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Suicide attack in Nigeria: Is Boko Haram still a force to be reckoned with?

Wednesday's attack was the latest in a string of attacks attributed to the Islamist group this year. 

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    An elderly woman is seen at a camp for internally displaced people in Maiduguri, Nigeria March 9, 2016. A Nigerian government push to strangle the Boko Haram insurgency has shut down the cattle trade that sustained the city of Maiduguri, leaving many residents with no livelihood, including many of the two million people displaced by the war.
    Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters/File
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Two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in a mosque Wednesday in the city of Maiduguri, casting doubt at claims by the Nigerian Army that it was making progress in diminishing the Boko Haram insurgency. 

The bombing killed 22 people and wounded 18 people, AFP reports.  

Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, has endured consistent suicide bombing in recent months -- a significant fact considering the northeastern city also became the headquarters of Nigeria’s counterinsurgency efforts soon after President Muhammadi Buhari took office last May. Wednesday's attack, for example, was the second in five months at this particular mosque, the Associated Press reports. Another suicide bombing killed six people last October.

Recommended: What is Nigeria's Boko Haram? 5 things to know

The Nigerian military has, indeed, made significant headway in the fight against Boko Haram. But the continued suicide bombings, a now common strategy by the group, leaves some experts unclear on how much the group has been curtailed.

“It’s very hard to know how weak Boko Haram is, and it depends on how you define weakness. Certainly it occupies much less territory than it once did,” says John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in a telephone interview with The Monitor.

“Before the 2015 operation by Nigeria, Niger and Chad, bolstered by South African mercenaries, it occupied territories equivalent in size to Belgium, or the US state of Maryland. Certainly it controls far less now, maybe none.”

And the Nigerian military has enjoyed recent successes: Seventy-six Boko Haram members surrendered in early March due to food shortages, a marker that the military is succeeding in choking supply routes of the Islamic group. And in the same week, the Nigerian military rescued 701 people held captive, in a joint mission with Cameroon, part of the African-Union backed multinational force.

A comprehensive approach

The Nigerian army has previously called the rise in suicide bombings a desperate move by Boko Haram to remain relevant, but Jennifer Cooke of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa Program says that it is also difficult to mount a response to such "soft target" attacks like mosques. 

“In Nigeria’s defense, it’s not easy to guard against that – assaults on schools, tiny villages scattered across huge areas – it doesn’t lend itself to a big military response.”

Instead, Ms. Cooke recommends that Nigeria, alongside its military counterinsurgency efforts, employs a "more comprehensive approach, addressing basic education, economic opportunity and revitalization" -- among other solutions.

“At the same time, there needs to be a community-led narrative to counter the appeal of Boko Haram,” she adds. “You need credible interlocutors who can counter on ideological/religious grounds, rather than the government telling people what to do.”

Such a response would need the participation of the local community, one that the military has likely alienated after arresting and carrying out “extrajudicial executions” of suspected Boko Haram members, according to Amnesty International. 

Both Cooke and Mr. Campbell agree that the situation is complex, and the solution equally so. There needs to be better coordination between regional leaders (particularly those of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon); the financial networks supporting Boko Haram need to be identified and disrupted; the military needs to foster cooperation with local communities, who have the best intelligence on militants and impending attacks.

“Buhari seems to have a vision. He has an approach...but it will take time,” says Campbell. 

About 20,000 people have died in the 6-year-old uprising, according to the  Associated Press, though casualty statistics are notoriously hard to come by in Nigeria. Boko Haram was declared the deadliest of all terror groups in 2014.

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