During the period of June 2012 to April 2013, Nigeria’s Boko Haram militant group has suffered some significant reversals and setbacks. It has changed its tactics in accord with the rise and collapse of Ansar Eddine in neighboring Mali and the decrease in its own ability to project force inside Nigeria. After much indecisiveness during 2010-2012, the Nigerian government and armed forces have to some extent developed a policy of containment with regard to Boko Haram by employing a classic stick and carrot approach. Nigerian security forces employed blunt force attacks on the group’s bases and safe houses throughout the north—resulting in the killings of substantial numbers of militants, as well as causing high civilian casualties—while also offering an amnesty, which was rejected.[1]

During this period, Boko Haram has for the first time demonstrated verifiable connections with radical groups in northern Mali—al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Eddine—and has spawned what appears to be a break-off Salafi-jihadi organization of more globalist tendencies, Jama`at Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan (known as Ansaru).[2] Unlike Boko Haram, which is based in northeastern Nigeria, Ansaru has operated in and around Kano, the heartland of the Hausa-Fulani, in north-central Nigeria. The genesis of Ansaru is likely connected with the paradigmatic suicide attacks Boko Haram employed throughout the north and central regions, which killed many Muslims during the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.[3] In June 2012, for example, Ansaru leader Abu Usmatul al-Ansari stated: “Islam forbids [the] killing of innocent people including non-Muslims. This is our belief and we stand for it.”[4]

This article analyzes Boko Haram’s patterns of operation, and the likelihood of whether the group collapses, accepts an amnesty or assimilates into mainstream society.

Patterns of Operation
Boko Haram’s opponents are three-fold: the Nigerian government, army and police; the Muslim political and religious elites in northern Nigeria; and the Christian (largely Igbo) minorities in the north and central regions of the country. During the period June 2012-April 2013, Boko Haram has struck repeatedly at all three targets; however, it has not claimed responsibility for a suicide attack since December 22, 2012.

Since the beginning of June 2012, Boko Haram’s geographic pattern of operations has shifted. Of the group’s 29 claimed[5] operations since June 2012, 15 of these operations were in its home region of Borno and Yobe states (northeastern Nigeria), while five were in Kano, and four in Kaduna and Zaria. All of the Kaduna and Zaria operations (all attacks against churches), however, occurred prior to November 25, 2012. Of these 29 operations, 19 were directed against Christians—including massacres of Christian villagers throughout northern Nigeria, suicide attacks and other gun and machete attacks against churches, Christian gatherings, or Christian neighborhoods. Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau stated: “We are also at war with Christians because the whole world knows what they did to us,” adding that “the group’s successes in killing innocent civilians indicates they [i.e., Boko Haram] are on the right path.”[6]

It is worth noting, however, that a number of the targets chosen by Boko Haram have been secular in nature and relate to the group’s adherence to “enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong” (al-amr bi-l-ma`ruf wa-l-nahy `an al-munkar). These operations include: attacks against polio inoculation workers on February 8, 2013; the murders and beheadings of three North Korean doctors on February 10, 2013; attacks against park rangers in Sambisa Park (possibly because they threatened Boko Haram’s base in the area); a campaign against sellers of bush meat in Maiduguri in January 2013, in which 23 people were killed;[7] and a suicide campaign against the telephone companies of Kano (Airtel and MTN) on December 22, 2012. True to the group’s primary opposition to secular non-Islamic education, some of its operations against Christians have been directed against schools or universities, in which the Christian students have been singled out for execution.[8]

The types of weapons used by Boko Haram are also revealing: the spring, summer and fall of 2012 were all characterized by heavy use of suicide attacks (a total of seven recorded suicide attacks during this period, in addition to those utilized previously), but there have been no suicide attacks since the attack on the phone system in Kano on December 22, 2012. Perhaps this change in tactics has resulted from the discovery of a bomb-making factory by the Nigerian authorities in early December 2012.[9] Alternatively, the appearance of Ansaru could have made the use of suicide attacks doctrinally problematic (because of their indiscriminate nature). Ansaru, for example, claims that it is against the killing of civilians, as opposed to Boko Haram’s more indiscriminate targeting selection.

One should also note the parallels to Ansaru in the use of kidnappings. Ansaru kidnapped seven foreigners on February 16, 2013, and executed them on March 9,[10] while Boko Haram then kidnapped a French family of seven (including four children) in Cameroon on February 19, 2013, and then transported them to Nigeria, where they were freed on April 18.[11] In both cases, the kidnappings were directed at the outer world and not at Nigerian targets. Ansaru stated that the executions were revenge for “atrocities done to the religion of Allah by the European countries in many places such as Afghanistan and Mali.”[12] Boko Haram said that the kidnapping of the French family was in revenge for the French invasion of northern Mali.[13]

The most striking conclusions from Boko Haram’s operations during the period June 2012-April 2013 is the inability (or unwillingness) of the group to carry out the paradigmatic suicide operations that characterized its rise during the period 2010-2012. To a large extent, Boko Haram has been confined to the region of Borno and Yobe states (northeastern Nigeria), with occasional operations in Kano (north central Nigeria). There have been none of the major operations that regularly occurred in Abuja or Jos (which is largely Christian, and is a flashpoint for Muslim-Christian tension). While Boko Haram retains the ability to carry out deadly operations in its home base region, it appears to have been cut off from the rest of the country.[14]

Also indicative of the transition in Boko Haram is that approximately a third of its major operations are now utilizing machetes and knives (six out of 29 incidents) rather than gun attacks (11 out of 29 incidents), explosives or suicide attacks (seven out of 29 incidents). Increasingly, Boko Haram appears to be utilizing more low-tech methods of killing rather than continuing on a trajectory of ever more complex operations.

Collapse, Amnesty or Assimilation?
The prognosis for Boko Haram within Nigeria remains difficult to determine. For Boko Haram, the evidence suggests that the group’s appeal has dwindled, and it cannot carry out major operations outside of its home base. Nigeria’s increased policing of money transfers has taken its toll on Boko Haram’s financial support,[15] compounded by the fall in popular support (most likely due to the suicide attacks it executed in 2012 against Muslim targets).[16]

Looking at the larger strategic picture, the future for Boko Haram is not bright. For most of 2012 until the French invasion of Mali in January 2013, Boko Haram’s publicity was negated by the successes of Ansar Eddine in Mali (with effects also in Algeria, Niger and Mauritania). While Boko Haram has only been able to execute guerrilla attacks, Ansar Eddine was able to hold a significant piece of northern Mali, including important local cities such as Timbuktu and Gao, for a period of almost a year. While Ansar Eddine benefits from close connections with the larger world of radical Islam (including at least a nominal tie to al-Qa`ida), Boko Haram was likely bereft of such connections at least until 2012.[17]

Nevertheless, signs that Boko Haram is developing close connections with the larger field of radical Islam have grown during this recent period. For the first time, on November 29, 2012, Abubakar Shekau issued a video in Arabic; all of his previous videos had been in Hausa.[18] When Boko Haram was temporarily squeezed in February 2013, Shekau is believed to have briefly sought refuge with Ansar Eddine in northern Mali;[19] it is possible that with his return to Nigeria, he brought more of a mainstreaming of Boko Haram within worldwide Salafi-jihadism. Additionally, the kidnapping of the French family from Cameroon signals the willingness of Boko Haram to operate outside of Nigeria’s boundaries for the first time, and to execute attacks for the cause of Ansar Eddine or AQIM.[20]

Boko Haram has been contained to a large extent within northeastern Nigeria. Although it remains extremely deadly in that region—especially to the Christian population—it does not seem to have broadened its appeal during the past year. Indeed, northern Muslim politicians who were suspected of supporting Boko Haram during 2011-2012 have carefully distanced themselves from the group, especially as Boko Haram’s message has become more toxic within the context of Nigerian politics.[21] The closest parallel to Boko Haram’s trajectory is that of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines—originally also a jihadist organization which has now developed into more of a criminal element (with Islamic rationales for operations).[22]

Such a trajectory raises the question of whether the amnesty offered by the Nigerian government—effective with regard to the Niger Delta militants in southern Nigeria—will have any effect on Boko Haram. Most likely it will not because Boko Haram has developed a sufficiently hardened group of supporters who are willing to continue their operations even if (hypothetically) the leadership were to accept an amnesty. In developing ties to Ansar Eddine and other West and North African radicals, Boko Haram sees the future—after the French withdrawal from Mali—as being favorable for the continued success of Salafi-jihadism. As a result, Boko Haram likely sees no reason to surrender at this time.

Dr. David Cook is associate professor of religious studies at Rice University. He completed his undergraduate degrees at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2001. His first book, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, was published by Darwin Press in the series Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam. Two further books, Understanding Jihad and Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature were published during 2005, and Martyrdom in Islam as well as Understanding and Addressing Suicide Attacks (with Olivia Allison) have been completed recently.

[1] “Nigeria’s Boko Haram Rejects Jonathan’s Amnesty Idea,” BBC, April 11, 2013; Tim Cocks and Isaac Abrak, “Heavy Fighting in Northeast Nigeria, Death Toll Unclear,” Reuters, April 22, 2013.

[2] Eric Schmitt, “American Commander Details Al Qaeda’s Strength in Mali,” New York Times, December 3, 2012; Mark Doyle, “Africa’s Islamist Militants ‘Co-ordinate Efforts,’” BBC, June 26, 2012.

[3] “Multiple Bomb Blasts Hit Northern Nigerian City of Kano,” Los Angeles Times, January 20, 2012.

[4] “New Islamist Group Emerges in Nigeria, Claims ‘Different’ Understanding of Jihad,” al-Arabiya, June 3, 2012. Although one can note that Ansaru’s methodology does not preclude the slaughter of Westerners—such as the seven British, Lebanese, Italian and Filipino hostages it killed on March 9, 2013—there are close parallels in the splintering between Boko Haram and Ansaru and the Algerian paradigm of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 1997. In this latter case, the GIA’s indiscriminate killings of civilians led to the breakup of the parent group and the establishment of a new strategy that was to avoid indiscriminate killings, at least initially. Ansaru has stated that it will not target Muslims or Nigerian governmental bodies (which is not entirely consistent with their record), or even Christian churches, but said that the “rampant massacre of Muslims in Nigeria will no longer be tolerated and that they will never attack any religion or government institution that did not attack them and their religion.” These comments should be seen as an implicit critique on the part of mainstream Hausa-Fulani radicals located in and around Kano against Boko Haram. For the ethnic angle, see Freedom C. Onuoha, “Jama’atu Ansarul Musilimina Fi Biladis Sudan: Nigeria’s Evolving Militant Group,” Al Jazeera Center for Studies, April 7, 2013. Most Boko Haram members are believed to be of Kanuri ethnicity (spread in the region of Borno, and into Cameroon and Chad).

[5] There are a large number of violent operations that take place in northern and central Nigeria which may or may not be the work of Boko Haram (because local rivalries between Muslims and Christians and/or tribes versus settled are also a factor). Therefore, to assess its methodology, only those operations for which it has taken credit will be discussed.

[6] “Malam Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram Leader-Proclaim War With Christians,” Nigerian Civil Right Movement, March 20, 2013.

[7] Bush meat is from animals caught in the wild, which is popular throughout Africa. These animals are not slaughtered according to the Islamic laws of halal.

[8] “Boko Haram Massacres Christian Students in Nigeria,” CBN News, October 7, 2012.

[9] “Gunmen Kill Five in Borno as Sect Leader Speaks on Global Jihad,” Osun Defender, December 1, 2012.

[10] Tim Cocks, “Nigerian Islamist Group Posts Video of Hostages’ Bodies,” Reuters, March 11, 2013. One should note that Ansaru has kidnapped other Westerners in the past.

[11] “Kidnappers Free French Family Abducted in Cameroon, Officials Say,” CNN, April 19, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John Irish and Bate Felix, “Islamists Threaten to Kill French Kidnapped in Cameroon,” Reuters, February 25, 2013; “Video Claims French Family Kidnapped by Boko Haram,” France24, February 26, 2013.

[14] The recent revelation of a plot to blow up the Third Bridge in Lagos in April 2013, however, would be, if true, a major move toward operations in the south. See “Boko Haram Planned To Bomb Third Mainland Bridge,” Nigeria News, April 9, 2013.

[15] “Nigeria to Pursue Boko Haram Financiers,” United Press International, August 22, 2012;  “Boko Haram’s Funding Sources Uncovered,” AllAfrica.com, February 14, 2012.

[16]  “Northern Leaders not Supporting Boko Haram Killings –ACF,” Punch, April 5, 2013. As far as gauging Boko Haram’s actual support, this is problematic. One only has the Gallup poll of February 2012, which revealed that approximately 34% of the interviewees in northeastern Nigeria held views identified as anti-Western. See “Northern Nigerians Differ With Boko Haram,”
NOI Polls, February 13, 2012. This, however, does not reveal Boko Haram’s actual support, but it is interesting that this number is higher than the other northern regions (but only half of the 68% negativity in the southeast, the region of the Delta).

[17] Schmitt; Doyle. Some believe that there has been a connection with al-Shabab in Somalia, leading to the use of suicide attacks during the period of 2010-present, and the unique martyrdom video of September 18, 2011. There is no significant evidence, however, that this was the case.

[18] M.J. Smith, “Boko Haram Leader Salutes Global Jihadists in Video: SITE,” Agence France-Presse, November 29, 2012.

[19] “Boko Haram Leader Wounded in Gun Duel, Flees to Mali,” Nigerian Bulletin, January 19, 2013.

[20] Boko Haram said that the kidnapping of the French family was in response to France’s intervention in Mali in January 2013.

[21] “Nigeria Senator Ali Ndume ‘Linked to Boko Haram,’” BBC, November 22, 2011; “Boko Haram: Ndume Asks Court to Quash Evidence,” Vanguard, February 8, 2013; “We Must End Boko Haram, Says Sultan of Sokoto,” Sahara Reporters, February 6, 2012.

[22] “Are Abu Sayyaf Rebels Linked to Bin Laden?” Voice of America, October 29, 2009.

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