Boko Haram. On the verge of defeat or a long term threat?


  • Daniel Torbjörnsson
  • Michael Jonsson

Publish date: 2017-12-15

Report number: FOI-R--4488--SE

Pages: 85

Written in: English


  • Boko Haram; Nigeria; Daesh; terrorism; human rights; resilience


Boko Haram has conducted an insurgency against the Nigerian state since 2009. In early 2015, the group controlled large parts of Borno state, declared a caliphate and swore allegiance to Daesh. Since then, it has lost a majority of its territory, splintered into two factions (led by Shekau and al-Barnawi, respectively) and has been badly pressured by the Nigerian defence forces Even so, little suggests that the terrorist group will soon be militarily defeated and the risk that al-Barnawi's Daesh-affiliated faction will again grow stronger is palpable. The general purpose of this report is to analyse the strategic resilience of Boko Haram. Specifically, the study examines Boko Haram's leadership, ideology and strategy, operational capabilities, financing and logistical support, propaganda and recruitment and external support, in order to identify strengths and weaknesses. The study is based on secondary sources, panel data on terrorist attacks in Nigeria and a field study in Abuja in May 2017. The analysis revealed that the expansion of Boko Haram was facilitated by structural factors, such poverty in northern Nigeria, conflicts between Muslims and Christians, distrust of the state, porous borders, the growth of Salafist Islam and the insufficient ability of the Nigerian defence forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations at the outset of the conflict. The Nigerian defence forces have strengthened their presence in the north-east since 2015 through the establishment of a brigade. Regional military cooperation has also improved, and private military companies and militias have contributed critical capabilities. Furthermore, the current leadership of Boko Haram has used indiscriminate violence against civilians, hence undermining popular support. The operational capability of the terrorist group has been notably weakened, its ability to finance itself undermined by a regional economic crisis and its recruitment seemingly complicated by military setbacks and in-fighting. Today, a military stalemate reigns, with a weakened Boko Haram Shekau faction mainly attacking civilian targets and a Boko Haram al-Barnawi faction primarily targeting police and the armed forces. In the short term, the Shekau fraction may possibly cause most harm, given its indiscriminate violence against civilians, while the al-Barnawi fraction undoubtedly poses the greater threat over time. Factors which would decisively shift the conflict dynamic would be if the Nigerian defence forces were to develop the capability to locate and neutralise the two groups' leaders; if regional or international cooperation against Boko Haram were to be weakened or strengthened; if the militias were to become a threat in their own right; if competing security threats forced the state to prioritise; if large-scale in-fighting were to erupt between the two Boko Haram factions; and if the al- Barnawi fraction were to succeed in provoking a broader conflict between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria.