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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

COLUMN: Terrorist Threat Assessment: Boko Haram and ISWAP in Nigeria

An analysis of latest trends from the Records of Incidents Database

In recent years, terrorism has become a significant challenge across Africa, with Nigeria being a major focal point due to the activities of groups like Boko Haram and ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province). Nigeria faces various types of terrorism, ranging from economic-driven conflicts in the Niger Delta to separatist movements in Biafra. Recently, the Zamfara region has witnessed a surge in violent attacks between Hausa farmers and Fulani herders, posing a significant threat to the country. While Al Qaeda has sought to establish a presence in the region in the past, its affiliate, Ansaru, remains relatively weak. Boko Haram’s violence has elevated Nigeria to one of the top countries with the highest number of terrorist attacks. However, its dominance is now being challenged by ISWAP. This article, using the Global Terrorism and Trends Analysis Center (GTTAC) Records of Incidents Database (GRID) from January 2018 to October 2023, analyzes the latest trends in the region and examines the attacks perpetrated by ISWAP and Boko Haram.

The African continent is grappling with a notable increase in terrorist activities, marked by the presence of various ethnonationalist and jihadist groups. These groups, driven by diverse motivations ranging from ethnic grievances to radical ideologies, pose significant security challenges across the region. In addition to indigenous factions, regional affiliates of global terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are exploiting local vulnerabilities and emerging opportunities to expand their influence. Ethnonationalist groups often emerge from ethnic tensions and grievances, seeking autonomy or independence for specific ethnic communities. These groups in Sudan, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria resort to violence as a means to achieve their political objectives, targeting government institutions, security forces, and rival ethnic groups.

Existing factors constantly present opportunities for ethnonationalist and jihadist groups to recruit more fighters, procure arms and explosives, and generate revenue in Africa. The borders drawn during the colonial era were often arbitrary and disregarded the complex tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions within the region. As a result, groups with deep-seated historical rivalries or differing cultural identities were forcibly amalgamated into newly formed nations. This lack of consideration for local dynamics sowed the seeds for current internal conflicts and tensions. Furthermore, the post-colonial rulers who inherited these newly established nations often lacked legitimacy and popular support. Many of these leaders were characterized by their corruption, self-interest, and willingness to employ ruthless tactics to maintain control over their populations. This authoritarian rule fostered an environment where crime proliferated and basic human rights were routinely violated. To solidify their grip on power, these rulers resorted to draconian measures such as arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, and torture to suppress dissent and quell any opposition. These oppressive tactics not only stifled political freedoms but also exacerbated existing ethnic and tribal tensions, leading to cycles of violence and instability. Ultimately, the legacy of colonial-era borders, combined with authoritarian rule and widespread human rights abuses, created a volatile landscape where the aspirations of diverse communities were often ignored, and the voices of the marginalized were silenced.

Active Terror Groups in Nigeria

Nigeria occupies a special place with various groups whose violent acts are recorded as acts of terrorism. Poverty and illiteracy serve as fundamental catalysts for the proliferation of terrorism within Nigeria. The widespread poverty across the country, particularly in marginalized regions, creates conditions of desperation and hopelessness, leaving many vulnerable to the promises of extremist groups offering economic empowerment or a sense of purpose. Illiteracy further exacerbates this vulnerability, as individuals lacking education are more susceptible to manipulation and indoctrination by radical ideologies. Moreover, the presence of extremist ideologies, particularly a twisted version of Salafism, has contributed to the rise of violent jihadist groups in Nigeria. These groups exploit social and economic grievances, leveraging them to recruit disillusioned individuals and perpetrate acts of terror.

Nigeria recorded 3,081 terrorist attacks from 2018 to 2023, as shown in Figure 1 below. The number of attacks fluctuated over the years, peaking in 2022, which correlates with the escalating violence in the Zamfara region. Attacks were at their lowest during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 but gradually increased in the subsequent years until 2022. However, the number of attacks declined in Nigeria between 2022 and 2023.

According to GRID, there were 13 perpetrators responsible for attacks resulting in the deaths of 18,078 people, with 2,479 of those casualties being the perpetrators themselves from 2018 to 2023. It should be noted that Nigeria stands out as one of the countries with the highest incidence of kidnapping cases. GRID documented 8,083 individuals kidnapped in violent attacks classified as acts of terrorism in the same period.

Figure 1 Trends in Terror Attacks in Nigeria 2018 2023

Below, Figure 2 lists the most active groups in Nigeria, with ethnonationalist and jihadist groups participating in activities categorized as terrorism. Northern Nigerian states have faced jihadist terrorism from groups like Boko Haram, Ansaru, and ISWAP, while states in the Middle Belt and southern Nigeria have encountered ethnonationalist terrorism. In the Middle Belt, conflicts between farmers and herders involve the Fulani people, who traditionally lead pastoral lifestyles centered around cattle herding. The southward expansion of the Sahara Desert has pushed Fulanis into Nigeria’s Middle Belt, which is inhabited by predominantly Christian indigenous tribes. One objective of migrating Fulanis is to secure grazing lands for Hausa-Fulani Muslim herders. Fulani violence is cataloged as terrorism in databases. It was listed among the top 10 terrorist perpetrators, with significant incidents and casualties reported in the 2020 Annex of Statistical Information Country Reports on Terrorism. Attacks by the Fulanis resulted in approximately 3,000 fatalities between 2018 and 2020. They were the perpetrators of 780 attacks from 2018 to 2023, according to Figure 2 below.

Figure 2 Terrorist Groups Activities Classified from 2018 to 2023

The conflict in the Zamfara region began as a struggle for natural resources between Hausa farmers and Fulani herders. It quickly escalated, with armed militias emerging on both sides. Referred to as bandits, these groups are dispersed across various areas of Zamfara province and target wealthy herdsmen and women in the villages. They attack state institutions and kidnap schoolchildren. In one of their attacks, these bandits kidnapped 286 students in March 2024. The groups in the Zamfara region were responsible for 596 attacks from 2018 to 2023. The breakdown of their attacks by year indicates that these groups committed 16 attacks in 2019 and 2020. However, the number of attacks peaked at 265 in 2021 before dropping to 205 in 2022 and further to 110 in 2023.

In the southern region of Nigeria, prolonged marginalization, deprivation, and widespread impoverishment catalyzed rebellion. Unemployment rates are notably higher in the Niger Delta, where there is also a significant proportion of individuals lacking formal education. Various groups, such as the Niger Delta People Volunteer Force, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), and the Niger-Delta Avengers (NDA) advocate for the socioeconomic emancipation of the region, with the ultimate goal of seceding from Nigeria. For instance, the NDA seeks to establish an independent state within the Niger Delta, often resorting to disruptive tactics such as sabotaging crude oil pipelines and carrying out attacks on oil company personnel to pressure the Nigerian government. MASSOB, on the other hand, advocates for the independence of the Igbo people and the re-establishment of Biafra, a secessionist state declared by the Igbo during Nigeria’s three-year civil war in 1967, which resulted in over one million casualties. In 2012, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) was formed to continue the struggle for Igbo rights and political independence in eastern Nigeria. However, the Nigerian government labeled IPOB as a terrorist organization in 2017. According to GRID, IPOB was the perpetrator of 87 attacks from 2018 to 2023, with the majority of them being recorded in the last three years.

Jihadist Terror Groups in Nigeria

Ansaru, Boko Haram, and ISWAP are three groups classified as jihadist terrorist groups in Nigeria. Ansaru is an offshoot of Boko Haram whose indiscriminate targeting of Muslims generated significant tension in the early 2010s. In January 2012, flyers appeared in northern Nigeria announcing the formation of Ansaru, a group with purportedly different tactics from Boko Haram, focusing on government officials and Christians. Ansaru expanded its operations into neighboring states like Chad and Cameroon. The group leaned towards Al Qaeda but remained silent over the years, conducting only 11 attacks from 2018 to 2023.

Boko Haram, initially named “The People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad,” is commonly referred to locally as “Boko Haram,” which translates to “Western Education is Forbidden.” Emerging in 1995, it is recognized as one of the most militant Salafi-jihadist groups worldwide. The group’s doctrines include the implementation of Islamic law across Nigeria, verbal support for global jihad, and involvement in criminal activities such as kidnapping for profit. Formed due to discontent among Nigerian Salafis, particularly followers of Mohammed Yusuf, who violently rejected non-Islamic ideas, the group adopted the name Yusufiya. Yusuf, who had ties to AQIM but primarily focused on Nigeria, had Abubakar Shekau as his deputy commander, with Mamman Nur as the third-ranking leader. In 2009, the Nigerian government launched an attack against the Yusufiya militants, resulting in the death of approximately 700, including Yusuf, and the alleged capture of Shekau. Shekau, later released, assumed leadership of the group, pledging allegiance to various jihadist groups like AQIM, al-Shabab, and ISIS, and swearing loyalty to Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri. 

Under Shekau’s iron-fisted rule, Boko Haram’s tactics underwent significant evolution. Shekau assumed leadership in 2010, tightening control by kidnapping young men for forced recruitment and executing those attempting to leave. Initially targeting police officers and political leaders from 2010 to 2011, the group escalated violence in 2012, bombing soft targets such as markets and churches. This escalation culminated in mass murders in villages and schools, with indiscriminate killings that affected both Muslims and non-Muslims. Boko Haram consolidated power by seizing and holding territory, declaring a caliphate in 2014. During this period, the group intensified kidnappings of women and girls for slave labor and sexual exploitation while also utilizing males for conscription into its ranks.

The mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in Chibok drew widespread international attention and condemnation, highlighting Nigeria’s ineffective military response. Security forces managed to rescue nearly 700 women from Boko Haram captivity in 2015, where they endured forced sex slavery, with many of them found pregnant. Growing discontent among Muslims in the North towards Boko Haram has led to the formation of several Civilian Joint Task Forces in 2015, as they become increasingly fed up with the Nigerian army’s perceived inaction. The global community, along with the majority of Nigeria’s Muslim population, expressed disgust towards Boko Haram’s actions. 

In the subsequent years, Boko Haram predominantly operated within Borno state. While the frequency of its attacks fluctuated, a notable decline was observed from 2019 to 2023, as seen in Figure 3 below. Correspondingly, fatalities also decreased during this period. However, despite this decrease in attacks and fatalities, the number of Boko Haram militants killed remained consistently high, indicating a diminishing operational capacity of the organization. It is important to highlight that Boko Haram previously carried out the highest number of suicide attacks, but these occurrences have significantly decreased in recent years. For instance, in 2018, Boko Haram conducted 39 suicide attacks, with 32 in Nigeria, 6 in Cameroon, and 1 in Niger. However, the number dwindled to 12 attacks in 2019, 2 in 2021, and 4 in 2022, with only one reported in 2023.

Figure 3 The Number of Incidents and Fatalities by Boko Haram 2019 2023

The data breakdown of Boko Haram incidents across different countries shows that the group has carried out attacks in Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon. As shown in Figure 4 below, while Boko Haram’s attacks decreased in Nigeria and Niger from 2018 to 2023, they increased in Cameroon. This rise in Cameroon can largely be attributed to Nigeria’s military operations, which have pushed Boko Haram into neighboring countries.

Figure 4 Boko Harams Attacks in Nigeria Niger and Cameroon

ISWAP emerged in 2016 from defectors of Boko Haram and mainly operates in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region with an estimated 5,000 fighters. While Boko Haram leader Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, his indiscriminate violence against Muslims led the ISIS leadership to replace him with Mus’ab al Barnawi in 2016. Like ISIS-Core, Barnawi adopted a strategy focusing on winning hearts and minds, advocating for targeting collaborators and military forces. In contrast to Boko Haram’s indiscriminate violence, ISWAP strategically targets Christians and state institutions, aiming to provide the Muslim community with a sense of protection. Figure 5 below depicts the number of ISWAP attacks, which steadily increased from 2018 to 2022, peaking at 102 attacks. However, there was a decline to 56 attacks in 2023. ISWAP carried out 9 attacks in Niger and 8 attacks in Cameroon in 2023.

Figure 5 The Number of ISWAP attacks 2018 2023

It is important to note that ISWAP and Boko Haram represent another instance of jihadist groups targeting each other. Similar to ongoing clashes between IS-GS (ISIS’s affiliate in Mali) and Jama’at al Nusra Wal Muslimin (JNIM, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Mali), Boko Haram and ISWAP groups vie for dominance in northern Nigeria provinces. They have engaged in numerous attacks against each other. ISWAP’s assault on Boko Haram’s stronghold led to Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau committing suicide in 2021. However, Boko Haram has made gains in the intra-jihadist fighting in northeastern Nigeria, slowing down ISWAP’s previous momentum. By 2023, Boko Haram had seized control of most of the islands in Lake Chad, previously held by ISWAP.

In summary, Nigeria faces fluctuating numbers of attacks by ISWAP and Boko Haram, while increasing attention is placed on attacks by Fulani herders, particularly in the Zamfara region. Boko Haram has emerged as a highly violent group in the northeastern provinces, known for suicide attacks and school kidnappings. In contrast, ISWAP employs different tactics, targeting Christians and state institutions, which has led to its increasing popularity. Both groups operate not only in northeastern states but also in Niger and Cameroon. Boko Haram’s attacks have notably surged in Cameroon. Additionally, Ansaru, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, seeks to exploit the conflict in Zamfara but remains relatively quiet. The presence of existing factors in the Mid-Belt and southern provinces suggests that ethnic clashes will persist alongside attacks by Boko Haram and ISWAP in Nigeria.

author avatar
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.
Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University (GMU). Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He has also been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, the European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, many articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in the illicit economy. Since 2018, Dr. Cengiz has been working on the launch and development of the Global Terrorist Trends and Analysis Center (GTTAC) and currently serves as Academic Director and Co-Principal Investigator for the GMU component. He teaches Terrorism, American Security Policy, and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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