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The Abuja Bus Station Bombing: A Sign of Boko Haram's Rise or Fall?

Nigeria is not winning in the battle against Boko Haram, but neither are the Islamist militants. The Abuja bombing is more a sign of the group's decline than ascendency.
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Driving through Abuja, Nigeria. Photograph by Afromusing.

At approximately 06:45 on the morning of 14 April, an explosion ripped through the Nyanya Motor Park in the bustling city of Abuja. The blast, which triggered secondary explosions as nearby vehicles were engulfed in flames, occurred as scores of commuters were readying themselves for their daily commute into the centre of the Nigerian capital. By the time the smoke had settled and the sounds of screams were displaced by those of sirens, in excess of 70 people had been killed and scores others wounded in the deadliest attack of this nature to ever occur in the city.

While there have been no immediate claims of responsibility, suspicion has fallen on the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. Since its formation in 2002, Boko Haram has waged an armed insurgency against the Nigerian government which has left an estimated 5,000 people dead and thousands more displaced. According to Amnesty International, 1,500 of these deaths have occurred since the beginning of 2014, marking a recent upsurge in attacks both in frequency and brutality. Reports of civilian massacres attributed to Boko Haram have become a near daily occurrence in Nigeria's north-east which has long served as the group's operational stronghold.

The increase in violence has many believing that the Nigerian government is losing the battle against Boko Haram. Moreover, incidents such as the 14 April attack in Abuja raise concerns that the Islamist group could be expanding its campaign to areas outside its traditional areas of operation, potentially placing major cities at sustained risk.

In assessing the credence of such concerns, however, it should be noted that the attack at the Nyanya Motor Park was not the first Boko Haram attack in Abuja. On 16 June 2011, a suicide bomber breached the perimeter of Nigeria's police headquarters (Louis Edet house) in what was likely an attempt to assassinate then Inspector-General of Police, Hafiz Ringim. In a telephone interview conducted with a Nigerian newspaper, Boko Haram spokesman Abu Zaid claimed responsibility for the attack which killed one police officer and left several others wounded.

Two months later, Boko Haram then executed one of the most high-profile attacks in its decade-long insurgency when another suicide bomber drove his explosive-laden vehicle into the entrance of a building in Abuja's Garki district housing the offices of the United Nations. At least 21 people were killed and 76 wounded in the attack which Boko Haram claimed was a reprisal for security operations targeting its members in the northern city of Kano.

Boko Haram's attacks in Abuja continued in 2012 when the group claimed responsibility for the 26 April bombing of the offices of the ThisDay news media publications and when its suspected offshoot, Ansaru, launched a daring raid on a prison facility in Abuja's Apo district where a number of Boko Haram insurgents were being detained.

The aforementioned incidents highlighted that Boko Haram possessed both the intent and operational capacity to execute attacks in Abuja which, while perhaps not as deadly, were more sophisticated in both their operational planning and execution in comparison to the recent Nyanaya Motor Park bombing.

But if Boko Haram had the requisite capabilities to execute attacks in Abuja with relative frequency, why has there been a near two-year lull in its operations in the capital? The answer lies in the fact that despite mainstream narratives suggesting the contrary, counterinsurgency measures employed by the Nigerian government have indeed weakened the group.

Boko Haram's attacks in context

Since a multi-pronged counteroffensive was launched against Boko Haram's positions and interests in early 2013, there has been a marked decline in the group's attacks outside Nigeria's north-east. Prior to the aforementioned offensive, Boko Haram was rapidly expanding its operational footprint across Nigeria, permeating both the north-western and central administrative regions of the country. In addition to attacking Abuja with a degree of frequency, Boko Haram was also particularly active in Kano, Kaduna and Plateau states and had even conducted operations as far south as Kogi state.

By the end of 2012, a major Boko Haram attack in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos, which had so far been spared, seemed inevitable. However, the group's rapid expansion was abruptly halted in May 2013 following the implementation of a state of emergency in the north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, which have and continue to be worst affected by the insurgency. The emergency decree, which provided the military with additional powers in combating the militants, was soon followed up with sustained air and ground offensives which the Nigerian military claims killed hundreds of Boko Haram members and destroyed key bases in the Sambisa Forest region of Borno state.

In the months following the May 2013 offensive, Boko Haram restricted their operations to Nigeria's north-east. Apart from the reduction in the geographical scope of its attacks, there was also a shift in the group's modus operandi. Attacks utilising suicide bombers declined, while armed attacks targeting fortified facilities such as police stations, military barracks and detention centres similarly became less frequent. Instead, Boko Haram shifted its focus to soft civilian targets, launching attacks on vulnerable and isolated towns, villages and schools, which often had a minimal or non-existent security presence.

A group which had been touted as being better equipped and trained than the Nigerian military, and which had exhibited this superiority in brazen and sophisticated attacks against hardened targets, was now waging a more conventional and risk adverse form of guerrilla warfare. Although high-profile attacks have not ceased in their entirety, as witnessed by the December 2013 attack at the Borno Air Force base and the more recent assault on the Giwa barracks, these incidents have been sporadic and mostly limited to the city of Maiduguri where Boko Haram has always maintained a strong operational presence.

While spiralling casualty figures show that the Nigerian army is certainly not winning the battle against Boko Haram, it would be wrong to suggest that Boko Haram is exactly winning either. Although tragic and brutal attacks continue relentlessly, the tactics employed by the Nigerian army have, at the very least, stymied the Boko Haram's geographical expansion and curtailed its ability to execute attacks against targets of strategic security and/or governmental importance.

In this regard, we should be careful when drawing conclusions about the 14 April attack at Abuja's Nyanya Motor Park. If Boko Haram was indeed responsible, it is unlikely that the incident marks the beginning of any sustained campaign by the militants in Nigeria’s capital, or indeed anywhere else outside the country’s north-east. Instead, the attack could be seen more of a reflection of a militant group aware of its operational decline yet which is still intent on posturing itself as a threat of national proportions.

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