In June, reports emerged that the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, killed himself via a suicide bomb when confronted by members of another jihadist group, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). The death of Shekau, who terrorized the civilian population of northeastern Nigeria and kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in 2014, might seem like a positive development to some. This could be true if Boko Haram was the only, or even the most dangerous, jihadist group operating in northeastern Nigeria, as the global media and politicians often suggest. However, as we outline in a recently published academic article, “The Boko Haram Disaggregation Problem,” there is a tendency to corral all iterations of jihadist groups in northeastern Nigeria, past and present, under the name “Boko Haram” even as the group has long ago split into new factions which pose unique threats.
This failure to give nuanced attention to factions of violent extremist organizations (VEOs) is common and not specific to the case of Boko Haram. Across the globe, the United States and other foreign actors have often attempted to apply a one-size-fits-all counterterrorism approach and have been disappointed by the outcomes: for instance, frustrations over US involvement in Afghanistan partly stemmed from the use of a counterinsurgency program developed for application in Iraq. An imperative lesson learned from the past decade is that effective efforts to counter VEOs depend on crafting carefully tailored approaches unique to each VEO in question, understanding not only their kinetic capabilities but the ways in which they draw support from and interact with members of the publics in which they operate.
Thus, identifying fragmentation within and across VEOs is crucial for crafting strategies that account for groups’ individual tactics and strategies. This is true for Boko Haram. While the two VEOs often referred to as Boko Haram are united by name and certain overarching aims, they differ significantly in other important ways. While one is composed of predatory rebels practicing generally indiscriminate violence, the other is a well-organized and fairly disciplined insurgency that tries and sometimes succeeds in resembling a state. When strategy designed to counter VEOs does not reflect nuances between groups, its long-term efficacy and sustainability are called into question. At best, such approaches are incomplete, but at worst, they can be deleterious, unintentionally consolidating rebels’ staying power.
The Boko Haram disaggregation problem presents an example of how an incomplete understanding of VEOs’ disparate motivations and methods can engender suboptimal kinetic and nonkinetic policies to address them. Below, we explore the brief history preceding the Boko Haram fracture, the factions that emerged and how their patterns of violence differ, and why, particularly in the aftermath of Shekau’s presumed death, the global community should care.
What is the Boko Haram Disaggregation Problem?
The group that would come to be colloquially known as Boko Haram originated in Maiduguri, Nigeria in the early 2000s with the goal of instilling sharia law and minimizing Western influence in Nigerian society. Though formally called Jama’at Ahl as-Sunna Liddawah wal-Jihad (JAS) the group came to be known colloquially as Boko Haram for ease of pronunciation and local adoption. Beginning in 2010, it was led by Abubakar Shekau.
With the rise of the Islamic State, in March 2015 JAS pledged allegiance to the ascendant caliphate. With its pledge accepted by the Islamic State, the group dropped its formal name of JAS and instead became ISWAP. Another change was soon to come. Due to internal division about the brutal tactics and poor leadership of ISWAP’s leader, Shekau, in August 2016 the Islamic State released an announcement that Shekau had been replaced as the leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. Dethroned, Shekau and his followers formed a breakaway faction that readopted the group’s original name, JAS, while al-Barnawi’s faction retained the ISWAP title.
However, nearly five years after the split between ISWAP and JAS the designation “Boko Haram” is still frequently used to refer to various iterations and branches of the groups, past and present. Those employing the blanket term “Boko Haram” range from local journalists to those located abroad, as well as think tanks, research centers, and academics in Nigeria and the United States, to name a few. Sometimes, “Boko Haram” is used to refer to different iterations of the group, encompassing both the pre–March 2015 version of JAS as well as the first iteration of ISWAP (before the August 2016 split). Sometimes, observers use “Boko Haram” to refer collectively to JAS and ISWAP. Problematically, “Boko Haram” has often become a catchall term to refer to any and all iterations of the violent militant groups that have operated in northeastern Nigeria and the broader Lake Chad region since 2009.
Juxtaposing JAS and ISWAP: Why Disaggregation Matters
In theory, lumping the two groups—JAS and ISWAP—in their past and current incarnations under the label “Boko Haram” might not be a problem if the groups acted in the same ways. However, this is not the case. Using data from the Global Terrorism Database from between August 2016 and December 2018, we find that these two factions exhibited distinct trends in violence that served to distinguish, rather than unite, them. To call both “Boko Haram” is to ignore each faction’s motivating goals and strategies, and the distinct threats they pose.
For its part, ISWAP has sought to portray itself as a viable, stable replacement for the Nigerian state: it seeks to win hearts and minds of civilians in its areas of operation, including providing education, health services, and even financial assistance to civilians. Its interest in governance is unmistakable: recent reports indicate that ISWAP is attempting to create four caliphates, or states with both a governor and bureaucratic structure, throughout the Lake Chad area. As such, the faction’s employment of violence has been one that, as our research shows, has been undertaken with relative care toward civilians and instead has been acutely focused on targeting statist structures. ISWAP concentrated a large majority of its violence (76 percent) against military bases and personnel, largely via armed assaults with rifles, shotguns, or various other types of small arms. By largely targeting military installations and generally avoiding indiscriminate civilian casualties (though it does use violence as an enforcement mechanism), the faction has effectively proven its ability to provide security throughout the region. With such a profile of violence, efforts to address the ISWAP faction would wisely prioritize hardening security around military and police stations and work to understand how its antistatist violence has served to ingratiate it with civilians who might join or support the group.
In contrast, JAS under the late Shekau acted like far more of a marauding rebel insurgency. Little interested in governance or winning hearts and minds, its patterns of violence were guided by Shekau’s philosophy that one’s refusal to join the group was grounds for killing. Unsurprisingly, JAS’s profile of violence differed significantly from that of ISWAP: it has employed violence far more indiscriminately, targeting civilian-dense locations with suicide bombs. For its part, over half of the attacks (54 percent) perpetrated by JAS during our study were against private citizens and property. In addition, the faction demonstrated a proclivity for using suicide bombs, employing this tactic in 44 percent of the attributed incidents. As such, efforts to minimize the violence of JAS would take on completely different priorities than a plan to address ISWAP, instead looking toward the hardening of civilian spaces (markets, bus stops, public squares) and exploiting often-troubled relations with civil society.
Consequently, the initial step to designing more informed and effective policy is disaggregating between the two factions. While pressure from the Nigerian military and its allies (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and regional African states) has slowly eroded the power of JAS, these actors face a much more formidable opponent in ISWAP. Because ISWAP has sometimes been treated as a mere appendage rather than a separate entity, the Nigerian state’s use of attrition-based warfare has often served to strengthen the group. If the focus had instead been on addressing the grievances of citizens that drove them to support the group, ISWAP might not have developed its extensive infrastructure within local communities, significantly decreasing the organization’s durability.
Another arguable misstep related to non-disaggregation arose in 2019, when Nigeria adopted the “super camp strategy.” In response to ISWAP’s growing number of attacks against military installations, the Nigerian military consolidated its soldiers into a few, heavily fortified bases. Although this approach ostensibly decreased violence against security forces, it allowed JAS to thrive. Militants could murder civilians and raze villages without much opposition by soldiers, who were too far removed to serve as a deterrent. Again, the dangers of treating the two factions as one were manifest: a strategy tailored to one group’s targeting tactics allowed the other nearly free range to conduct its violence. Furthermore, while the super camp strategy intended to counter ISWAP, it too narrowly focused on the faction’s armed capabilities. Rather than focusing its efforts on targeting these bases, ISWAP instead capitalized on the opportunity to expand its areas of operations and deepen its ties with communities. The result: neither faction—JAS nor ISWAP—has been eradicated, and each will continue to exploit the weaknesses in policies that do not treat each faction as a distinct entity.
Clarity of Threat and Efficacy in Policy
The Boko Haram disaggregation problem should concern the global community for its real-world policy implications: to continue to rely on flawed assumptions and incomplete data is to formulate ill-informed policy. Understanding that—in addition to how—the factions differ so significantly will not only offer clarity regarding the groups’ specific goals but can also help guide kinetic counterterrorism activities and nonkinetic efforts to counter violent extremism. Indeed, the death of Shekau may be a bad omen for stability in the Lake Chad area as his downfall has presumably strengthened the position of what might be considered the more dangerous jihadist group in northeastern Nigeria: ISWAP. Any suggestion that the leader of a unified Boko Haram has been killed is inherently misleading, and importantly, may produce incorrect policy responses.
As just one other example of the importance of VEO disaggregation—among many around the world—one might consider the case of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), a group operating in the Sahel. Originally composed of four separate groups, the umbrella moniker alludes to a certain level of cohesion; however, the original constituent factions (Ansar Dine, FLM, al-Mourabitoun, and AQIM Sahara) have, at various points, maintained distinct goals and tactics. Thus, recognizing the original subgroup units of the current JNIM as having distinct networks, fighters, and areas of operation could give more coherence in understanding the umbrella group’s actions. Ultimately, an approach that does not account for a VEO’s unique attributes will fall short, as it fails to address the root causes of the group’s genesis and persistence.
To effectively counter a threat, one must first understand it. As such, comprehensive and nuanced analysis of VEOs is a prerequisite for tailoring an appropriate response. Divergent ideologies and capabilities can manifest as radically different profiles of violence. Although the stark distinctions between JAS and ISWAP are somewhat of a paragon, this lesson is applicable to any attempt to counter a nonstate armed group.
Ultimately, JAS and ISWAP cannot be treated as a unitary actor when both qualitative and quantitative research underscores how they act differently. With the leader of JAS, Shekau, presumably gone, and rumors that the groups may now be merging again, the importance of paying acute attention to ground-level affinities has never been more important.
Jason Warner is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy and an associate of the Combating Terrorism Center, where he directs the organization’s Africa research profile.
Stephanie Lizzo is a master’s student at Sciences Po, where she will study international security with concentrations in African studies and intelligence.
Jason Warner and Stephanie Lizzo authored “The ‘Boko Haram Disaggregation Problem’ and Comparative Profiles of Factional Violence: Challenges, Impacts, and Solutions in the Study of Africa’s Deadliest Terror Group(s),” which expands upon the arguments presented here. In addition to the discussion on the use of the name “Boko Haram” to refer to all factions, the piece also refers to the problems in the availability of current data to disaggregate the violence of these groups.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Cpl. Danielle Rodrigues, California National Guard