Is barbaric Boko Haram winning in Nigeria's north country?

Radicals have killed schoolchildren, fellow Muslims, college students, and drivers on the road in the past four months. What is Nigeria's strategy now? 

A woman looks at a boy sitting along a roadside with some belongings, after Boko Haram militants raided the town of Benisheik, west of Borno State capital Maiduguri September 19, 2013.

In the dead of night, around 30 gunmen in pickup trucks and motorbikes sped onto the grounds of a college in northeast Nigeria. They headed into the male dormitories and opened fire.

At least 41 students were killed when the suspected Boko Haram Islamists attacked the Yobe State College of Agriculture, in a rural area 30 miles south of the state capital Damaturu. They killed students in their sleep. Others were assembled in groups outside before they were shot dead. Some fled into the darkness and were cut down by gunfire. The surviving 1,000 students left the college in terror.

For the last four months, the Nigerian Army has concentrated military operations against Boko Haram. But the attacks by the rebel group show few signs of abating, and the extreme cruelty and violence aimed at vulnerable civilians is on the rise, raising new questions about how effective the government strategy is.

Even President Goodluck Jonathan has started to hint that a new strategy for dealing with the rebels is in order, as they hit ordinary people in schools and towns in the sandy hinterlands of the north.

On Sept. 17, for example, Boko Haram rebels put up roadblocks outside the town of Benisheik in the north. They pulled people from their cars and shot 161, throwing many of the bodies into bushes on the side of the road. 

Much of the current dynamic around Boko Haram dates to May, when President Jonathan declared a state of emergency in three northeastern states, including Yobe, and ordered a military offensive to crush the insurgents. 

Initially, the violence between Army and rebels was muted as Islamist militants deserted cities in the northeast and abandoned forest bases. Indeed, the scale and the geographical span of the Boko Haram attacks appear to have been reduced. 

“They [disparate Boko Haram rebels] still maintain considerable operational capabilities and the intent to stage brazen attacks, the focus being primarily in the remote northeast," says Roddy Barclay, a senior West Africa analyst at Control Risks in London. "But their operational networks have become constricted by the military campaign through the tactical successes in dismantling some cells, arresting and indeed killing some militant leaders,”  Mr. Barclay says.

"They are by no means defeated but it is a different type of militant campaign being waged at the moment compared to what it was a over a year ago.”

'Drum beat changing'

After the Sept. 29 student massacre, President Jonathan described the incident as “the creation of the devil.” He hinted there might be a change in tactics.

“When I declared a state of emergency things calmed down. Now they are looking for soft targets…if the drum beat is changing, we must change steps,” Jonathan said in a televised media discussion on the day of the killings.

Security analysts suspect, however, there may not be much appetite for increasing a military solution, though the government may revise how the state is managing security in rural areas and how to engage in dialogue. 

However, dialogue seems a long-way off when the demands Boko Haram is making are so dogmatic, and when Nigerian officials have rarely been able to identify Boko Haram leaders to negotiate with.

The group's core ideology is not well understood, even by many Muslims. But it appears to gravitate around demands to implement a sweeping version of radical sharia law in majority Muslim areas; those beliefs seemed joined to a similarly deep disregard for state and secular ways and means.

Boko Haram members believe that Western-style education is sinful and un-Islamic; the name "Boko Haram" loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden,” from the Hausa language spoken in northern Nigeria.

Military operations may be providing the impetus for Boko Haram attacks that have been growing in frequency and ferocity in recent weeks. The systematic targeting of the civilian population seems to have the duel aim of undermining the state’s claim of authority and it generates fear among the local population in order to deter citizens from supporting government initiatives.

For example, after rebels killed 29 pupils and a teacher on July 6 at a school some 90 miles from the college massacre this week, most schools in the area closed. (Boko Haram radicals burned some of the schoolchildren alive in their hostels).

In the past two weeks alone, scores of people have been killed, and an estimated 1,700 people have died in violence linked to Boko Haran since 2010.

Largest standing army

In the past year Boko Haram's operational area may have shrunk. But the militants have also bolstered their arsenal of weapons in recent months, security experts say.

There are reports of the group acquiring armored personal carriers and heavy weaponry including rocket propelled grenades. In addition, the Nigerian Army in its crackdown is believed to be suffering more fatalities than it is admitting in public in order to downplay the capacity of the terror group.

As sketchy details become better known on the killing of 161 people dragged from their cars on Sept. 17, it appears that Boko Haram donned military fatigues. Some of the victims were driving to nearby Yobe state to make phone calls, local witnesses said. The military cut phone service in all three emergency states in May, but then later restored it in Yobe and Adamawa where the cars were headed.

The Army maintains that the continued ban on telecom in Borno state is needed to disrupt communications within Boko Haram. Pressure is mounting on security services to restore GSM phone service in Borno, as people are prevented from calling for help or reporting attacks.  

The surge of attacks has prompted some to question the capability of Nigeria's military. Nigeria has the largest standing Army in sub-Saharan Africa and is one of the better trained and equipped in the region. But there are shortfalls in professionalism and discipline.

“Procurement exercises are somewhat diluted by corruption and mismanagement,” says Barclay. “Also, there is the wider issue of maintaining a broad level of community support in the northeast to facilitate their operations. More could be done on the softer side – building local support and intelligence networks.” 

The governor of Yobe state, Ibrahim Geidam, argues that the Army crackdown is inadequate. “Although there is [an] increase in troop movement and military hardware deployment in the northeast, people are yet to see the kind of action on the ground that effectively nips criminal and terrorist activities in the bud,” Mr. Geidam said in a statement.

Nigeria’s armed forces came under scrutiny when troops withdrew from Mali. Western diplomatic sources said Nigerian soldiers were ill equipped. “The Nigerian armed forces are good at pomp and grandeur but hiding underneath are corrupt practices that severely undermine their efforts,” a western diplomat told The Christian Science Monitor on the condition of anonymity. “The training they receive is inadequate, some of their equipment is knackered and they have issues with discipline. Most of the time, they are fighting for their lives.” 

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