Boko Haram Looks Beyond Nigeria in Face of Increasing Military Pressure

Boko Haram
Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag they seized in the town of Damasak, Nigeria, on March 18. Emmanuel Braun/Reuters

Militant group Boko Haram is turning its attentions from Nigeria to neighboring countries as it faces a battle to survive in its west African homeland, according to analysts.

The Islamist organization is under intense pressure in Nigeria following a pledge by President Muhammadu Buhari to end the group's six-year insurgency in the country by the end of 2015. It has apparently responded by moving its operations to other countries in the region, issuing a warning that it will make a target of any country it regards as hostile to its aims.

"The message Boko Haram wants to send out to these countries is, 'If you make yourself an active enemy [of Boko Haram], you will become an active target,'" says Manji Cheto, Vice President of West Africa analyss at global consultancy Teneo Intelligence. In March, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin joined a regional task force to tackle the group, but other countries now find themselves apparently under an enhanced threat.

Chad's government imposed a state of emergency on Monday in the area around Lake Chad—which straddles Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger—in response to the region becoming a gathering point for Boko Haram. It also pledged 3 billion Central African francs ($4.8 billion) to stimulate development and tackle the group's recruitment drive.

In October, the U.S. said it would send 300 troops to Cameroon to assist with regional efforts to tackle Boko Haram. In the past week, however, two similar suicide bombing attacks in Cameroon and Lake Chad—both of which have been blamed on Boko Haramhave served as a reminder of the group's marauding presence.

Imad Mesdoua, a political analyst at commercial consultancy Africa Matters, says that Boko Haram is "on the back foot" in Nigeria as the country redoubles its efforts to eliminate the militants.

Buhari has made vanquishing Boko Haram a key tenet of his presidency since he was elected in March, and the Nigerian army has conducted a sustained campaign against the group since then. Boko Haram has lost much of its territory in Nigeria and has been confined to hiding out in the Sambisa Forest in the northeastern state of Borno.

"It's the fact that they're in a corner in Nigeria that's pushing them to conduct attacks that are easier to conduct elsewhere," Mesdoua says.

In a recording that surfaced in March, attributed to Boko Haram's elusive leader Abubakar Shekau, the group pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). It shifted Boko Haram's identity as an exclusively Nigerian insurgency and the group has since rebranded itself as Islamic State's West Africa Province.

According to Mesdoua, the pledge of allegiance to ISIS highlights Boko Haram's ambition to create a regional caliphate as opposed to simply gaining territory within Nigeria.

"That also explains why they've turned to other countries: The ideological and structural narrative behind the group has changed," Mesdoua says.

Even if Buhari's ambitious initiative to defeat Boko Haram in Nigeria is successful, the group may simply be forced across the country's borders. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said in October that some 60,000 residents had been forced to leave their homes in Lake Chad, which has been transformed into a "war zone" following repeated incursions by the insurgents.

Borders between Nigeria and the countries surrounding Lake Chad are "very porous," Cheto says, and allow for the easy passage of fighters between states. Cheto also warns that any talk of defeating Boko Haram entirely in Nigeria would be presumptuous.

"I think it'd be an error of judgement for Buhari to say that there's been a successful counter-insurgency in Nigeria, because so long as we have Boko Haram operating in the Lake Chad region, Nigeria's territorial integrity still remains quite vulnerable to those attacks," she says.