Boko Haram Escalates Attacks on Christians in Northern Nigeria
Apr 23, 2012
During the past six months, Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremist sect has continued to demonstrate the ability to execute attacks. It has both solidified its hold over the region of Maiduguri in Borno State, as well as expanded its operating area to include the major Muslim population centers of northern Nigeria. To date, the Nigerian government seems incapable of responding to Boko Haram, and through a series of mistakes has revealed what outside observers have long suspected: certain elements of the security forces and political leaders of Muslim-majority northern Nigeria are either complicit with Boko Haram’s operations, or they are taking a rather complacent view of its success.
The most significant changes to Boko Haram’s operations have been a departure from high-profile operations with international implications—such as the suicide attack on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja on August 26, 2011—and an escalation of attacks on Nigerian Christians as well as a renewed focus on attacks against the Nigerian security apparatus (police and army).
Although Boko Haram’s basic goal of creating a Shari`a state either in part or in the totality of Nigeria remains a constant, its methodology has changed slightly since the summer of 2011. This article looks at Boko Haram’s increase in attacks on Christians, reviews its continued targeting of Nigerian security forces, and finally assesses the implications for the future.
Boko Haram Escalates Attacks on Christians
Starting with the major attacks in Damaturu in Yobe State on November 4, 2011 and the Christmas Day series of operations in 2011, Boko Haram’s renewed focus on Christians is a departure from its previous operations, which targeted Christians more at random and did not appear to be a priority for the group.
Boko Haram’s new phase of attacks on Christians can be divided into several target categories: 1) attacks against local Christians in Boko Haram’s core operating area of Borno and Yobe states, and the adjacent state of Bauchi; 2) major suicide operations or bombing attacks of high-profile churches in Jos in Plateau State and the capital of Abuja; and 3) minor operations against church or parachurch personnel throughout the north and “middle belt” regions of Nigeria. These operations represent a fairly major shift in the goals of Boko Haram, which are still squarely Nigeria-focused, and represent the opposition of certain elements of the Muslim north to the spread of Christianity in the region.
Attacks on Christian targets in general are boundary-creating operations that can command a certain level of popular support within the Muslim community—or at least not generate the broad Muslim opposition that was seen when Salafi-jihadi groups in various countries targeted Muslim civilians beginning in 2003. The Salafi-jihadi groups that today are at the forefront of the movement targeting Christians (which remains peripheral to the much broader field of political radical Islam) such as al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa, radical Muslims in southern Thailand, the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and Indonesian radicals are achieving that prominence because they are returning to the pre-2003 formula of “defending Islam.” This trend is likely the wave of the immediate future, at least until these groups can establish themselves in a geographic base.
Boko Haram follows this paradigm. It emphasizes in its propaganda and operations two basic themes, both of which resonate with Nigerian Muslims: 1) the security forces are tools of the Christian-dominated government in Abuja, and are actively preventing the formation of a Shari`a state using brutal methods and attacking innocent, pious Muslims; and 2) the growth of Christianity through aggressive proselytizing will eventually disenfranchise Muslims (even in the Muslim-majority north) and render the creation of a Muslim state (or society) in the north either impossible or meaningless. While substantive proof that Boko Haram commands actual broad-based support among Muslims does not exist, the evidence of the past year confirms that these two messages do resonate with the broader Muslim population as long as Boko Haram does not itself kill large numbers of Muslim civilians.
Boko Haram’s operations during the period of fall 2011 to spring 2012 began with the major series of suicide attacks, bombings and targeted murders in the Yobe state capital of Damaturu, which killed at least 100 people. These operations were clearly designed to expel Christians from northern mid-range towns. (Much of the Christian population of Maiduguri already fled the city during the previous period, fall 2010-spring 2011.) Anecdotally, it seems that the Damaturu and follow-up operations in the states bordering Boko Haram’s core region of Borno and Yobe have succeeded in causing the balance of the Christian population to flee.
The next series of operations focused on Jos and Abuja, both cities with a substantial expatriate population and good media coverage. These attacks occurred on Christmas Day 2011, again a symbolic date guaranteed to make headlines. These operations used suicide attacks against churches and killed at least 25 people. It is a mystery as to why this attack came as a surprise given that Boko Haram had previously executed spectacular attacks on Christian targets on Christmas Day in 2010. In Jos and Abuja, however, in contradistinction to the Damaturu attacks (and others in the northeast), the Christian population is quite strong—even at a majority level—and therefore there is no chance that Boko Haram, lacking broader military options, can do anything other than provoke terror. There have also been major thematic attacks on Christian targets on January 5, 6, 10, 11, 24 (all in either Maiduguri, Adumawa or Jos), February 19 (Suleja, near Abuja), and February 25, 2012 (Abuja and Jos), of which the Jos attack was a suicide bombing.
Boko Haram has managed to take a semi-dysfunctional society lacking basic security and the rule of law and drive it into a complete state of dysfunction where the only obvious means by which order can be re-established is through draconian state-security methods (akin to Algeria in the 1990s) or by acceding to the group’s demands. The latter option would indeed cause a civil war, as the Christians through fall 2011 and spring 2012 have become increasingly impatient with the lack of tangible governmental progress against Boko Haram. There is a strong danger of revenge attacks by Christians on a local ad hoc basis, or even worse the creation of an equivalent vigilante group that could mirror Boko Haram’s tactics.
Continued Targeting of Nigerian Security Forces
The most spectacular series of attacks carried out during the recent period was the January 21, 2012, operations against police and military targets in the major northern Muslim city of Kano, which killed at least 186 people. This operation was spectacular not only for its high casualty count, but the complex nature of attacks upon no less than three different police targets, a prison break and approximately 12 car bombs either exploding around the city or found unexploded. Although this incident was grander in nature than previous attacks, it was no different in kind than past Boko Haram attacks against security targets throughout 2010-2011. It was followed by a brazen suicide bombing against the armed forces General Headquarters in Kaduna on February 9, considered to be the Nigerian equivalent of the U.S. Army’s West Point. Although this operation failed to actually penetrate the base, the mere fact that it was attempted, and in Kaduna (at the center of the country), has been a major propaganda victory for Boko Haram. There have also been a number of attacks against schools, hospitals, markets and other public locations (including sports events), primarily in Maiduguri. All of these latter attacks fall under Boko Haram’s rubric of attacks involving al-amr bi-l-ma`ruf wa-l-nahy `an al-munkar (enjoining the good and forbidding the evil)—such operations are typically directed against non-Islamic practices, such as the consumption of alcohol.
It is important to recognize that while Boko Haram has expanded its field of targets through the Kano attacks by moving away from its base in northeastern Nigeria and its usual range of targets in the center, it has yet to move beyond this core region or strike at any of the major cities of the northwest or the Christian south. Moreover, to counter the U.S. congressional report on Nigeria in December 2011, Boko Haram does not present any threat thus far beyond the borders of Nigeria.
Implications for the Future
As Nigerian reporters have speculated, it appears that Boko Haram has several interlocking elements at the present time. One is most probably centered around the figure of Abubakr Shekau, who represents the most doctrinally Salafi-jihadi section of the group. It is to him that one can attribute the most doctrinaire statements, such as his January 28, 2012, release threatening Muslims who do not fully observe Shari`a: “There are no exceptions. Even if you are a Muslim and you can’t abide by Shari`a we will kill you. Even if you are my own father, we will kill you.” It is tempting to see attacks such as the January 21 incident in Kano as the work of this faction of Boko Haram (since they represent a type of revenge for Muhammad Yusuf, the murdered charismatic founder of Boko Haram), while attacks against Christians are perhaps farmed out to other sections of the group.
Nigerian journalists have speculated that the group now exists on a franchise basis, and that some attacks on Christians, murderous as they are, represent local grievances. Of course, it is possible that a number of driving factors could be at play in the anti-Christian attacks. It is interesting that there is also no evidence of Muslim clerics joining Boko Haram; indeed, the group has continued to kill its religious opponents, such as on February 18 in Maiduguri. In the author’s analysis, the scale of all of these attacks indicates that Boko Haram must consist of several thousand hard-core members and sympathizers.
To date, the Nigerian government has not demonstrated the ability to contain Boko Haram, and strong evidence that the group has been curtailed by any of the measures taken by the government does not exist. There is also no evidence that Boko Haram is making the transition to a more broad-based jihadist group (a transition that is usually marked by the creation of a countersociety), nor has it succeeded in gathering mass support. Indeed, Boko Haram could very well have alienated Muslim public opinion by some of its indiscriminate killings. Although it is commonly discussed in the popular press, it is important not to assume that Boko Haram is about to transform into a transnational Salafi-jihadi group. The public evidence that Boko Haram actually has ties to the Somalia-based al-Shabab or with North Africa’s AQIM is weak. With the sole exception of the attack upon the UN headquarters in Abuja, there are no attacks carried out by Boko Haram thus far that cannot be explained within the context of a local jihadist group, with a Salafist leadership, seeking to establish a Shari`a state over part or all of Nigeria.
Dr. David Cook is associate professor of religious studies at Rice University. He completed his undergraduate degrees at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2001. His first book, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, was published by Darwin Press in the series Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam. Two further books, Understanding Jihad and Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature were published during 2005, and Martyrdom in Islam as well as Understanding and Addressing Suicide Attacks (with Olivia Allison) have been completed recently.
 Nigeria is nearly equally divided between Muslims and Christians. Nigerian Muslims, who are primarily Sunni, are concentrated in the northern part of the country, while Christians dominate the Middle Belt and the south.
 The other angle, if one wants to avoid the religious component, is ethnic, where certain elements of the north oppose the spread of Igbos and other southern ethnic elements to the region. The author, however, does not believe that the ethnic angle applies in this context.
 Mark Lobel, “Kano Bombings: ‘Extra-Judicial’ Killings Spark Nigeria Fury,” BBC, February 2, 2012.
 “Boko Haram: Nigerian Islamist Leader Defends Attacks,” BBC, January 11, 2012. Synthesis of statements by Abubakar Shekau from YouTube.
 “Emir Of Kano Weeps Over Boko Haram Attacks – Premium Times,” African Spotlight, January 23, 2012.
 “Violence in Yobe State, Nigeria Aimed Mainly at Christians,” Compass Direct News, November 11, 2011.
 “Deadly Nigeria Bomb Attacks Condemned by World Leaders,” BBC, December 25, 2011.
 Mindy Belz, “Targeted Christians,” WORLD Magazine, February 29, 2012.
 “Nigeria Unrest: Mosque Attacked in Benin City,” BBC, January 10, 2012; Jon Gambrell and Njadvara Musa, “Nigeria Sect Kills 15; Christians Vow Defense,” Associated Press, January 7, 2012.
 “Kano Attack: Emir Leads Prayers in Nigerian City,” BBC, January 23, 2012.
 “US Congress Warns of Nigeria’s Boko Haram,” BBC, December 1, 2011.
 Monica Mark, “Boko Haram Vows to Fight until Nigeria Establishes Sharia Law,” Guardian, January 27, 2012; “Shekau Leading Boko Haram From the Shadows,” Agence France-Presse, January 28, 2012.
 Yusuf Alli, “Kabiru Sokoto Gives SSS Clues on Sect’s Leaders,” The Nation, February 13, 2012.
 Other estimates, such as from Nigerian security officials, place the number of cadre at a few hundred.
 For example, Kabiru Sokoto, the bombmaker accused of the December 25, 2011, church bombing in Abuja, escaped from police custody on January 17, 2012. He was recaptured, however, on February 10.