July 11, 2017
Boko Haram had a busy Ramadan in 2017, which reflected one of the group’s more successful recent thirty-day spans in terms of violence.
In total, at least thirty-nine different attacks attributed to the group occurred, the highest monthly total this year (although April and January were close). Ramadan started off slow, with just six attacks in the first ten days, before the group engaged in near-daily violence the rest of the time.
Of the thirty-nine attacks, 25 involved suicide bombers – nearly two out of every three incidents. In fact, the number of suicide incidents is the most ever recorded in a one-month span, an indication of the group’s mystifying ability not just to maintain, but even increase, capabilities in this regard.
These attacks included at least 38 total bombers, as 14 incidents involved multiple bombers, with as many as four at once. While many Boko Haram suicide attacks have largely been ineffective recently – confined to the outskirts of urban areas and few casualties, especially of civilians – Ramadan reversed this trend. At least 55 civilians were killed, or more than two per attack (compared to 9 total civilians killed on 13 attacks in May). While casualty counts are difficult to track and impossible to guarantee complete accuracy, it is clear that the lethality to civilians of this type of violence increased (though centering around a few specific incidents, in which the group was able to exploit some security vulnerabilities).
In terms of location, 18 of the total Ramadan incidents occurred in northern Cameroon (predominately in the Mayo Sava department) while 20 were in Borno state, and one in Chad. Half of those in Borno occurred in or on the outskirts of Maiduguri, symbolizing the group’s continued fascination with the movement’s birthplace. Many of these occurred in two primary areas of the city – its eastern and southeastern flanks, a likely indication of the Shekau faction’s responsibility given his group’s purported hideouts in areas to the south and southeast of the Borno state capital (such as Sambisa Forest).
In terms of the factional nature of the violence, it appears the vast majority of recorded incidents over Ramadan likely derive from the Shekau faction. The use of suicide bombers, the targeting of civilians, and the geographic concentration of violence along the Nigeria-Cameroon border and in south-central Borno all point to Shekau’s responsibility.
Nonetheless, the Barnawi faction is reportedly also present in areas of south-central Borno state, and little information emerges from its presumed northern Borno state strongholds around Guzamala and Abadam local government areas (LGAs), so it is difficult to say how operational the group has been recently. The major 24 June 2017 battle with Chadian security forces along some islands in Lake Chad is the clearest indication of a likely Barnawi faction violence (and was later claimed in the Islamic State weekly publication Al Naba), but the majority of the incidents in the dataset more closely correspond to Shekau’s operational methods.
The Shekau faction also followed up its two biggest Ramadan attacks – an invasion of the Jiddari Polo neighborhood in Maiduguri, and an assault on a convoy of vehicles traveling from Maiduguri along Damboa road in which several female police officers were reportedly abducted, with video messaging claiming the incidents, serving to capitalize on the propaganda value of their success. In fact, both incidents represent somewhat of a recent increase of capabilities for a group constantly claimed to be on the decline. The convoy consisted of 200 vehicles and was protected by both the Nigerian army and police, while the Jiddari Polo incident represented Boko Haram’s first “invasion” of Maiduguri in nearly two years (in addition one of its deepest recent penetrations of the city).
These two incidents, combined with the increase in suicide attack lethality and continued indications after Ramadan of sustained capabilities (such as the first suicide attack in Niger in 1.5 years and repeated suicide violence in northern Cameroon), are patent signs that the movement is far from being defeated. In fact, the increased levels of violence targeting Maiduguri since late last year is another indication that events like the “fall” of Sambisa Forest may result in pushing the militants around more than eliminating them, with some of this now coming closer to the Borno state capital. There is an ebb and flow nature to this violence, but it seems the movement has been able to regroup after military pressure in some fashion.
It also begs the question as to how the movement was able to enjoy such success during this month? Boko Haram is still a far cry from what it was a few years ago when it controlled much of Borno state and beyond, but Ramadan 2017 indicates that it is far from a spent force, and rather one capable of constant adaption. The shifts the group made have helped increase the effectiveness of its suicide attacks, while demonstrating a consistent supply of both bombers and explosive materials. Security actors must consider these dynamics and respond with constantly innovate tactics as well – the recent announcement that the University of Maiduguri, a frequent target in past months, will start digging trenches around unfenced parts of the campus is a good start. But as Ramadan 2017 indicated, more measures are needed, and despite some previously positive trends, it will be unwise to relax when it comes to security in the Lake Chad region any time soon.