The evolving threat of Boko Haram

Though Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based Islamic insurgency, has generated fewer recent headlines in the Western press than have militants in nearby Mali or the country’s own Niger Delta rebels, they are thought to have killed more than 1,500 people in bomb attacks and drive-by shootings over the past three years. Worryingly, the threat the group ...

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

Though Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based Islamic insurgency, has generated fewer recent headlines in the Western press than have militants in nearby Mali or the country's own Niger Delta rebels, they are thought to have killed more than 1,500 people in bomb attacks and drive-by shootings over the past three years. Worryingly, the threat the group poses to Nigeria, home to an economy on track to become Africa's largest next year, may be increasing.

The northeastern state of Borno, the site of a recent Boko Haram assault that claimed more than 180 lives, represents the epicenter of Nigeria's radical Islamist threat. Parts of the majority Muslim region have effectively become a warzone. Though ideology helps fuel these movements, Boko Haram and its al Qaeda-linked offshoot Ansaru are also part of Nigeria's zero-sum regional competition for power and resources, which will continue to pit regional factions within the ruling People's Democratic Party against one another and the government against the country's newly merged opposition coalition. Hotly contested primaries next year and national elections in early 2015 will further polarize the political landscape along regional lines, creating even more fertile ground for Boko Haram and its sponsors.

Boko Haram -- which means "Western education is sacrilege" in Hausa, northern Nigeria's most widely spoken language -- has assassinated key allies of President Goodluck Jonathan's government, including both political proxies and senior clerics, most recently just days after a rare presidential visit to the region. This in turn provoked a wildly aggressive response from Nigeria's military, with enormous collateral damage to civilians. Jonathan reluctantly ordered a policy review last week that could grant amnesty to Boko Haram "moderates" willing to lay down their weapons, but the current surge in violence makes a breakthrough even less likely than before.

Though Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based Islamic insurgency, has generated fewer recent headlines in the Western press than have militants in nearby Mali or the country’s own Niger Delta rebels, they are thought to have killed more than 1,500 people in bomb attacks and drive-by shootings over the past three years. Worryingly, the threat the group poses to Nigeria, home to an economy on track to become Africa’s largest next year, may be increasing.

The northeastern state of Borno, the site of a recent Boko Haram assault that claimed more than 180 lives, represents the epicenter of Nigeria’s radical Islamist threat. Parts of the majority Muslim region have effectively become a warzone. Though ideology helps fuel these movements, Boko Haram and its al Qaeda-linked offshoot Ansaru are also part of Nigeria’s zero-sum regional competition for power and resources, which will continue to pit regional factions within the ruling People’s Democratic Party against one another and the government against the country’s newly merged opposition coalition. Hotly contested primaries next year and national elections in early 2015 will further polarize the political landscape along regional lines, creating even more fertile ground for Boko Haram and its sponsors.

Boko Haram — which means "Western education is sacrilege" in Hausa, northern Nigeria’s most widely spoken language — has assassinated key allies of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, including both political proxies and senior clerics, most recently just days after a rare presidential visit to the region. This in turn provoked a wildly aggressive response from Nigeria’s military, with enormous collateral damage to civilians. Jonathan reluctantly ordered a policy review last week that could grant amnesty to Boko Haram "moderates" willing to lay down their weapons, but the current surge in violence makes a breakthrough even less likely than before.

Northeastern states will likely remain on the front-lines of the Boko Haram threat. Proximity to porous borders with Niger and Cameroon (and on to sympathetic al Qaeda allies in Mali) provides Boko Haram with rear bases and safe havens just over the border. Though the unrest created by Boko Haram has gotten worse since the French-led intervention in Mali, its impact on Nigeria’s economy has so far been contained, at least viewed from the country’s economic heartland in the south. Investors generally see an attack on the southern business capital of Lagos or in the oil-rich Niger Delta as a game changer for risk perceptions. A large-scale attack in either place would probably have an immediate market impact — on the stock exchange, currency value, and bond yields, all of which are performing strongly at the moment. For the moment, this remains a high-impact but low probability risk.

But the political and economic stakes would also rise dramatically if Boko Haram ratchets up attacks on the sectarian, ethnic, and political flashpoints in north central Nigeria, including Abuja, the country’s capital, and major flashpoint cities like Jos, where sectarian and ethnic tensions are already on the rise. This is an under-appreciated risk and one that is already developing.

Boko Haram has more than once proven that it can hit Abuja. If it reorients its attention and resources to Abuja and to the ethno-sectarian tinderboxes that lie at the fault line between northern and southern Nigeria, the impacts will reverberate across the entire nation, West Africa more broadly, and the restive Sahel region to Nigeria’s north.

Philippe de Pontet is head of Eurasia Group’s Africa practice. Willis Sparks is director in the firm’s global macro practice.

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