ABUJA, Nigeria — Less than a year ago, the militant group Boko Haram controlled an area of northeastern Nigeria the size of Belgium. It was “a mortuary for the uncooperative and prison for the conquered,” as one unlucky resident described it to me at the time, and it threatened to engulf ever more of the country. The brutal Islamist insurgency had sapped the morale and discipline of the Nigerian army and seemed poised to carve out a caliphate that rivaled the one it had pledged loyalty to in Iraq and Syria.
Fast-forward just 10 months and the idea of an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria seems a distant memory. Delusions of statehood caused Boko Haram’s leaders to overreach, inviting a powerful regional military response and bolstering the candidacy of former Nigerian military leader Muhammadu Buhari, who set about crushing the Islamist insurgency after winning the presidency in March. A regional military coalition led by Nigeria has recaptured much of the territory Boko Haram once controlled and driven its fighters into remote regions in Nigeria’s northeastern corner.
But if Boko Haram has seen its territorial ambitions dashed in recent months, it is hardly on the verge of defeat. In a way, Boko Haram has come full circle, reverting back to the kind of asymmetrical warfare that was once its grisly hallmark. As a result, the group poses as much of a danger to civilians now as it did when it fought to control cities and towns. In the last six months alone, Boko Haram has killed nearly 1,500 people.
What explains the rollercoaster ride of the last 10 months? Part of the answer is hubris. Last month, a senior Nigerian military officer told me that the publicity Boko Haram garnered from its 2014 kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok emboldened the group’s leaders to be more ambitious, resulting in costly mistakes. Instead of sticking to the hit-and-run tactics that it had used to successfully torment the Nigerian military for years, Boko Haram began to seize and hold territory, boldly declaring an Islamic “caliphate” in the areas it had conquered. This stretched the group’s resources too thin and forced it into a conventional war with the Nigerian military that it could not win. Boko Haram also shed its domestic focus, launching cross-border raids into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, all of which eventually joined a five-nation military coalition against it (along with Benin and Nigeria).
The coalition has done a number on Boko Haram. Not only did it rout the group from its former strongholds, but follow-on pressure from the Nigerian military has degraded the insurgents’ ability to pull off brazen attacks on high-profile targets — such as the 2011 bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. But if the arrival of regional forces helped turn the tide against Boko Haram, so did changes to Nigeria’s own military strategy. A special forces unit under Maj. Gen. Lamidi Adeosun, the commander heading up the battle against Boko Haram, has implemented an aggressive new policy of “relentless pursuit,” which has denied militants the luxury of occupying towns they attack. The Nigerian military has also increased pressure on Boko Haram by releasing photos of its most wanted 100 members, three of whom have been arrested in the past month alone.
The increase in pressure on Boko Haram helps to explain why it has shifted tactics. Unable to square off against the Nigerian military directly, the group has resorted to deploying child suicide bombers and IEDs against softer targets, like the market in Kano, Nigeria, that was hit by a twin suicide bombing on Nov. 18. But not all of the group’s behavioral changes reflect tactical decisions. Boko Haram is showing signs of battle fatigue and depressed morale. New African magazine recently reported that “the average age of Boko Haram’s fighting force keeps dropping” and that “the majority of [its] fighters are teenagers.” With its fighting cadre depleted by recent military setbacks, Boko Haram has reportedly replenished its ranks by kidnapping children and forcing them to fight.
The pressure on Boko Haram is unlikely to let up anytime soon. Nigeria’s uncompromising new president has ordered the army to crush the insurgency before the end of 2015. He has also replaced much of the military leadership, sacking his national security advisor, chief of defense staff, and the heads of the army, navy, and air force, in one fell swoop in July. Last month, he ordered the arrest of the ousted national security advisor, Lt. Col. Sambo Dasuki, for corruption, after an investigative panel accused Dasuki of misappropriating more than $2 billion of the defense budget (perhaps explaining why Nigerian soldiers have complained of being under-equipped).
But if Boko Haram is on the defensive, it would be a mistake to assume that the group is near defeat. It is more than capable of mounting devastating attacks from its current hideouts in the northeastern Sambisa Forest and the Mandara Mountains that straddle Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. It has also risen from the ashes before. In 2009, the Nigerian military killed Boko Haram’s former leader, demolished its mosque in Maiduguri, and summarily executed hundreds of its members. But instead of dying out, the group simply laid low, regrouped, and reemerged deadlier than ever in 2010.
There are reasons to think it could pull off something similar again. For one thing, the group’s methods are becoming fragmented. Increasingly, they involve acts of banditry that serve no obvious theological objective. Whereas Boko Haram’s leaders once focused on increasing the size of their “caliphate,” they are now carrying out isolated attacks on towns that they have no realistic possibility of capturing. This shift may be partly explained by the fact that Boko Haram has had to rely more heavily on forced conscripts, who lack the theological fervor of earlier recruits.
Regardless of the precise reason for the transformation, Boko Haram has come to resemble the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that demonstrated remarkable longevity as it terrorized northern Uganda, parts of South Sudan, and the Central African Republic over the last three decades. Both groups had their origins in religious doctrine, and both have evolved to the point where they employ nearly tactic-less violence — violence that is both extraordinarily difficult to counter and seemingly unrelated to the groups’ religious objectives. Boko Haram and the LRA both abduct children, use them as sex slaves and fighters, and force them to commit atrocities that sever the social bonds that link them to their communities. They both also tend to retaliate against civilian populations when they come under attack by the military. Finally, both use rape as a weapon of war. And as the startling number of released Boko Haram captives who turned out to be pregnant suggests, the group is deliberately impregnating female captives in an effort to replenish its ranks in the future. All of these traits will make the group hard to stamp out for good.
After a year of dizzying gains and losses for Boko Haram, the conflict has arrived at a bloody stalemate. For Boko Haram at least, this is familiar territory: The group has been reduced to the level of capability it enjoyed in 2009, when it carried out sporadic attacks against civilians and routinely gave the army a bloody nose. The fact that Boko Haram is unable to seize and hold territory is not much of a consolation. If there’s one thing the group has demonstrated over the years, it’s that it can strike even when badly wounded and cornered.