By Scott Stewart
The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram conducted a series of bombing attacks and armed assaults Jan. 20 in the northern city of Kano, the capital of Kano state and second-largest city in Nigeria. The attacks, which reportedly included the employment of at least two suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), targeted a series of police facilities in Kano. These included the regional police headquarters, which directs police operations in Kano, Katsina and Jigawa states, as well as the State Security Service office and the Nigerian Immigration Service office. At least 211 people died in the Kano attacks, according to media reports.
The group carried out a second wave of attacks in Bauchi state on Jan. 22, bombing two unoccupied churches in the Bauchi metropolitan area and attacking a police station in the Tafawa Balewa local government area. Militants reportedly also tried to rob a bank in Tafawa Balewa the same day. Though security forces thwarted the robbery attempt, 10 people reportedly died in the clash, including two soldiers and a deputy police superintendent.
In a third attack, Boko Haram militants attacked a police sub-station in Kano on Jan. 24 with small arms and improvised hand grenades. A tally of causalities in the assault, which reportedly lasted some 25 minutes, was not available. This armed assault stands out tactically from the Jan. 20 suicide attacks against police stations in Kano. The operation could have been an attempt to liberate some of the Boko Haram militants the government arrested following the Jan. 20 and Jan. 22 attacks.
Stratfor has followed Boko Haram carefully to assess its intent — and ability — to become more transnational. As we noted after the U.S. State Department issued warnings in early November 2011 about Boko Haram's alleged plans to strike Western-owned hotels in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, the group made significant leaps in its operational capability during 2011. During that time, it transitioned from very simple attacks to successfully employing suicide VBIEDS. An examination of the recent attacks in Kano and Bauchi states, however, does not reveal further advances in the group's operational tradecraft and does not display any new ability or intent to project power beyond its traditional areas of operation.
Boko Haram's Tactical Evolution
Boko Haram, Hausa for "Western Education is Sinful," is an Islamist militant group established in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state. It has since spread to several other northern and central Nigerian states. It is officially known as "Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad," Arabic for "Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."
At first, Boko Haram was involved mostly in fomenting sectarian violence. Its adherents participated in simple attacks on Christians using clubs, machetes and small arms. Boko Haram came to international attention following serious outbreaks of inter-communal violence in 2008 and 2009 that resulted in thousands of deaths.
By late 2010, Boko Haram had added Molotov cocktails and simple improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to its tactical repertoire. This tactical advancement was reflected in the series of small IEDs deployed against Christian targets in Jos, Plateau state, on Christmas Eve 2010.
Boko Haram conducted a number of other armed assaults and small IED attacks in early 2011. The IEDs involved in these attacks were either improvised hand grenades constructed by filling soft drink cans with explosives — which were frequently thrown from motorcycles — or slightly larger devices left at the target.
This attack paradigm was shattered June 16, 2011, when Boko Haram launched a suicide VBIED attack against the headquarters of the Nigerian national police in Abuja. Though not overly spectacular (security measures kept the device away from the headquarters building and it exploded in a parking lot), the successful deployment of a large VBIED and a suicide operative represented a dramatic leap in Boko Haram's capability. An organization does not normally develop such a capability internally without some signs of progressive advancement in its bombmaking capability. For example, a group would be expected to employ medium-sized IEDs before it employed large VBIEDS. That it skipped a step prompted us to believe reports of Boko Haram members receiving training from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Africa or from al Shabaab in Somalia (or some other outside group).
Boko Haram conducted its second suicide VBIED attack in Abuja on Aug. 26, 2011, this time targeting a U.N. compound in the city's diplomatic district. This attack proved far more deadly because the driver was able to enter the compound and reach a parking garage before detonating his device near the building's entrance. The attack against the U.N. compound also marked a break from Boko Haram's traditional target set of government and Christian facilities.
If the intelligence that triggered the warnings of hotel attacks in November 2011 is accurate, it appears the group may also have considered transnational targets — at least to the extent of seeking to eliminate involvement by the international community in Nigeria in order to undercut Abuja. This shift in targeting raised concerns that the group's contacts with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and/or al Shabaab had influenced it. It also raised fears that due to its rapidly evolving attack capability, Boko Haram now was on a trajectory to become the next jihadist franchise group to become a transnational terrorist threat, following in the steps of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based al Qaeda franchise group. The January attacks provide us an opportunity to evaluate this theory.
What the January Attacks Tell Us
First, the group appears to have no shortage of explosive material. In addition to the devices the group employed in the attacks, the police reportedly seized some 300 improvised grenades and 10 VBIEDs. It also appears Boko Haram has access to large quantities of commercial explosives, rather than being forced to rely on less reliable and less stable improvised explosive mixtures. A good deal of mining occurs in central Nigeria, and it seems that the group is either stealing commercial explosives from mining companies, extorting mining companies for explosives or has somehow been able to purchase commercial explosives using a front company or companies. The Nigerian government has sought to tighten controls on commercial explosives in response, but its efforts so far do not seem to have affected the group's ability to procure large quantities of explosives.
Boko Haram also appears to have competent bombmakers. While the improvised hand grenades the group is issuing are quite rudimentary, being made by inserting a non-electric detonator with a short piece of time fuse in a soda can filled with high explosives, their devices are functioning as designed. The same can be said for their suicide vests and VBIEDS: They are simple yet functional. This stands out, since IEDs commonly malfunction. Bombmaking is an art that normally follows a significant learning curve absent outside instruction from a more experienced bombmaker. Boko Haram's proficiency suggests the group's bombmaker(s) indeed received training from experienced militants elsewhere.
The group also appears to have had no problems recruiting militants, including suicide bombers. The Jan. 20 attacks alone involved dozens of militants. Two people served as suicide bombers for the VBIEDs while perhaps two other suicide bombers worked on foot; others threw IEDs from motorcycles and conducted armed assaults.
That said, the group's operational planners do not appear to be as advanced as their bombmakers and recruiters. Though they have proved fairly successful in attacking soft targets, they have not had much success in their attacks against harder targets. For example, the attacker in the Jan. 20 strike on the State Security Service office in Kano was shot and killed before he could approach the building. Likewise, security forces were able to repel the attackers in the Jan. 22 attempted bank robbery in Tafawa Balewa.
All three January attacks also occurred in Boko Haram's traditional area of operations in the northern and central regions of Nigeria. These areas are both familiar and accessible to the group and it has strong support there. (It also has significant support in the area around Abuja.) The group has yet to display an ability to project power outside its traditional operational area into less familiar and more hostile environments.
Some ask whether Boko Haram is merely a political tool used by northern politicians to pressure the Nigerian federal government in much the same way politicians from the Niger Delta have used militant groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta to ensure what they believe is their fair share of Nigeria's oil revenue. While undoubtedly some connections between some northern politicians and Boko Haram exist, it would be simplistic to suggest such politicians completely control Boko Haram. Indeed, the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard reported Jan. 24 that senior Boko Haram figures said Jan. 21 that they were retaliating against northern governors who had refused to pay the group previously agreed-upon monthly sums of cash not to conduct operations in their state and for allowing security forces to arrest groups of their members, as they did Jan. 18 when six Boko Haram leaders were detained in Maiduguri. (One of the arrested leaders, Kabiru Sokoto, escaped later when gunmen likely affiliated with Boko Haram attacked the police vehicles transporting him.)
At the very least, however, these recent attacks tell us that before the group can become an existential threat to the Nigerian government — or a legitimate transnational threat — it will need to develop the ability to deploy its IEDs and suicide operatives to the point that it successfully can attack hardened targets. It will also need to develop the ability to work beyond its traditional areas of operation. Until it can master those skills (and display an intent to use such skills), it will remain a regional, albeit deadly, threat.