Boko Haram and the Symmetry of Asymmetric Warfare

Nigerian refugees in Gagamari camp, Diffa region, Niger. Nigerians massively fled across the border when Boko Haram insurgents attacked the town of Damassak in late November. December 8, 2014. (EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie)

Violence related to the Boko Haram insurgency has killed an estimated 11,000 people in Nigeria between 2003 and 2014, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and in excess of 5,000 of these fatalities were recorded this year alone. The recent upsurge in violence is undoubtedly representative of the evolving nature of the Boko Haram threat. Since mid-2014, the Islamist extremist sect has demonstrated that it possesses both the intent and operational capacity to pursue what many believe to be its raison d’être—the creation of a separatist state in northeastern Nigeria governed under Sharia Law.

In its attempts to create its own “Islamic Caliphate,” Boko Haram has and continues to orchestrate acts of mass violence targeting outlying and vulnerable populations in the northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. These incursions, which have been executed with a military-esque level of coordination and precision, have been the primary contributor to the spiraling death toll associated with the group’s near decade-long insurgency. Reciprocal offensives by the Nigerian military, which currently appear more aimed at stemming than countering the sect’s territorial advance, are only adding to the burgeoning death count.

Nonetheless, the almost conventional conflict being witnessed in northeastern Nigeria remains a novel development which has accounted for only a percentage of the violence. A large portion of attacks, either claimed or attributed to Boko Haram, have and continue to occur outside of the northeast, permeating as far west as the city of Sokoto and as far south to the capital, Abuja. Moreover, these acts of violence remain characteristic of typical asymmetric warfare with suicide and car bombings, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, armed ambushes, and coordinated raids continuing to serve as preferred attack vectors.

But while the large-sale incursions in Nigeria’s rural northeast can be explained as being delineative of Boko Haram’s desire to create its own autonomous state, what is motivating the sect’s ongoing urban guerrilla campaign?

For one, this form of violence may be servicing Boko Haram’s operational requirements. Attacks targeting facilities such as banks, police barracks, and construction sites, which have become a hallmark of the Boko Haram insurgency, have provided the militant group with access to money, weaponry, and explosives—all of which have increased the sect’s tactical prowess. A spate of armed incursions targeting detention facilities, as witnessed in major cities such as Maiduguri, Bauchi, Lakoja, Abuja and, most recently in Tunga, has also led to the release of incarcerated insurgents, some of whom are skilled strategists, bomb-makers, and specialists in kidnapping and other financing activities.

On the point of kidnapping, Boko Haram has also this tactic as both a finance- and concession-generating mechanism. Hostages, both foreign and local, have been used as a means of garnering significant ransom payments which could be used to purchase weapons and other supplies. Furthermore, hostages have often been used as bargaining chips to secure the release of high-ranking Boko Haram commanders detained by security forces. This was exemplified following the sect’s kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, Borno State, on April 14, 2014. In claiming responsibility for the mass abduction in a video message, shadowy Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau acrimoniously declared: “We will never release them [the girls] until after you release our brethren.”

However, the sect’s ongoing reliance on dispersed asymmetrical forms of violence may also be strategic. By conducting sporadic attacks targeting both state-aligned and civilian interests across much of Nigeria, Boko Haram has created the demoralizing perception that it is a threat which is omnipresent, capable of inflicting harm on Nigerians in any given place at any given time. By doing so, the sect not only exudes a possibly over-inflated perception of its relative strength, but also undermines the role and legitimacy of the Nigerian state as the guarantor of domestic security. In addition, the group’s use of urban terrorism may also be congruent with Boko Haram’s statehood ambitions. By conducting attacks outside of its primary strongholds, particularly when targeting urban locales, Boko Haram is effectively absorbing and occupying security resources which could otherwise have been used to counter its territorial expansion.

Boko Haram attacks may also be aiming to inflame already simmering ethno-religious tensions in Nigeria. Many of the sect’s attacks have targeted churches and other Christian places of worship, with the majority of incidents perhaps purposely occurring in the religiously polarized Middle Belt states of Kaduna and Plateau. Apart from killing persons the sect would deem heretics, these attacks have also achieved a secondary goal by inciting rioting which has assumed a distinctive and deadly anti-Islamic flavor. By drawing indiscriminate violence on Muslim communities, Boko Haram may be aiding its localized recruitment among a faith group facing retributive persecution for no reason other than their religious orientation.

Boko Haram’s campaign of terror can also be explained in terms of the militant group’s ideological disposition. A large number of Boko Haram attacks, both within and outside of northeastern Nigeria, have and continue to target schools and other academic facilities. Attacks on those perceived to be espousing Western education are seemingly central to the group’s syllogism. As noted by former United States ambassador to Nigeria and fellow Boko Haram theorist John Campbell,

“The attack on schools is a reflection of a cardinal principle of Boko Haram, which is that Western education is evil. The Boko Haram syllog[ism] seems to be that Western education promotes secularism. Secularism underpins the Nigerian state, and the Nigerian state exploits the poor. Therefore, Western education and all who participate in it must be destroyed.”

But doctrinal motivations for Boko Haram attacks are not limited to academic facilities. Marketplaces, gambling dens, brothels, beer gardens, and other venues involved in practices deemed to be un-Islamic, have all faced the wrath of the sect. Muslim interests have also not been spared from the violence. Islamic leaders and organizations critical of the group’s violent campaign have been branded as disbelievers—a common accusation lodged by Islamist extremists against fellow Muslims who do not conform to their Salafi jihadist interpretation of Islam—and have accordingly been treated as such. Boko Haram’s disposition in this regard was most recently highlighted on November 28 when suspected sect members attacked the Grand Mosque in the city of Kano, the eponymous capital of Nigeria’s northern Kano state. Many believe that the attack, which killed in excess of 120 people and wounded 370 others, was a reprisal for the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, calling upon Nigerian Muslims to violently resist the sect and its religious-political ideology.

As Boko Haram continues its territorial expansion in northeastern Nigeria, it will need more operational and logistical resources, meaning that the group’s use of urban guerrilla warfare is a trend that is also likely to increase. Consequently, armed raids targeting commercial, security, and other resource focal points will likely become more frequent and intensive in the coming months.

From both a strategic and ideological perspective, Boko Haram may also increase attacks in the run-up to Nigeria’s February 14, 2015 presidential elections. From a strategic perspective, an intensified cross-country armed campaign will necessitate the prioritization of urban security to ensure that Nigerians are able to cast their ballot in a secure climate. By doing so, however, the federal government would undoubtedly have to redirect security resources from the insurgent-embattled northeast, potentially creating a regional security vacuum which Boko Haram could readily exploit.

From an ideological perspective, Boko Haram would undoubtedly seek to undermine any process which would underpin its greatest adversary; namely, a secular Western-styled democracy. By violently disrupting the election cycle, the sect could raise serious questions regarding the perceived inclusiveness and transparency of the ballot—a move which could delegitimize the voting process and its eventual victor. Precedent suggests that an electoral outcome deemed to be irregular within the Nigerian context carries the potential to foster pervasive and widespread socio-political instability. Instability which could ultimately be of benefit to the militant group and its stratagems.

Finally, with the festive season nearing, Boko Haram may also continue its own tradition of targeting Christmas and New Year’s homilies. Not only would such attacks conform to the sect’s Islamist extremist ideology, but could also catalyze divisive and violent communal tensions which Boko Haram could readily feed off.