Boko Haram has a well-defined organizational structure based on a fluid number of cells and hierarchical layers. It draws support from sympathetic Islamists in northern Nigeria; northern state institutions, including the government and security forces; and the Kanuri ethnic group, which accounts for roughly 4 percent of the country's population. Cross-state ethnic ties facilitate weapons trafficking, financial transactions and militant operations, including kidnappings.
Abubakar Shekau, an ethnic Kanuri, is considered Boko Haram's leader. The group's highest decision-making body is known as the Shura Council. The council has about 30 members and has command over the group's various cells. Though this structure makes it difficult to define the actual size of Boko Haram, most estimates put its core membership at several hundred, excluding the large number of ethnically, ideologically or financially motivated supporters who participate in attacks or provide other forms of assistance.
Major departments below the Shura Council are separated by area of responsibility and tactical specialization. Departments carry out suicide bombings, kidnappings, intelligence gathering, target selection and surveillance. They also construct explosive devices, plant explosives at target sites, steal cars for use in attacks, engage security forces and recruit and train new members. Boko Haram also has several supporting departments that focus on the welfare of its members and the surviving family members of suicide bombers, a medical committee that looks after the health care needs of members and their families and a so-called public enlightenment department that is responsible for external communication and propaganda.
Boko Haram's organizational complexity and tactics have ensured a high level of operational security outside the council. Cells typically are not aware of one another's activities or broader strategies. The Shura Council itself also allegedly maintains a high degree of operational security by meeting infrequently and by adopting the use of couriers for communication.
Forms of Support
Of course, groups like Boko Haram deliberately veil their support network. But it is clear that apart from the direct support it receives from its Kanuri base in Nigeria's northeastern states, Boko Haram also generates revenue and obtains supplies indirectly.
The group allegedly has earned millions of dollars by robbing banks and may have netted some $3 million from bank robberies in 2011 alone. Kidnapping for ransom is also an important source of revenue. In 2013, Boko Haram was paid nearly $17 million in ransom from the French government. Moreover, the group reportedly receives direct financial support from Nigerian politicians. In fact, Nigerian ambassadors, senators and governors have all been implicated in providing several hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to Boko Haram.
A much larger revenue stream has allegedly come from other Islamist organizations. Militant groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and fundraising organizations such as the World Islamic Call Society or the Al-Muntada Al-Islami Trust may have transferred as much as $70 million to Boko Haram.
Islamist groups have also provided Boko Haram with other forms of support. The group says Somali militant group al Shabaab and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have trained its members, a claim several security agencies have corroborated. If true, the training likely involved instruction on the use of explosives as well as planning and conducting vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks and kidnapping operations.
Boko Haram is able to procure small arms and ammunition — and perhaps more advanced weaponry — through its arms network. What the group does not purchase illegally is acquired after attacking state security forces.
How Boko Haram Operates
Tactically, Boko Haram has evolved dramatically since it first appeared in 2002. It did not begin conducting militant operations until 2009. At first, the group simply attacked police stations, security patrols and jails, freeing many incarcerated members in the process. Boko Haram has since progressed; it now attacks other targets, such as churches, using small-arms assaults, arson and improvised explosive devices.
In 2011, Boko Haram began conducting vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks and suicide attacks. These attacks have been mostly directed against soft targets, although there have been a few exceptions, such as the August 2011 incident at a U.N. compound in Abuja or the June 2011 incident at the Abuja police headquarters. Attacks using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices largely died down in 2013 but surged during the first half of 2014.
In the first half of 2014, Boko Haram has continued to demonstrate its capability to conduct frequent attacks. In most instances, it employed small arms against relatively soft targets in the northeast, suggesting an inability to strike at well-defended facilities outside its core area of operation and a desire to inflict mass casualties.
Currently, Boko Haram's operations demonstrate an ability to mount large raids in Nigeria's northeastern states. And its movement through the region in large convoys, reportedly comprising combat vehicles and as many as 200 men, shows that it can circumvent interdiction efforts by the Nigerian military.
Still, it does not appear that Boko Haram can confront the Nigerian military directly. Though group members have engaged in sustained firefights with security forces, they always succumb to the superior power of the armed forces. The group will continue to avoid direct military confrontations where it can.
Since 2013, Boko Haram has been confined primarily to the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. It has occasionally ventured as far as Kano, Kaduna and Nassarawa states, but these attacks may have been more valuable as publicity stunts than as strategic victories. In any case, Boko Haram fighters often fall back to areas that are actually within their Kanuri network, where they are more successful.
Notably, Boko Haram has been able to sporadically launch operations across Nigeria's borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. However, these forays have been limited to the border areas near the group's stronghold and away from major foreign cities.
The West has offered no real response to Boko Haram, preferring instead to support its African allies indirectly through intelligence sharing and logistical assistance. The United States and Europe rightly consider Boko Haram a local Nigerian issue that does not threaten U.S. or European national security, and so they will continue to be somewhat ambivalent.
Humanitarian concerns and an interest in supporting local powers may compel the United States to move modestly against Boko Haram. To this end, Washington would extend ongoing security support, including counterinsurgency training and human, signals and imagery intelligence. It may eventually sell small amounts of defense equipment to the Nigerian government and security forces. But the United States will not intervene directly unless Boko Haram begins to threaten Washington.
Meanwhile, France is working with its allies in Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Mali to facilitate greater intelligence coordination and analysis on transnational militant movements, including those of Boko Haram. Paris has been consistently active in its former colonies in the Sahel to combat the threat posed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and it will leverage its activity and unique combat capabilities there to provide intelligence and analysis to Nigeria. Still, France cannot be expected to intervene against Boko Haram directly.
Even if the West wanted to help, Abuja may not accept it. Historically, Abuja has been hesitant to accept such assistance; it does not want voters to think it cannot manage Nigeria's internal crises. The government will accept limited Western assistance, such as intelligence sharing and training, but any additional support will be rejected for domestic political reasons.