At the start of this year, it seemed the Nigerian government was accomplishing in mere months what it was unable to do in several years when it dislodged Boko Haram from areas the militant group had been occupying in rural northeastern Nigeria. Every settlement liberated occasioned another obituary for the Islamist extremist sect. Such was the change of fortunes for the Nigerian government that its outgoing president, Goodluck Jonathan, insinuated the Boko Haram insurgency could end within a month during a March 20 interview with the BBC.
Yet in the first week after executive power was transferred to incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari, Boko Haram launched a series of attacks in northeastern Nigeria, which killed as many 82 people. During the same period, the sect also launched at least two incursions on Maiduguri—the largest city and administrative capital of Nigeria’s embattled northeastern Borno state. It was becoming apparent that claims of an impending Boko Haram defeat were premature.
But for many Boko Haram watchers, a resurgence was not only unsurprising, it was expected. The problem with the impending demise narratives was that they equated loss of territory to defeat. Although Boko Haram had indeed captured a large swathe of territory in northeastern Nigeria, its strategy of capturing and occupying land remained a novel development in its near decade-long insurgency. Prior to the capture of Damboa in July 2014, which was the first town to fall to the extremist sect, Boko Haram waged a traditional, dispersed, and resource-light asymmetric armed campaign against the Nigerian government. For the most part, its violence took the form of bomb attacks, armed ambushes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations, which occurred as far south as the capital, Abuja, and as far west as the city of Sokoto.
Faced with a major counterinsurgency campaign prior to Nigeria’s March 28 presidential elections, which, for the first time, had both the logistical and operational backing of neighboring countries, it was unlikely that Boko Haram forces would defend occupied territory and engage its government-aligned counterparts in a multi-front conventional war. Instead, the militant group abandoned its positions and avoided any direct confrontations with a larger and better-equipped adversary. This supposition is supported by the relatively low number of insurgent casualties and/or detainees relative to Boko Haram’s presumed fighting force, which US military intelligence claims to be at least 6,000-strong.
Also conspicuously absent from recent counter-Boko Haram initiatives was a lack of disclosure regarding the deaths or capture of Boko Haram’s senior leadership. To date, the whereabouts of the sect’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, in addition to alleged faction commanders such as Khalid al-Barnawi, Mamaan Nur, Abu Usamah Al-Ansori, Sheikh Bukar Al-Barnawi, and Rabiu Zubair remain unknown. With its primary decision-making body (or Shura Council) still intact, losses among the group’s rank-and-file were unlikely to significantly curtail Boko Haram’s operational capabilities.
A further explanation for Boko Haram’s resurgence may also lie in the definition and concomitant response to the insurgency. Although Nigeria’s counterterrorism initiatives had the logistical and (in the case of Chad) operational backing of neighboring countries, counter-Boko Haram operations have and continue to be limited to Nigerian territory. While Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states are undoubtedly Boko Haram’s primary areas of operation, there was sufficient evidence that the sect had established a long-standing operational presence in neighboring countries, particularly Cameroon and Niger.
In Cameroon, for example, evidence that Boko Haram was active in the country can be traced as far back as 2011, when President Paul Biya raised concerns about the presence of Nigerian Islamist extremists, who were proselyting in Cameroonian mosques. It has since been claimed that Boko Haram may have even established its primary bases on the Cameroonian side of the Mandara Mountain range, which serves as a natural border between Nigeria and Cameroon.
In neighboring Niger, the first reports of a Boko Haram presence in the country were made in 2011, when a group of suspected sect members were arrested by Nigerien security forces. Further Boko Haram-related arrests were also made in Diffa in February 2012 and, most recently, in February 2014. Although evidence of Boko Haram links to Chad are less overt, there has long been speculation that the Islamist sect had been infiltrating the country’s Kanuri community—the ethnic group of which the sect is primarily composed—as noted by the arrest of a number of Chadian Boko Haram fighters.
The extent of Boko Haram’s regional contagion would also be exemplified by the number of attacks Boko Haram have been able to execute in neighboring countries, as noted recently in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, in retaliation for their involvement in punitive strike against the sect. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of the regionalization of the insurgency, counter-Boko Haram efforts have remained limited to Nigeria’s rural northeast, which may be only the tip of an insurgent iceberg.
Another possible explanatory for Boko Haram’s revival could be linked to the sect’s pledge of allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Although some observers have denounced the pledge as being nothing but superficial propaganda, or even a an act of desperation, the fact remains that we know too little about the ISIS expansion model, in addition to Boko Haram’s inner workings, to be definitive about the implications of the merger. What we do know, as noted by Boko Haram expert Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation, is that there was a marked evolution in Boko Haram’s tactical acumen during the same time that initial links between the sect and ISIS first became apparent. It is also discernible that significant effort was invested in transforming Boko Haram’s image, prior to its pledge of allegiance, which has come full circle with the sect recently renaming itself as Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya (Islamic State of West Africa province).
Whether the timing of Boko Haram’s tactical evolution was coincidence and its rebranding nothing more than an outlandish public relations exercise, or whether these developments speaks to a long-established operational contiguity between the sect and ISIS, remains open to debate. However, given a lack of evidence to confirm or disprove either argument, the possibility that ISIS may be central to the sect’s resurgence can simply not be discounted.
Motivations and theories aside, the reality remains that the Boko Haram threat has by no means been nullified. Attacks by the group have resumed with the same frequency and deadliness as when the insurgency was believed to be at its zenith. But while the Boko Haram threat remains ever-present, there remains hope that it may be in its final chapter. Mere days after his inauguration, President Buhari made true on his promise to act with a decisiveness and rapidity which had thus far been lacking in the fight against the sect. As well as scheduling meetings with his Chadian and Nigerian counterparts aimed at strengthening regional security cooperation, Buhari also ordered the relocation of the military’s command center from Abuja to Maiduguri. While these initial steps alone may not immediately resolve the Boko Haram quandary, they are indicative of the political will and decisive governance required to provide a definitive solution to the insurgency sooner rather than later.