Attacks have fallen, but Boko Haram’s new leader could signal a strategic shift

Deep fissures have emerged in Boko Haram after Abu Musab al-Barnawi was appointed as the new leader of the group, replacing long-time head Abubakar Shekau.

At the same time, security forces battling the militants in the Lake Chad Basin have made large gains over the past year. In addition to the liberation of most territories that had fallen under Boko Haram’s control, the organisation’s attack radius has shrunk.

Research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) found that so far in 2016, violent incidents that can be linked to Boko Haram, also called the West Africa Province of the Islamic State, have been limited to the three northeastern Nigerian states that are in a state of emergency as a result of the insurgency — Borno, Yobe and Adamawa — and the neighbouring areas of Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

Moreover, 80% of these attacks have been restricted to Borno state and bordering areas of northern Cameroon, further pointing to a diminished operating space for the militants. Dating back to last year, the last major incident to buck these patterns was a November 2015 attack on a gathering of Shiite worshippers in Kano state.

Once a staple of the violence enacted by Boko Haram, the number of suicide attacks has also fallen. About 32 attacks were recorded between December 2015 and January this year. The period from June to July, however, saw five incidents.

This is all the more surprising given that this span included the month of Ramadan, which is typically a time of increased violence. For instance, 19 recorded suicide attacks took place during Ramadan last year.

The frequency of suicide attacks using women has seen a similar decline in recent months. According to additional ISS research, only one female suicide attack occurred over the past three months, down from a high of 11 in July 2015. It is not unusual for Boko Haram violence to ebb and flow, but these nascent developments are a positive sign for the region.

Sustained pressure by security forces from Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Nigeria — some of which has been co-ordinated under the Multinational Joint Task Force — can help explain these trends. Operations have targeted capabilities by disrupting safe havens, training facilities and bomb-making factories.

After Cameroon suffered 15 suicide bomb attacks between December 2015 and January 2016, national forces were able to stem the tide by clearing the Nigerian border towns of Ngoshe, Kumshe and Madawaya, as well as others in the Lake Chad area. A July 2016 campaign in Cameroon destroyed 10 bomb-making factories, while the Ngoshe operation reportedly targeted a location where female suicide bombers were trained and housed.

The offensive in Madawaya targeted a training camp set up by militants who had fled from other areas, indicating the need to maintain pressure and prevent regrouping. These offensives have enjoyed success to the point where just one suicide attack has occurred in Cameroon since June this year.

Patrols by vigilante units have resulted in the detection of would-be bombers, in some cases preventing militants from reaching their intended targets.

First emerging among communities in Borno fed up with a Boko Haram presence, vigilantes are now present throughout the region and have become more active in northern Cameroon. The Borno state government has embraced this type of community policing, providing training and other support. Some units are highly organised, while many operate on a more informal basis.

The role of vigilante groups has not been without controversy. In northern Cameroon, a few vigilante leaders have been arrested recently for suspected links to Boko Haram. Nonetheless, these volunteers have provided a degree of security, with a number of successes in preventing suicide attacks.

An exception to these positive trends can be seen in attacks such as the early June 2016 assault in the southern Niger town of Bosso. In this attack, Boko Haram fighters overpowered security forces, briefly taking control of the town. The Bosso incident was preceded by another major attack targeting the Nigerian Army in the relatively nearby town of Kareto in April, and was followed by an operation targeting a Nigerian military base and police station in Yunusari in early June.

Such incidents might indicate an increased focus on large-scale, direct engagements with security forces.

These attacks also seem consistent with what Boko Haram’s new leader has been advocating, suggesting the involvement of his followers.

In a similar vein, the first video released by Barnawi’s media wing after his appointment showed militants directly confronting and killing security personnel. Messaging from the Islamic State has followed a similar pattern. Islamic State media operatives have promoted nine Boko Haram attacks on social media since early June. Each of these attacks claimed to target security forces, further demonstrating the Islamic State and Barnawi’s focus on this type of violence.

The change in leadership could bring about an increase in direct confrontations and conversely a decline in the widespread, indiscriminate bomb attacks that have largely targeted civilians, including Muslims.

Shekau, for his part, has remained steadfast in his views on the permissibility of such indiscriminate targeting and may seek to continue these attacks, but his replacement by Barnawi signals a strategic shift.

Trends such as continued reductions in suicide attacks are a positive development, but should not be seen to reflect the entire security situation in the region. While certain security indicators have improved over the past year in the Lake Chad Basin, a return to more direct engagements — combined with Boko Haram’s ability to push to new areas, such as Bosso — shows that complacency must be avoided.

Rather than signal a death knell for the movement, the latest leadership change in Boko Haram will probably result in additional modifications by an adversary that has proven highly adaptable. If recent successes and gains are to be sustained, this will require further adjustments by regional security actors. — Institute for Security Studies

Omar Mahmood is a researcher in conflict prevention and risk analysis at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

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