The Strategic Limitations of Boko Haram in Southern Nigeria
Aug 23, 2012
On July 30, 2009, Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf was killed while in custody of Nigerian security forces in Maiduguri, Borno State, in northeastern Nigeria. On August 9, Boko Haram’s new leader announced in a written statement that Yusuf’s ideas would “live on forever” and that Boko Haram would begin a series of bombings in the “evil cities” of Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu and Port Harcourt, all in southern Nigeria. He stated that Boko Haram’s “Islamic revolution” was not limited to the northern states and that the southern states, “especially the Yoruba, Igbo and Ijaw infidels,” would become Boko Haram’s immediate target.
As Nigeria is split between a predominantly Muslim north, where Boko Haram originates and primarily operates, and a predominantly Christian south, attacks against Christians in southern Nigeria would spread instability to the south. Boko Haram attacks on churches in the religiously mixed Middle Belt in the first half of 2012 have already led to retaliation by Christians against Muslims in that region and heightened the prospects for a religious civil war in the country. In addition, the insecurity caused by Boko Haram attacks in the south, including kidnappings or sabotage, would affect the country’s economy because all of Nigeria’s oil reserves, which account for more than 90% of the country’s export earnings and 80% of government revenues, are in the southern zones. An attack in southern Nigeria would also render a psychological victory for Boko Haram because it would show that the group could strike anywhere in the country and that Lagos, Nigeria’s economic hub and Africa’s most populous city, is in Boko Haram’s targeting range.
Following Boko Haram’s August 9 threat on the south, the group did not carry out any successful attacks in southern Nigeria. In fact, all of the approximately 500 Boko Haram attacks recorded since 2009 were carried out in the country’s northern zones. During this period, Boko Haram expanded its operations from its original bases in Yobe and Borno states in the far northeast to North-Central zone’s commercial capital of Kano and North-West zone’s traditional capital of Sokoto, and to the Middle Belt states of Plateau, Kaduna and Kogi, but the threats to attack the south were never realized.
As this article will detail, there is still only speculation about Boko Haram’s ability to strike southern Nigeria. There is, however, growing certainty about Boko Haram’s infiltration of North-Central zone’s Kogi State, which could serve as a “staging point” for operations deeper into southern Nigeria. Interrogations of captured Boko Haram leaders in 2012 have also shed light on internal divisions in Boko Haram that explain some of the group’s practical motivations for attacking the south beyond the rhetoric of public statements.
Suleiman Mohammed, an ethnic Yoruba, was arrested in Kano on May 11, 2012, with 10 IEDs and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his home. He was a commander for Boko Haram operations in his native South-West zone and confessed to planning attacks at strategic targets in Lagos, including a five-star hotel, Tafawa Balewa Square, churches and markets, and a bank. He revealed that Boko Haram does not want to limit itself to an “ethnic agenda” and be perceived as working for the interests of the Hausas, who are the majority ethnic group in northern Nigeria, or any other ethnic group.
This came less than four months after Abu Qaqa, a Boko Haram spokesman and Shura Council member, was captured in January 2012. Abu Qaqa revealed that ethnic Kanuris, who are the majority ethnic group only in Borno State, have been selling out members of other ethnicities, including Abu Qaqa, an ethnic Ebira from Kogi State. Among the reasons why northern elites, who are mostly Hausas and Fulanis, have rejected Boko Haram is that they perceive Kanuris as the dominant ethnic group within Boko Haram. An attack on southern Nigeria, according to Suleiman Mohammed, would show that Boko Haram is a “national movement” with an “Islamic consciousness” and unite the various Muslim ethnic groups in the country. He also stated that attacks in the south would divert the attention of the security forces in the north and relieve pressure on Boko Haram members there, while also helping Boko Haram prove its worth to southern sponsors.
Another Boko Haram leader from the north, Kabiru Sokoto, masterminded the vehicle bombing of Saint Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger State, on Christmas Day 2011, which killed more than 35 people. He had been on the police intelligence’s list of Boko Haram suspects before the attack and was monitored by the police while scouting targets on Snake Island, Lagos, on December 13, 2011. He then disappeared from surveillance monitoring—perhaps due to police ineptitude or collaboration with Boko Haram—until three days before he was captured on January 14, 2012, in Abuja. A source from Nigeria’s State Security Service said that Sokoto’s presence in Lagos was no “coincidence” and that Boko Haram was planning to attack the southern cities of Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Onitsha and Warri.
Failed Operations and False Attributions
The Nigerian media often assumes that any militant or criminal activity in the south that may be the work of Boko Haram is the work of Boko Haram regardless of the evidence, which inflates the actual threat that the group poses in the region. Nevertheless, the several attempted attacks on churches in the South-West zone, which is the most religiously-mixed of the southern zones, and other symbolically-timed attempted attacks in the region show that either Boko Haram or violent sympathizers are operational in the south. Boko Haram’s intent to expand operations in the south, however, has been met with poor results. Boko Haram fighters appear to have failed in all of their attempts to carry out attacks in southern Nigeria or been captured before initiating attacks.
In South-West zone, all suspected Boko Haram operatives have targeted churches. In Ikorodu, Lagos, on April 24, 2012, a man from Taraba State who locals suspected was a member of Boko Haram placed a bomb in an amulet outside of a Methodist church before security officers detected his behavior and seized him. Three months earlier, in January 2012, members of a Boko Haram cell were arrested in Benin City, Edo State, after police were tipped off about their plans to bomb a church symbolically timed for New Year’s Eve. The State Security Service director for Edo State, however, later said that the suspects’ Boko Haram connections were “not yet established.” The earliest reported Boko Haram operation in the South-West zone was in August 2011 when a suspected member was conducting surveillance of churches in Ibadan disguised as a beggar. When he began talking in Hausa, the common language of northern Nigeria, on his smart-phone near a church, locals reported him to police. Like the other incidents in the zone, however, the suspect was not conclusively a Boko Haram operative.
In South-South zone, there has only been one reported Boko Haram operation, which was in December 2011 when military intelligence officers arrested three northerners, one Yoruba Muslim and one Muslim convert from Rivers State in Nigeria’s top oil-producing city of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The Boko Haram cell was reportedly on a mission to carry out a bomb attack on Christmas Eve at the Nigerian Army’s 2nd Brigade Command, a mid-size hotel, and the Shell Oil facility timed to coincide with Kabiru Sokoto’s church bombing in Madalla. Hotels and oil facilities, however, have never been the targets of Boko Haram attacks in northern Nigeria or the Middle Belt, and a closer look at the operation shows that the operatives were more likely Niger Delta militants or simply oil “robbers.”
In South-East zone, two men from northwestern Nigeria’s Zamfara State were arrested in a motor park in Ebonyi State on May 4, 2012, with guns and machetes. They were accused of belonging to Boko Haram, although there was no clear evidence of their membership. In a much larger incident in February 2012, 25 suspected Boko Haram members, also from Zamfara State, were arrested while traveling on a bus in Enugu State. They were reportedly planning to bomb the University of Nigeria campus in Nsukka during its 41st convocation ceremony and were traveling with 27 guns wrapped in fertilizer bags, axes, daggers, and acid. After four weeks of interrogation, however, they were released. Like in the South-South and South-West zones, there was no conclusive evidence that the suspects in South-East zone were Boko Haram members.
Kogi State Exception
While Boko Haram activity in the three southern zones is hard to corroborate, Boko Haram has a more verifiable presence in North-Central zone’s Kogi State, which borders Abuja and all three southern zones. Boko Haram’s first operation in the state was in February 2012 when it raided the Koton Karfe Prison and freed 119 inmates, including seven Boko Haram members. Unlike the attacks attributed to Boko Haram in the southern zones, Boko Haram claimed the attack, with its spokesperson saying, “We staged the operation in Kogi to rescue seven of our members incarcerated there and Allah made it possible for the operation to be successful.”
Following the prison break, the State Security Service uncovered a series of hideouts and bomb factories in Kogi State, several of which were suspected of belonging to Boko Haram. A bomb-making factory was uncovered on March 26 in Kabba; then, on April 1, the State Security Service raided a cell’s hideout in Okene, killing nine suspected Boko Haram fighters. On April 9, another bomb factory was uncovered in Ogaminana. On April 23, the Nigerian Air Force attacked a suspected bomb-making factory in a forest in Usomi. On July 16, 2012, the day after a vehicle bomb attributed to Boko Haram exploded outside of a church in Okene, the state police uncovered another bomb-making factory in Okehi. On August 22, 2012, Nigerian police uncovered two more bomb factories, one in Okene and one in Okehi, and a car loaded with ammunition, two rocket launchers and explosives, and arrested five suspected Boko Haram fighters.
The level of violence in Kogi State escalated to new levels on August 6, 2012, when suspected Boko Haram fighters chanting Islamic slogans surrounded a church in Okene during the middle of a service and opened fire on the worshippers with AK-47 assault rifles, killing 20 people. The following day, a bomb was detected at a church in Kogi’s capital, Lokoja, before it detonated. As evidence of the toll that these attacks are having on Nigerians’ faith in the government and the ability for the country to remain united, the reverend of the church publicly blamed the government for not carrying out its responsibility to protect its citizens, while also calling for Boko Haram and those who want Islamic laws to form their own country.
There is now talk of a “Kogi Boko Haram” faction, which may be distinct from “Kanuri” and “Hausa” Boko Haram factions in the north, but whose operational capabilities may be derived from interacting with Boko Haram operatives, weapons traffickers and criminal networks in the north. It remains to be seen whether Kogi State becomes Boko Haram’s “staging point” for launching attacks further south, but Boko Haram cells and weapons hideouts in the state would facilitate Boko Haram’s southward expansion.
Misperceptions vs. Reality
The rhetoric about Boko Haram in the south continues to mislead southerners about the threat that the group actually poses in the region. In a few examples of overreaction, the Southeast chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria announced in June 2012 that more than 6,000 Boko Haram members have infiltrated the three southern zones, even though most estimates place Boko Haram’s total cadre between 1,000 and 4,000 people. In the same month, the Yoruba ethno-nationalist youth group Apapo Oodua Koya stated publicly that it is “almost inevitable” that Boko Haram will conduct suicide bombing attacks in Lagos and Ibadan by July 2012, a prediction that proved false. In March 2012, in response to reports from the anti-terror Rapid Response Squad (RRS) that Boko Haram might use religious sanctuaries as cover for attacks, the state government of Lagos demolished mosques in “strategic locations,” such as commercial hubs and areas near government offices.
These fatalistic predictions about Boko Haram overlook two important reasons why the group is unable to gain a foothold in the south. First, since most of Boko Haram’s rank-and-file fighters come from the poorly educated Qur’anic schools of northern Nigeria, they would struggle to blend in with the population in southern Nigeria, such as in the oil-producing states, where northern languages are not spoken and Christianity is the religion of more than 95% of the population. In fact, the dozens, or even hundreds, of Boko Haram fighters who have traveled northwards to Gao, Mali, to join the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and other insurgent groups in the newly proclaimed State of Azawad have integrated more smoothly into the human terrain there than northern Nigerian Boko Haram fighters would in southern Nigeria.
As in any insurgency, Boko Haram depends on some level of local support and collaboration to carry out attacks. In the Middle Belt, for example, some Muslim Fulani communities embroiled in land conflicts with Christian ethnic groups have overlapping objectives with Boko Haram to drive out the Christians, so the Fulani communities may have formed a temporary alliance with Boko Haram. Nigeria is plagued by a tradition in which local community leaders support local gangs to attack rival communities. In the case of the Middle Belt, a group like “Kogi Boko Haram” may be a local gang which is funded by Fulanis to strike fear in the Christian population, while in other parts of the country, even in Christian majority areas, militias like the Yoruba Oodua Peoples Congress, the Igbo Bakassi Boys, the Ijaw Egbesu Boys, and the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra pursue agendas targeting their rival ethnic groups. All of these militias would be out of place anywhere except their indigenous lands, and the same is true of Boko Haram in the southern zones.
Second, the Yorubas, who form more than 20% of Nigeria’s population and are indigenous to the South-West zone, have stood united against Boko Haram. Leading Yoruba Muslims, for example, “disowned” commander Suleiman Mohammed after his arrest and have stated publicly that “nobody can fight for God.” The Yorubas recognize that they would suffer from inter-religious conflict more than any other ethnic group in the country since they are religiously mixed, while two other large ethnic groups, the Igbos and the Hausas, are almost uniformly Christian and Muslim. If the country were to fissure along religious lines, the Yorubas would become a minority in a Hausa-dominated north and Igbo-dominated south and face the prospect of internal fratricide if Yoruba Muslims and Christians fought each other.
As long as the Muslim ethnic groups of southern Nigeria, especially the Yorubas, continue to deny Boko Haram a foothold in the southern zones, Boko Haram’s attempts to strike the south will likely remain isolated, infrequent and ineffectual. Nonetheless, just as Boko Haram struck the UN Headquarters in Abuja on August 26, 2011, in a suicide vehicle bombing after having never targeted an international institution before, Boko Haram could succeed in carrying out a powerful attack in Lagos or another major city in the south. This would add credibility to the alarmist predictions that already exist about Boko Haram’s capabilities in the south. Unless the attack originates from Kogi State, where Boko Haram has demonstrated that it has bases and weapons caches, and from where it is capable of carrying out a series of attacks, any single operation in the south would likely be an anomaly rather than part of a sustained offensive.
Jacob Zenn is a legal adviser and international security analyst based in Washington D.C. He writes regularly for The Jamestown Foundation, Asia Times and SAIS Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. He researches the socio-economic and political factors behind militancy in Nigeria, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and South America.
 The moments before Yusuf’s death were recorded on a cellular phone and posted on YouTube. See “Boko Haram Leader Muhammad Yusuf Interrogation Before his Execution by Nigerian Security Agents,” August 3, 2009, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePpUvfTXY7w.
 “Boko Haram Resurrects, Declares Total Jihad,” Vanguard, August 14, 2009. The Yorubas, Igbos and Ijaws are the three largest ethnicities in southern Nigeria.
 “Nigeria Tightens Curfew on ‘Middle Belt’ Area,” al-Jazira, July 9, 2012.
 Nigeria is unofficially divided into six geopolitical zones, with all 36 of the country’s states and Abuja Federal Capital Territory falling into one of these zones. The geopolitical zones do not represent ethnic or religious homogeneity and are broadly accepted in political discourse by almost all Nigerians. The six geopolitical zones are: North-Central (Benue, Kogi, Kwara, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau and Abuja Federal Capital Territory); North-East (Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Taraba and Yobe); North-West (Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara); South-East (Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo); South-South (Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo and Rivers); South-West (Ekiti, Lagos, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Oyo). For the purposes of this article, “northern Nigeria” will refer to the country’s three northern zones and “southern Nigeria” will refer to the country’s three southern zones.
 See “Terrorist Incidents Attributed to Boko Haram, 2009-2011,” Institute for the Study of Violent Groups, 2011. This study records 271 attacks during those three years. Since attacks have escalated in 2011 and 2012, 500 attacks is an appropriate estimate at present. Most attacks have targeted police stations, banks, poker and beer halls, universities and schools, and political leaders and, more recently, media houses and churches. Approximately 1,500 people have been killed in these attacks.
 Muhammad Bello et al., “Four Killed in First Boko Haram Attack on Sokoto,” ThisDayLive, July 31, 2012; Isaac Abrak, “Nigeria Church Bombings Kill 19, Spark Reprisals,” Reuters, June 17, 2012. Sokoto, the seat of the traditional caliphate in Nigeria, had enjoyed relative peace despite a threat by Boko Haram to attack the state in 2011. On July 30, 2012, Boko Haram fighters set off twin bomb blasts in the capital city of Sokoto, including a suicide vehicle bombing at the zonal police headquarters, and engaged policemen in a gunfight in which two Boko Haram members were killed. On January 23, 2012, Boko Haram shattered any sense of peace in Kano when it killed more than 200 people in a day-long series of attacks. Among other attacks in the Middle Belt region, on June 17, 2012, Boko Haram suicide vehicle bombers attacked three churches in Zaria, Kaduna State, killing 19 people and sparking reprisals by Christians against Muslims. According to one report, “After the bombings, Christian youths blocked the highway leading south out of Kaduna to the capital Abuja, pulling Muslims out of cars and killing them.” On June 10, 2012, Boko Haram attacked one church in Jos, Plateau State, and one church in Biu, Borno State. These church attacks were all carried out on Sunday when services were being held.
 Kogi is in the North-Central zone and is the only state in the country that borders on three geopolitical zones as well as Abuja: South-South, South-East and South-West. Okene is only 20 miles to the border of South-South zone and 30 miles to the border of South-West zone.
 Ibrahim Garba, “Nigeria Soldiers Arrest Boko Haram Commander,” Christian Science Monitor, May 11, 2012; “Captive Ethnic Yoruba Boko Haram Kingpin Says ‘We Planned To Invade Lagos, Onitsha, Ibadan, Enugu and Warri Too’; Says ‘Terrorists Feeling The Impact Of The Security Crackdown,’” Beegeagle’s Blog, May 17, 2012.
 Ike Abonyi and Ibrahim Shuaibu, “Nigeria: Qaqa – Boko Haram is Under Duress, Divided,” AllAfrica.com, February 7, 2012.
 James J.F. Forest, “Confronting the Terrorism of Boko Haram in Nigeria,” JSOU Reports 12-5, May 2012, p. 84.
 Garba; “Captive Ethnic Yoruba Boko Haram Kingpin Says ‘We Planned To Invade Lagos, Onitsha, Ibadan, Enugu and Warri Too’; Says ‘Terrorists Feeling The Impact Of The Security Crackdown.”
 “Terror: 40 Killed in Christmas Bombings,” Vanguard, December 26, 2011.
 Kabiru Sokoto was arrested on January 14, 2012, but escaped from police custody within 24 hours with the help of Zakaria Biu, the police commissioner in charge of criminal investigations, and local youths organized by Biu. Sokoto was rearrested on February 10 in Mutum-Biu Village in Taraba State by a joint team of State Security Service and army operatives. See Mitaire Ikpen, “Kabiru Sokoto’s Escape – Zakaria Biu Dismissed,” Vanguard, February 22, 2012.
 “Security Agencies Uncover Boko Haram Plot to Attack South,” Punch, March 10, 2012.
 Steve Ogwu-Chinuwa, “Attempt to Bomb Lagos Church Fails,” The Moment, April 25, 2012.
 Mike Osarogiagbon, “SSS Confirms Arrests of Boko Haram Suspects,” Nigerian Observer, January 3, 2012.
 Ola Ajayi, “Suspected Boko Haram Member Nabbed in Ibadan,” Vanguard, August 1, 2011.
 Fidelis Soriwei and Chukwudi Akasike, “Five Boko Haram Bombers Arrested in Port Harcourt – Army Puts Formations on the Red Alert,” Punch, January 22, 2012.
 “Port Harcourt Blasts: Nigerian ‘Robbers’ Killed,” BBC, May 17, 2012. That article stated, “Boko Haram has staged numerous attacks across northern Nigeria but has not targeted the country’s oil industry, based in the south. Other militant groups used to carry out frequent attacks on the oil industry in Port Harcourt and the surrounding region but many have now joined a government amnesty and the area has been relatively calm recently.”
 Nnamdi Akpa, “Ebonyi Police Arrest 2 Suspected Terrorists,” Daily Times, May 4, 2012.
 Tony Edike, “25 Boko Haram Members Nabbed in Enugu,” Vanguard, January 28, 2012; Abdulkadir Badsha Mukhtar, “Nigeria: Boko Haram – Police Free 25 Hunters in Enugu,” Daily Trust, February 22, 2012.
 Hamza Idris and Aliyu M. Hamagam, “Boko Haram: Why We Attacked Kogi Prison…Niger Police Arrest 9 Escapees,” Weekly Trust, February 18, 2012.
 Shola Oyeyipo, Ibrahim Shuaibu, and Sherrif Bologu, “Victorious Weekend for Military, Police, as they Bomb Boko Haram Hideout,” ThisDayLive, April 23, 2012.
 Boluwaji Obahopo, “Car Bomb Explodes in Kogi, Suspect Arrested,” Vanguard, July 16, 2012; Usman A. Bello, “Nigeria: Another Bomb Factory Uncovered in Kogi,” Daily Trust, July 18, 2012.
 “Police Raid Bomb Factories in Central Nigeria State,” Reuters, August 23, 2012.
 Shola Oyeyipo, Yemi Akinsuyi and Chiemelie Ezeobi, “Kogi Death Toll Rises to 20,” This Day, August 8, 2012.
 “Bomb Found in Kogi,” Business Day, August 8, 2012.
 “Kogi Church Attack: Primate Condemns Killings,” August 7, 2012, available at www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=eaHyVd1R2wo.
 Forest, p. 3.
 Tony Edike, “Boko Haram Plans Jihad on Christians, S-East CAN Alleges,” Vanguard, June 19, 2012; David Cook, “Boko Haram Escalates Attacks on Christians in Northern Nigeria,” CTC Sentinel 5:4 (2012).
 “Boko Haram ‘Likely’ To Attack Lagos and Ibadan in Next Few Weeks, Pan Yoruba Group Warns,” Sahara Reporters, June 18, 2012.
 Emmanuel Mayah, “Boko Haram Scare Forces Lagos to Demolish Five Mosques,” Africa Review, March 23, 2012.
 Abimbola Adesoji, “Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State,” Africa Today 57:4 (2011): pp. 99-119.
 “Dozens of Boko Haram Help Mali’s Rebel Seize Gao,” Vanguard, April 9, 2012.
 Yinka Ibukun, “Sect Attack Claim Complicates Nigeria Crisis,” Associated Press, July 13, 2012.
 Garba; “Captive Ethnic Yoruba Boko Haram Kingpin Says ‘We Planned To Invade Lagos, Onitsha, Ibadan, Enugu and Warri Too’; Says ‘Terrorists Feeling The Impact Of The Security Crackdown.” A Muslim community leader in Lagos said, “The southern Muslims have value for human lives; they know that nobody can fight for God. They are not inconsiderate. The Muslim leadership in the south are putting their members on the alert; imams are already doing that.”