Can Boko Haram Survive Without Territory?

A girl walks past a destroyed mosque in the town of Mararaba, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state May 10. The Nigerian military is trying to retake all territory held by Boko Haram before the end of 2015, but the militant group continues to carry out deadly attacks. Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

Earlier in 2015, while I was researching a book on the history of the Nigerian militant Islamist sect known as Boko Haram, an anthropologist told me something that has stayed with me. What he said has informed the way I read the news coming out of the continuing battle between the sect and the Nigerian state.

Gerhard Müller-Kosack has spent years studying a group of people who live in Nigeria's mountainous northeastern border region with Cameroon. He told me that for the people who live there, the modern, independent, post-colonial state has "never been more than a rumor." This phrase has become a persistent earworm, nagging at me as I've watched developments unfold over the last few weeks.

On the surface, things appear to have been going well for the Nigerian military, at least compared to twelve months ago. At the beginning of 2015, large areas of northeastern Nigeria were under the insurgents' control. Throughout 2014, the military appeared powerless to stop Boko Haram as the group transmogrified from hidden guerrilla fighters into a roving army of bandits. The militants swept out of the bush in large convoys to descend on towns, stripping them of what they needed, be it fuel, food, cash or women who they took captive.

Boko Haram even routed the military forces of Africa's most populous nation from the garrison town of Gwoza, on the plains below the Mandara Mountains. Video clips of the attack shot by the insurgents and posted on the Internet show Nigerian soldiers running away into the hills. You see them drop to the ground as the jeering young men pick them off. The footage also shows young Boko Haram fighters looting the armory, their eyes flashing with joy as they hold aloft boxes of ammunition and weapons.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau gloated over the insurgents' victory. It had been granted them because of Allah's blessing, he said. He declared an Islamic state had been created in Nigeria. The army's defeat represented a low point for the country, recently named as Africa's largest economy. Exactly how negligible the military's capacity to fight a domestic insurgency had been painfully revealed. For years, government and senior officers have been using the army as a way of extracting patronage from the state. Officers were not so much soldiers as investors in an institution focussed on the proceeds of corruption. This stripped the army of its effectiveness. Poorly motivated recruits were badly equipped and badly led. It took the military seven months to retake Gwoza. But in the time since, they have chased the militants out of large parts of the territory Shekau once declared as an Islamic state in Nigeria.

This roll-back of Boko Haram is at least partly because of a change in political leadership.

At the swearing-in ceremony of Nigeria's newly elected president Muhammadu Buhari in August, the retired general and former military head of state vowed to "eliminate" Boko Haram by Christmas. He has shaken up the upper ranks of the military in an attempt to get better leadership where it is needed. Capitalizing on momentum that had begun before Buhari's election, with the help of mercenaries from South Africa, the military has been able to push Boko Haram out of the plains—territory that, by the normal rules of guerrilla insurgency, they should not have been able to hold anyway.

But as people who have been watching this group for a while know, Boko Haram has been on the back foot before. In the past, the group has proven it can adapt. In 2009, the Nigerian militant group was on the run. Its leader at the time, Mohammed Yusuf, had been killed in Maiduguri and its members scattered. Some of the group, whose nickname means "Western education is forbidden" in the local Hausa language, found refuge in the Mandara Mountains, a thickly forested mountain range near the border with Cameroon.

Among the cave warrens and hidden ravines the fighters found a perfect place to escape the aftermath of the government crackdown. It was in places like this that they grew in strength and were able to plot a tightly orchestrated campaign of terror. As they emerged from their hiding places between 2010 and 2013, they continually changed tactics, staying ahead of the military and the police.

It seemed there would be a rash of attacks on a particular kind of target. Then, after a time, a different kind of attack, executed in various places across northeast Nigeria within a short space of time. Boko Haram shifted between bombings and coordinated gun attacks. It frequently changed its targets, attacking churches, mosques, media institutions, cellphone towers and schools. In 2013, it branched out into kidnapping.

The Mandara Mountains is just one of many ungoverned spaces from which Boko Haram has drawn strength. The border region with Niger and the islands in Lake Chad are two other areas where Boko Haram exploits the lack of any form of state power. The militants dart across the border to escape fighting and control cross-border smuggling routes to generate funds.

Nigeria and its neighbors—Cameroon, Chad and Niger—are supposed to be cooperating in a multinational task force. But none of these nations seem eager to work effectively with each other. Trust is thin on the ground.

Following the military's gains this year, Boko Haram insurgents have simply reverted to being hidden guerrillas. In the past few weeks, teenage female suicide bombers have struck in several places. In one 48-hour period they hit two cities, 350 miles apart. The first attack was on the city of Yola, where at least 30 people were killed. The second targeted a market in Kano, killing 11. Both cities are outside the territory that Boko Haram held.

Boko Haram may control less territory than it did 12 months ago, but thanks to the insubstantial reach of the Nigerian state across that territory, the insurgents' capacity to kill is undiminished.

Andrew Walker is a journalist who has been writing about Nigeria for ten years. His book "Eat the Heart of the Infidel": The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram, a cultural and political history of the sect, is out in February 2016, published by C. Hurst & Co. He tweets @_AWalker.