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Down, Not Out

How to Fight Back Against Boko Haram’s Newest Strategy

A Nigerien soldier on patrol in Duji, Nigeria, March 2015.  JOE PENNEY / REUTERS

In recent months, the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram has seen an apparent reversal of fortune. Regional military forces, in an offensive begun in the weeks before Nigeria’s general elections in March, have retaken territory and displaced militants from their strongholds in the northeast. President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to end the insurgency in the northern states and is widely regarded as capable of doing so, in view of his military background and his familiarity with the zone of conflict.

But the Buhari administration will face a resilient and formidable opponent. Indeed, Boko Haram’s tactical flexibility and its roots in northern Nigeria’s marginalized communities suggest a prolonged and many-layered struggle. Already, the extremist group has responded to battlefield setbacks by returning to bombings and hit-and-run guerrilla attacks, a familiar operational shift that could lead to a surge in casualties.

In many respects, countering such diffuse tactics will prove more difficult than pushing militants out of fixed positions in towns. And as the government reclaims ever more territory from the militants, dispersed security forces and civilian communities are also becoming vulnerable to attack. To maintain momentum in its push against Boko Haram, the Nigerian government will need to demobilize low- and mid-level militants through negotiation. It will also need to promote development in the country’s neglected north to make the militant cause less attractive. And it will need to temper expectations of a rapid and decisive victory.

BIG AMBITIONS, BIG DEFEATS

At the height of its aggressive campaign of occupation, in late 2014 and early 2015, Boko Haram controlled about three percent of Nigerian territory, or some 12,000 square miles. The militant rampage through the northeast caused massive upheaval, displacing more than 1.5 million people and disrupting trade across the region. Insurgents had captured the towns of Bama and Gwoza and were setting their sights on Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno State and home to over a million people. And the stability of the wider region seemed in danger: Boko Haram’s increasingly internationalized

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