Why has Boko Haram shifted from a focus on controlling territory to the use of suicide bombings and hit-and-run tactics against soft targets?

Before the military offensive by Chad, Nigeria, and Niger, Boko Haram controlled an area in northern Nigeria that totaled around 20,000 square miles. Since 2009, Boko Haram slowly captured territory using a variety of tactics and ultimately declared an Islamic caliphate in 2014 in its land. But due to the success of the military offensive, a majority of the areas once held by the radical group has now been reclaimed by Nigeria. In light of this, Boko Haram has reverted to relying heavily on suicide bombers attacking soft targets. This shift in tactics is proving to be successful, as Boko Haram has killed over 444 people in the past 39 days.

Boko Haram (AK Rockefeller)

Boko Haram (AK Rockefeller)

So why the shift from focusing on controlling territory for its own Islamic State to the use of suicide bombers and hit and run tactics against soft targets? This new style of attack is a tactical adjustment made by Boko Haram as it faces new circumstances. In the past few months, Boko Haram was put on its heels and did not have the resources or capacity to fight against the joint militaries of Chad, Niger, and Nigeria to reclaim its territory. For example the Nigerian army took back the strategically located city of Bama in early March 2015. Only a few days later, after Boko Haram militants regrouped in the forest area near Lake Chad, militants sought to reclaim the recently taken city. Due to an increased military presence and lacking capacity of Boko Haram, the Nigerian military was successful in foiling the militants’ attempt. This instance represents Boko Haram’s lacking capability against conventional militaries to hold cities.

So instead of failing or struggle to win against the Nigerian army, Boko Haram has shifted back to asymmetrical warfare employing suicide attacks, bombings, and assaults against soft targets all over northern Nigeria. The militants focus on attacking commercial centers, mosques, churches, and universities that are now more vulnerable. In early July, a female suicide bomber entered the village of Zaria and blew herself up in a crowd of government workers, killing at least 20. This attack was only hours after another female suicide attack, where the female tried but failed to blow herself up in a mosque. Because the female suicide bombers enter soft targets, like a market or city center, dressed in full face Islamic veil, the attack is unable to be thwarted. Though police are now aware of this tactic, the female suicide attacks continue. The focus on suicide bombers and urban warfare by Boko Haram is a successful shift. Since January 2015 to March 2015, Boko Haram was responsible for the deaths of over 3,000 people, the most lethal period in the conflicts history.

Speaking to the shift, a U.S. counterterrorism official said, “Boko Haram does strategic retreats. … They will move out from the forest into the countryside, attacking villages, then when confronted will beat a retreat and carry out bombings in Maiduguri.” So the shift in tactics by Boko Haram should not though be taken as a sign of weakness but a sign of resilience. Suicide attacks, especially by females outside Boko Haram’s normal operating sphere, are a diversion that distracts resources away from the military’s offensive, thus allowing Boko Haram time to regroup for the next attack.

Additionally, the shift shows that the fight against Boko Haram is far from over. The militant group showed an ability to morph and change tactics as necessary in order to enforce its reign of terror. This is not the first time Boko Haram made tactical adjustments to survive. Like in 2013, when in light of a government offensive against Boko Haram strongholds in populated cities, Boko Haram shifted to focus on more remote areas. This was a successful shift since Boko Haram killed over 2,000 in a few short months in mid-2014.

So now, countering such diffuse tactics may be more difficult for the Nigerian military than reclaiming fixed cities. These tactics being used by Boko Haram are much harder to prevent and can be just as deadly. So while the military won a handful of strategic battles against Boko Haram, the war is not over by any means.