Targeting Civilians at the Core of Boko Haram’s New Strategy

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 20

Boko Haram gunmen killed 19 people near the Nigerian border with Cameroon in the restive northeast Oct. 20 (Source AFP)

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a State of Emergency in May in the three states of north-eastern Nigerian where Boko Haram is most active—Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. In the following weeks, a military offensive deploying 8,000 troops with air support forced Boko Haram to abandon many of its camps in Borno’s Sambisa Forest and in areas near Nigeria’s borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon (Vanguard [Lagos], August 18). President Jonathan achieved his stated goal of eliminating Boko Haram safe havens, but Boko Haram lived to fight another day. As it did after a government crackdown in July 2009, Boko Haram and its leaders retreated to bases in neighboring countries (Leadership [Abuja], October 9). The fighters who stayed in Borno began to employ new tactics to evade the security forces, including wearing burkas, hiding weapons in caskets and dressing in Nigerian army fatigues (Premium Times [Abuja], August 23; Reuters, June 10). Since August, Boko Haram has raised its violence to the highest levels since the movement’s first attack in September 2010. 

Boko Haram’s strategy since the State of Emergency is aimed at deterring the civilian population from forming militias (such as the “Civilian JTF”) to support the Nigerian military’s Joint Task Force (JTF). In previous years, Boko Haram tolerated dozens, if not hundreds, of Muslim civilian deaths as collateral damage, but it did not specifically target civilians on a mass-scale. Now, however, Boko Haram is carrying out massacres of the lightly-armed Civilian JTF and civilians who come from villages where the Civilian JTF is active. Boko Haram’s massacres in Borno since August resulted in the deaths of more than 300 civilians and 50 Civilian JTF members in more than 15 attacks on different villages. One of Boko Haram’s most common tactics is to dress as the Nigerian military and set up fake checkpoints to kill travelers (often by beheading) along the roadway. 

One explanation for the massacres of civilians who have little or no connection to the Civilian JTF is that Boko Haram has become psychologically acculturated to violence after four years of insurgency and more than 4,000 people killed. Mass beheadings, forced conscription of youths and forced marriages of local women to Boko Haram members are now more commonplace than at any time since 2009 (This Day [Lagos], July 16). Another possibility is that Boko Haram’s tactics are a way of “integrating” local communities into the movement. This is similar to what Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) did in Uganda and the Congo (The Guardian, May 15). Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s statement that the 12 wives and children of government officials that Boko Haram kidnapped from Bama on May 7 could become his “servants” reflects Kony-like methods. [1] Like the LRA, Boko Haram fighters in Borno may now be focused more on their own survival and re-establishing safe havens in the border region to carry out criminal activities, such as kidnapping and weapons smuggling, than garnering support from the local population it once sought to represent in its war on the Nigerian government, traditional Muslim leaders and Christians. 

Despite Boko Haram’s violence, most of its recent attacks in Borno did not attract significant media attention because they took place in remote areas and became increasingly routine—and therefore not “newsworthy.” However, two attacks that gained national and international attention occurred at Mamudo Secondary School and Gujba College of Education in Yobe State in July and September respectively (see Terrorism Monitor, July 25). Both attacks saw more than 40 students burned alive, beheaded, shot or slashed to death and resembled the attack that killed 40 students at Mubi Federal Polytechnic in Adamawa State on October 1, 2012 (Punch [Lagos], October 2). The attackers in Yobe were likely part of a Boko Haram group operating from bases in the forests between Benisheikh, Borno and Potiskum, Yobe that is geographically and operationally separate from the Shekau-led Boko Haram cells in Borno. [2] 

Nonetheless, even if the Yobe attackers were not under the control of Shekau, they are likely following his commands. Before Boko Haram launched its insurgency in 2009, Shekau preached that Western education “imposes the white man’s philosophy that is not of Allah” and that “secular symbols like the pledge of allegiance shift loyalty from Allah to country.” [3] The attacks in Yobe, which Shekau said he “fully supported” but implied that he did not order, represent the operationalization of long-standing Boko Haram ideology (Vanguard [Lagos], July 13).   

Shekau’s support of the attacks in Yobe and his claims of responsibility for the massacres of civilians in Benisheikh, Monguno and Bama since August may serve his purposes by instilling fear in the local population, but undermine his efforts to reach out to al-Qaeda, as he has done in several of his statements since 2010. Other African jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Shabaab, have tried to diminish al-Qaeda’s image as killers of Muslims. Al-Shabaab, for example, allowed Muslims to leave Westgate Mall in Nairobi before its militants killed more than 50 foreigners there in September 2013. AQIM’s Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti said during an online interview on July 18, 2013 that: 

Targeting schools to kill young students is impermissible, since they have not joined the ranks of the apostate military yet… This will give the enemies of the religion and Western media the opportunity to exploit these scenes to prove to Muslims that the mujahideen are far from Islam… These schools can be combated by warning people against enrolling in them, punishing the families who send their sons to them, and by destroying them when they are empty of the students. [4] 

The Boko Haram breakaway faction Ansaru, which rejects Shekau’s killing of Muslims, will likely remain AQIM’s preferred affiliate in Nigeria. Most of Ansaru’s leaders trained in Algeria and the Sahel with former AQIM commanders such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the late Abu Zeid (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, March 10, 2012; AFP, June 21). Members of Ansaru—not Boko Haram—took part in the Belmokhtar-led suicide operations in Arlit and Agadez, Niger in May. [5] Ansaru’s kidnappings of foreigners in northern Nigeria, including Frenchman Francoise Collomp, who appeared in an Ansaru proof-of-life video in October 2013, are more consistent with AQIM’s modus operandi and al-Qaeda’s “public relations strategy” than Boko Haram’s attacks on civilians (Leadership [Abuja], October 1). AQIM’s overall leader and key strategist, Abd al-Malik Droukdel, has shown no support for Shekau or Boko Haram since he issued “condolences” for Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf in July 2009 and declared his support of Nigerian Muslims after the election violence of April 2011. 

Boko Haram will likely remain outside of al-Qaeda’s network and its area of operations will be concentrated in Borno’s border regions and Yobe, where Boko Haram attacked hospitals and police stations on October 20 to steal supplies to reinvigorate the insurgency in Yobe (Vanguard, October 25). Boko Haram, however, will continue to lose appeal amongst the same population that was attracted to Boko Haram’s ideology before Boko Haram became a jihadist group and started victimizing the population. This trajectory is similar to the LRA, which in the 1990s had some support from the northern Ugandan Acholis who Kony claimed to represent, but the LRA lost this support once the government improved education, trade and transportation in Acholi areas and drove Kony from his bases in northern Uganda. 

Even if Boko Haram’s operations do not expand from northeast Nigeria, its impact may nonetheless be felt in areas far from there. “Boko Haram” is now a brand that inspires young unemployed and disenfranchised African Muslims who do not suffer directly from Boko Haram’s wrath but gain inspiration from its claims of victories over a more powerful Nigerian army, which Shekau labels a “puppet” of foreign Christian forces. This mystique is furthered by social media users who spread Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda statements among jihadist aspirants. The movement has even begun to enter West African popular culture; a movie called “Boko Haram” released in September by Ghanaian-Nigerian filmmaker Pascal Amanfo, for example, shows Boko Haram carrying out a mass bombing in Lagos—even though Boko Haram has never carried out a major operation south of Abuja (Vanguard [Lagos], October 10). 

As a result, combating Boko Haram must take place on the battlefield and in cyberspace by showing that Boko Haram’s brutality represents no tribe, ethnic group or religion. So far, however, the Nigerian army’s most effective tactic may have been to force Boko Haram to become a jihadist group whose anti-government message, which used to be popular in Borno, is now overshadowed by violence that locals in Borno and northern Nigeria do not support. 

Jacob Zenn is an analyst of African Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation, consultant on countering violent extremism and policy adviser for the Nigerian-American Leadership Council. He speaks Arabic, French and Swahili and has a degree in law from Georgetown University. He authored “Northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram: The Prize in Al-Qaeda’s Africa Strategy,” which was based on his research in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad and published by The Jamestown Foundation. 


1. Boko Haram released the women on May 14 after the Nigerian government released 100 Boko Haram suspects from prison, including the wives of several Boko Haram members.

2. Author’s discussion with Yobe State resident familiar with Boko Haram’s activities.

3. See Bayani Akan Tauhedi, available at:

4. See, for example, at 30:30 of Belmokhtar’s Brigades claiming responsibility for the Arlit and Agadez attacks, where an Ansaru member admits taking part in the group: “New video message from Katibat al-Mulathamun: ‘Epic Battles of the Fathers: The Battle of Shaykh Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd,’ September 9, 2013,

5. Minbar al-Taw?id wa’l-Jihad presents a new Fatwa from Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti: “Is it Permissible For Us to Target Regime Sponsored Schools to Recruit Students for Entry to Its Military After They Finish their Studies?” July 17, 2013,