The April 14 car-bombing near the Nigerian capital of Abuja, for which Boko Haram claimed responsibility over the weekend, marks the group's renewed use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices to carry out attacks. Boko Haram is modifying its strategy, employing guerrilla and terrorist tactics while abandoning its effort to control a small part of Borno state — a goal the group pursued during the first half of 2013.
The most recent attack marks a return to the methods Boko Haram used in 2012, although the softer targets and lack of suicide bombers suggest a lower degree of sophistication. The group's activity during the first quarter of this year also suggests a more limited geographic concentration to the three northeastern states of Nigeria: Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. However, occasional attacks in Kano state and the Middle Belt region remain likely.
The changes in Boko Haram's methodology and its use of particular tactics are in part the expression of internal shifts. They are also, however, the result of pressure from Nigerian military operations and a reaction to the dynamics of jihadist movements in other parts of Africa. Heavy losses in fighting with government forces, especially as Boko Haram continues to operate in areas subject to military raids, have made a change in methods crucial if the group is to survive, fight and safeguard its notoriety.
Boko Haram started using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in 2011. Nigeria had witnessed these attacks before, during its conflict with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, but Boko Haram raised the stakes by executing well-planned attacks against hardened targets in Abuja, including the June 16, 2011 bombing of the city's police headquarters and the Aug. 26, 2011 attack on a U.N. compound. Boko Haram increased its use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings throughout 2012, albeit against less hardened targets.
The rise to prominence of this new tactic began with the rift that emerged between Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram's current leader, and Mamman Nur, a commander under former Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed by Nigerian security forces in 2009. Nur, whose ideology is more in sync with international jihadism, was originally thought to be slated to succeed Yusuf, but Shekau's Kanuri ethnicity made him a more viable leader for maintaining grassroots support in northeastern Nigeria.
Lessons Learned Abroad
The pair clashed on leadership as well as on ethnic and ideological issues. Eventually Nur left Nigeria for Somalia, where he fought alongside al Shabaab. When he returned in 2011, he brought back a newfound expertise in planning suicide bombings and car bombings, according to Nigerian security services. Nur then began to apply in Nigeria what he had learned in Somalia. The sudden occurrence of these attacks, carried out with relative sophistication and no learning curve, made it clear that the skills to carry them out had been imported.
Nur not only brought back the expertise demonstrated in the 2011 attacks mentioned above but also pushed the group to hit transnational targets, as evidenced by the attack on the U.N. compound. Renewed frictions between the two leaders in 2012, however, caused Nur to eventually go off the grid. Neither his location nor his activities have surfaced in recent reports, and his low profile could explain the lack of attacks using explosives-laden vehicles or suicide bombers seen in 2013.
The reoccurrence of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in northern Nigeria, with at least five reported incidents so far in 2014, may not necessarily be related to Nur — the recent attacks do not show the same level of sophistication as those attributed to Nur's cell in 2012. While previous attacks against hardened targets such as the U.N. compound in Abuja were well-planned and competently executed, last week's attack near Abuja could be interpreted as a sign of weakness rather than surging power. Hitting a target as soft as civilians at a bus station is a clear sign of a lowered capability and an inability to threaten harder targets. The fact that the attack did not use a suicide bomber also suggests that less effort was put into recruiting, training and dispatching the bomber.
The lack of car bombings in 2013 also came at a time when some factions of Boko Haram were making contacts with jihadist organizations in the Sahel — specifically with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of Al-Mourabitoun — in an effort to expand their influence. The French intervention in Mali disrupted this process. Contacts and shared planning and funding between al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram had reportedly increased as jihadists took control over northern Mali, but the sudden surge in counterterrorism activity there likely severed their lines of communication, at least temporarily.
Another major factor contributing to the use of car bombings is a shift in Boko Haram's focus. Whereas previously the group sought to take control of limited areas where the Nigerian government could not project power, it now behaves more like a guerrilla movement.
In 2013, Boko Haram operations folded back into northeastern Nigeria — Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states — while operations in Kano state and the Middle Belt region decreased. From January to May of 2013, Boko Haram sought to control several small localities in the northeastern corner of Borno state, where a power vacuum existed, thereby undermining the presence and capabilities of — and local confidence in — the national government in northeastern Nigeria. Boko Haram lacked the capability to expand this control to significant population centers or to sustain it once the state turned its military attention toward the region.
Nigerian military activity surged in the area after the May 2013 declaration of a state of emergency that led to the deployment of a Joint Task Force in the three northeastern states. Boko Haram, seeking to avoid heavy losses in direct confrontations with military personnel, adapted by turning to guerrilla-style tactics. Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices are perfectly suited to Boko Haram's current needs. If deployed effectively, such attacks can instill terror in the population and undermine confidence in Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's government.
The Stages of Boko Haram's Strategic and Tactical Shifts
Boko Haram's current evolution in strategy and tactics, which started after a period of consolidation following the extrajudicial killing of former leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, can be divided into four main periods. During the first of these periods, prior to 2012, the group can be seen restoring its coherence and leadership and developing its capabilities and operations, gradually increasing the frequency of attacks as well as the group's geographic reach into Kano state and the Middle Belt region. In 2012, as Nur and other non-Kanuri leaders led their factions in these locations, the frequency of attacks there surged, and the use of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers grew.
In the beginning of 2013, Boko Haram largely folded back into the three northeastern states, due both to internal frictions and to diminished grassroots support from elsewhere. This is also the period in which the group developed a focus on absorbing local control in limited areas of Borno state. While car bombings and suicide bombings essentially stopped during this period, expatriate kidnappings rose as Boko Haram fighters returning from Mali brought with them an increased expertise in kidnappings. Even these attacks, however, remained infrequent.
During the latter part of 2013, pushed by losses on the battlefield, Boko Haram abandoned attempts at acquiring local control and fled to the hinterlands, where the group was relegated to conducting guerrilla-style attacks. These attacks continue to be focused in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, and this shift has set the stage for the return to prominence of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
So far, most of these attacks have occurred near Maiduguri — the April 14 bombing near Abuja is an exception — which is likely a continuing result of the geographic shift in operations that marked 2013. The April 14 attack, however, indicates that even though car bomb operations may no longer be organized from Kano state, as a number were in 2012, Boko Haram retains the intent and capability to conduct occasional attacks against soft targets in areas spanning from Kano state into the Middle Belt.