For the past few months, Boko Haram has been consolidating their control of the northeastern Borno state in Nigeria by capturing various cities and towns both close to and far from the Cameroon border. Not only that, but they have taken over several towns and villages in Yobe and Adamawa state. One of their most frightening captures is the town of Bama, which puts them just 45 miles away from the Borno capital Maiduguri. While Boko Haram already controls a significant portion of Borno, taking Maiduguri would effectively put them in control of the state.
Boko Haram's Advances:
The group has literally gone on a rampage in northeastern Nigeria, taking town after town, village after village in their path. Rather than do their typical hit-and-run moves on towns and cities, they have begun to take cities under their control. For instance, in July, Boko Haram took over Damboa and quickly raised their flag over the town. Later, they took over Gwoza; and then Buni Yadi in Yobe state. Then not long after, Boko Haram took over Madagali and several border towns neighboring Cameroon. But they didn't stop there. They then took over several more border towns in Adamawa state in the course of two days, as well as taking over the aforementioned town of Bama not long after.
As Laura Grossman and Thomas Joscelyn note "Under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram has evolved from a terrorist group into an insurgency that seeks to establish an Islamic state. And Boko Haram's tactics have changed accordingly, from smash and dash attacks, killing thousands, into attempts to grab and hold territory."
And create an Islamic state he did. In a lengthy video posted online in late August, Shekau established an Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria declaring Gwoza at the heart of it. While Shekau has been widely misinterpreted to have declared a caliphate, careful listening and translation would make it clear that he did no such thing. Rather, he said "Thanks be to God who gave victory to our brethren in Gwoza and made it a state among the Islamic states.”
"The Islamic states" seems to be an obvious reference to land being held by al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other like-minded groups.
This offensive by Boko Haram is incredibly worrying to the stability of the region, let alone the stability of Africa's greatest oil exporter. Taking border towns near Cameroon and Chad will only lead to heightened tensions and potentially lead to cross-border conflicts, much more than what has already happened. This will threaten both Cameroon's and Chad's security, which could mean that increased military activity near the border with Nigeria. While Boko Haram is not a transnational threat, they most certainly are threatening to become one.
Secondly, a group like Boko Haram holding on to this much territory does not bode well. They have, in the past, conducted numerous attacks on various villages, killing people at random, specifically targeting Christians, and even hunting down suspected vigilantes against the group. Holding on to this much ground unchecked could lead to mass killings of various different cultures and beliefs.
On another note, a rise in kidnappings for either ransom money, human trafficking, sex slaves, conscripts, etc., could also rise drastically in an unchecked environment for Boko Haram.
Thirdly, this will allow Boko Haram ample amounts of space to conduct training for the preparation of taking more land and more terrorist attacks unleashed on the Nigerian people; potentially even more terrorist attacks in neighboring Cameroon or attacks in Chad. Utilizing this ground to set up training camps is almost a guarantee; this has happened in Somalia, Mali, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and most recently, southern Libya--and this list goes on.
What will be interesting is if their allies in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or ash-Shabaab takes advantage of this. According to this Congressional testimony, Boko Haram has gained "valuable knowledge on the construction of improvised explosive devices" from AQIM; not only that, but some fighters of Boko Haram “fought alongside Al-Qaida affiliated groups in Mali in 2012 and 2013 before returning to Nigeria with terrorist expertise”. The testimony also reports that Boko Haram has made a statement in the past saying, "We want to make it known that our jihadists have arrived in Nigeria from Somalia where they received real training on warfare from our brethren who made that country ungovernable”.
So while both AQIM and Shabaab has helped Boko Haram in the past, it stands to reason that in an open-environment, this help could become more widespread. And why should it not? This should not come as a surprise as al-Qaeda affiliates often times share resources, fighters, and knowledge with each other--such as at least three or four terrorist groups participated in the 2012 Benghazi attack (for another example of how AQ groups and affiliates share all this stuff with each other, read this report from the American Enterprise Institute). This level of assistance would undoubtedly help Boko Haram to become a transnational threat.
The recent advances of Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria does not bode well for the people of Nigeria, the region, or even for the United State's interests in the region. Boko Haram threatens the very stability of both Nigeria and Cameroon, especially the latter in an ever-growing humanitarian threat vis a vis refugees.
Allowing Boko Haram to hold on to this territory opens the door for more kidnappings, more killings, more attacks, and yet even more ground terrorist groups can utilize for training purposes. The United States should definitely look into helping Chad and Cameroon with both border security assistance and humanitarian aid to deal with a growing number of Nigerian refugees. Not only that, but push more for better military coordination between the three states; intelligence sharing should also be a priority between the three and the United States. Increased military aid could also be a possibility if infiltration of the Nigerian military of Boko Haram militants can be stymied.
One thing is for sure though, this offensive is not yet over.
The map above is our original work. Please do not use without permission.