By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist
Photo Credit: Reuters
Despite suffering recent losses of territorial control and military defeats, the Boko Haram threat is far from gone.[i] Since 2015, the Nigerian government has continued to tell its people and the world that the insurgency is under control, while brazen and highly deadly attacks continue to take place in schools and villages across the country’s northeast. Nigeria’s continuing false claims of a military defeat against Boko Haram reflects the country’s preference for drastic kinetic warfare and its loss of momentum in addressing the threat at its root levels. The government’s optimistic measure of defeat in military terms, sets a dangerous precedent for other nations that face violent non-state actor threats as it has catalyzed a backlash from the insurgency, creating further violence and damaging an already fragile trust in the state. Boko Haram’s continuing activities expose the inadequacy of the government’s narrowly militaristic counterterrorism campaign. To defeat the group once and for all, new measures must be adopted that combine a range of tools including sophisticated messaging, kinetic and non-kinetic approaches, and countering violent extremism (CVE) programs that tackle root causes of violence and recruitment, such as development aid, economic assistance, and education.
Founded in 2002, Boko Haram advocates for a Salafi-jihadist brand of Islam and seeks to establish a caliphate in Nigeria.[ii] The extremist group believes the country has been corrupted by Westernization and opposes institutions, such as the Nigerian Constitution and the Nigerian education system. The group has carried out several large-scale attacks in Nigeria, including the highly publicized abduction of 300 schoolgirls in April 2014, numerous bombings and armed assaults on civilian and military targets.
In December 2015, the Nigerian government declared that it had successfully defeated Boko Haram. Shortly after the announcement, the nearly decimated group rebuilt its forces and carried out successive suicide bombings in the Northeast region. The terrorist group had recognized the vulnerability of the government’s overconfidence, and seized the opportunity to increase violence, thus shaking global and domestic confidence in the state. Today, this pattern continues as the government communicates distorted messages of counterterrorism success, and Boko Haram disproves the claims with reactive violence.
Thus, a pattern of retaliation has erupted over the past two years, culminating in deadly attacks and kidnappings since January 2018. On October 12, Boko Haram invaded a Nigerian military base in Borno state, killing 18 soldiers. This attack followed a string of assaults on military bases since July, resulting in weeks of heavy military losses, with hundreds of soldiers wounded or killed in action. In response to these assaults, the military attempted to undermine the score of violence publicly and online by drawing attention to other military successes against Boko Haram.[iii] On October 15, 2018, the government claimed another victory as the Nigerian Air Force “decimated a Boko Haram hideout and neutralized several insurgents”[iv] in Northern Borno. On the other side, Boko Haram continues to kidnap and execute hostages to provoke the government in complying to negotiation processes. In September, Boko Haram executed an aid worker that had been held hostage for several months and executed a second aid worker on October 16.[v]
The government’s skewed strategic messaging is a desperate attempt to regain the trust of its terrorized constituency, and its regional and international partners. Yet, the insurgency’s persistence since 2015 illustrates how this militaristic messaging against violent non-state actors can have a counter effect. Rather than force the terrorist group to accept defeat, the military’s presumptuous “successes” have a re-energizing effect on Boko Haram. Through the emotional provocation the Nigerian government engages the insurgency in a physical power play, allowing the group to drive the narrative through their continuation of terror.
Since 2015, the emboldened Boko Haram has adapted their tactics and strategies to ensure survival.[vi] By embedding itself further into local communities the group has bolstered its financing and recruitment apparatus, and made it more difficult for the state to carry out a traditional militaristic campaign. The group has begun using online social media to promote its ideology, attacks, strength and territorial presence, allowing its message to permeate discretely into even the most isolated communities. The expanded reach of their network has given Boko Haram new tools with which to refute the government’s misleading claims of victory. The Nigerian government’s declarations of success on the battlefield can now be dampened by retaliatory social media messaging, or a surge in recruitment. While the state’s frontline is drawn on a traditional military battleground, Boko Haram’s battle has adopted a more hybrid landscape, on the ground, online and in the minds of its followers.
While significant changes to the group’s tactics, organization, and strategies have occurred, the Nigerian government has continued to wage a primarily kinetic counterterrorism campaign on Boko Haram. The government has not heeded the fact that, with these changes in Boko Haram’s fight, come new priorities and new opportunities to which their messaging strategy must adapt. Numerous vulnerabilities in the group’s ideological cohesion, leadership, and strategy could be exploited using a flexible combination of kinetic, and non-kinetic means. Along with a sophisticated messaging campaign, the government could adopt new tools to deconstruct the terrorist group’s identity and existence on the physical and ideological battleground.
To do so, the Nigerian government should seize the opportunities presented by deepening divides in Boko Haram’s leadership and the increasingly hostile relations between the group’s contested leader, Abubakar Shekau, West African Islamic State and AQIM cells. As many believe that Shekau is gravely ill, the uncertainty of Boko Haram’s future leadership and organizational structure provides a unique opportunity for the Nigerian government and its partners to defeat the terrorist group at its core. Nigeria must consider non-kinetic strategies that prevent Boko Haram recruitment and retention in the midst of this weakening command structure. Many members may not be driven by strong leadership and religious motivation, but rather their general disenfranchisement as citizens of Nigeria. The government should focus on remedying such grievances first by recognizing their existence in a public dialogue, then by actively reducing unemployment, increasing access to basic services, ensuring human rights, and minimizing the all-too-common failures of local governments to provide for their citizens.[vii]
Effective government messaging campaigns should recognize the reality of Boko Haram’s continuing allure and the power of these grievances that drive recruitment. Truthful strategic messaging can build a more trusting relationship between the state and, local communities as well as international partners, allowing for an effective counterterrorism strategy that has support at multiple levels. Such dialogue can promote a unity of efforts, strengthen support for the government’s policies, and counter Boko Haram’s efforts to win community support.
The media can also play a crucial role in the government’s more comprehensive public information strategy. In the wake of violence, the government should avoid faulty reports of military success, and instead issue messages that deconstruct Boko Haram propaganda. The media should focus on incorporating victim’s voices into conflict reporting, and thus combating the potential power of Boko Haram’s public communications. A compelling messaging campaign by government and media partners should identify common goals between the state and its citizens, and advertise the group’s weakening ideology and leadership. Instead of promoting their increasingly discredited claims of military defeat, the state and media must portray a Boko Haram that is deteriorating from its own core.
Continuing the messaging strategy of overblown military achievements, the Nigerian government promotes a dangerous cycle of violence with no end in sight. Nigeria must move away from an over-reliance on kinetic measures and muscular public messaging. Alternatively, the state should pursue a public information campaign that integrates stakeholders’ voices, provides truthful information on the fight against terrorism and prioritizes soft measures such as education and CVE programs. Together, these actions can safeguard young generations and local populations from falling into the extremists’ rhetoric, thereby enabling the government to slowly win the hearts and mind of its people. The government must recognize that misinformation from the battlefield works against their counterterrorism goals, and it is rather accurate information and education that will alter the narrative of violence for young Nigerians. Messaging campaigns can change perceptions of bloodshed by ensuring that youth no longer consider it a viable political tool.[viii] Establishing a connection between civil societies and political actors, while generating safe spaces for this productive dialogue will lead Nigeria on the path to eradication of Book Haram once and for all.
[i] Emmanuel Akinwotu and Aurelien Breeden, “‘Shocked’ by Attack on Mosque, Nigeria Tightens Security in Northeast”, The New York Times, May 2, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/02/world/africa/nigeria-boko- haram-terrorism-attacks.html
[ii] Counter Extremism Project, “Boko Haram Report,” https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/boko-haram
[iii] Samuel Ogundipe, “18 soldiers killed, scores missing in latest Boko Hara invasion of Nigerian military base,” Premium Times, October 12, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/290009-18-soldiers-killed-scores-missing-in-latest-boko-haram-invasion-of-nigerian-military-base.html
[iv] “NAF destroys Boko Haram hideout in northern Borno”, Punch Nigeria, October 15, 2018, https://punchng.com/naf-destroys-boko-haram-hideout-in-northern-borno/
[v] Stephanie Busari and Bukola Adebayo, “Second aid worker held by Boko Haram executed as negotiation deadline expires,” CNN, October 16, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/16/africa/second-nigerian-aid-worker-killed-intl/index.html
[vi] Emmanuel Akinwotu and Aurelien Breeden, “‘Shocked’ by Attack on Mosque, Nigeria Tightens Security in Northeast”, The New York Times, May 2, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/02/world/africa/nigeria-boko- haram-terrorism-attacks.html
[vii] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Nigeria’s Troubling Counterinsurgency Strategy Against Boko Haram”, Foreign Affairs, March 30, 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/nigeria/2018-03-30/nigerias-troubling-counterinsurgency- strategy-against-boko-haram
[viii] Yomi Kazeem, “ Nigeria’s army set up a soccer league to stop Boko Haram from radicalizing youth”, Quartz Africa, November 5, 2017, https://qz.com/africa/1120625/boko-haram-nigerias-army-using-soccer-to-stop- radicalization/