Posted on Thursday, 11 September 2014 10:00

The new face of Boko Haram

Tolu Ogunlesi

In the last decade Boko Haram has morphed, with remarkable inventiveness, from a sporadically violent band of proselytizers who wanted to be left undisturbed, to a disturbingly efficient network of terror cells with international affiliations, focused exclusively on waging war against the Nigerian state.

By 2012, three years after it came to national prominence, Boko Hrama's map of targets had extended across northern Nigeria, all the way to Abuja, the gilded capital in the center of the country.

For the first time in its history, Boko Haram is seizing and holding onto territory outside of its hideouts

In May 2013, President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in the three northeastern states most affected, and deployed troops in a counteroffensive targeted at the sprawling Sambisa Forest, hideout of the terrorists. (Nigeria would go on to withdraw troops from oversees peacekeeping operations in Mali and Darfur, ostensibly to shore up the numbers at home).

The military response appeared to work, initially. Ryan Cummings, analyst at risk management consultancy red24, told me earlier this year that the military response considerably weakened Boko Haram, limited its ability to launch attacks outside the northeast, and forced it to focus on targeting "softer civilian interests where resistance would be minimal."

But the absence, at that time, of a coordinated trans-border response in the region – where Nigeria shares borders with Chad, Cameroon and Niger – undermined the early gains. (Nigerian counter-terrorism chief has complained about the level of cooperation Nigeria is receiving from Cameroon). Boko Haram is believed to have regrouped in the neighboring countries of Niger and Cameroon, to which they had fled when the heat was turned on Sambisa Forest.

By the end of 2013 the tide started to turn. In early December Boko Haram attacked the airforce base in Maiduguri, Nigeria's main northeastern city. In March, only weeks after President Jonathan, told the nation that the military had succeeded in limiting Boko Haram to the "fringes" of the Northeast, Boko Haram again hit Maiduguri, this time attacking the city's military barracks.

And then on April 14, the attack that gripped the world's attention. Boko Haram invaded the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok, abducting more than 200 girls from their dormitories. The international outcry led to offers of assistance from several countries, including Britain, Spain, China and the United States. It seemed at that time that Boko Haram had finally bitten more than it could chew; the way 911 might be seen to have marked the beginning of the end for Osama bin Laden.

Predictions of the group's demise have since turned out to be exaggerated. Boko Haram has grown even bolder. After a two-year lull, it carried out two deadly suicide bombings in Abuja, in April and May. In July it claimed responsibility for a June 25 blast in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial hub, in the country's southwestern corner.

And now, according to the Nigerian Security Network (NSN), a group of journalists and academics tracking Boko Haram, in a new report, Boko Haram is entering "a dangerous new phase."

"Nigeria is losing control of large parts of the north-east region. For the first time in its history, Boko Haram is seizing and holding onto territory outside of its hideouts in Sambisa and the Mandara Mountains," the report says, highlighting a transformation by the group from a "guerrilla" group focused on "hit-and-run attacks to a "conventional" army obsessed with "taking territory."

Baffling is the fact that the surge in Boko Haram activity is coinciding with a period of increased military activity in the region. Early in July Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the British Parliament that the government had recently added 5,000 soldiers, bringing the number of troops dedicated to the insurgency to 20,000.

From all evidence those troops are overwhelmed, in the face of a terrorist onslaught that Andrew Noakes, coordinator of the NSN, sums up as "walking into towns and cities in broad daylight."

Boko Haram's activity is now being likened to that of ISIS, the Islamic militant group that has stunned the world in recent months with its audacious conquest of swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

There may be a connection between the ISIS and Boko Haram onslaughts – Shekau has in at least one video pledged solidarity to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and the August proclamation of a caliphate in Gwoza, echoes an earlier one by ISIS. One Nigerian analyst recently told AFP that events in Iraq have "given [Boko Haram] direction."

Unlike the Shabab in its East African heyday, Boko Haram has not taken to Twitter. If it did, it would be easy to imagine it hijacking the #OccupyNigeria hashtag for its ultimate goal – the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria.

With each passing day it appears to be getting closer to realizing that dream. On its part the Nigerian military – which in January 2012 effortlessly helped put down the original #OccupyNigeria, by bands of disgruntled but unarmed civilians – insists that "everything will be done to reverse the situation and defeat the rampaging terrorists."

Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu Ogunlesi is a journalist and writer based in Lagos, Nigeria. He is The Africa Report's west Africa editor. Tolu has twice been awarded the CNN Multichoice African Journalism Awards. He is an avid user of social media, especially Twitter (@toluogunlesi)

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