Varied Tactics Throughout the Boko Haram Insurgency

Previously published March 29, 2017 (Project Cyma)

In 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency began with a series of gunfights in Nigeria’s Borno State, eventually employing a greater variety of tactics in attacks across the northern region as time went on. This onslaught of attacks included a large-scale prison break and the bombing of an army barracks, both in 2010. It wasn’t until 2011, however, that Boko Haram began to use the tactics for which it has become known, including kidnapping, suicide bombing, and large-scale attacks.

The first Boko Haram suicide attack occurred in June of 2011 when a militant killed multiple people, including himself, in an Abuja carpark. The next month, a member of the terrorist organization did the same at the city’s United Nations complex. These attacks marked not only the escalation of Boko Haram’s insurgency, but also the first suicide bombings in Nigerian history. Since then, Boko Haram has employed suicide bombing as a common device, perpetrating more than 70 such attacks in 2015, when suicide bombings comprised about 30% of Boko Haram’s violent acts. In contrast to common expectations regarding suicide bombing, Boko Haram attacks have been carried out not only by willing volunteers, but also by kidnapping victims possibly forced into the act. Recent decreases in Boko Haram activity (likely the result of a significant push by the Nigerian government in combination with an internal power struggle) have seen the prevalence of suicide attacks reduced, from 30% of Boko Haram attacks in 2015 to roughly 20% in 2016.*

Another method often utilized by Boko Haram is abduction, which only began in earnest after a 2013 military push reduced Boko Haram’s ranks. In February 2014, Konduga, Borno State was attacked and 20 girls were kidnapped. This attack was followed by a similar incident later that month in Buni Yadi, Yobe State. These abductions were characterized as a backlash to the Nigerian government’s detention of the wives and children of suspected militant leaders. Most notably, in April 2014, 276 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok, Borno State. These kidnappings have served multiple purposes in Boko Haram’s insurgency: providing soldiers, slaves, and, as previously mentioned, suicide bombers. Unlike suicide bombing, it does not appear that this tactic has seen a significant decrease in its usage in the last two years.

Perhaps the most significant change in tactics, however, is the decrease in sieges and other large-scale, high casualty attacks on cities and communities. From 2011 through early 2015, Boko Haram launched significant offensives against such towns as Damaturu, Baga (both in 2013 and early 2015), and Gamboru, killing between dozens and hundreds in each attack. As 2015 progressed, however, some attacks were soundly repelled, as in Gombe, and since then the frequency of such assaults has decreased, as has the casualty count of Boko Haram’s average attack.

Boko Haram’s tactics have changed significantly in the years since 2009, ranging from relatively simple methods such as shootings and vandalism to kidnappings, suicide bombings, and even assaults on entire cities. Recently, however, Boko Haram activity has subsided somewhat, with less than 120 attacks attributed to the militant group in 2016 as opposed to around 250 in 2015. With this de-escalation, it seems that more simplistic tactics have increased in prevalence, with shootings and non-suicide bombings comprising greater shares of the violence. Though trends seem to indicate a change in Boko Haram’s tactics once again, it is yet to be seen what the coming months will bring.

*This data, as well as any other numerical data not otherwise attributed, was collected by Project Cyma.