The Violence of Boko Haram, December 2017 to November 2018:
a first attempt at synthesis
by Nicholas David, Ph.D., BHVR Webmaster
As someone who has been carrying out research in Boko Haram-afflicted West Central Africa, Francophone and Anglophone, since 1984 and who is still involved in ongoing cultural heritage matters and victims relief, I have become increasingly frustrated by the fragmented nature of journalistic coverage of the insurgency. Lack of synthesis of news materials by the media, governments or others makes it near impossible for interested parties, NGOs, government agencies, researchers — and apparently the forces of order — to evaluate the present situation, far less to act effectively to counteract the violences committed by different terrorist factions or to plan for the political solution that will eventually be needed to resolve the insurgency. At least if not more serious is the ignorance of the situation to which the millions of victims, direct and indirect, in the afflicted areas are condemned.
This is the rationale for this limited synthesis based upon a) the very useful Wikipedia monthly listings of terrorist incidents from around the world, b) the superb access to space offered by Google Earth Pro, and c) my own knowledge of the larger region and its peoples gained since 1956 as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Bn Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment, as a university professor at Ibadan, and as an anthropologist and archaeologist. I should add that my grasp of the specialist literature on Boko Haram is limited, and that I have scarcely attempted to differentiate the activities of the two main factions of what is commonly known as Boko Haram: Abu Bakr Shekau’s Jama’at Ahl al-Sunna lil-Da’wa wa al-Jihad (JASDJ) and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi’s Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). Nor have I conducted any research on the various armies and other forces of order tasked with defeating Boko Haram.
For the period December 2017 through November 2018, I have extracted from the Wikipedia lists and other sources those incidents known or suspected to have been carried out by Boko Haram, placed them in useful categories, tabulated them by country, month and category, grouped incidents into regions and mapped them. After which it becomes possible to draw limited but significant conclusions regarding Boko Haram’s activities in time and space.
Data and methods of analysis
The area affected by Boko Haram is very poorly covered by the international and national press since Africa is generally and grossly underreported on by global media, and journalists are wisely concerned with their own safety amongst a population that includes Boko Haram sympathizers. Reports of incidents are thus almost always brief and of questionable reliability. Where there is more than one report of the same incident it usually turns out that all but one is plagiarized in whole or in part. Nigerian military and other government spokesmen are generally reticent to provide information, playing down the seriousness of incidents directed against them and especially the number of soldiers and police casualties. Reporting the number of kills is at any rate a confession that no significant gains have been made.
Table 1 presents the Wikipedia listing of terrorist incidents attributed to Boko Haram for the period Dec. 2017-Nov. 2018 with corrections and additions by the author.
The “Type” column refers to the categorization of incidents presented below. “Wikitype” is the original Wikipedia characterization. Absence of an entry in this column indicates the addition of the incident by the author. The fifteen incidents with the highest counts of “Dead” plus “Injured/abducted” have these cells highlighted in red. (A figure in parentheses is sometimes given for Boko Haram deaths but, except when this refers to so-called suicide bombers, this is erratic and of no value.) “Region” refers to those identified below. Data downloaded 6 Dec. 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_2017 (and 2018).
Only one complex incident on the Wikipedia list was rejected as pertaining more to Nigeria’s unfortunate Farmer v Herdsmen conflicts than to Islamist insurgency.
The Wikipedia data presented in Table 1 include brief summaries of incidents The Wikipedia staff responsible for collection of data gather materials in French and English but not in Hausa or other African languages. They clearly have no special knowledge of the region as is evident, for example, in their choice of the term “loggers” to describe collectors of firewood (many and mostly females working part-time) and woodcutters (fewer and mostly male, some full-time). I have modified Wikipedia’s brief descriptions where necessary to avoid misrepresentation of cultural life or where I have found better information. Wikipedia does, however, provide superscript references to the original Internet sources. I have read almost all of these that are still available and have added data from them following the references in the table that give access to the original sources. In the course of this research I have come across a few unreported incidents and added them to the listing.
Google Earth Pro is a precious resource but its naming of settlements in this part of Africa is somewhat capricious below the level of substantial towns. The locations of the villages or larger settlements in which incidents occurred are almost always supplied but a) there are no gazetteers of settlements available to me (Cameroon being a partial exception), b) names are frequently spelled in multiple ways, and c) only rarely are distances and directions to cities or larger towns specified, or d) are we told that the settlement attacked is within a certain Local Government Area (LGA) or comparable administrative unit. The case of Mabanda in the Far North Region (FNR) of Cameroon and the site of an assault on civilians and two dubious “suicide” bombings of a mosque is particularly frustrating. Although described by sources variably as a village and as a city, no further information on its location is provided beyond that it is close to the Nigeria-Cameroon border, across which it is implied there is a road connection. Mabanda appears on no maps or administrative listings to which I have access nor in any other sources. I suspect therefore that is the name of a ward in a larger settlement and, since transboundary roads are rare in this area and I know the southern ones relatively well, I have tentatively placed “Mabanda” in the environs of Fotokol on the northern route.
Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in the extreme northeast of Nigeria, has been repeatedly targeted by Boko Haram bombers and by assaults on civilians, often camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and occasional military targets. The sites are often described as being in the outskirts of the capital and sometimes by the names of wards, suburbs or exurbs. But I have found no map of Maiduguri and environs that provides such information and must rely on other clues. For example, there is a Kalari road in Maiduguri that leads to the SSW and it seems reasonable therefore to place the village of Kalari Abdiye along it, which also fits with it being within Konduga LGA.
I have followed up every clue I could find in order to map incidents accurately, and am convinced that the errors (including minor ones introduced by me to differentiate multiple incidents in congested areas) do not obscure the regional differences obvious in incident distributions.
The Wikipedia typology of incidents relates mainly to the means (shooting, beheading, arson, suicide bombing, etc.) by which death and other forms of violence are inflicted. It is more useful to consider the production of violence since this offers insights into the organization and capabilities of terrorist factions. My typology divides incidents into the following categories:
Bombings, in which the bomb carrier usually dies, are commonly and simplistically described as suicide bombings and are often carried out by women and girls. However that may be, bombings require relatively sophisticated organization of supplies and manufacture, but very little manpower or other resources. They allow Boko Haram to reach out to terrorize where they are unable otherwise to attack or assault. However bombers sometimes accompany such assaults.
Assaults on civilian targets require militants in platoon, company or even battalion strength to carry them out, and these must be trained and maintained, armed, and transported on motorcycles and in trucks to and from the site or an assembly point nearby. A succession of assaults over a short period of time suggests competent organization with well-established logistics.
Civilian targets appear to be attacked for a variety of reasons: to inflict damage on secular governments, to punish communities believed to inform or cooperate with the state and its organs, to terrorize, as in the assaults on IDP camps, and, importantly, to obtain cash, goods and supplies and no doubt services. Kidnapping is also practiced during such raids, usually on a small scale though at Dapchi 113 schoolgirls were abducted, with 107 later released. Near Gamboru (Nigeria) some 50 collectors and cutters of wood were abducted. Most are likely to have been women. Others were no doubt children, potential recruits or slaves. As of December 18th 2018, there is no subsequent news of their fate.
Attacks on military targets (including police) take place for a variety of purposes, one being to clear roads and facilitate terrorist communications, and to access larger centers, notably Maiduguri, by suppression of checkpoints. These require limited manpower. Ambushes directed at military convoys or civilian ones under military escort require larger contingents and perhaps prior gathering of intelligence. Attacks on military bases require the most militants and the highest level of organization and logistics. They are pursued in good part in order to obtain weapons, sometimes heavy, munitions and other matériel. The attack of 18 November 2018 on a base of the 157 Task Force Battalion in Metele (Nigeria) was undertaken by 20 truckloads of militants who are reported to have killed at least 118 soldiers with 153 still missing six days later. The jihadists “carted away four tanks and other vehicles”.
Where an incident involves more than one of these categories, for example a Bombing that forms part of an Attack, it is grouped with the category that appears most significant.
Raids are carried out generally by a dozen or fewer militants, perhaps fugitives in hiding looking for supplies, others perhaps undertaking missions of minor and local significance — but probably not one devised by a high level commander. The main intent is likely often survival of individuals rather than any larger tactical or strategic goal. Desperation rather than significant planning or organization is all that is required to mount many such raids. Quite often raiders have no firearms and carry only machetes and the like.
Where sources provide little information and there is no clear evidence of an assault or attack, the incident is by default classified as a raid.
Under the category Other are classed five other incidents, involving two executions and three explosions of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or landmines. Neither Raids nor Other incidents are plotted on the maps (Maps 1-7).
Regional groupings and their characteristics
The area shown in Map 1 is that in which all Boko Haram incidents took place in the twelve month period from December 2017 to November 2018. The area of the polygon enclosing all the Bombing, Assault and Attack sites is 111,000 sq. km, maximally extending 455 km N-S and 380 km E-W.
Map 1. General map of Boko Haram bombings, assaults on civil and attacks on military targets in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad over the period Dec. 2017 – Nov. 2018. Black markers indicate Bombings; Red markers indicate Assaults on civilians and green motorbikes attacks on Military targets. The distribution of Raids and Other incidents is not mapped.
The distributions of the three main types of incident suggests partition of the area into six regions characterized by the different patterns of terrorist activity shown in Table 2.
Table 2. Boko Haram incidents listed by type and in chronological order by region and month. Incident types: B = bombing; A = Assault on civilian target; M = attack on Military target; R= Raid; O= Other.
- Northern and Eastern Lake Chad (Map 2). Area of enclosing polygon: 13,000 sq. km.
The Chadian northern and eastern margins of the (mainly former) lake, extending into Nigeria only to Bla Brin.
Map 2. Boko Haram incidents in Region 1 extending from Chad to Bla Brin in Nigeria.
The 6 incidents recorded include 3 attacks on military targets and 3 on civilians. Boko Haram activity in this region resembles that in Region 2 to the west, though at lesser intensity.
- Southernmost Niger and Northeast Borno (Map 3). Area: 12,500 sq. km.
The Komadugu Yobe drainage from Toumour to a site west of Diffa in Niger (estimated at 12.08º E) and the ancient Lake Chad plains across the river south to Jilli in Yobe state (12.97º N; 13.17º E) and Gajiram at 12.49º N.
Map 3. Boko Haram incidents in Region 2 extending from Niger into Borno and Yobe states (Nigeria).
This region is characterized by 18 widely distributed attacks on military targets, 5 on civilians and a single bombing at Diffa, the largest settlement and administrative center of Niger’s Diffa region. There was one IED incident. Particularly striking is the crescendo of attacks on the military from July through November, five of these counting, plus one assault on the village of Mailari, among the 15 incidents that produced the most casualties during the whole year (Table 3). During several of these attacks the militants were able to capture and remove heavy and other weapons, vehicles and munitions. This suggests a strategic build-up of insurgent forces and matériel that threatens both the Nigerian and Nigerien governments. In November militants carried out no less than 6 attacks on the military, of which two, on Metele and Kauwa, were major and separated by only 9 days.
- Fotokol-Gamboru-Ngala border area (Map 4). Area: 1100 sq. km.
Terrorist activity is focussed on the Fotokol-Gamboru borderland, extending east to Rann (12.28ºN, 14.47ºE) and southwest past Dikwa to Boboshe (11.94ºN, 13.89ºE).
Map 4. Boko Haram incidents in Region 3, the Fotokol-Gamboru-Ngala Cameroon-Nigeria border area.
This region experienced 3 bombings, 4 assaults, 4 attacks on military targets, 6 raids and 2 IEDs. A dense cluster of incidents around the Fotokol (Cameroon), Gamboru and Ngala border zone includes a bombing and attacks on 5 civilian and 2 military targets. The remainder of the region saw 3 attacks on the military, including the ambush of a convoy that is among the 15 most serious incidents recorded, and a bombing at Dikwa, headquarters of the LGA. There were five raids and two IED incidents.
In the area of Boko Haram activity very few roads suitable for four-wheeled vehicles traverse the Nigeria-Cameroon frontier. Smaller attacks can be mounted using motorbikes or even bicycles, but for larger assaults intended to obtain bulk supplies, military or other, insurgents need to be able to use roads in order to strike and withdraw with their spoils into the countryside. Retreating across an international border offers advantages since international communications are imperfect, so disruption of border crossing areas is very much in Boko Haram’s interests.
The pattern of incident occurrences through time in Region 3 is almost the inverse of that in neighboring Region 2. This might indicate that some militants were operating in both areas at different times.
- Waza-Mubi border area (Map 5). Area: 6700 sq. km.
The northeastern part of this region is mainly in Cameroon, extending from Waza (10.93ºN, 13.97ºE) southwest to Kolofata and Mora. The southwestern portion is Nigerian, extending from the northern tip of the Mandara mountains along its western slopes and adjacent plains south to Mubi (10.93ºN, 13.97ºE).
Map 5. Boko Haram incidents in Region 4, extending on either side of the international border from Waza (Cameroon) to Mubi (Nigeria).
Region 4 suffered 9 bombings, 5 assaults on civilian targets, 4 on military, and 15 raids. The four bombings, all in Cameroon, and an attack on a civil target in Banki (Nigeria) disrupted the Banki-Limani border crossing area. Three other bombings, also on the Cameroon side, at Kerawa, Bia and Mora, targeted another trans-border route and significant administrative centers. There were 4 assaults on three Cameroonian towns and a mountain village, and an attack on a military target at Waza.
On the Nigerian side of the frontier in Borno state, military convoys were ambushed north and west of Gwoza, once the capital of the proclaimed Boko Haram caliphate. In northern Adamawa state there were three bombings, the one at Mubi, the largest town, killing at least 88 people and injuring another 58. Apart from this outrage, there were no assaults on civilians or attacks on the military in Adamawa state, however this region saw 15 raids.
In 2016 and 2017 there had been a concentration of Boko Haram in the mountains above Gwoza from which they ventured to attack Gwoza and towns as far south as Gulak in Adamawa state. However they met stiff resistance and may have largely abandoned the area (or reintegrated the general population) leaving some disorganized elements behind. This would account for the large number of raids carried out by small numbers of militants.
The number of incidents in this region decreased from August through November.
- Maiduguri-Konduga (Maps 6 and 7). Area: 9300 sq. km.
Activity was heavily focused on the Maiduguri-Konduga axis (1600 sq. km. in area), with eastern outlier Mafa (11.93ºN, 12.78ºE), southern outliers Damboa, Mifa and Biu (10.55ºN, 12.18ºE), and Jakana (11.85ºN, 12.78º E) in the west. The southern outliers are included in this region since they are linked by the Biu-Damboa-Maiduguri A4 highway.
Map 6. Boko Haram incidents in Region 5, the Maiduguri-Konduga axis with outliers. The area specified in the text is that enclosed by the polygon.As in Regions 3 and 4, the number of incidents decreased from July to October, resuming in November but in the form of attacks rather than bombings.
Map 7. Boko Haram incidents in the Maiduguri-Konduga focus of Region 5.
The region suffered 16 bombings, 10 assaults on civil targets, 3 attacks on the military and 8 raids. One bombing in Damboa, carried out by six girls and timed to coincide with Eid el Kebir, was part of a substantial attack that resulted in at least 127 casualties. The remainder, with one exception, took place either along the highways leading into Maiduguri from the east, southeast and southwest, or on targets including the post office and a barracks in Maiduguri itself. Two attacks on the military were carried out in villages on the road west to Damaturu in Yobe state. Another serious ambush took place near Damboa. This region also experienced 7 raids.
- The Western Margins in Yobe state (see Map 1). Area: no meaningful estimate possible.
The three sites assigned to Region 6 extend in a straight line from Dapchi in the north past Gujba south to Buni Yadi, a distance of 150 km. (The other Yobe site is Jilli, assigned to Region 2 with the many other attacks on military targets.)
Incidents in these western margins of Boko Haram activity include one bombing, one attack on the military and a major kidnapping (classified as an attack though without immediate casualties) at Dapchi involving the abduction of 113 schoolchildren, almost all girls, 107 of whom, all Muslims, were shortly thereafter returned. Five others are believed to have died.
Table 3. Boko Haram incidents with 50 or more casualties, with tentative identifications of the Boko Haram factions responsible.
The bigger picture
If we had access to reliable and full information from the Nigerian government and especially the military we would be better able to assess both the present and the future of Boko Haram.
That said, we should note that Boko Haram’s range has been greatly reduced. No longer is it bombing the United Nations in Abuja (2011), bombing churches in Kano and Kaduna (2012), attacking schools and the state capital of Yobe state (2013), breaking inmates out of prisons in Kogi state (2014), bombing Adamawan Yola while controlling 70% of Borno (2015), attacking Chadian army positions near the Niger border (2016), or assaulting towns in northern Adamawa state (2017).
On the other hand the events of 2017-18 are at odds with Nigerian President Buhari’s 2015 claim that the insurgency had been “technically defeated”. On the contrary, the ISWA faction, believed to operating in the north and west of the afflicted area, appears to be gaining in strength and readying itself for a renewed and larger scale campaign. The Shekau faction, thought to be operating in the central, eastern and southeastern parts of the area, is still able to mount substantial assaults, disrupt border areas, and until July maintained a substantial bombing campaign against major administrative centers. The increase in activity in Region 2 from June to November and corresponding decrease in activity in Regions 3, 4 and to a lesser extent 5 may suggest some cooperation between factions and regional Boko Haram contingents.
Another general inference noted above but worth emphasizing (although somewhat exaggerated by mapping) is the importance of roads, and particularly main roads, to Boko Haram operations. This is true even in Region 2 where in Borno seven of twelve attacks on the military occurred on the Zari-Kauwa and Maiduguri-Kauwa-Baga transport axes. Various indications, not least the number of successful ambushes and the retreats of Nigerian forces in the face of insurgents, indicate that the Nigerian military has so far failed to come up with a solution to this problem.
During the period and over the area as a whole, of the 15 most serious incidents 7 were bombings, all of which took place between January and June, after which all major incidents were attacks on the military (Table 3). Twenty-five bombings took place between December and June, only 4 between July and November. While this might reflect the general shift to attacks on the military, it could also indicate that Boko Haram (principally the Shekau faction) has been having difficulties in resupply of explosives and other necessary parts.
The geographical distribution of bombings shows complex patterning. Some took place around the margins of the main incident distribution (Diffa, Buni Yadi, Damboa, Biu, Mora, Madagali, Mozogo and Mubi) in towns that are administrative centers, but on which Boko Haram was unable or chose not to mount assaults. The Maiduguri-Konduga corridor and Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, and with by far the greatest number of refugee camps, were also favored targets for bombers, 4 of which were among the most serious incidents recorded (Map 7). In regions 3 and 4, bombs were also used in the disruption of border crossings and transport routes.
It is also of significance that, although the sources do not often provide information on the religious affiliations of the casualties of terrorism, Table 1 includes only one mention of churches against nine of mosques. Many more Muslims than Christians suffered directly from the insurgency between December 2017 and November 2018. This is probably true of the entire insurgency from 2009 onwards, something to be remembered by all in the process of the reconciliation that still has to take place in the afflicted areas and which has already been initiated by the admirable American University of Nigeria Adamawa Peace Initiative (API).
Lastly, I am only too aware of the inadequacies of the data and my analyses. I encourage others to correct these and take the research further, thereby assisting in an eventual political resolution of differences and the end of the horrors to which the inhabitants of Northeast Nigeria and adjacent areas are collectively subjected at the rate of one every three days.