At dawn on February 10, a camp for displaced people in the northeast Nigerian town of Dikwa began stirring to life. Three unaccompanied young girls asking for shelter had arrived the day before, and spent the night with approximately 50,000 others who had fled the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.
That morning, in the midst of a crowd of displaced Nigerians, two of the girls blew themselves up, killing 58 people and wounding scores. The third girl with bombs strapped to her body decided not to detonate, and was taken into custody.
The three girls are part of an appalling trend begun after a multinational coalition last year started pushing Boko Haram out of the territory it controlled in northeast Nigeria. Since June 2014, Boko Haram has used approximately one hundred women and girls some likely kidnapped in terror attacks, in addition to its usual barbarisms.
Despite the violence, newly-elected President Muhammadu Buhari claimed in December 2015 that Nigeria has “technically won the war” against the group. As the attack on the Dikwa camp shows, however, his assessment was too optimistic.
Unless the Nigerian government and military undertake serious reforms and adopt a broader strategy that accounts for the various components of the Boko Haram phenomenon, the group will continue to be a threat, and likely even reconquer lost territory.
Buhari’s comments were most concerning because they suggest his administration may make the same mistakes as his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. During Jonathan’s tenure, Boko Haram seized chunks of lands in the northeast and routinely humiliated the Nigerian military in battle. It also carried out some of the globe’s worst terrorist atrocities its infamous April 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls from a school in Chibok was only part of a campaign that made it the world’s deadliest terror organization that year.
Boko Haram metastasized into its virulent form in 2009, and since then it has been clear that Nigeria has not fully understood the nature of the group or the threat it poses. The government treated it primarily as a military problem, with little regard for the ideological component of the crisis, or the enabling environment in some parts of the north that allowed Boko Haram to flourish.
Boko Haram’s leadership and at least portions of its foot soldiers is motivated by the same sort of violent, exclusivist interpretation of Islam as is ISIS and most other prominent modern terrorist groups. In fact, in March 2015, Boko Haram officially joined ISIS and rebranded itself as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province. The extreme ideology peddled by Boko Haram must be discredited to genuinely defeat the terror group, something military force alone cannot do.