Last year marked the seventh year since Boko Haram re-merged following a heavy-handed crackdown on the group in July 2009. Since then, the outfit has employed violence in Nigeria and the surrounding region at a dizzying pace. In 2014, according to data collected by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), it was the world’s most deadly terrorist entity.
A lot has changed in the struggle against Boko Haram since then, including the advent of operations by the Multi-National Joint Task Force and the eviction of militants from most areas of territorial control.
This past August, the movement split into two factions. Long-time leader Abubakar Shekau favours a more indiscriminate attack profile, while the new Islamic State-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi faction prefers to engage security forces directly (such as in Bosso, Niger in June). Despite these developments, the high rate of violence perpetrated by the group remains a consistent feature.
According to an Institute for Security Studies database of attacks, there were, however, some positive signs in 2016. (The database is based on open media reporting, and although it strives to be comprehensive, it should be viewed as a snapshot of overarching trends – rather than a comprehensive tracking of every incident.)
In comparison to the previous year, violent incidents declined by 29% in 2016 – falling from 391 in 2015 to 278. (This only includes offensive attacks conducted by Boko Haram, as opposed to operations by security forces to counter the group.)
Even more encouraging is that casualties dropped by 73%.
Casualty rates are notoriously difficult to determine, and often rely on estimates by actors who have a vested interest in manipulating these numbers, but the overall trend is one of significant decline.
This can largely be explained by an absence of the large-scale, armed assaults on unprotected rural populations that characterised the conflict in 2014 and into 2015.
Shekau permitted violence against the Muslim population – in large part due to their perceived support for the government and anti-Boko Haram vigilante forces. As such, entire villages were assaulted by large numbers of fighters, resulting in extremely high casualty counts (including among the militants themselves).
This trend continued once the group began to take control of populated areas in mid-2014. A horrific attack in Baga, Nigeria in early January 2015, for example, destroyed much of the town and officially resulted in 150 deaths, though the true toll was likely much higher.
In contrast, this type of mass violence mostly disappeared from Boko Haram’s repertoire in 2016. This points to a level of success for security actors. An early January attack in Dalori, Nigeria, which killed approximately 85, served largely as an exception.
The average Boko Haram attack in 2016 resulted in five casualties. Yet, nearly 70% of incidents incurred fewer casualties – while only 5% resulted in more than 20 casualties (down from 18% in 2015).
Other trends further illuminate shifting conflict dynamics.
The range of Boko Haram violence has clearly shrunk over the years – as military pressure reduced the overall space in which the group is able to operate.
Bomb attacks in large urban areas in the centre of the country – like Abuja or Kano – have declined, with the last such assault occurring in November 2015. In 2016, the group did not successfully launch an attack outside the three north-eastern Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa – or beyond the neighbouring regions of Chad, Niger and Cameroon. (Nonetheless, periodic reports detailing the arrest of militants in places like Kano suggest a limited, but enduring presence.)
What is telling, however, is that for the first time in Boko Haram’s seven-year violent history, a slight majority (52%) of incidents occurred outside of Nigeria’s borders, cementing the status of the group as a regional threat.
Some 45% of the attacks occurred in northern Cameroon; an increase from an approximate figure of 21% in 2015. Nonetheless, the vast majority were small-scale in nature and confined to areas bordering Nigeria. Incidents in the departments of Logone-et-Chari and Mayo Sava in Cameroon’s Far North Region made up nearly 60% of the attacks in that country.
Suicide attacks have also been a prominent feature of the Boko Haram conflict. This tactic has been used increasingly, including by female bombers, from 2014 onwards.
The number of attacks per month in 2016 fluctuated greatly, in part due to security operations. The beginning of the year saw a higher number of incidents, especially in northern Cameroon, which experienced 13 suicide attacks in January and February.
To deal with this issue, the Cameroonian army launched a series of operations along its border with Nigeria to target areas known to house Boko Haram safe havens, bomb-making factories and the militants themselves. The result was a definitive decrease in this type of violence, with northern Cameroon suffering only five attacks from April through September.
Nonetheless, such trends began to reverse towards the end of the year, especially following the divisive split in the movement in August 2016.
The last quarter of 2016 witnessed a resurgence of violence that has continued into 2017 (14 suicide attacks have already been recorded). This is likely linked to Shekau’s continued promotion of violence directed at civilian targets, and an attempt to demonstrate the relevance of his faction.
Maiduguri has been hit particularly hard. Of the 20 suicide attacks that targeted the Borno state capital in 2016, 15 occurred from October onwards.
The wave of violence has not slowed since Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced the clearing of the notorious Sambisa Forest in December 2016, considered to be the main hideout of Shekau’s faction.
This points to the group’s agility and the existence of alternative safe havens. Combined with an emerging pattern of Barnawi-faction attacks (directly targeting security forces in northern Borno state), this serves as a warning that both factions are highly adaptable.
These are worrying signs. However, another positive trend is that nearly half of all Boko Haram suicide attacks in 2016 can be described as unsuccessful, in that the bomber either only killed themselves, or had been prevented from reaching their likely target.
Much credit is due to the patrolling of checkpoints by vigilante actors. Nonetheless, this success is by no means guaranteed – a 9 December attack on a market in Madagali killed 56, while the increased usage of multiple bombers, simultaneously, is another indication of Boko Haram’s constant evolution.
While some developments are worrying, the data from 2016 suggests that significant progress has been made in the battle against Boko Haram. Attacks and casualties are lower than in previous years – but those years experienced extremely high rates of violence. The number of assaults remains significant, however, with some types of Boko Haram-related violence occurring on a near-daily basis.
Furthermore, Boko Haram’s ability to adapt, ramping up suicide attacks towards the end of the year for example, is an indication of its resilience, and a reminder of the devastating impact on the local population.
Nonetheless, if security forces can also continue to adapt and consolidate fragile gains into 2017, perhaps 2016 will ultimately be seen as a turning point in the war against an extremely violent and brutal foe.
Written by Omar S Mahmood, Researcher, ISS Addis Ababa