“The most deadly terrorist group in the world” isn’t ISIS — well, not exactly

Boko Haram leader (assuming he’s not dead) Abubakar Shekau and a few of his followers (BBC | AFP)

The Institute for Economics and Peace released its Global Terrorism Index 2015 report today, and if you’re looking for 2014’s gold medal winner in terror, it’s not ISIS. Not exactly. It’s complicated:

Also notable over the past year is the major intensification of the terrorist threat in Nigeria. The country witnessed the largest increase in terrorist deaths ever recorded by any country, increasing by over 300 per cent to 7,512 fatalities. Boko Haram, which operates mainly in Nigeria, has become the most deadly terrorist group in the world. Boko Haram pledged its allegiance to ISIL (also known as the Islamic State) as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) in March 2015. In addition, another terrorist group has emerged in Nigeria, the Fulani militants, who killed 1,229 in 2014. The group was responsible for sixty-three deaths in the prior year.

Boko Haram is an ISIS affiliate now, and there have been scattered reports of Boko Haram fighters training with ISIS in Syria and Iraq since that pledge of allegiance back in March. So you could argue that there’s no difference between the two groups in 2015. But the Nigerian group’s 2014 body count was entirely theirs. They killed a whopping 317% more people in 2014 than they had the year before, which is what vaulted them over ISIS into the “top” spot:

Boko Haram overtakes ISIL to become the most deadly terrorist group in the world. Deaths attributed to Boko Haram increased by 317 per cent in 2014 to 6,644. ISIL was responsible for 6,073 terrorist deaths.

Of the ten worldwide terrorist attacks in 2014 that killed 200 or more people, Boko Haram was responsible for four of them — Nigeria was also hit by a fifth, perpetrated by those Fulani militants (Boko Haram primarily draws from the smaller Kanuri ethnicity in Nigeria’s northeast), in April. Only Iraq (which recorded the most terrorist deaths in 2014 that any country has ever recorded in one year) and Afghanistan scored higher on the Global Terrorism Index (“higher” is worse in this case, just to be clear) than Nigeria, with Pakistan and Syria close behind — as a group, those five nations collectively suffered a whopping 78% of all terrorist incidents worldwide.

Muhammadu Buhari (Chatham House | Wikimedia)

It was hoped that the election of Muhammadu Buhari as president in March (he took office in May), replacing the embattled Goodluck Jonathan, would be a turning point in the fight to eradicate the terror group. Jonathan was so obviously incapable of defeating Boko Haram that people started to question whether he had any interest in doing so. Buhari is a former army general (and former military dictator, but let’s not deal in past unpleasantness), and a Muslim, so maybe he could counter Boko Haram both on the battlefield and among the disaffected Muslim populations from which the group draws its support. Another reason for some optimism was, counter-intuitively, the fact that the scope of Boko Haram’s activities have expanded to engulf an entire region and inspire the formation of a multi-national force (from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Benin) to counter them. Even the United States has gotten involved, announcing in October that it was sending 300 soldiers and drones to Cameroon to aid the anti-Boko Haram campaign.

Admittedly, some of these developments still haven’t had time to play out all the way yet — Buhari is still rounding up people who grifted themselves into vast wealth under Jonathan’s administration. But so far, there’s really been no sign of Boko Haram slowing down its violence. Over the last 24 hours, as if to put an exclamation point on the IEP report, the group struck two Nigerian cities — Kano in the north and Yola in the east — with bomb attacks, killing at least 46 people and injuring over 120. However, while there’s been no slowdown in Boko Haram’s campaign of violence, there may be some positive news overall: reports from inside Nigeria, both directly from Buhari’s government (which should be taken with a grain of salt to say the least) and from local community leaders in the northern part of Nigeria (which can maybe be considered more reliable). The Nigerian army’s command and control seems better under Buhari than it was under Jonathan, which is also a good sign.

Still, defeating Boko Haram on the battlefield, and shrinking the territory it controls, is, as is the case with ISIS, likely to cause the level of terrorist violence to go up before it starts really coming down. It’s also only a temporary fix for the problem, and it remains to be seen whether Buhari’s government can put in place the kind of governance in the north that could really strangle Boko Haram of its safe havens and popular/tribal support over the long haul:

“The problem isn’t armed troops fighting and chasing Boko Haram out of the district,” said Paul Lubeck, director of African studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “The problem is whether they can set up an administration with security to hold them off.”

Indeed, attacks in October in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the state capital of Borno — behind what would seem to be the front lines of the army’s engagement with Boko Haram — may indicate that the military’s grasp in the region is less firm than it insists.

Babagana Monguno, Nigeria’s national security adviser, pointed out the need for more jobs for a growing youth population that might be tempted to join militants.

“States must reconstruct a new social contract with citizens based on trust and inclusion,” he said. “It must be extremely important that government is seen as being close to the people.”

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