ISS Today: Boko Haram in 2016 – a highly adaptable foe


    First published
    ISS Today

    Last year marked the
    seventh year since Boko Haram re-merged following a
    heavy-handed crackdown on the group in July 2009. Since then,
    the outfit has employed violence in Nigeria and the surrounding
    region at a dizzying pace. In 2014, according to data collected
    by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), it was the world’s



    A lot has changed in the struggle
    against Boko Haram since then, including the advent of
    operations by the Multi-National Joint Task Force and the
    eviction of militants from most areas of territorial

    This past August, the
    movement split into two factions. Long-time leader Abubakar
    Shekau favours a more indiscriminate attack profile, while the
    new Islamic State-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi faction prefers
    to engage security forces directly (such as

    Niger in June). Despite these developments, the high rate of
    violence perpetrated by the group remains a consistent

    According to an Institute for Security
    Studies database of attacks, there were, however, some positive
    signs in 2016. (The database is based on open media reporting,
    and although it strives to be comprehensive, it should be
    viewed as a snapshot of overarching trends – rather than a
    comprehensive tracking of every

    In comparison to the previous year,
    violent incidents declined by 29% in 2016 – falling from 391 in
    2015 to 278. (This only includes offensive attacks conducted by
    Boko Haram, as opposed to operations by security forces to
    counter the group.)

    Even more encouraging is that
    casualties dropped by 73%.

    Casualty rates are notoriously
    difficult to determine, and often rely on estimates by actors
    who have a vested interest in manipulating these numbers, but
    the overall trend is one of significant

    This can largely be explained by an
    absence of the large-scale, armed assaults on unprotected rural
    populations that characterised the conflict in 2014 and into

    Shekau permitted
    violence against the Muslim population – in large part due to
    their perceived support for the government and anti-Boko Haram
    vigilante forces. As such, entire villages were assaulted by
    large numbers of fighters, resulting in extremely high casualty
    counts (including among the militants

    This trend continued
    once the group began to take control of populated areas in
    mid-2014. A horrific attack in Baga, Nigeria in early January
    2015, for example, destroyed much of the town and officially
    resulted in

    though the true toll was likely


    In contrast, this
    type of mass violence mostly disappeared from Boko Haram’s
    repertoire in 2016. This points to a level of success for
    security actors. An early January attack

    Nigeria, which killed
    approximately 85, served largely as an

    The average Boko
    Haram attack in 2016 resulted in five casualties. Yet, nearly
    70% of incidents incurred fewer casualties – while only 5%
    resulted in more than 20 casualties

    (down from 18% in

    Other trends further illuminate
    shifting conflict dynamics.

    The range of Boko Haram violence has
    clearly shrunk over the years – as military pressure reduced
    the overall space in which the group is able to

    Bomb attacks in large
    urban areas in the centre of the country – like Abuja or Kano –
    have declined, with the last such assault occurring in November
    2015. In 2016, the group did not successfully launch an attack
    outside the three north-eastern Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe
    and Adamawa – or beyond the neighbouring regions of Chad, Niger
    and Cameroon. (Nonetheless,




    of militants in
    places like Kano suggest a limited, but enduring

    What is telling, however, is that for
    the first time in Boko Haram’s seven-year violent history, a
    slight majority (52%) of incidents occurred outside of
    Nigeria’s borders, cementing the status of the group as a
    regional threat.

    Some 45% of the attacks occurred in
    northern Cameroon; an increase from an approximate figure of
    21% in 2015. Nonetheless, the vast majority was small-scale in
    nature and confined to areas bordering Nigeria. Incidents in
    the departments of Logone-et-Chari and Mayo Sava in Cameroon’s
    Far North Region made up nearly 60% of the attacks in that

    Suicide attacks have also been a
    prominent feature of the Boko Haram conflict. This tactic has
    been used increasingly, including by female bombers, from 2014

    The number of attacks per month in 2016
    fluctuated greatly, in part due to security operations. The
    beginning of the year saw a higher number of incidents,
    especially in northern Cameroon, which experienced 13 suicide
    attacks in January and February.

    To deal with this
    issue, the Cameroonian army launched a series


    along its border with
    Nigeria to target areas known to house Boko Haram safe havens,
    bomb-making factories and the militants themselves. The result
    was a definitive decrease in this type of violence, with
    northern Cameroon suffering only five attacks from April

    Nonetheless, such trends began to
    reverse towards the end of the year, especially following the
    divisive split in the movement in August

    The last quarter of 2016 witnessed a
    resurgence of violence that has continued into 2017 (14 suicide
    attacks have already been recorded). This is likely linked to
    Shekau’s continued promotion of violence directed at civilian
    targets, and an attempt to demonstrate the relevance of his

    Maiduguri has been hit particularly
    hard. Of the 20 suicide attacks that targeted the Borno state
    capital in 2016, 15 occurred from October

    The wave of violence has not slowed
    since Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced the
    clearing of the notorious Sambisa Forest in December 2016,
    considered to be the main hide-out of Shekau’s

    This points to the
    group’s agility and the existence of alternative safe havens.
    Combined with an emerging pattern of Barnawi-faction attacks
    targeting security
    forces in northern Borno state), this serves as a warning that
    both factions are highly

    These are worrying signs. However,
    another positive trend is that nearly half of all Boko Haram
    suicide attacks in 2016 can be described as unsuccessful, in
    that the bomber either only killed themselves, or had been
    prevented from reaching their likely

    Much credit is due to
    the patrolling of checkpoints by vigilante actors. Nonetheless,
    this success is by no means guaranteed – a 9 December attack on
    a market in


    killed 56, while the
    increased usage of multiple bombers, simultaneously, is another
    indication of Boko Haram’s constant

    While some developments are worrying,
    the data from 2016 suggests that significant progress has been
    made in the battle against Boko Haram. Attacks and casualties
    are lower than in previous years – but those years experienced
    extremely high rates of violence. The number of assaults
    remains significant, however, with some types of Boko
    Haram-related violence occurring on a near-daily

    Furthermore, Boko
    Haram’s ability to adapt, ramping up suicide attacks towards
    the end of the year for example, is an indication of its
    resilience, and a reminder of the devastating impact on the
    local population.

    Nonetheless, if
    security forces can also continue to adapt and consolidate
    fragile gains into 2017, perhaps 2016 will ultimately be seen
    as a turning point in the war against an extremely violent and
    brutal foe.


    Omar S Mahmood is a researcher for
    ISS Addis Ababa.

    Photo: Nigerian
    women gather their belongings to depart the village of Mairi in
    the Konduga local government area of Borno State, North-East
    Nigeria following Boko Haram attacks over the weekend, Nigeria
    08 February 2016. Three women and one man were killed during
    the attack which led to the destruction of the village.
    Nigerian military have been carrying out operations against
    Boko Haram following the recent Boko Haram attacks. Boko Haram
    insurgents have been waging a terror campaign in Northeast
    Nigeria for over 5 years. EPA/STRINGER