researchers and intelligence sources, the sect has existed Robert Nagel 2under a variety of names for 10-15 years[3]. Originally founded by the Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf, who in 2009 was executed by police forces, Boko Haram is now under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau[4]. The name developed a legacy of its own, being adopted by others after the original Abubakar Shekau has been rumored to have died[5]. Until 2013, when President Jonathan Goodluck declared a state of emergency for the three northern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, the sect’s headquarters where located in Maiduguri. Deploying great military force, the Nigerian government drove many of the sect’s members out of its urban base[6]. Boko Haram draws its members from diverse societal backgrounds, although most recruits come from the poorest in Nigerian society. The common denominator for the different members is the wish to overthrow the secular government and install Sharia – Islamic law[7].

There are numerous factors that have contributed to the emergence and consolidation of Boko Haram in the north of Nigeria. Pervasive problems such as economic and political marginalization of minorities, rampant corruption, weak state institutions, lack of infrastructure, societal deprivation, and youth unemployment provide a fertile recruiting ground for the extremist sect[8]. Not surprisingly the violent uprising is focused in the north where the Gross Domestic Product per capita is half as much as in the south and dissatisfaction towards politicians, the legal system, and law enforcement are exacerbated and exploited by ethnic identity politics[9]. Boko Haram successfully preys on the misery of Nigerians, particular unemployed youths, by painting the world in black and white, evil and good, simplifying a complex world that has left too many on the losing side, disillusioned and lost. In its attempt to impose a religious ideology on secular Nigerian society the sect continues a known pattern of violent uprisings in Nigeria. However, a lack of cross-tribal and cross-regional support has limited most of its actions to the north[10].

Changing tactics – from knives to bombs

A rescue worker inspects the burnt-out wreckage of cars and motorcycles destroyed by multiple explosions and armed assailants in the Marhaba area of the northern Nigerian city of Kano, on January 21, 2012. Coordinated bomb attacks on January 20 targeting security forces and gun battles have killed at least 121 people in Nigeria's second-largest city of Kano, with bodies littering the streets.  AFP PHOTO / AMINU ABUBAKAR
A rescue worker inspects the burnt-out wreckage of cars and motorcycles destroyed by multiple explosions and armed assailants in the Marhaba area of the northern Nigerian city of Kano, on January 21, 2012. Coordinated bomb attacks on January 20 targeting security forces and gun battles have killed at least 121 people in Nigeria’s second-largest city of Kano, with bodies littering the streets. AFP PHOTO / AMINU ABUBAKAR

The first major eruption of violence was sparked by the seizure of sect’s headquarters in July 2009. In this operation police confiscated a variety of weapons and explosives. The subsequent escalation of violence between government forces and the sect led to the deaths of over 700 people[11].

Initially, Boko Haram’s attacks were of a rather simple nature. Using clubs, knives, machetes, and small arms in attacks on Christians they tried to provoke Sectarian violence. A common tactic was to rely on gunmen riding motorcycles for their attacks. Given their initial success they grew more audacious and presented a remarkable boldness in their operations. This also entailed a change in tactics: improvised explosive devices, mostly empty soda cans filled with explosives and a fuse that would be lit and thrown from a passing motorcycle, presented the next step in Boko Haram’s evolution[12]. From there the sect went on to using suicide bombers[13].

This exacerbation is highly suggestive of what security analysts have feared for some time: that Boko Haram has been receiving tactical and operational assistance from other militant groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)[14]. The reliance on suicide bombers is highly uncommon for sub-Saharan African countries, even among Muslims. Boko Haram is not only the first group in Nigeria to use women in suicide attacks but also the first to use suicide bombings at all. Often bombers are financially motivated as Boko Haram reportedly provides 24,870 US Dollars for the family of a bomber. As a South African security analyst points out the use of women as suicide bombers is a particularly terrifying tactic. People are less suspicious of women thus making it easier for them to gain access to potentially restricted areas[15].

The latest development in the sect’s tactics introduced car bombs to its repertoire. Whereas vehicle-born attacks have been overall few, they do present an increasingly favored method of attack because of its high number of casualties and the subsequent media attention. Not only the tactical choices of women as bombers and vehicle-born explosions suggest external influence, but also the fact that the group has been choosing different targets and progressively using more powerful explosives such as pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and triacetone triperoxide (TATP)[16]. The worrisome development of Boko Haram’s tactics is also captured in plain numbers. From one single bombing in 2009 the militant group upgraded to 74, killing 587 people, in 2011[17]. Since May 2013 the frequency of attacks has further increased. Human Rights Watch reports that the year 2014 has brought a dramatic increase in number of casualties as Boko Haram has become more efficient in their attacks. Within the first six months there were an estimated number of 95 attacks killing 2,053 civilians of which more than 430 were killed in 14 explosions[18].

Counter measures – Diffusing the bomb that is Boko Haram

The response of the Nigerian government so far is best characterized as one of sheer force and brutality with blatant disregard for Human rights that feeds into Boko Harams narrative of injustice[19]. In 2013, Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck declared a state of emergency for three northern states and reinforced military deployment in the region. In addition, several countries including China, France, UK, and the USA have sent military advisers and assistance. Their commitment is driven by concerns for the energy and aviation sector. However, none of them are willing to commit to a long-term comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying grievances. Any military involvement can only present a short term remedy for the symptoms of far graver problems. The socio-economic and structural inequalities continue to provide a fertile recruiting ground for extremists and militant groups. Even if Boko Haram could be defeated militarily, before long it will most likely be replaced by another extremist group that exploits the current socio-economic conditions for their purposes. Consequently, defusing the Boko Haram threat will require a more comprehensive approach that penetrates the societal sufferings. A task that seems to be insurmountable for the Nigerian government at the moment and may require international support beyond military advisers.

 

[1] Forest, J.J.F. 2012. Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria. JSOU Report 12-5.

[2] Adesoji, A. 2010. The Boko Haram Uprising and Islamic Revivalism in Nigeria. Africa Spectrum, 45, 2, 95-108.

[3] Forest, J.J.F. 2012. Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria. JSOU Report 12-5.

[4] BBC. 2014. Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in profile. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-18020349 last accessed: 25.09.2014

[5] Smith-Spark, L. 2014. Nigeria: Troops killed man acting as Boko Haram leader. http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/25/world/africa/nigeria-boko-haram/. last accessed: 25.09.2014

[6] Chothia, F. 2014. Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501 last accessed: 19.09.2014

[7] Adesoji, A. 2010. The Boko Haram Uprising and Islamic Revivalism in Nigeria. Africa Spectrum, 45, 2, 95-108.

[8] Forest, J.J.F. 2012. Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria. JSOU Report 12-5

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Adesoji, A. 2010. The Boko Haram Uprising and Islamic Revivalism in Nigeria. Africa Spectrum, 45, 2, 95-108.

[12] Forest, J.J.F. 2012. Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria. JSOU Report 12-5.

[13] BBC. 2014. Nigeria Kano blast: Boko Haram blamed for six deaths. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-28571037. last accessed: 24.09.2014

[14] Forest, J.J.F. 2012. Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria. JSOU Report 12-5.

[15] Chotia, F. 2014. Bokok Haram crisis: Nigeria’s female bombers strike. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-28657085. last accessed: 24.09.2014

[16] Solomon, H. 2012. Counter-Terrorism in Nigeria. The RUSI Journal, 157:4, 6-11.

[17] Forest, J.J.F. 2012. Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria. JSOU Report 12-5.

[18] HRW. 2014. Nigeria: Boko Haram Kills 2,053 Civilians in 6 Months. http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/07/15/nigeria-boko-haram-kills-2053-civilians-6-months

[19] Amnesty International. 2014. ‘Welcome to Hell Fire’ Torture and other Ill-Treatment in Nigeria. Accessible online: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR44/011/2014/en/2ef7e489-a66d-4213-af3d-a08e1e4ca017/afr440112014en.pdf.