Why Counterterrorism Operations Alone Can't Defeat Boko Haram

Why Counterterrorism Operations Alone Can't Defeat Boko Haram
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For the past six years, the Nigerian government has employed a heavy handed, military approach in its attempt to defeat the Islamist militant organization Boko Haram, which has sown death and destruction with near impunity across an expansive territory in the northeast of the country. Nevertheless, over time, the group has grown in membership and has adopted deadlier, more sophisticated tactics making it one of the most lethal of its kind in the world today.  After the death of its first leader Mohammed Youssef in 2009 at the hands of the Nigerian security forces, this previously small, cultish rejectionist movement morphed into a full blown insurgency that has taken over a number of northeastern districts and now threatens to destabilize the whole of Nigeria – a top partner to the U.S. in Africa – as well as neighboring countries Chad, Niger, and Cameroon.  In a troubling development, the group’s current leader, Abubakar Shekau, recently pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State which has created a “caliphate” from the ashes of conflict in Iraq and Syria.

While the Nigerian military has on occasion succeeded in decimating Boko Haram’s leadership and rank and file, it is clear the purely military oriented response has failed to stem the violence. This does not bode well for Nigeria’s latest military campaign to destroy the group which now includes neighboring countries as well as hired mercenaries.  If Nigeria and its partners are to successfully dismantle Boko Haram, it will have to take a broader approach which addresses both root causes of the conflict and legitimate grievances of the northern population. Thus far, the United States has failed to convince the Nigerian government that counterterrorism operations alone will not defeat Boko Haram. Given this reality, the U.S. should re-examine its goals for and approach to the conflict in order to ensure that its efforts and resources are supporting the right kinds of programs and activities, with the right partners.

The threat posed by Boko Haram has arisen from the complex interaction of multiple factors and cannot be countered by military force alone. Beyond a cursory analysis of Boko Haram as a militant group or mono-causal explanations for its emergence, to defeat the group what is needed is a holistic assessment of the political, economic, and social drivers that feed the conflict.  Such an effort ensures that the counter-Boko Haram campaign is effective and “conflict sensitive” - that is, that the impacts of programs are the intended ones.  In this vein, the CNA Corporation recently conducted a study which diagnosed the Boko Haram conflict, assessed current efforts to combat the group, and derived recommendations for the Nigerian government and its international partners.  Our report, “Rethinking the U.S. Approach to the Boko Haram Conflict: The Case for a Regional Strategy,” cautions against a purely militaristic approach to the conflict, proposes a broad spectrum, whole of government strategy, and, given the limitations (largely self-imposed) of the current Nigerian government, suggests the U.S. pursue a containment strategy focusing on assistance to regional partners until the Nigerian government adopts a more appropriate approach. What follows is a summary of our most pertinent findings.

Boko Haram is a local revolutionary insurgent group that was birthed out of a complex set of conflict dynamics.  While it cloaks itself in religious ideology, it is driven by dow-to-earth grievances resulting from decades of poor governance, elite delinquency, and extreme economic inequality. Its goal is to expel the political establishment from Northern Nigeria, remove all western influences, and eventually to overthrow the national government and establish an Islamic state in its place. The area in which it operates has been considered a backwater territory and historically has not received the same attention and resources as other parts of the country.  Today, a multitude of economic and development indicators highlight this neglect. For example, 72 percent of northerners live in poverty, compared to 27 percent in the south. 

As a consequence of this historical neglect, the north has been the home to numerous insurrections, rejectionist and jihadist groups. Indeed, Boko Haram’s emergence is a symptom of the maturation of historical extremist and rejectionist impulses. Its violent campaign against the Nigerian government echoes two well-known religious revolts in Nigerian history. In the early 19th century, Usman dan Fodio launched a jihad (1802 to 1812) and ultimately founded the Sokoto Caliphate that spanned northern Nigeria and part of Niger.  More recently, the Maitatsine movement of the 1970s and 1980s assumed the jihadi mantle. The group’s leader, a Cameroonian preacher named Mohammed Marwa, took up the teachings of Dan Fodio and mobilized the population against what he saw as Nigeria’s corrupt secular government and its allies within the religious establishment. The Maitatsine movement introduced many of the jihadi tactics common in Nigeria today including the mobilization of poor communities against established urban Muslims, the justification of violence against non-Muslims, and the identification with global Islamic movements.  While the government was able to temporarily disrupt these rejectionist movements using military force, they quickly morphed and spawned new, even more violent groups.


Today, the Nigerian government’s narrative is that Boko Haram is part of a global terrorist network and pursues a predominantly counterterrorism strategy focused on kinetic military operations designed to kill and capture its fighters.  The Nigerian military has on occasion succeeded in decimating Boko Haram’s leadership and rank and file. However, despite an increased military presence in the northeast, the group has proven to be adaptive and highly resilient and the government has been unable to dismantle the group or protect the population from attacks and retaliatory raids.  Moreover, its heavy-handed and often clumsy tactics have often resulted in considerable collateral damage.  During raids, the police and army descend on suspected hideout with guns blazing, sometimes killing innocent bystanders in the crossfire. At the site of Boko Haram attacks, the police round up as many people they can, often with little or no evidence. Unable to distinguish Boko Haram members from innocent civilians, they resort to arbitrary dragnet arrests, collective punishment, illegal detentions, and in some instances extra-judicial killings.  Most Nigeria observers agree that the tactics employed by government security agencies against Boko Haram have fueled the conflict and have further alienated the population against the government - reducing the Nigerian government’s ability to collect the intelligence it needs to target the insurgent network. 

While there may continue to be short-term military victories against Boko Haram -- such as those being reported as a result of the Chadian military operations against the group -- until the Nigerian government addresses the underlying root causes and systemic weaknesses that have repeatedly given rise to Boko Haram and similar groups, it is unlikely the cycle of conflict in the northeast will be stopped. To truly put an end to the violence, the Nigerian Government needs to implement a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach that addresses the economic and social inequities, rampant unemployment, endemic corruption, poor governance, and weakened civil society which fuels rejectionist currents in the northeast and provides a robust recruitment pool for extremist groups.   

As is the case with any successful counterinsurgency campaign, military operations to target the Boko Haram must accompany political, economic, and developmental reforms.  In addition to relying on poorly conceived tactics that only served to erode the rule of law and undermined civilian trust in the state, the Nigerian military suffers from numerous foundational weaknesses that have limited its success against Boko Haram.  These weaknesses include lack of professionalism, low morale, inadequate training,  lack of appropriate or usable equipment, poor coordination and cooperation between security agencies, corruption and misallocation of resources. According to a U.S. Department of Defense assessment, Nigerian troops are “showing signs of real fear,” and becoming “afraid to even engage.” Frustration has reached such a level that soldiers in the Seventh Division recently opened fire on their commanding officer after twelve of their comrades were killed in an ambush. Of special note, the government’s ability to collect intelligence – crucial in fighting clandestine groups like Boko Haram - appears to be woefully inadequate to conduct effective operations or protect its forces in the field. 

In sum, the conflict is sustained by the Nigerian government’s neglect in dealing with the underlying causes, compounded by its clumsy, counterproductive security and military measures, and by the structural weaknesses of the Nigerian military. Moreover, the Nigerian government has not pursued an approach that supports the best practice for countering an insurgent group such as Boko Haram. Prior “success” with heavy-handed tactics against Islamic revolts like the Maitatsine movement of the 1980’s has given the government the false hope that Boko Haram can be defeated with similar methods. The Nigerian government’s response reflects an analysis of the conflict that is historically based, simplistic, and inaccurate—but convenient for those in power. At least two factors make a reversal of this approach unlikely in the short term: systemic corruption, and the government’s proximate political priorities, in particular the upcoming elections. Moreover, it appears the government, despite considerable international pressure, simply does not consider what happens in the backwater of the northeast as a significant priority.


The U.S., as a supporting partner, has been attempting to provide assistance to the Nigerian government to counter Boko Haram and the political, economic, and social conflict drivers that spawned and sustain the group. In FY2014 alone, the U.S. provided Nigeria $345 million in assistance that included conflict mitigation, governance, education, and health programs. However its impact has been limited as the Nigerian leadership has failed to embrace a whole-of-government approach to resolve the insurgency.  Instead the Nigerian government continues to employ military means to defeat the group. According to media reports, in recent months it has resorted to hiring South African mercenaries to augment its latest military campaign.  With its vast oil wealth, the U.S. has little leverage to compel or entice the Nigerians to adopt a strategy more befitting the nature of the threat posed by Boko Haram.  Nigeria can and does turn to other partners, including Russia and China, when the U.S. has not delivered security assistance due to human rights concerns, for example.  Moreover, other aspects of the U.S.-Nigerian relationship are productive and positive, and the U.S. would not want threaten those ties with additional coercive measures, such as open and forceful criticism of the government’s strategy or sanctions on the most corrupt officials. This leaves the U.S. with limited options.

Because the Nigerians have failed to effectively address the conflict in Nigeria, it is now increasingly affecting Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. This new reality, coupled with the lack of U.S. leverage to overcome the Nigerian government’s current intransigence suggests that the U.S. should reconsider establishing a short-to-medium-term goal of containing Boko Haram violence and prevent the group from spreading to Nigeria’s neighbors. To do so, the USG should direct current assistance, and consider increasing it where necessary, in order to build Chad’s, Niger’s, and Cameroon’s capacity and capabilities to stop Boko Haram from potentially taking root within their borders.  

Finally, the U.S. should maintain its long-term objective of dismantling the group in Nigeria. As such, the U.S., under current conditions, should identify areas of true cooperation with Nigeria where there is a high likelihood that its assistance will have its intended impact.  For example, the resumption of U.S. training to Nigerian counter-terrorism units that could contribute to preparing soldiers for the type of urban warfare needed to fight Boko Haram. It is likely, however, that these opportunities will be few in number and may occur in fits and starts. Over the coming weeks and months, the U.S. should reevaluate the political conditions in Abuja with the hope that after the elections, the next president of Nigeria is willing to adopt a new strategy - one that goes beyond the use of force to crush an enemy, but finally ameliorates the long-standing, unresolved economic, social and political woes that only the Nigerians themselves can fix.   

If it pursues this approach, the U.S. will be involved in the effort to counter Boko Haram for the long-term, particularly if the Nigerian leadership fails to shift gears after the election. But given the threat that Boko Haram poses – including newly made connections to the Islamic State – a wait-and-see containment strategy may be the best of bad options. 



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