Boko Haram’s cross-border attacks: tactical manoeuvring to mitigate weakness

The Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram has stepped up its cross-border operations, a survival tactic which may – as it has for other transnational groups – work to prevent organisational weaknesses and territorial losses from bringing about the group's downfall.

Photo by Diariocritico de Venezuela

By Anastasia Voronkova, Editor, Armed Conflict Survey; Research Fellow for Armed Conflict and Armed Conflict Database

On 12 July 2017 two suicide bombings took place in the town of Waza in northern Cameroon, eight kilometres away from the Nigerian border, killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 40. This was the latest in a series of suicide attacks in the region that appear to have increased in frequency since June. Although no group formally claimed responsibility for the blasts, which took place in a crowded neighbourhood, the Nigerian insurgency Boko Haram was suspected of carrying out the attacks.

The incidents do indeed bear several characteristics that have been typical of Boko Haram activities. Firstly, attacks on high-capacity venues, such as markets and mosques, have been more and more common. They are typically designed to maximise civilian casualties and to garner as much public attention as possible. In this way the organisation has attempted to adapt its tactics, compensating for its relative weakness versus state forces by exploiting visibility, affirming tactical advantage and presence, despite significant territorial losses. Consequently, target selection has been steadily expanding far beyond security installations, check points and military barracks as the central elements of delegitimising state authority.

Secondly, the group has been known to respond to pressure from the Nigerian military by moving its operations beyond Nigerian territory, shifting geographical focus rather than scaling back. Thirdly, these attacks exemplify the ongoing feminisation of suicide bombings in Nigeria and beyond. While the exact number of women currently active in the group is difficult to ascertain, according to some data 75% of children involved in Boko Haram suicide missions are girls. Since at least 2014 Boko Haram has been part of an increasing tendency among insurgent groups – including the Taliban, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – to strategically use women and girls in suicide missions, partly because they are typically viewed by the security forces as non-combatants, and attract less suspicion.

One of the most intriguing (although hardly surprising) aspects of the continuing upsurge in cross-border operations has been Boko Haram’s ability to employ tactics, and elements of rhetoric, akin to those used by other transnational groups like ISIS. In so doing they are building ties that, even when intangible, are essential to mitigate territorial losses and organisational weaknesses, such as those resulting from splits within the group. This tactical affinity is especially important in the Lake Chad area, where Boko Haram largely lacks the support base it can draw on in Nigeria itself, frequently relying on coercive means to recruit. While the group does not appear to aspire to impose control over territory in the wider Lake Chad basin, it is driven to diffuse regionally in order to survive in the context of ongoing offensives from the Nigerian state. Under these circumstances the strategically chosen similarity in tactics allows Boko Haram to better claim operational credibility, counterbalancing its military vulnerability by tapping into a widely familiar tool.

Rhetorically, the increasingly global orientation of Boko Haram as part of a worldwide jihadist movement around which Muslims must unite ensures that it does not become alienated and ideologically isolated. The use of suicide bombings also makes the group harder to anticipate, detect and defeat. With time, this combination could allow Boko Haram to become more easily and deeply embedded in international networks of relationships and potential recruits, including foreign fighters. Assuming that such ties are automatically disrupted with successful military operations is likely to result in misguided counter-terrorism approaches.

This post originally appeared in the Armed Conflict Database (ACD), which provides monitoring, data and analysis on armed conflicts worldwide, ranging from rebellions and insurgencies to civil wars and inter-state conflicts.

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