Monday, 30 April 2012

Boko Haram's constraints in Nigeria

Gunmen shot and killed at least five people, including a pastor, at a Church of Christ in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on April 29, AP reported. A police spokesman confirmed the attack. Also on April 29, eight people were killed and 11 were injured by explosions and a gun attack during a church service in a theatre at a Kano, Nigeria, university, Al Jazeera reported. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, a police officer said.

On April 26, two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) exploded in the offices of several Nigerian news agencies located in Abuja and Kaduna. 

The first explosion took place around 11:30 a.m. when a suicide bomber reportedly drove a vehicle into the main compound of a This Day newspaper office in Abuja, killing at least three people. 

The second explosion took place near a compound in Kaduna that houses offices of The Sun, The Moment and This Day newspapers, killing several bystanders. The combined casualty estimates for the attacks reach as high as 37 dead and 100 injured.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, which regularly downplays the casualty figures of militant strikes, has condemned the attacks suspected to have been carried out by militant Islamist group Boko Haram who claimed responsibility. Jonathan indicated that his government would “exploit every means possible” to find a solution to the violence.  

Currently President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, holds power in Abuja and relieved Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, a Muslim, who died in May 2010. Because of the religious division, the country’s politics mean the dominant religions must alternate tenures. During the presidency of a Muslim, a Christian must serve as vice-president. 

Part of the reason for the uptick in militant attacks by Boko Haram and other groups from the north in the past few years is that Jonathan’s succession essentially placed a Christian in Abuja for two consecutive terms. 

Yar’Adua was in power for less than two years when Jonathan ascended. Boko Haram gained notoriety in 2007 with a series of attacks on civilians in Maiduguri, the capital of the north-western Borno state. Since then the group, whose stated goal is to establish Sharia in all of Nigeria, has conducted successful attacks on banks, churches, mosques and government facilities in the country’s northern regions.


Jonathan’s government has been cracking down on the Islamist group since the particularly bloody attack January 20 in Kano. Security measures at popular sites such as hotels and embassies have been tightened from either Nigerian government recommendations or external intelligence. 

As a result, the extra security could have forced the militants to attack relatively soft targets as they were unable to target hotels or embassies. Hardening a target through by swelling security personnel, increasing standoff distances to the target and positioning obstacles has been shown to deter militants in other high-threat areas.

The VBIEDs in Abuja and Kaduna appear to have defeated whatever hardening the targets had. No amount of security will insulate a target from every attack, especially when simple human error can magnify an attack’s effectiveness. But Boko Haram appears to be increasing their level of sophistication in penetrating and performing successful terrorist acts.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan

Boko Haram had been conducting relatively simple grenade and primitive IED attacks as part of its militancy until about a year ago. They are dominant militant group in northern Nigeria, and in the past five years has been attempting to expand beyond its core area of activity in the country's northeast. 

Their area of operations however, seem to extend only through to the capital Abuja, located in the centre of the country. The group’s operational capabilities have been simple until they managed to detonate reasonable-sized VBIEDs in June and August of 2011. This operational jump potentially indicates external assistance and the addition of experienced militants from outside the region.

Boko Haram as a group is looking to introduce and maintain a version of Sharia law in Nigeria and have carried out a start-stop militant campaign to achieve this. The ethno-sectarian divide between the majority Muslim north and Christian south, compounding existing differences between geographically separate tribes, has led the group to try to conduct attacks outside of its northern core.

The potential for Boko Haram to evolve into a transnational militant group has been a concern for western governments. The increase in sophistication of their attacks does point to a focusing of target choice and a willingness to carry out more effective attacks. However, their ability to carry out militancy outside of Nigeria is constrained by their local ideology, primary goals and from rival groups.

Growing resentment towards Boko Haram in the northern Nigerian states has made support difficult for the group, giving Abuja an opening to coordinate with the local leaders to counter the group’s influence there. And as long as Boko Haram struggle to operationally expand from, and continue to conduct attacks in, north and north-western Nigeria, their support base will constrict as the local Muslim populace feel the brunt of the militancy.

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