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Despite its divisions, Boko Haram is no weaker

Despite its divisions, Boko Haram is no weaker
Residents read a Nigerian army poster of wanted Boko Haram suspects in Bayelsa, Nigeria 19 May 2016. EPA/Tife Owolabi

Increased attacks in the Lake Chad region suggest the onset of a disturbingly violent status quo. By Omar Mahmood

First published by ISS Today

Extremist violence in the Lake Chad region last year continued apace, increasing from 2016. This is despite Boko Haram’s split into two factions – Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS) and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA).

The split did not weaken the group. Rather, the increased violence shows limited progress in combating extremism over the past year.

The Institute for Security Studies maintains a database of violent incidents likely attributable to extremists in the Lake Chad region. In 2017, 362 attacks were recorded – a 29% increase from the 280 in 2016 (and closer to the 392 recorded in 2015).

The database relies on media reporting of conflict dynamics, and thus is limited by the lack of access and communication associated with some remote locations in the region. So while the database provides insight into overarching trends, the true toll of devastation is probably higher.

Half the incidents were recorded in Nigeria’s Borno State, the epicentre of the crisis. The proportion of violence in Cameroon’s Far North province, the second most affected area, declined from 45% of all attacks in 2016 to 35% in 2017. Just over 60% of all recorded violence took place in the three north-east Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.

The reason for this lies primarily in an increase in violence in both Borno and Adamawa states, rather than a decrease of incidents in Cameroon, which remained steady. Attacks in Borno rose from 120 in 2016 to 189 in 2017, while Adamawa faced a similar jump from seven in 2016 to 26 in 2017 (see graph below). Such trends illustrate the mobility of the militants, especially as they adjust to military pressure.

Further breaking down the violence by location reveals some hotspots. Most of the Adamawa attacks occurred in Madagali local government area, along the border with Borno State. In Cameroon, more than half of recorded incidents were perpetrated in the Mayo-Sava department of the Far North province, and also largely along its border with Borno.

Over 90 towns and villages in Borno were targeted in 2017, but Maiduguri was the urban centre with the highest number of assaults by far at 48. Most were small-scale suicide attacks on its outskirts, but reflect the continued militant obsession with the Borno State capital.

Fatalities are difficult to verify, but about 1,500 deaths were recorded in 2017, close to that of 2016 (despite the increased number of attacks), and significantly lower than the more than 5,000 recorded in 2015.

This shows that the average attack has become less deadly in the region. This is probably as a result of militants losing large stretches of territorial control due to pressure from military and vigilante actors, and the increased reliance on less effective suicide attacks.

Nonetheless, civilians continue to suffer disproportionately, comprising 44% of all recorded deaths (the next highest category was that of militants themselves). Large-scale violence remains a feature of the conflict, as the killing of at least 50 people during a November 2017 suicide bombing at a mosque in Mubi, Adamawa, indicates.

This suggests that despite the split of Boko Haram into two factions, primarily due to a disagreement over the permissibility of killing Muslim civilians, those in the Lake Chad region remain vulnerable.

With 30 attacks monthly on average in 2017, violence in Lake Chad is essentially a daily occurrence. Nonetheless, differentiation was recorded, with 44 attacks in June 2017, and 20 in December (see graph below).

The spike in June is probably associated with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a period where jihadist violence tends to increase worldwide. Ramadan in 2018 has so far not seen the same typical rise in violence.

Attack types also reveal important trends. Suicide incidents encompassed 41% of all attacks in 2017, up from 26% in 2016. The 149 recorded suicide attacks represent the highest one-year total (the next was 118 in 2015), an indication of the increased reliance on this attack style.

Of these, about half were conducted by female bombers, a percentage that has remained largely steady since the wide-scale introduction of female suicide attacks in 2014. A third of these can be categorised as “failed attacks” – they were either disrupted before reaching a target, and/or didn’t result in any deaths aside from the bomber(s).

There are major differences in the violent approaches undertaken by the two Boko Haram factions. Most violence in the Lake Chad region goes unclaimed – less than 5% of attacks in 2017 were followed by a statement of responsibility. Nevertheless, an analysis of where and how the attacks took place suggests that JAS has been responsible for most of the 2017 attacks.

The average JAS incident is less deadly, resulting in about four fatalities compared to ISWA’s 11.5. This shows that while JAS has unleashed more violence, the less frequent attacks from ISWA can be more damaging.

In short, despite Boko Haram’s split into two factions, violence in the Lake Chad region continued unabated in 2017. While attack patterns by group differed, overall the violence has been ongoing, and in some cases has increased. Similar patterns have persisted into 2018 – with 89 recorded attacks up to the end of April.

Some positive gains have, however, been made, notably a reduction in the violent impact of extremist groups in the Lake Chad region. Overall, there have been fewer civilian deaths from previous years, while the increased reliance on largely ineffective and basic suicide attacks (mainly by the JAS faction) suggests a level of militant frustration.

Yet, as attack patterns in 2017 reveal, violence in the region remains high. Rural areas are largely insecure, and together, these trends suggest the onset of a disturbingly violent status quo. In this sense, security needs to be extended beyond recovered urban centres to ensure violence in the Lake Chad region further decreases in 2018 and beyond. DM

Omar Mahmood is a Researcher, ISS Addis Ababa


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