Boko Haram is weakened — but far from defeated
Boko Haram was the deadliest terrorist organization in the world last year, killing more people than its affiliate, the Islamic State. Today, Boko Haram is greatly weakened, following an intensified effort from the Nigerian army with assistance from France and the U.S. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari – who was elected last year with the promise of wiping out terrorism in the country – has repeatedly announced the group’s defeat.
Yet a series of recent attacks by the group, including a suicide bombing in Nigeria’s northern city of Maiduguri on Saturday, suggests claims of the group’s demise are premature.
Boko Haram became an affiliate of the Islamic State last year, tying itself into IS’s global terrorist organization, and rebranded itself “Islamic State West Africa Province.”
Understanding Boko Haram and gauging its strength today is challenging to say the least. The group keeps a tight lid on its messaging to the public and Nigeria has a dubious intelligence gathering system. The country’s crackdown on journalists who have sources in the organization further obscures the public’s understanding of the terror group. As a result, Boko Haram remains among the least understood terrorist organizations in the world.
Nigerian security and counter extremism blogger Fulan Nasrullah is one of the few writers in the country who maintains contact with members of Boko Haram. His expertise aided us during research on the group for the series TERROR with Suroosh Alvi. We spoke with Nasrullah on Wednesday to get a better sense of where the terror organization stands today, and its future ambitions in West Africa.
A lot of people say that Boko Haram is weakened. When you talk to people inside the organization today, what is the impression you get about their strength and morale?
There are many cases of Boko Haram fighters overrunning settlements, overrunning military outposts that do not make the news due to the really tight grip the Nigerian government has on the news. ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) for example overran a military outpost killing over 30 soldiers and abducting 83 more troops. That is not a weak, low on resources group.
They absorb the blows thrown at them while conserving their resources, especially now that there is a severe economic crisis in Nigeria which directly affects their fundraising activities and operations.
As for morale, I see that there is a high level of morale on the insurgent side. Most of the fighters in the insurgency are ideologically committed to the cause. Those without firm ideological commitments are used as cannon fodder.
What do you make of President Buhari’s claim that Boko Haram has been defeated?
Boko Haram has not been defeated, whether militarily or politically, and that much is apparent. While advances have been made and the situation improved, the war is still at a stalemate. The insurgency is still alive and kicking. It has proved that multiple times recently. Neither Boko Haram, nor the army as at is now, can deliver the one blow to destroy the enemy and end the war. Even though propaganda from both sides claims the contrary.
What has Boko Haram gained from its affiliation with Islamic State?
The general mission has not changed, which remains the establishment of an Islamic state in these parts of the world. Support from IS has always been mostly training and skills enhancement, but not enough funding and weapons have flowed from them, and I think this is because IS [in Iraq and Syria] is itself under intense pressure.
It is hard to find any concrete information about Boko Haram – whether it is about their numbers, names of commanders, even their agenda. Why is so little known about them?
One is deliberate. There are a lot of secrets powerful people want to keep hidden about how many people aided and abetted Boko Haram. Secondly, there is the persecutory nature of the Nigerian State in dealing with those who are in a position to actually demystify Boko Haram. Thirdly, there is the insurgency itself which shies away from talking too much, like groups in Syria and Iraq do.
And they also don’t like strangers very much.
The authorities frequently arrest anyone, including journalists, who they think might have contacts in Boko Haram. Why do you take that risk?
[For] a lot of reasons. But mostly because I believe that unless the insurgency and the insurgents themselves are understood properly — and why this conflict was begun and why it is being fought seven years from the opening battle in 2009 — then there is little hope of a practical workable resolution being found, whether through dialogue, compromise on all sides or a military victory. And until that resolution is found, millions of people will continue to suffer and pay the costs of this very bloody war.