Nigeria's War Against Boko Haram May Be Far From Over

Boko Haram prison Bama
A Nigerian soldier arrives to inspect a former prison used by Boko Haram in Bama, Nigeria, on March 25, 2015. Nichole Sobecki/AFP/Getty

While running for office in the 2015 elections, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari promised to end the war with Boko Haram, the deadly Islamist militant group that controls part of the country's northeast. And there are signs he's making progress. Not only has the country retaken territory in places like Chibok (in southern Borno state) and most of northern Adamawa state, but in May, Nigeria carried out a successful hostage swap, exchanging five imprisoned Boko Haram commanders for 82 school girls who had been kidnapped in the village of Chibok in 2014. Both, the government has said, are signs that Boko Haram is close to defeat.

Yet such a proclamation is premature, says Fulan Nasrullah, a former member of Boko Haram who still has contacts with its leaders. Large portions of northeast Nigeria remain inaccessible to aid groups as well as the government, and Boko Haram continues to carry out suicide bombings even in supposedly secure cities like Maiduguri. Meanwhile, Boko Haram has deep roots among ordinary Nigerians in the northeast, Nasrullah says.

Related: Boko Haram has launched at least 50 attacks in 2017

Like any other group, understanding Boko Haram comes down to knowing its membership profile and how it's financed. Nasrullah is one of the few people who knows about both—and is willing to talk about it. From 2004 to 2008, he was a member of the Salafi-Jihadist insurgency that has to date killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million throughout the Lake Chad Basin. He left the group, he says, not because he doesn't support jihad (he does), but because there wasn't enough strategic planning among higher-ups, whom he describes as "stubborn" and childlike. Since his departure, he's run a blog called Fulan SitRep (short for "situation report") and acts as an intermediary in negotiations between the government and the insurgency. Though sporadically updated, and sometimes propagandistic, Nasrullah's website provides information on the characteristics, personalities and objectives of Boko Haram that are difficult to find elsewhere.

In a rare interview with a Western journalist, Nasrullah told me the Nigerian military is not only underestimating the group, it's focusing on the wrong metrics in analyzing its strength. At its peak, Boko Haram controlled nearly 22,000 square miles in the region. The Nigerian government often marks progress in terms of territory reclaimed from the insurgents, but Nasrullah says territory isn't crucial to the group's success. "We have lots of people in the bush, just waiting until it is their time," he says. This reserve of fighters throughout the Lake Chad Basin, he adds, allows Boko Haram to retrench and bide its time, then strike when an opportunity presents itself. The group's end goal: "to burn everything down and build what we want [an Islamic state] on the ashes."

Spreading its interpretation of Sharia across Nigeria has been Boko Haram's goal since an Islamist preacher named Mohammed Yusuf founded the group at the Ibn Taymiyyah mosque in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, in the early 2000s after splitting from other Salafi leaders along theological lines. Yusuf rejected Western education (earning the movement the nickname Boko Haram, or "Western education is forbidden") and cooperation with the Nigerian government. In the early days, the group carried out a handful of assassinations of political and religious enemies. But according to Nasrullah and members in the Railway neighborhood where Ibn Taymiyyah was located, the bulk of Boko Haram's efforts went toward Islamic education, microfinance, business development and the management of a communal farm. Nasrullah notes that, though Ibn Taymiyyah was located in Maiduguri, the group's network stretched out across the region, as a result of traveling preachers, trade relationships and a concerted effort by Yusuf to cultivate and maintain a presence outside of the capital.

As Boko Haram grew in influence and adopted more stridently anti-government positions, it clashed with Nigerian authorities who feared a revolt was near. Fearing a crackdown, Yusuf and his followers "used to send people out to buy land in a village and tell them to just wait, so that when the jihad starts, they have the whole community mapped out and understood," Nasrullah says.

The crackdown on Ibn Taymiyyah came in 2009. Nigerian authorities raided the mosque, killing hundreds of Yusuf's followers. Police later executed Yusuf following an interrogation. As a result, Boko Haram went underground for roughly a year, regrouping under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau. During this period, Nasrullah notes that many outside the inner circle "could contribute by working and bringing money."

Given how poor people are in northeast Nigeria, where unemployment rates are among the country's highest, it is certainly possible that some joined the group for financial reasons. Yet contrary to research done by Mercy Corps and others, Nasrullah says this wasn't to entice people to join the insurgency, but to pay for those who were already part of it. "Boko Haram is not a group, it's a state," he says; it was merely providing some of the public goods that the government failed to deliver.

Part of what helped Boko Haram build up financial support: drug, cattle and fish smugglers. "They wanted to work with us," Nasrullah says, adding that many were sympathetic to Yusuf and joined the movement early, possibly because they too had a contentious relationship with the government. Many legitimate cattle and fish traders also helped the group. Boko Haram was so closely linked to these trades that the Nigerian military has curtailed, and at times completely shut down, certain trade routes in northeast Nigeria.

The group's financial autonomy comes not only from its members in the Lake Chad Basin, but also from a "global network" of sympathizers and members. Nasrullah says it has members in "Dubai, London, Senegal" who help finance operations. Using a back of the envelope calculation, he estimates that Boko Haram has as much as $10 million coming in per month from its domestic and international sponsors, which he says is mostly used to purchase food for its members. This number is likely inflated, given that in 2014 the group's net worth was estimated by Forbes to be $25 million.

Either way, defeating an organization of this size could take many years—and the government has a bad habit of declaring victory too soon. In December 2015, Buhari said the insurgency was "technically defeated." About six months later, a senior army official announced, "We have come to the point that we can beat our chest and decisively say we have dealt with Boko Haram."

Nasrullah, however, expects the insurgency to continue for many years to come. As he puts it, "We are already training our grandchildren to fight this war."