James Barnett is a Fulbright visiting fellow at the Institute of African and Diaspora Studies at the University of Lagos, Nigeria; a research fellow with the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria; and a non-resident research fellow with the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C., where he co-edits the journal Current Trends in Islamist Ideology.
Over the past twelve years, northeastern Nigeria has experienced one of the most destructive jihadist insurgencies of anywhere in the world. As many as 350,000 people have died and some five million have become displaced as a result of conflict between insurgents commonly known as Boko Haram and the Nigerian state.
While parts of neighboring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon are affected by the insurgency, this is first and foremost a Nigerian conflict. Boko Haram emerged nearly two decades ago as a result of the widespread grievances, social divisions, and institutional dysfunction that characterized the north of the country, particularly northeastern Borno state, in Nigeria’s first decade of democratic rule. Today, the insurgency persists because Nigeria’s divisions and institutional shortcomings persist, and because much of Nigeria’s political elite seemingly believes that consigning the northeast to indefinite conflict is an acceptable cost to avoid the sorts of structural and cultural changes that would threaten their interests. Nigerians of the northeast thus suffer from the paradox of peripheral insurgencies: The insurgency is strong enough to cause immense destruction and suffering in one region, but not strong enough to pose an existential threat to the political core and consequently spur the elites into action.
The war is thus mired in a bloody stalemate with neither side likely to achieve a decisive victory anytime in the near future. The militants are not the Taliban and toppling the government is not a feasible objective. The Nigerian military, for its part, lacks the capacity to stabilize northeastern Nigeria, and those strategic advances it can claim have generally been short-lived owing in part to the failure of other state institutions to take advantage of the stability brought by military gains.
That the war is stalemated on a macro-level does not mean it is not evolving, however. In recent months, the insurgents seemed to be consolidating under a single banner for the first time since 2016, when Boko Haram split into two factions. Internal divisions have persisted, however, as evidenced by an unexpected spate of clashes in August and September. If the jihadists of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), the now dominant faction, are able to mitigate these divisions, it will be to the detriment of Nigeria’s counterinsurgency efforts as ISWAP has a more coherent agenda for achieving popular support in the northeast than Boko Haram historically did. Examining the factors behind “Boko Haram’s” persistence is thus all the more important.
Boko Haram: Origins and Ascent
In its earliest iteration, the movement that would become Jama‘at Ahl al-Sunna li-Da‘wa wal-Jihad (often abbreviated as JAS and commonly known as Boko Haram) was neither an insurgency nor a clandestine terror network. Unlike Somalia’s al-Shabaab, which emerged as a militia amid near anarchy, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), with its roots in the militant networks of the Algerian civil war, Boko Haram emerged as a mass political movement in the 2000s. With the exception of one confrontation in 2003 in which some members of the movement attempted to create a cult-like commune,1 Boko Haram’s first years were characterized by preaching rather than violence.
Poverty and lack of education are commonly invoked explanations for the insurgency, and these are certainly salient factors in recruitment for many Boko Haram rank-and-file. Religion is central to the insurgency, however, as it is for every jihadist insurgency. The name Boko Haram, meaning “Western education is haram (forbidden),” was assigned to the group by its detractors and reflects the fact that “to an unusual degree among peer movements, [Boko Haram] stresses Western-style education as an enemy.”2
Boko Haram’s early members were not initially marginal voices as criticisms of Western education have been relatively mainstream in post-independence northern Nigeria. The group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was mentored by, though later broke with, one of Nigeria’s leading Saudi-trained Salafi clerics, Ja’afar Mahmud Adam. Yusuf’s sons claim that Yusuf was on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on 9/11 and took inspiration from the attacks,3 while Yusuf’s subsequent speeches show the influence of global Salafi-jihadi currents. The main targets of his ire, however, were northern Nigeria’s political, religious, and hereditary elites, whom Yusuf deemed un-Islamic.
Yusuf’s message found far-reaching resonance, with Muslims traveling from across Nigeria to hear his sermons. His disciples were most numerous in Borno, however, where urbanization and rural poverty were drawing young men to the state capital, Maiduguri, to hawk merchandise or become “almajiris,” students of free Qur’anic schools. Yusuf’s appeal stemmed from the religious and political tensions of the early 2000s, the first years of Nigeria’s Fourth Republic that followed more than three decades of near continuous military rule. Between 1999 and 2003, one northern governor after another implemented sharia as a means of rallying their newly enfranchised constituencies during the presidency of a Christian southerner. While sharia implementation drove a further wedge between Muslim and Christian communities in northern and central Nigeria (tensions that had repeatedly devolved into violence in the post-independence era), it also opened up the governors to accusations that their policies fell short of full sharia.
As one civil society leader and Maiduguri indigene explained, “Once the insurgency started, people tried to distance Boko Haram from Islam. But in Mohammed Yusuf’s day, his ideology was very popular.” Other Maiduguri residents describe how parents would send their children to study with Yusuf to learn “proper Islam.”
By the late 2000s, tensions had increased between Yusuf’s movement and certain northern elites like Borno governor Ali Modu Sheriff, who had previously sought to coopt the radical preacher. After a violent encounter between police and sect members, Yusuf called for an uprising in June 2009. Security forces responded swiftly, indiscriminately clearing the Maiduguri slums where the movement was based. Yusuf was captured and executed in police custody for, per the official account, trying to flee, though his killing was likely planned and ordered from above.4
Over the next two years, Boko Haram reconstituted as a rural insurgency under the leadership of one of Yusuf’s lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau. The group gained strength by raiding small police outposts to collect AK-47s before eventually turning their focus to larger military targets while also conducting bombings of government offices, churches, public spaces, and the United Nations headquarters in Abuja. In the span of a few years, the group overpowered disorganized security forces and overran dozens of towns in the northeast, even declaring their capital in the Borno town of Gwoza in 2014.
In contrast to Yusuf, Shekau had an ultra-exclusivist view of takfir, the controversial Islamic practice of declaring someone apostate. Shekau believed that any Muslim who did not willingly come to live in his “caliphate,” which grew to the size of Belgium by early 2015, was not a Muslim and was thus a legitimate target. This radical view, combined with a lack of a coherent administrative apparatus, led to a popular perception of Shekau’s group as one of brutal marauders and nihilistic terrorists. Shekau became known for his unhinged rants in propaganda videos (which likely reflected a cultivated persona rather than actual psychosis) as well as his massacres of civilians, use of female and child suicide bombers, and mass kidnappings of schoolchildren (most famously in the town of Chibok).5
From Boko Haram to the Islamic State West Africa Province
In early 2015, two developments occurred that set the stage for Boko Haram’s fracturing in the following year. First, in February 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan launched a massive offensive against the insurgents with the support of the armies of neighboring West African states (as well as South African mercenaries) under the banner of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). The troops liberated many towns and pushed the insurgents back into rural strongholds like Sambisa Forest in southern Borno.6 Then in March, Shekau, now desperate for external support, pledged bay’ah (a loyalty oath) to Islamic State leader Abubakar al-Baghdadi, formally integrating Boko Haram into the “caliphate” as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). The Islamic State (IS), for its part, shared detailed guidance with the West African insurgents covering everything from theology to military strategy while sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to Nigeria by courier. Arab advisors also traveled to Sambisa to train ISWAP militants.7 The impact of this assistance was limited, however, by Shekau’s obstinance in the face of criticism from IS officials who saw his tactics as extreme and counterproductive.
By mid-2016, Boko Haram had split into two. The Islamic State helped formalize, and probably accelerate, this fracturing. Shekau’s controversial tactics and paranoia had always been a source of frustration among some of his subordinates, who were dismayed by the setbacks of the 2015 MNJTF offensive. Contact with IS validated their concerns. As one of Shekau’s former bodyguards, an early member of the breakaway faction, told the author, “When we communicated with Iraq, we began to grow wary of Shekau, because we saw he was doing things that [IS officials] were saying are un-Islamic, like bombing mosques.”8 Unsurprisingly, those insurgents who handled communications with IS became the first to leave Sambisa. In August 2016, Baghdadi, faced with a fait accompli, gave his recognition to this faction after failed attempts at reconciling Shekau and his detractors.9 That month, the IS online magazine referred to Abu Musab al-Barnawi (real name Habib Yusuf, son of Mohammed Yusuf) as wali or “governor” of ISWAP, effectively sidelining Shekau without naming him.
Thus “Boko Haram” effectively split into two: The Barnawi-led ISWAP, which remains a formal Islamic State franchise to this day, and the faction of Shekau loyalists henceforth referred to as JAS. Interestingly, Shekau never revoked his bay’ah to Baghdadi nor abandoned his claim to be leader of the Islamic State’s Lake Chad franchise, suggesting that this ur-terrorist so often depicted as an irrational monster in fact understood the strategic value of “caliphal” authority within the jihadist movement.
Following the split, ISWAP soon developed into the larger and more formidable faction. ISWAP sought to fill the governance vacuums in Nigeria’s northeast that Shekau had largely ignored, effectively establishing a rural proto-state in Borno’s north while Shekau’s JAS was largely confined to a swathe of southern Borno in which it survived through violent raiding. Whereas JAS continued its brutal campaign of attacks against supposedly apostate Muslim civilians, ISWAP has focused the majority of its operations against military targets, hitting military bases with concerning frequency since 2018.10
The two factions waged parallel insurgencies without much mutual interference until May 2021, when ISWAP sent a fleet of gun trucks into Shekau’s Sambisa stronghold.11 Barnawi later claimed that this operation had been ordered by IS’s global leadership, though it may have been prompted by more parochial concerns related to JAS raiding into ISWAP territory. Regardless, the operation dramatically weakened JAS. When invited to a tete-a-tete with his rival commanders, Shekau opted to detonate a suicide vest, much as Baghdadi did when cornered by US operators in Syria in 2019. In the subsequent weeks, many JAS commanders were either killed or pledged loyalty to ISWAP.12
As of early September, some JAS fighters in Sambisa and the nearby Mandara Mountains were still staging small attacks on ISWAP, mostly individual targeted killings.13 Other JAS fighters are trying to flee north to Lake Chad to join a JAS faction known as Bakura, which has reportedly held out against ISWAP attacks over the past month.14 Ex-JAS commanders who were demoted when they joined ISWAP may grow frustrated and trickle out from the group, but they would likely need to either band together or link up with Bakura (whose own future is uncertain) to pose more than a nuisance.
While the exact strength of each faction is unclear amid the fog of war, ISWAP is in a more dominant position today than it was in April. With its expansion into ex-JAS territory, ISWAP now has a presence in nearly all regions of Borno save the major towns. It also has access to all roads leading into Maiduguri, the fortifications of which are strong but not impenetrable, as attacks in May and June made clear. There has been a sharp decrease in raids on civilians in areas where ISWAP expelled JAS, while residents of some towns surrounding Sambisa are finding they can farm within the forest for the first time in years, likely because ISWAP is allowing them.15 ISWAP still needs time to stamp out remaining detractors and build up its planned administrative apparatus in southern Borno, however.16 The fact that ISWAP initially allowed nearly 6,000 people, mostly noncombatants, to leave its newly acquired territories for government outposts suggests that Barnawi was trying to minimize the number of people his group will have to immediately provide for.17 More significantly, there are strong rumors that Barnawi was himself mortally wounded in clashes in August, either as part of the fighting with Bakura or as a result of an internal rift. His successor has already been named, according to some sources.18 Some uncertainty therefore surrounds ISWAP’s future trajectory at just the moment it seemed to be most ascendant. With its southward expansion, ISWAP will be well-positioned to consolidate a proto-state across rural Borno, but only if it can effectively manage divisions within the jihadist camp first.
Assessing the Military Response
Shortly after Shekau’s death, Nigeria’s newly appointed Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru, tragically perished in a plane crash. “The timing could not have been more unfortunate,” one senior official in Maiduguri lamented, explaining that the military was unable to exploit Shekau’s death with renewed clearance operations due to the personnel reshuffling that followed the crash.19
Attahiru’s death was undoubtedly a blow to Nigeria’s counterinsurgency efforts, but the military would have faced a daunting task even absent this tragedy. Nigeria’s northeast would be a difficult region for any counterinsurgent given the sparsely inhabited stretches, forests, mountains, swamps, and porous borders all around.
Yet Nigeria’s military has also struggled due to structural and cultural issues. The legacies of colonialism and military rule loom large. Nigeria’s military “conflates national security with regime security,” as one retired general noted to the author.20 While the ethno-regional and religious divisions so prominent in Nigerian society are more muted within the ranks, they are present nonetheless, as many southern officers see parallels to British colonial policy in President Buhari’s perceived preference for northern generals. Senior officers will privately concede that the conflict is stalemated and even predict that the military will fracture along ethno-regional lines if current trends persist. As one general claimed, most officers in the northeast “do the bare minimum because they don’t see that their effort counts for anything.”21 The fact that ISWAP managed to do something the military never managed—to locate and kill Shekau—also appears to have accentuated a sense of frustration among some officers. Among the enlisted, meanwhile, extended tours of duty, backlogged pay, high rates of attrition, and malfunctioning equipment (all issues that are exacerbated by corruption) fuel frustration that has boiled over into more than one munity.22
An inefficient, opaque, and politicized procurement process means that the military is perpetually lacking spare parts and specialist technicians to service vehicles and complex weapons platforms. As such, many if not most armored vehicles are not usable within six months of their arrival in the northeast, forcing soldiers to travel by unarmored gun trucks that leave them vulnerable to IEDs and small arms.23 Maintenance issues also hamper the air force’s already limited fleet such that air power is generally employed in a reactive and defensive rather than proactive and targeted manner. Both the army and air force have bolstered their capacities to respond to insurgent assaults on hard targets since the early 2010s. But the capacity and capabilities needed for serious offensive operations or rural counterinsurgency are lacking.
The “super camp” strategy announced in 2019 (consisting of the withdrawal of troops from smaller forward operating bases into fortified garrison towns) is an implicit admission of a strategic stalemate. For the military to begin to turn the tide, it would need to wage another offensive akin to the MNJTF offensive of 2015. Several factors make a repeat of such an endeavor unlikely. Whereas foreign soldiers played a crucial role in the 2015 offensive, Nigeria’s neighbors are today distracted by their own political and security crises. The electoral considerations which pushed President Jonathan to launch an offensive in 2015 are no longer at play, with the Nigerian public seemingly focused on other issues. And even if the military were to conduct another offensive, it would face an adversary that appears to have a stronger rural support base than Shekau’s group ever did.
More to the point, the gains of the MNTJF offensive proved short-lived both because the military did not have the resources or training for rural counterinsurgency and, crucially, because the state did not build on the military’s liberation of smaller towns and villages by establishing institutions such as police, courts, schools, and the like. As one senior official explained, “There was a detailed plan [for backfilling the military] on paper. But we struggled with implementation.”24 Until the Nigerian authorities effectively execute the stabilization and reconstruction efforts that are described in so many federal and state policy documents, ISWAP is going to remain a potent force in the northeast.
In contrast to the recent trends of explosive jihadist growth in the Francophone Sahel, Nigeria’s jihadists have seen their operational presence contract in recent years even as they have demonstrated an enduring presence in the northeast. Boko Haram maintained some terror cells in certain parts of north-central and northwest Nigeria from 2010 until as late as 2014, but operations (both those of JAS and ISWAP) have since been essentially confined to the northeast.
There are several factors behind Boko Haram’s failure to sustainably expand outside the northeast,25 but a central reason is historical: In his day, Mohammed Yusuf was more interested in building a mass following in Maiduguri than in linking up with jihadists across the wider Sahel. During the early days of Shekau’s tenure, the group received some funds and limited training from AQIM26 while Shekau also dispersed commanders throughout the wider region on at least two occasions, once in the aftermath of the 2009 crackdown and again during the 2015 MNJTF offensive. In neither of these occasions, however, did Boko Haram commanders manage to instigate a sustainable jihadist campaign in the areas to which they fled.27
With northwestern and north-central Nigeria currently destabilized under the onslaught of criminal warlords known colloquially as “bandits,”28 many commentators have been quick to point to the region as the logical destination into which ISWAP or other jihadists will expand. It seems clear that some jihadists—or former jihadists—are taking part in the violence in Nigeria’s northwest. The one-time Boko Haram splinter group, Ansaru, is based in a forest straddling Zamfara and Kaduna states and has been responsible for some of the attacks on security forces in the area.29 Relatedly, with the remnants of Shekau’s JAS faction under pressure from ISWAP and the military, some militants are looking to sneak into the northwest and take up banditry as a more lucrative alternative to the military’s deradicalization program or whatever punishment ISWAP may mete out.30
But ISWAP will have a difficult time building meaningful relationships with, let alone subsuming, the dozens of bandit factions in Nigeria’s northwest. It is unlikely that many bandits will eagerly adopt ISWAP’s political economy, which largely restricts looting and plundering to government forces and non-Muslim communities. At least one bandit commander has notable contact with ISWAP,31 but he seems to exercise considerable autonomy nonetheless, raising the question of how much the Borno-based jihadists can bring warlords hundreds of kilometers away under their sway, and to what end.
The stalemate between ISWAP and the Nigerian state thus looks set to persist for the foreseeable future. ISWAP is formidable but still peripheral. It is building a proto-state, but it does not presently have the means to expand this apparatus beyond the remote parts of the northeast. The Nigerian military can kill insurgents, but it has shown less capacity for securing small and medium-sized communities. In order to defeat ISWAP, Abuja needs to reconfigure how it interprets and prioritizes security challenges. Merely buying new weapons for the Nigerian arsenal will not suffice.