Despite previous international focus on the group through the widely publicised twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls, Boko Haram’s recent actions have been largely neglected. As the world focuses on the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, a battle looms in northeast Nigeria which could determine whether West Africa will be home to the world’s second self-declared Islamic Caliphate.
On 24th August 2014, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, announced that the group had indeed established an Islamic Caliphate in Gwoza, a city in Borno State in the northeast of Nigeria. This was a significant development in the group’s strategy as it had not claimed to occupy territory or pledged to defend it in the five years prior to the announcement. Boko Haram had previously focussed on specialised hit and run operations from its bases in the Sambisa Forest near the Cameroon border. This change in strategy should have given the Nigerian military an advantage in the conflict by enabling it to concentrate its efforts on specific targets and benefit from its superior weaponry in more conventional warfare. However, following this announcement Boko Haram made significant advances in Borno State, capturing the towns of Ashigashya on 25th August 2014 and Bama on 2nd September 2014; and it was reported that the group had surrounded the state capital, Maiduguri. It also made similar advances in Adamawa state, forcing residents to flee their homes and seizing control of the towns of Madagali, Gulak and Michika over the first weekend of September 2014. Moreover, on 15th September it was reported that another 50 young women and children had been abducted by Boko Haram from villages near Gulak. This latter abduction was given little coverage in the mainstream media or on social media.
Since early September, some of these gains have been reversed as the Nigerian and Cameroonian militaries have bolstered their forces in the region and have slowed Boko Haram’s advance, reporting victories in which they have killed a sizeable number of insurgents. Significantly, it was claimed in mid-September that Shekau was amongst one of the insurgents killed and an apparent picture of his dead body was released by the Cameroonian military. These reports appear to have been contradicted by release of a video on 2nd October in which Shekau personally appears to prove that he is still alive. Moreover, Boko Haram managed to launch successful terrorist attacks in the latter half of September killing a number of civilians in Kano, Adamawa and Borno states.
A worrying new aspect of Boko Haram’s recent advance has been its claim of seizing territory as part of its declared caliphate. The group is reported to have told residents of towns it has captured that it will not harm them and that they are there to stay. This appears to suggest an aspiration to build a support base amongst the residents of northeast Nigeria beyond those willing to fight for Boko Haram. The concept of occupying and defending territory has been symbolised by the raising of Boko Haram’s flag above government buildings in the towns it has captured. Furthermore, in the video released on 2nd October, Shekau claimed that the group was successfully implementing sharia law in the territory it now controls, which he refers to as “our Islamic Caliphate”. It is not clear to what extent Boko Haram is replicating the state structures being built by IS in Iraq and Syria in the territory it now occupies. However, it is abundantly clear that there has been a shift in the group’s strategy.
The Nigerian government thus currently faces the prospect of an expansionist Islamic Caliphate being built in the northeast of the country. The Nigerian military is reportedly preparing for an operation to recapture Gwoza – the town at the centre of Boko Haram’s recent expansion. This will be a test of Boko Haram’s commitment to defending its territory, and a strong indication of whether there is a functioning Islamic Caliphate in the making in northeast Nigeria.