Brief: Violence from Bandits Beginning to Overshadow Boko Haram in Nigeria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 22 Issue: 2

Northern Nigerian bandits. (Source: Punch [Nigeria])

Executive Summary

  • While Boko Haram is the most widely known security threat in Nigeria, the total number of deaths connected to violent banditry in northwestern Nigeria now rivals those caused by Boko Haram at its violent “peak” in 2015. Banditry is traditionally thought of as a primarily northwestern Nigerian problem, but it has become increasingly national in scope.
  • While regional bandit groups are generally not ideological—and they have a history of fighting against and allying with jihadist groups—the fact that they both frequently target Christians may offer the possibility of a bandit–jihadist alliance in the future.

Boko Haram is the most widely known security threat in Nigeria. In recent years, as Boko Haram—or specifically the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction—has come to a stalemate with the Nigerian army in northeastern Nigeria, the formerly high number of deaths stemming from jihadist violence has gradually decreased in the region. By contrast, deaths associated with banditry are rising. The death totals from individual incidences of violent banditry now rival those that resulted from attacks by Boko Haram during the group’s violent heyday in 2015 (The Africa Report, August 21, 2023).

On Christmas Day, 2023, for example, more than 115 Christians were killed by bandits in Plateau State, which had been a hotbed of inter-religious violence from the 1980s to the early 2010s (Channels Television [Nigeria], December 26, 2023). In total, more than 220 homes were destroyed in the ten-plus communities attacked on Christmas Day. Over 400 people in Plataeau were killed as a part of banditry attacks in the state in the final quarter of 2023 (Vanguard [Nigeria], December 26, 2023; Punch [Nigeria], October 25, 2023). Typical of banditry attacks, there was no claim nor explanation of the motivation of the attackers in Plateau. This is in stark contrast with Boko Haram’s factions, which employ social media and technology like high-quality cameras and drones to record attacks and disseminate justifications for their killings. It is common, however, for bandit groups to not have a religious or ideological motivation for attacks. Instead, they often conduct killings as a part of extortion operations, to steal cattle, or to “punish” communities for not granting them grazing land for their own cattle or other such economic concessions.

Besides Plateau, attacks occurred on Christmas Eve in neighboring Taraba, which borders Plateau to the east (Daily Post [Nigeria], December 24, 2023). The target was apparently the former vice chairman of the Yorro Local Government Council. This individual is known to be wealthy, and was abducted from his home. Only one day earlier, the district head of the nearby Kwaji Chiefdom was returned to his village by bandits—presumably for an undisclosed ransom. The timing of the operations on Christmas and Christmas Eve could suggest an ideological motive for these groups of bandits. On the other hand, the groups may very well have been taking advantage of the lax security situation around Christmas in order to more easily carry out their raids and abductions.

Banditry is thought to be a primarily northwestern Nigerian problem. The phenomenon is, in fact, national in scope, with southern Nigerian states having been targeted by bandits last year (Punch [Nigeria], January 22, 2023). The spate of Christmas banditry attacks, meanwhile, were focused primarily on eastern Nigeria. Since the attempted resurgence of al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansaru since 2021, the various bandit groups of northwestern Nigeria have taken different approaches to the jihadists, sometimes fighting with them, and other times fighting alongside them (see Terrorism Monitor, August 21, 2023). There is little evidence to suggest that Ansaru, ISWAP, or their mutual rivals in the late Abubakar Shekau’s faction are behind the Christmas banditry attacks. Nonetheless, so long as banditry remains a lucrative operation and the groups’ preferred targets remain the jihadists’ enemies (i.e., Christian “infidels”), the possibilities for further bandit–jihadist alliances and the strengthening of both types of militant group will remain a security concern. This is true not just for Nigeria, but for West Africa more broadly.

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