From Security to Reconciliation: How Nigeria Can Win Its Bloody War With Boko Haram


Alexander Thurston, Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement (Princeton University Press, 2017)

On July 17, the sun crept over the dusty horizon to illuminate another grim day in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno State and the birthplace of Boko Haram. In London Chiki, an overcrowded camp on the outskirts of the city, emergency personnel again earned their bloody pay, disposing of the remains of eight civilians killed by a suicide blast. Eight days later, insurgents aligned with the so-called Islamic State of West Africa, which broke from Boko Haram in July 2016, ambushed and overran a Nigerian oil exploration convoy under military and police escort a mere 35 miles north of Maiduguri. The attack killed over 50 people, and four oil workers were captured.

These two scenes represent the daily rhythm of a grueling war that has claimed over 35,000 lives since 2011. This grim statistic made Boko Haram the world’s deadliest terrorist group in 2015, surpassing ISIL and Al-Qaeda. The Islamic State of West Africa is now the largest ISIL affiliate in Africa measured by the number of fighters in its ranks.

How we got here is the story of Alexander Thurston’s remarkable Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement. The book helps to explain how and why insurgencies begin, which is crucial for developing a “theory of victory” to address the core grievances that gave birth to the movement. Thurston, who holds a PhD in Religious studies from Northwestern University and currently teaches African studies at Georgetown University, breaks from the prevailing narrative that Boko Haram emerged solely because of the poor governance, poverty, and economic misfortune in Nigeria’s northeast. Instead, Thurston appropriately places religion, and specifically the interaction of religion and localized politics, at the center of his thesis. As Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid once deadpanned, “religion matters a great deal to jihadists.”

I served as a Special Forces officer in Nigeria earlier this year. Thurston’s book, the first full-length academic history of Boko Haram, would have been valuable preparation for our deployment. Previous works, such as Mike Smith’s Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War, are valuable, but written with a distinctly journalistic perspective. Thurston, by contrast, combines deep research, his academic experience in religious affairs, and interviews to describe the origins, growth, and evolution of Boko Haram. However, as the history moves into current affairs, the utility of Thurston’s work declines, with his insights becoming increasingly theoretical and divorced from the reality on the ground.

In particular, Thurston underestimates the positive role played by local pro-government militias, which did a great deal to contribute to stability.  While the author correctly diagnoses the theological reasons behind the Islamic State of West Africa’s split with Boko Haram, he misses the impact this event had on the political and military situation on the ground.  He fails to recognize the threat the Islamic State of West Africa poses to U.S. interests in the region and mischaracterizes the impact and nature of U.S. military assistance to the Nigerian government.  Thurston’s pessimism towards the militias and toward security assistance reflects his broader failure to recognize that improved security is a prerequisite for the political process that he rightly suggests must take place to end the conflict.

From 2010 to 2013, Boko Haram grew exponentially in Nigeria, launching high-profile attacks such as the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Abuja. Much of Maiduguri and the countryside lay under the group’s de facto control. Flush with confidence, Boko Haram stormed Bama, the second-largest city in Borno State, on May 8, 2013. Under increasing pressure, President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration declared a state of emergency six days later, sending additional forces to Bama. The government also capitalized on largely organic local resistance to Boko Haram, sanctioning, organizing, and sometimes funding local self-defense groups that became known as the “Civilian Joint Task Force” or CJTF.

Thurston’s treatment of the CJTF mirrors his treatment of the Nigerian military as a whole. He dismisses the contributions of both groups due to human rights concerns. These concerns are legitimate, but the author uses them to posit a false equivalence between the security forces and the insurgency. Like many Western observers, Thurston derides the Nigerian state’s reliance on the militias, referring to them as an “outsourcing” of human rights violations by the government and an “escalation” of the anti-Boko Haram military campaign. While studying the conflict before my deployment, I was also concerned about these militias. However, during my time in Nigeria, I learned to see the CJTF as the Nigerians saw it.  Traditionally and legally, there is no such thing as “local” police in northeast Nigeria. Instead, villages and communities mobilize their young men in times of crisis for the common defense. Armed with only clubs or ancient flintlock muskets, these men, called “hunters,” “vigilantes,” or “CJTF,” stopped roughly half of all suicide bombers before they reached their intended targets during the summer of 2017. They often did this by tackling the bombers and attempting to remove their vests, at great personal risk. The CJTF represents a Nigerian solution to the insurgency that does not fit neatly into Western cultural, moral, and legal frameworks concerning the state’s monopoly on force.

These self-defense groups also helped the overburdened Nigerian Army control an area larger than New York state with a population of over 5.5 million. By January 2015, Boko Haram held territory that included 10 of 27 local government areas (a district roughly equivalent to a U.S. county) in the northeast.  Despite the existence of this terrorist proto-state, U.S. military partnership with Nigeria remained nonexistent until 2014 due to human rights allegations against the Nigerian military. These concerns, while important, caused Washington to ignore its own national interest in the stability of Nigeria, the largest democracy in Northwest Africa and the second-largest economy on the African continent.

The April 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School, and the social media firestorm that followed in the form of the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement, internationalized the conflict. U.S. assistance focused on organizing a regional military coalition, the Multi-National Joint Task Force, consisting of Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Benin, and Niger. As Thurston identifies, the United States also built security force capacity and relationships within Chad, Niger, and Cameroon that helped prevent instability from spreading into these bordering nations. Within Nigeria, American drones launched from neighboring countries provided important, but hardly decisive, intelligence support to the Nigerian military. This “Outside-In” approach was designed by the Special Operations Forces Command Africa commander, Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, a Special Forces officer with extensive experience in Afghanistan. Boldoc’s plan prevented the regional growth of Boko Haram’s seemingly unstoppable forces and freed the Nigerian military to re-take major towns throughout the northeast. This low-cost, closely constrained, “light footprints” approach helped the nations of the Multi-National Joint Task Force contain the problem without creating dependency on the U.S. military.

Thurston, like many Western experts, misdiagnoses the impact of American military assistance to Nigeria, claiming that U.S.-Nigerian military engagement encourages abuses by the security forces by providing a “seal of impunity” for these actions. From my experience, the opposite is true. Through daily interactions, we built trust with our Nigerian partners. These relationships allowed us to share lessons learned about operating within the Law of Armed Conflict and build the trust required for tough and delicate conversations. Without engagement and trust, those quiet talks cannot occur.

It is also worth noting that America’s minor military engagement with Nigeria is dwarfed by its humanitarian and development programs, which cost over $515 million in Fiscal Year 2017 alone. To be sure, these funds are valuable: They help hundreds of thousands of the most at-risk Nigerians in the war-torn northeast every day, housing displaced persons and providing emergency food rations to those on the brink of famine. However, these problems are symptoms of the degraded security environment, which will continue indefinitely until conditions improve and the conflict comes to an end. Military assistance is needed to address the root cause of the situation on the ground, yet the United States committed less than $2 million to security assistance programs in the same period.

The conventional success of the Multi-National Joint Task Force in 2015 drove Boko Haram back into remote enclaves, where it reverted to a pattern of terrorist attacks that increasingly targeted Muslim civilians. Abubaker Shekau, Boko Haram’s wild-eyed leader, led the movement in accordance with his favorite Koranic verse, “Chaos is worse than killing.” Shekau’s predation on Muslim civilians, including targeting them with suicide bombers, against the guidance of the core Islamic State leadership prompted serious theological and political debates within Boko Haram. Disagreement over targeting Muslim civilians and general dislike of Shekau’s erratic leadership led to a schism within the group in August 2016.  The breakaway faction earned the endorsement of key leaders of the Islamic State and called itself the Islamic State of West Africa.

Thurston points out these theological reasons for the split, but fails to recognize its significance for the situation on the ground and for U.S. interests in Nigeria. During my time in Nigeria, I saw the Islamic State of West Africa re-energize the rebellion against the Nigerian state by enforcing the theological precepts Thurston identifies. The group disciplined commanders for stealing from the population and avoided targeting civilians. Although the Islamic State of West Africa remained violent, its violence became informed by political considerations and included such acts as assassinations of hostile village heads and the delivery of night letters – messages threatening civilians who cooperate with the government and boasting of the omnipresence of Islamic State of West Africa insurgents. This set it apart from Boko Haram and helped the group gain adherents among the neutral population.

The Islamic State of West Africa now poses a significant threat to U.S. regional interests, both as a proto-state affiliate of the Islamic State that controls and governs territory, and as a terrorist group with cells throughout Nigeria. Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa are two distinct groups, with different capabilities, intentions, tactics, governance practices, and international support — not merely feuding rebel factions as portrayed by Thurston. Boko Haram today under Shekau’s leadership resembles a war band more than the original Boko Haram rebellion under Mohammed Yusuf in 2009. It has become a personalized, militarized, pillaging war machine, feeding on conflict and preying on civilians. This contrasts sharply with the Islamic State of West Africa’s deliberate, religious, and population-centric methodology. The Islamic State of West Africa’s approach refocused the rebellion around the movement’s original religious grievances against the Nigerian state, rendering it the more dangerous of the two insurgent groups. The Nigerian and international response to the crisis must appreciate and capitalize on these differences.

With that knowledge, how does the war against Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa, now in its eighth bloody year, end? Security measures and a “militarized response,” Thurston concludes, failed to stamp out Yusuf’s original movement and will likely fail to end the current crisis. In his view, only a re-introduction of a political process of negotiations and reconciliation will end the conflict. My own experiences in Nigeria support this conclusion. However, while there is no purely military solution to the conflict, political, religious, and economic competition against the two insurgencies cannot occur in areas threatened with relentless violence and intimidation.

Neither group is militarily defeated, despite claims to the contrary by the Nigerian government. Enemy-focused operations against Shekau’s roving war bands may see some successes due to the political inadequacies of his leadership and the predatory nature of his forces. However, large, indiscriminate clearance operations against Islamic State of West Africa will prove counterproductive unless coupled with a meaningful “follow-through” of governance, pro-government religious messages, and enduring local security. Operations against Islamic State of West Africa must focus on protecting the vulnerable rural population of the northeast against the religious propaganda and political violence that are the hallmarks of the group.

The United States should have no illusions as to the willingness of top Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa leaders to enter into a political process at this time, given the military facts on the ground and the Manichean religious narratives that inspire both groups. As Thurston illustrates, the groups’ exclusivist religious ideology prohibits a grand accommodation with the state, no matter how rational the gains from negotiations may appear to outside observers. In the meantime, therefore, international actors should continue to encourage the Nigerian government to develop a functional process for demobilizing and de-radicalizing low-level insurgents and even disaffected commanders who choose to defect from the groups. Faced with relentless military pressure and starvation, many insurgents will choose to surrender if they know they will be treated with respect and eventually returned to society. Simultaneously, the Nigerian government must hold its own politicians, soldiers, generals, and sanctioned militias responsible for abuses that fuel insurgent recruitment.

What role, if any, should the United States play? Nigeria, a democracy with a robust economy and a growing population that is projected to be the third largest in the world by 2050, is a valuable strategic partner for the United States. Continued U.S. military partnership with Nigeria can help end this war and the immense suffering it continues to cause. A policy of humanitarian assistance without military assistance, as advocated by Thurston and others, will only treat the symptoms of conflict while leaving its root cause in place. U.S. policy towards Nigeria must be consistent with its legally enshrined respect for human rights while simultaneously recognizing that there can be no solutions if security does not come first. The Nigerian military, for all its flaws, is the only organization that can generate the security environment needed to facilitate political solutions and humanitarian outcomes. While humanitarian assistance funding should continue in the short term, a clearly defined, publicly supported, and legally constrained expansion of U.S. security assistance to the Nigerian government will have outsize effects and decrease the long-term need for humanitarian action in the region.

An improved security environment is the only way to facilitate, as Thurston puts it, “the reintroduction of politics.”  This political solution will have winners and losers. A uniquely Nigerian political solution may seem counterintuitive to some Americans accustomed to the norms of the “Global War on Terror.” It will likely allow terrorists responsible for hundreds of deaths to escape justice, pay former insurgents, and include protections for extreme components of political Islam. However, it must be accepted and fully encouraged by the weight of American diplomacy if Nigeria’s bloody war is to come to an end.


Captain Sam Wilkins is a Special Forces officer and Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha Commander who served in Nigeria in 2017. Previously, Sam served as an Infantry Platoon Leader and Infantry Reconnaissance Platoon Leader in the 101st Airborne Division, where he deployed to Afghanistan’s Kunar Province in 2012-2013. Sam is a 2011 graduate of the United States Military Academy.

The views published above do not reflect the perspective or policy of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or 1st Special Forces Command.

Image: AFRICOM/Zayid Ballesteros

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