(ISIS West Africa photo)

Nigeria’s Terrorism Challenge: It Ain’t Over Yet

There is a yearly Christmas tradition in Nigeria that has nothing to do with Yuletide. This tradition is not a happy one like those we normally associate with this time of year. The one I am referring to has to do with terrorism.

Over the past few years Nigeria’s president has given a speech in which he proclaims that the terrorist group known as Boko Haram (BH) is on the “verge of defeat.” Back in 2015 President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the terrorist organization had been “technically defeated.” He said more or less the same thing in 2016 and 2018.

Recent events suggest that the president is wrong.

Boko Haram has been around since at least 2003. It has been behind some significant attacks such as the 2011 bomb at a UN compound in Abuja that killed 23 and wounded 75 and the 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls in Chibok.

Boko Haram is also known for its use of children as suicide bombers (often girls as young as 7)from June 2014 to the end of February 2018 the group deployed 469 female suicide bombers who killed more than 1,200 people and injured nearly 3,000 others. UNICEF estimates that the group ‘recruited’ 2,000 child soldiers in 2016 alone.

In response the Nigerian army has been the primary counterterrorism force. It has deployed to the terrorist group’s strongholds in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria. While the military has had success against Boko Haram, there are also credible reports that it has engaged in torture.

It is thus hard to determine just how much progress has been achieved against BH. Every week we hear of new attacks on remote villages: at least three Nigerian soldiers were killed in clashes on Jan. 8.

Complicating matters is the presence of an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate that bills itself as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP killed at least eight Nigerian soldiers in the country’s northeast on Jan. 10. On Jan. 18 the group issued a video showing a child executing a Nigerian Christian.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, deaths from terrorism in 2018 (the last full year for which there are comprehensive statistics) in Nigeria increased 33 percent when compared to 2017 (1, 532 to 2,040). This represents a significant counter example to an overall decline in terrorism deaths last year and does not appear to support the Nigerian government’s claim that terrorism, and more specifically Boko Haram, has been “defeated.”

As if all this was not dire enough, Boko Haram and ISWAP have also been carrying out attacks in neighboring countries (Chad, Cameroon and Benin). According to Amnesty International, 276 Cameroonians were killed in terrorist attacks in 2019.

There is some good news on the horizon nonetheless. The Nigerian military claims that “no fewer than 608 repentant Boko Haram insurgents” are currently undergoing the De-radicalisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DRR) Programme in Gombe State. The effectiveness of this effort, like all such initiatives, is very difficult to determine.

All this suggests that terrorism is nowhere near over in Nigeria. The government needs to re-assess its counterterrorism and counter-radicalization efforts: a military solution is not in the cards. There have been historical socioeconomic inequalities in northern Nigeria that must be addressed (not that resolving these challenges is a guarantee of success).

More importantly, the Nigerian president should refrain from announcing “victory” at the end of every year.

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Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. (www.borealisthreatandrisk.com) and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). He worked as a senior strategic analyst at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) from 2001-2015, specializing in violent Islamist-inspired homegrown terrorism and radicalisation. From 1983 to 2001 he was employed as a senior multilingual analyst at Communications Security Establishment (CSE – Canada’s signals intelligence agency), specialising in the Middle East. He also served as senior special advisor in the National Security Directorate at Public Safety Canada from 2013, focusing on community outreach and training on radicalisation to violence, until his retirement from the civil service in May 2015, and as consultant for the Ontario Provincial Police’s Anti-Terrorism Section (PATS) from May to October 2015. He was the Director of Security and Intelligence at the SecDev Group from June 2018 to July 2019. Mr. Gurski has presented on violent Islamist-inspired and other forms of terrorism and radicalisation across Canada and around the world. He is the author of “The Threat from Within: Recognizing Al Qaeda-inspired Radicalization and Terrorism in the West” (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) “Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security” (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), The Lesser Jihads: taking the Islamist fight to the world (Rowman and Littlefield 2017), An end to the ‘war on terrorism ’ and When religion kills: how extremist justify violence through faith (Lynne Rienner 2019). He regularly blogs and podcasts (An Intelligent Look at Terrorism – available on his Web site), and tweets (@borealissaves) on terrorism. He is an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter Terrorism (ICCT) in the Netherlands, a digital fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide Studies at Concordia University, a member of the board at the National Capital Branch of the CIC (Canadian International Council) and an affiliate of the Canadian network for research on Terrorism Security and Society (TSAS). Mr. Gurski is a regular commentator on terrorism and radicalisation for a wide variety of Canadian and international media. He writes at www.borealisthreatandrisk.com.

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