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May 15, 2013

Nigeria Responds to Upsurge in Boko Haram Violence

by Anne Look

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a state of emergency in three northern Nigerian states and ordered the immediate deployment of more troops, in response to a surge of violence the president says poses a "very serious threat" to Nigeria's territorial integrity. Radical Islamist sect, Boko Haram, has been expanding and intensifying its more than three-year-old insurgency, while other criminal and ethnic militias increasingly target security forces.

Boko Haram made its name with drive-by shootings and suicide bombings in northern Nigerian cities, and the capital Abuja. Targets were security installations, markets, churches and even the U.N. headquarters in Abuja in August 2011.

Recent, high-profile raids against military and police in the far northeastern border towns of Baga and Bama, however, highlight what experts say are key shifts in the group's tactics and capabilities.

Thriving terrorism

​Spokesman for the Joint Military Task Force [JTF] in Borno state, Lt. Col. Sagir Musa said, "There is literally a resurgence of terrorist activities in Borno State, mostly in the rural areas. We have observed the resurgence and where it is coming from and necessary measures are on to stop it and soon it will be stopped."

But there is concern that Boko Haram is gaining the upper hand.  

Analysts, human rights activists and northern residents say reported abuses against civilians and Boko Haram detainees by the Nigerian security forces have undercut cooperation and potentially fed recruitment into the sect.

Reuters news agency reports that parts of Borno state have fallen under de-facto Boko Haram control.

Residents of Maiduguri, like one retired soldier, said the militants have a local advantage.

"It's a common knowledge. People have been saying that they are living within the forest ahead of area on the way to Monguno," he said. "Some people are saying that a large percentage of them are living within Bama forest. Some are saying they are in Sambisa and in Damboa having military trainings. To my mind, unless [there is] a serious concerted effort, and unless a very, very protracted intelligence gathering is embarked upon, we could say that the Boko Haram is winning the war."

Shifting strategy

​​Nigeria analyst for the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, Jacob Zenn, said he has seen recent Boko Haram propaganda videos, not all of them made public, that indicate their freedom of movement.

"It's amazing how they can just drive around and train in desert areas of northeastern Nigeria freely for a group that's supposedly being hotly pursued," he said.

Zenn said the shift to more rural targets appears strategic.

"It seems that Boko Haram has come under pressure in some of the major cities like Maiduguri, and is actually realizing that it is preferable for Boko Haram to operate in the rural areas where the government doesn't have too many forces. And there it can establish havens. It can train. It can keep hostages," said Zenn.

Boko Haram only recently has entered the kidnapping business, something analysts say is further evidence of links forged with al Qaida's North Africa franchise, which along with two other militant Islamist groups, held northern Mali for 10 months before a French-led military intervention in January.

Boko Haram's first major grab was a French family of seven from northern Cameroon in February. The family was released two months later, though the full terms of their release were not made public.

Rampant kidnappings

Boko Haram says it is now kidnapping local women and children in retaliation for the wives and children of their members who are being held by government and security officials.

Sect leader Abubakar Shekau made the threat in the sect's most recent video, released May 13, which shows footage of a dozen unidentified women and children that he claims are hostages.

Shekau said they will kidnap more. He said if they can't see their women and children, then no one will be allowed to enjoy his family. He said God allows them to consider all those they capture as slaves. And, he told security forces, If you think you can rescue them, then "we challenge you to try."

Boko Haram continues to upgrade its weaponry and expand its capabilities.  

The JTF said the Boko Haram raid in Bama on May 7 that killed 55 people - most of them police and security forces - was a brutal, multi-pronged attack by 200 militants who stormed the town with anti-aircraft guns mounted on vehicles.

Experts say Boko Haram likely is obtaining weapons, ammunition and explosives from black-market channels flowing through the Sahel region, as well as seizing them from the Nigerian security forces.

VOA obtained a Boko Haram propaganda video filmed after a March 3 raid against a military barracks in the northeastern town of Monguno.  

In the video, a masked militant surrounded by fighters shows off an extensive display of what he says are arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition seized from the Monguno barracks. The camera pans over neatly laid out rows of heavy machine guns, rifles, RPGs and magazines, which the speaker calls the "bounty of God."

An independent arms control expert examined the video and told VOA that the weapons shown are consistent with those known to be in the Nigerian military arsenal.