THE PAPER | Nigeria & Boko Haram : The Nature of the War, 2010-2015

A war has some basic definable features. Although its contemporary definition now encompasses asymmetric warfare, it still has some generally accepted characteristics. One of these is the observance of established rules of engagement.

By James Adewunmi Falode
Lagos State University

THE PAPER | Nigeria & Boko Haram : The Nature of the War, 2010-2015

Image Attribute: "Bring Back Our Girls" Wall Graffiti Photo by Tim Green, 
Flickr, Creative Commons

The conflict with Boko Haram has gone through three different iterations. In the beginning, the Nigerian government perceived it to be a form of civil unrest when it reared its head between 1995 and 2002.[1] Subsequently, it came to be seen as a religious uprising between 2002 and 2009.[2] Between 2010 and 2015, the war took its final form. It became a war on terror on the one side and an insurgency on the other.[3] It is from this final form that the true nature of the war can be gleaned. 
It is the contention of this article that the war is not a mere terror campaign but amounts to hybrid war. This assumption is based on, among other things, the tactics and strategies, aims and objectives and the choice of weapons used in prosecuting the war by the adversaries.
A war has some basic definable features. Although its contemporary definition now encompasses asymmetric warfare, it still has some generally accepted characteristics.[4] One of these is the observance of established rules of engagement. Normally, the combatants take special care during engagements to shield non-combatants from the violence of war. Proportionality is also an established norm. Terrorism does not have such rules of engagement. Boko Haram only graduated from occasional attacks to irregular warfare in 2010. Why 2010? It is an established fact that the conflicts between Nigeria and the group went as far back as early 2000. It is worth recalling that the founder-leader of the group, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in 2009 along with over 900 of his followers by Nigerian security forces.[5] The group subsequently dispersed to re-organize. By 2010, the new leader Abubakar Shekau escalated the conflict and took it to a more dangerous and unrestricted phase. In addition to seeking revenge, a major factor responsible for this escalation was the desire of Boko Haram to Islamise Nigeria as a long-term objective. Since 2010, there has been a noticeable difference in Boko Haram’s tactics in its confrontations with the Nigerian state. For the first time, the Group carried out a series of carefully coordinated and deadly bombing campaigns in Nigeria, directed against both religious and secular targets. The bombing campaigns took four major formats: suicide bombings, VBIEDs, roadside IEDs, and vehicle-borne suicide bombings (VBSBs). By this period, the CZs of the war were clearly defined. The major CZs are Adamawa, Yobe, Borno, Gombe and Bauchi states. Other targeted zones in the HN include Abuja, Plateau and Kano states.
From 2010 onward, Boko Haram started launching a series of attacks on security structures and military installations in the North-Eastern part of the country. For example, on September 7 2010, Boko Haram attacked and overrun a prison in Bauchi, freeing over 700 inmates in the process.[6] Between 2010 and 2015, Boko Haram attacks became more daring and brazen. Never in the history of political violence in Nigeria had any group deliberately targeted not just military structures but military formations and barracks in the CZs. The attacks launched on Giwa barrack and Baga military base in Bornu in 2014 and 2015 are cases in point.[7] In the two encounters, over 500 lives were lost. What became noticeable in the course of the confrontation was that the adversaries simultaneously employed asymmetric and conventional tactics and strategies in waging the war. This is why the Nigeria-Boko Haram conflict can be described as a form of hybrid warfare.
The Nigeria-Boko Haram war has gone through the different phases earlier enumerated above. Elements of unrestricted warfare could be seen in the use of girls (as young as 10 years old) as suicide bombers.[8] This is apart from the fact that the group uses men and women in carrying out conventional suicide bombings and VBSBs. A good example was the deadly suicide attack in Borno that killed 58 and injured over 139 people in March 2015.[9] During this phase too, Boko Haram actively targeted Nigerians of different religious persuasions. Vulnerable groups such as the old, the infirm, women and children were not accorded any protected status. Churches, mosques, pastors and imams, traditional chiefs, universities, secondary schools, markets, car depots and restaurants became legitimate targets. Boko Haram also became very adept at using cyberspace. It has effectively communicated via YouTube, Twitter and Facebook during its war against the Nigerian state. The group made use of every tangible and intangible resource at its disposal to wage war. During this phase, the Nigerian state also used considerable resources to wage war. The military used tactics and strategies such as the declaration of a state of emergency in the CZs, arrest and intimidation of spouses and relatives of known Boko Haram members while deliberately flouting humanitarian rules of engagement. This was the reason why Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote a critical report about the activities of the Nigerian forces in the CZs and its treatment of prisoners in the course of the war.[10] The point being made here is that during the unrestricted phase, the adversaries used conventional and unconventional techniques in prosecuting the war. The responses of the opposing forces were disproportional and civilian counter value targets were actively sought and destroyed.
In the Fourth Generation warfare phase, which occurred within the same period, the group effectively tried to undermine the sovereign integrity of the Nigerian state. It tried to achieve this through incessant and ubiquitous attacks on civilian and military structures in Nigeria. The aim was to demonstrate to Nigerian citizens that the government did not have the capacity to protect them. This was probably also the main reason why the group carried-out the brazen kidnapping of more than 200 Chibok girls from their school in Borno in 2014.[11] The repeated attacks against military infrastructure targets (such as barracks and munition depots) were designed to show the citizens that the Nigerian military even lacked the capacity to protect itself. The Internet played a crucial role in the propaganda efforts of the group. Since the government could not effectively censor what was posted on-line, Boko Haram used YouTube to disseminate its threats against the Nigerian state. The exploits of the group against Nigeria in the CZs as well as its administration of the localities under its control were posted online. All these efforts were geared towards the delegitimization of the authority of the State in what amounts to acts of psychological warfare.

During the compound warfare phase, the opposing forces deployed asymmetric and conventional tactics and strategies simultaneously in the CZs. In some cases, there were even instances of role reversal with the military taking up the guise of the insurgents and the insurgents doing vice-versa. Nigeria established a special Counter Terrorism Squad (CTS) the aim of which was to go into Boko Haram territory in the CZs and complement the efforts of the military forces.[12] Militants from Boko Haram in turn sometimes posed as regular Nigerian forces in order to make it easier for them to launch surprise attacks on the villages in the CZs. This was what happened when Boko Haram attacked Gwoza Local Government Area in Borno state in 2014.[13] Moreover, Boko Haram adopted a conventional military mode to confront the Nigerian forces during this phase. A prime example was the attack on Baga military barrack in January 2015. A video released by Boko Haram of the confrontation shows how it attacked the military barrack frontally, using vehicle-mounted machine guns and lots of AK-47-wielding infantry foot soldiers. This is not unlike how a regular army would attack its opponent’s base in a conventional war. On the Nigerian government’s side, the CJTF played crucial roles during this phase of the war. It acted as the unofficial intelligence-gathering unit of the SMJTF and, in many instances, acted also as the first line of defense against the insurgents.[14] In March 2014, the SMJTF was able to foil a bomb attack on an Internally Displaced Persons’ camp in Maiduguri due to the timely intelligence provided by the CJTF. On several occasions the involvement of the CJTF in actual combat operations was decisive to defeating Boko Haram attacks in the CZs.[15] Thus, the simultaneous and synchronous use of conventional (JTF) and unconventional (CJTF) forces and the use of conventional and unconventional tactics qualify the situation as being one of compound warfare.
About The Author:
James Adewunmi Falode, PhD, is a lecturer in international relations, strategic studies and modern Nigerian history in the department of History and International Studies, Lagos State University, Lagos, Nigeria. He has published widely in both local and international peer-review journals.
Publication Details
This article is an excerpt from a research paper titled - "The Nature of Nigeria’s Boko Haram War, 2010-2015: A Strategic Analysis" published at Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies ISSN  2334-3745 (Online) and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License by the original publisher.
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[1] Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos, “Boko Haram and Politics: From Insurgency to Terrorism,” in Perouse de Montclos, Boko Haram, pp. 136–138.

[2] Ibid..

[3] Walker, “What is Boko Haram,” pp. 4–6.

[4] See Colin S. Gray, Strategy for Chaos (London, Portland: Frank Cass,2005) and Jack S. Levy, “Theories and Causes of War,” in Christopher J. Coyne and Rachel L. Mathers (Eds.) The Handbook on the Political Economy of War(Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2011), pp. 13–33.

[5] Andrea Brigaglia, “Ja’far Mahmoud Adam, Mohammed Yusuf and Al-Muntada Islamic Trust: Reflections on the Genesis of the Boko Haram Phenomenon in Nigeria,” Annual Review of Islam in Africa, Vol. 11: pp. 35–44.

[6] “More than 700 Inmates Escape during Attack on Nigerian Prison,” TheGuradian, 8 September, 2010. Accessed from URL:

[7] Fidelis Soriwei, Sunday Aborishade and Kayode Idowu, “350 Killed in Boko Haram, Army Clashes,” Punch, 15 March, 2014 and Kayode Idowu, “11 Soldiers Died in Baga Army Base Attack,” Punch, 6 January, 2015.

[8] Everest Amaefule, “10-Year-Old Female Suicide Bomber Arrested in Katsina,” Punch, 30 July, 2014 and Fidelis Soriwei et. al., “10-Year-Old Girl Bombs Maiduguri Market, Kills 20,” Punch, 11 January, 2015.

[9] “Update: Three Boko Haram Bombings Kill 58, Injures 139 in Borno,” P.M. News, 7 March, 2015.

[10] “Nigeria: Massive Destruction, Deaths from Military Raid,” Human Rights Watch, 1 May, 2013. Accessed from URL:

[11] Kingsley Omonobi et. al., “#BringBackOurGirls: We’ll Sell Chibok Girls into Slavery- Boko Haram,” Vanguard, 6 May, 2014.

[12] “Police Counter Terrorism Squad Joins Military Operations in Borno, Yobe,” The Nigerian Voice, 16 May, 2013. Accessed from URL:

[13] “Scores Killed in Fresh Boko Haram Attack in Borno,” Daily Independent, 17 February, 2014. Accessed from URL:

[14] “207 Boko Haram Militants Killed in Maiduguri Attack, says Civilian JTF- PREMIUM TIMES,” SaharaReporters, 14 March, 2014. Accessed from URL:

[15] Kayode Idowu, “Civilian JTF Beheads 41 Boko Haram Fighters,” Punch, 31 October, 2014.

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IndraStra Global: THE PAPER | Nigeria & Boko Haram : The Nature of the War, 2010-2015
THE PAPER | Nigeria & Boko Haram : The Nature of the War, 2010-2015
A war has some basic definable features. Although its contemporary definition now encompasses asymmetric warfare, it still has some generally accepted characteristics. One of these is the observance of established rules of engagement.
IndraStra Global
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