Small Wars Journal

The War Has Just Begun: Boko Haram and the Coming Diffusion of Terror in Nigeria

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 3:49pm

The War Has Just Begun: Boko Haram and the Coming Diffusion of Terror in Nigeria

Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob

In December 2016, the theatre commander of Operation Lafiya Dole (the Nigerian military counter-insurgency operation against Boko Haram), Major-General Lucky Irabor declared that the Nigerian military has won the war against Boko Haram.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of President George W. Bush’s 2003 Mission Accomplished speech after the fall of Baghdad.  Considering how resilient Boko Haram has been over the years and the recent spate of attacks, I believe the war is anything but won.  In this article, I explain why, and argue that instead of being over, the war has entered a new, and much more perilous phase. 

Beaming with confidence, before a packed room of journalists and top Nigerian military brass and with various audio-visual and military props, Major-General Lucky Irabor, head of Nigerian military Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations against Boko Haram, announced the fall of Sambisa forest, the last Boko Haram bastion and declared, “we have won the war, we now need to win the peace”.  Almost 24 hours later, Boko Haram’s eccentric leader, Abubakar Shekau released a video denying the victory, and threatened more attacks, and declared, “the war has just begun”. 

Shekau has since made good his threat, with attacks on military bases and villages in Borno and Adamawa states.  There have also been suicide attacks by increasingly younger bombers in Maiduguri, Madagali and surrounding towns. Though some of the attacks have been successfully stopped or repelled, it does show that the sect is anything but defeated and is still capable of launching surprise attacks at locations and at times of their choosing.

Nigeria’s Many Problems

Nigeria is in an incredibly difficult situation.  The country’s economy is in recession, there is a huge unemployed under-35 male population, prices of basic everyday goods and house rents have skyrocketed and crime rates have naturally increased.  While the Buhari government is doing its best to hold the centers together, there are several ungoverned territories including vast swamps, forests and remote villages in this massive country. 

A rather faulty disarmament program was implemented in 2009 to disarm the many militant groups in the Niger-Delta region. However, the region is still restless.  The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger-Delta (MEND), arguably the most organized armed group in the region, recently withdrew its support to the Buhari government, citing a pattern of unfulfilled promises.  In the middle belt as well as north-eastern and north-central regions of the country, environmental pressures have led nomadic Fulani herdsmen to push deeper and deeper into the tall grass savannah south for pastures for their cattle, leading to violent clashes with local farmers over cattle grazing fields.  In the Southeastern region, armed robbery and kidnapping gangs have proliferated. These, coupled with tensions between security forces and Shia Muslim groups in Kaduna, have created a capricious cocktail waiting to explode.

The New Phase of the Boko Haram Insurgency

Far from being over, the Boko Haram insurgency has evolved into a much more complex network of guerrilla insurgency.   The frontier has now moved from the Sambisa forest to markets, city centers, various other irregular targets and more worryingly, the society itself. The insurgency has entered a whole new phase.  In this new phase, critical systems that support the Nigerian economy, possibly including oil installations, will be targeted.  The insurgency will likely become open-sourced and diffused through and around critical infrastructures and other irregular locations.  This is no longer going to be a traditional insurgency, but a cold war against the Nigerian state, waged through a network of criminals and an infiltration of social spaces.  

The new phase of the Boko Haram insurgency is not unlikely to involve outsourcing of terror attacks to the many shadow militant groups, criminal and kidnapping gangs that now exist in various parts of Nigeria.  Possible terror contractors and entrepreneurs will include Fulani herdsmen who have consistently carried out attacks in various parts of the country, Niger-Delta militants, and the many armed robbers, unscrupulous businessmen and unemployed youths both in the South East and South West regions of Nigeria.  With the current rate of unemployment in the country and a very difficult economic outlook, it will not be impossible for armed robbers and kidnapers to switch focus and become Boko Haram contractors for the right pay.  The diffusion of terror in Nigeria can have a very significant impact on the country’s ability to produce oil and support its government and economy.  

Another possible feature of the next phase of Boko Haram will be a campaign of systems disruption; targeting critical systems such as electricity grids, mobile phone masts, key bridges, oil pipelines and flow stations, airports and other critical infrastructure that keep the country going.  John Robb, some ten years ago, in his brilliant book, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization[1], predicted that the next stage of terrorism would involve ‘super-empowered’ terrorist groups, enhanced by easily available technologies, attacking critical economic and technological nodes to ignite cascades of systems failures.

This will likely be the case with Boko Haram.  The sect will evolve from merely deploying suicide bombers and attacking military bases to an organized terror network, integrating with criminal gangs to hold Nigeria and possibly its neighbors hostage. Another possibility in this new phase is that the sect will resort to an ISIS-styled system of attacks, where an operative walks into a nightclub in downtown Lagos, Abuja, Calabar or Port-Harcourt and spray bullets on everyone. Highbrow hotels, clubs and other locations with high numbers of Westerners would be key targets.  If it can happen in Turkey, France, United States, (all with much stronger and agile security systems) there is no reason it cannot happen in Nigeria.  Further compounding the problem is that neither the Nigerian security apparatus nor response systems are enabled to cope with such systems of attacks and the consequent cascades of destruction.

Chasing Boko Haram out of Sambisa forest will now force the group to revert to its former de-territorialized network system but this time with much more complex and even rhizomatic structures and capabilities.  As in a rhizome, the Boko Haram cells will operate independent of its larger structure, but will work within its underground nodes to stretch out its roots and shoots. The critical challenge for the Nigerian intelligence agencies and security forces, which to be fair, have become stronger and more disciplined under the current government of Muhammadu Buhari, will be to infiltrate and intercept such nodes.

Figure 1: The Changing Phases of the Boko Harem Insurgency

But there is little that even a well equipped and trained intelligence agency or security force can do to challenge a national crowdsourcing of terror. If Boko Haram should outsource its terror operations to a rhizomatic network of sub-contractors recruited from the swarming mass of unemployed youths in Nigeria, then the country is in deep trouble. A coordinated open-source insurgency would completely cripple Nigeria. This would have inevitable consequences on the entire West African sub-region. The West will not be immune to the ensuing crises.

Worryingly, Boko Haram will not need much to acquire this new rhizomatic capability.  The critical capability upgrade that they will need, will be the development of a more intricate cell system and a secure means of maintaining communications with and within their cells, and of course a marriage of convenience with criminal gangs and a network of unemployed, angry young men and women.

The more worrying truth is that Nigeria is not the only country facing such a threat.  Such threats are generally outside the conventional capability of governments to tackle.  If anything, in the new global insecurity architecture, governments, not just Nigeria will increasingly be incapable of guaranteeing security for all its citizens in the face of a sustained open-source insurgency.

It is unclear weather the Nigerian security agencies have envisaged and prepared for this possible phase. The lack of preparedness of the Nigerian military was exposed in its rather haphazard response to the insurgency in the summer of 2013 when it shut down mobile phone networks in three northeast states, in response to a sudden upsurge in Boko Haram attacks at the time. My 2015 study of the impacts of the mobile phone shutdown showed that the shutdown succeeded in reducing Boko Haram attacks during the shutdown period, but not without consequences[2].  The study, which was part of a special project on ICTs, Statebuilding and Peacebuilding in Africa, showed that while the mobile phone blackout led to a reduction in Boko Haram attacks in the short term, it inspired the sect to make the important strategic move of relocating to the Sambisa forest, which they eventually turned into their stronghold.  See Figure 1 for the changing phases of the Boko Haram insurgency. 

Moreover, it fundamentally altered the nature of their operations, resulting in a more closed, centralized system rather than the previous open, basic cell or network system. Indeed, the development of Boko Haram from a ragtag band of insurgents into a regional security threat was, to an extent, impelled by the sometimes-haphazard response of Nigerian security forces. While the mobile phone blackout helped checkmate Boko Haram in the short term, it forced the sect to develop new coping strategies and to evolve.  In the coming new phase, the military will not be able to shut down mobile phone networks across the country.  So it will have to develop a more coherent COIN strategy.

Local Solutions

It is almost cliché to say that the Nigerian government must find ways to empower its citizens and provide those that are already vulnerable, an alternative to fighting.   There is a prevailing culture of extremism in northern Nigeria, even among children.  A culture that sees the religious Other as an infidel, hence worthy of all calamities and unfit to hold a political or leadership position is not only troubling but also dangerous.  And this seems to be a common view among young Muslims in northern Nigeria. 

A long-term and very deliberately planned effort to deradicalize the population, challenge extremism, and give voice to moderate religious leaders is needed to counter religious extremism.  Most of the fight against Boko Haram will have to be ideological and educational.  The ideological base upon which Boko Haram recruits and deploys fighters, is a most extreme form of salafist Islam which condemns anything different from the original teachings of the prophet Mohammed and his associates. Transforming this ideology will demand a comprehensive educational campaign founded on the basis of a more moderate and tolerant Islamic religion that preaches the knowledge, peace, tolerance and mercy espoused both in the Quran and in the Hadiths.   It has to be comprehensive and thorough and must be ‘cool’ enough to bring young people in.  The place to start ideally would be universities and secondary schools.  An excellent model for inspiration is the Peer-to-Peer Challenging Extremism project of the US State Department, Facebook and Edventure Partners (EVP).  The project is a global university competition that draws students from hundreds of universities around the world to develop digital and social tools to counter violent extremism.  Students from various universities have developed incredibly innovative and context-sensitive campaigns and tools to counter violent extremism.  Students from the Public Diplomacy and Strategic Media Intervention class at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, northeast Nigeria, developed an exciting campaign, tagged #IAmABeliever to help bring Muslims and Christians together.  The campaign, which won the top prize in the African regional competition, sought to create a multidimensional space for different beliefs and believers to co-exist in harmony. 

The beauty of efforts such as this is that is that it does not need to originate from the government or from outside.  Neither is it expensive.   Students and local community-based organizations can form a network to create their own initiatives that can counter extremism in their own local contexts.  If Boko Haram resorts to a network of cells (which they will most likely do), the best way the state can counter this would be to develop a means of fighting the network with a network of ideas and education. Education is incredibly important. Another interesting and highly innovative project is a Feed-and-Read program, funded until recently by the USAID Nigeria under the Technology Enhanced Learning for All (TELA) Project.  Implemented, interestingly also by the American University of Nigeria, over 300 Almajiri boys are taught basic literacy and numeracy in exchange for a balanced meal a day.  For most of the children, it is their only meal of the day.  The objective of the program is not just to improve the literacy and numeracy competencies of the beneficiaries, but also to introduce them to an alternative way of thinking.  Part of the TELA project is a radio drama program broadcast four times a week on the local Gotel radio in Adamawa state.  The program, Mallama Rasheeda da Abokai and Mallam Nuhu Ya Je Makaranta uses local folk songs, stories and compelling characters to teach literacy and numeracy respectively.  A research undertaken by the university showed that after 6 months of exposure to the radio program, children improved their literacy and numeracy skills by an average of 98%[3].  If versions of such programs are implemented across the country as a deliberately designed tool to challenge extremism, then there could be hope for Nigeria.

In addition, there is need for the Nigerian military to launch a comprehensive Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) program, with an additional component of Reconciliation.  A well planned, designed and targeted campaign will have to convince fighters that it is in their own interest to lay down their arms and join a peace process.  Such a campaign should seek to erode the support that commanders have from their fighters.  Normative appeals, using credible religious voices can be hugely influential.  Like most successful normative campaigns, the challenge would be to raise both the profiles and voices of such religious leaders in a way that would convince Boko Haram fighters and their emerging contractors that it is in their own interest to lay down their weapons.  For such a campaign to be successful however, the Nigerian government will have to provide an alternative to fighting and do more to engage its teeming mass of unemployed young men and women.

End Notes

[1] Robb, J (2008). Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[2] Jacob, J.U. & Akpan, I., (2015). ‘Silencing Boko Haram: Mobile Phone Blackout and Counterinsurgency in Nigeria’s Northeast region’. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development. 4(1), pp1-17. 8.

[3] Ensign, M & Jacob J.U. (2017) Where There is No School: Radio and Mobile Technologies for Education in Crises and Post-Conflict Societies.  Evaluation Brief, American University of Nigeria. February 2017.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Jacob Udo-Udo Jacob, author of Convincing Rebel Fighters to Disarm: UN Information Operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Degruyter, 2017) teaches Communications and Media Studies at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, Northeast Nigeria. He earned his PhD in Communications Studies from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.


Liberals a have a solution. We could just keep making concessions to Islamic theocratic ends, all grow beards and put our women in burqas. Which seems to be the way the EU and America's dysfunctional regressive liberal socialists are trending. And even the US military which is submitting to beard growth and in submission to the "Religious Freedom" organization removing free Bibles distributed to troops. Only two examples of increasing pressure resulting in submission to Islam and dysfunctional liberalism.
I really like this article the author notes the extreme difficulties a country that spends tremendous resources is still left with after they have eliminated the principle threat of a violent opposition group that is a form of religious Inquisition. An Islamic fanatical terrorist group like the Islamic State, in their belief they can resolve Nigeria's problems through religious Revival and theocratic ends.
The Nigerian government has the less enviable task of reform and making genuine progress that improves standards of living for its citizens.
Nigeria is not Afghanistan and this author proposes some solutions that are possible because the population by in large is not enraptured by religious zeal.
The question is will the Trump administration make better choices than the Obama presidency? 50 days into President Trump's term, has a change in US government had any effect and is Nigeria finally at a point more humanitarian aid will tip the balance? Or is Nigeria beyond hope? TELA and one meal a day is a start.