Boko Haram: Nigerian Military Crackdown Prompts Terror Group to Adapt

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 8

Boko Haram released a new video denying rumors it would surrender (source: YouTube)

Shortly after his May 2015 inauguration, President Muhammadu Buhari gave the Nigerian military until the end of that year to defeat Boko Haram. As the deadline approached, Buhari assured the public the jihadist organization had been “technically” defeated (Naij, February 6). In December 2015, the current Nigerian administration—including the president and defense minister—claimed that Boko Haram would be completely defeated within three months’ time. Although they missed their second deadline, Nigerian security forces have successfully killed and arrested several Boko Haram leaders, including a key member of Ansaru—a Boko Haram splinter group linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Borno native Khalid al-Barnawi was designated a wanted terrorist by the U.S. Department of State in June 2012 (The Herald [Nigeria], April 3, 2016). Further supplementing their success, the Nigerian military has taken back a good amount of the territory occupied under the insurgency’s so-called “Islamic Caliphate,” which was declared by its leader, Shekau, in 2014 (All Africa, January 5).

These are signs of a successful counterinsurgency strategy by President Buhari, faring in stark contrast to the efforts of his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, who was frequently criticized for downplaying the threat Boko Haram posed as a terrorist organization and ignoring its mass atrocities, claiming instead the group was a “northern weapon” aimed at discrediting him (All Africa, March 15, 2015).

However, while Nigerian security forces have achieved some success, Boko Haram does not show signs of ultimate defeat—it has already been responsible for the deaths of at least 350 people within Nigerian borders in 2016. [1] Its strategy has shifted since Buhari’s inauguration, leaning away from conventional warfare and toward more asymmetric tactics.

Counterterrorism Under Jonathan

During President Jonathan’s early years in office, Boko Haram’s attacks had focused on targeting police, government officials, and religious figures, employing large-scale massacres and mass abductions as the group’s key strategies. [2] Boko Haram’s most significant attack during this period was arguably its August 2011 bombing of the UN regional headquarters in Abuja, in which 23 people were killed (The Indian Express, September 17, 2011).

The years 2012 and 2013 saw intensified brutality by Boko Haram, resulting in President Jonathan declaring a state of emergency in three northeastern Nigerian states and the U.S. designating the group as a terrorist organization (Al-Jazeera, May 15, 2013; U.S. Department of State, November 13, 2013).

Violence at the hands of the group continued to increase throughout 2013 and 2014 as Boko Haram seized several towns and villages throughout the northern states of Borno and Adamawa. In 2014, the group garnered international attention when it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April that year (Al-Jazeera, August 25, 2014). Jonathan’s apparent ineffectiveness in the face of the insurgency’s attacks was demonstrated in the wake of the Chibok kidnappings. According to Borno state governor Kashim Shettima, Jonathan took 19 days to contact him in response to the abductions, despite being informed of national security issues on a daily basis (All Africa, April 2).

Five months later, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared its captured territory in Borno state to be an Islamic caliphate (Al Arabiya, Sept. 3, 2014).

Mass abductions by Boko Haram continued throughout 2014, as did Jonathan’s failure to properly address them. In November of that year, Boko Haram kidnapped at least 300 schoolchildren in the town of Damasak, abductions which received little attention until the story broke in late March 2016. Residents of Damask are claiming that they were silenced by the Nigerian government (PM News Nigeria, March 31; Naij, April 3). One of those who came forward about the kidnapping—and whose seven-year-old was among those abducted—claimed: “We kept quiet on the kidnap out of fear of drawing the wrath of the government, which was already grappling with the embarrassment of the kidnap of the Chibok schoolgirls … Every parent was afraid to speak out.”

Behind the failure of Jonathan’s administration to tackle Boko Haram was an inability to deal with issues within the Nigerian military. For years, the Nigerian army has been plagued by corruption, exacerbated by unpaid wages and poor morale (Naij, January 23, 2015). Former Defense Minister Muhamud Yayale Ahmed, a critic of Jonathan’s handing Boko Haram, said the rampant corruption and mismanagement had left Nigeria with an unmotivated and under-equipped national security force (The Guardian [Nigeria], May 25, 2015).

Jonathan’s presidency came to a close with Boko Haram’s bayat to the Islamic State in March 2015 (Terrorism Monitor, December 17, 2015).

Counterterrorism Under Buhari

Following his inauguration on May 29, 2015, President Buhari dismissed the Nigerian National Security Adviser (NSA) and other chiefs that had served under President Jonathan. After appointing their replacements, Buhari gave the new NSA an ultimatum to defeat Boko Haram by December 2015. Though the deadline has come and gone, Buhari’s strategy has been successful in cutting off the group’s resource routes and destroying many of its safe havens and camps (African Arguments, January 5).

In pursuance of bolstered collaboration across borders to counter Boko Haram, President Buhari has urged his fellow African leaders to counter youth radicalization and to actively undercut terrorist efforts to exploit younger populations (Daily Trust, April 6). Buhari identified the trends underscoring Africa-based terror attacks, claiming that “intense planning, strong alliances, and proper financial sponsorships” are common on the continent, citing Boko Haram’s close relationship with the Islamic State and its bevy of material resources (Daily Trust, April 6). The greater focus on cross-border efforts has allowed Nigeria to starve the militants of much-needed assets, including recruits.

Reports surfaced this month—that have since been denied by the government—that Boko Haram has requested more than $50 million in ransom for the return of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls. This could indicate the group is struggling to provide resources for themselves and their prisoners (Premium Times [Nigeria], April 10). Hostages rescued from Boko Haram in May of 2015 had already reported arguments between Boko Haram members over resource and weapons shortages and reports have emerged from West Africa detailing the food crisis that Boko Haram members are now suffering (Yaig, May 5, 2015; Food World News, March 7).

A slew of Boko Haram members have surrendered in recent months, largely in part to a lack of food (Pulse [Nigeria], March 2; Naij, April 7; Naij, March 10). In a planned initiative termed “Operation Safe Corridor,” these former Boko Haram militants will be profiled, documented, and trained in new skills as the part of a de-radicalization and rehabilitation program. More than 800 former fighters are expected to receive rehabilitation and training as part of the program, but the real test will be whether victims of Boko Haram—including those subjected to sex slavery and rape at the hands of the group—will be willing to accept former militants back into their communities (The Guardian [Nigeria] April 9).

Boko Haram has attempted to make a show of strength to counter Buhari’s successes. On April 1, the group released a video aimed at dispelling its rumored weakness, claiming, “You should know that there is no truce, there [are] no negotiations, there is no surrender” (Daily Post [Nigeria], April 1). The video—which pictured fighters bearing AK-47s posed in front of Toyota pickup trucks—came a week after another less slickly produced video, featuring Boko Haram’s leader Abubakr Shekau was released in which he reminded his followers of their religious duties and assured them that he was still alive. This “recent” video of Shekau appears to have been produced in 2014 but had not been previously released; there exist a number of theories in regards to why the video was not released at the time of its production (Enca, March 24).

While the government appears to have reduced the group’s ability to conduct conventional warfare, its asymmetric tactics continue to pose a significant threat. Instead of focusing on capturing land, the group has become more mobile and focused on terror attacks, carrying out kidnappings, rapes, and suicide bombings. Militants have increasingly targeted remote villages in agricultural regions, conducting hit-and-run attacks, stealing cattle and food to sustain both the fighters and their prisoners. The group’s change in tactics has led some officials to make bold claims about the group’s demise. Governor Kashim Shettima said of Boko Haram: “For now, they have been defeated as a fighting force, they don’t have the capacity to hold on to territory in this country as they used to” (Naij, April 8). While Boko Haram has undoubtedly lost territory, it may not be as much as Buhari claims. In a recent hearing held by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, David Rodriguez of the US Africa Command, said that while the group no longer holds the territory it once did, it does still possess swaths of land in northern Nigeria (Sahara Reporters, March 11).


Boko Haram’s modus operandi of late appears to be use of vulnerable populations—namely women and children—as both victims and the perpetrators. Instead of focusing on capturing land, the group has instead adopted more mobile tactics focused on wanton violence including kidnapping, rape, conscription of youth, suicide bombing, and sexual slavery. This was most recently seen in an attempted attack on Maiduguri, in which five female suicide bombers were thwarted by a vigilante group (All Africa, April 9). While a great number of people have been freed from Boko Haram’s captivity recently (StarAfrica, April 7), they are then placed in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, often located in the Lake Chad region. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), over 2.2 million people from Nigeria’s northern region have been displaced by Boko Haram, resulting in overpopulated IDP camps and inadequate security to protect them (Ventures Africa, September 29, 2015; Vanguard, September 13, 2015). Boko Haram’s successful increase in use of children and female suicide bombers indicates that the Nigerian army does not have a jihadist “front” to counter like they once did, and Boko Haram’s acts of terror are more unpredictable and thereby more difficult to proactively counter. [3]

Emma Bauer is a graduate student at George Washington University and currently works at AECOM International Development.

Meghan Conroy is the Program Associate in Global Terrorism Analysis at The Jamestown Foundation.


[1] Statistics gathered by Gregory Burton and Alexander Sullivan, threat analysts for Project Cyma. The authors would like to thank Gregory and Alexander for their research assistance on this piece.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For more information on Boko Haram, read Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram: The Prize in al-Qaeda’s Africa Strategy by Jacob Zenn, Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation.