From Boko Haram to Ansaru: The Evolution of Nigerian Jihad

As the 2015 general elections in Nigeria neared, the security situation in the country’s northeastern region became a political pawn to boost the respective party platforms. The candidates praised and criticised the national response to the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, which has grown to a transnational threat with a reputation for brutal militancy.

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Its orchestration of several major incidents – including the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from their school in Chibok in Borno State – has sparked national, regional and international responses. The character of these counter-operations, however, has relied overwhelmingly on a military approach unable to defeat a resilient Boko Haram. Nigeria’s forceful approach reflects rash decision-making founded neither on a considered strategy nor a thorough understanding of the target group.

Drawing on the wide-ranging body of existing literature, this report examines the evolution of Boko Haram from its inception to its modern iteration, deconstructing its supposed cohesive ideology and chain of command. Rather than a single unit, Boko Haram is best considered as falling along a spectrum, with an ideology as fluid and flexible as its relationships with similar jihadist groups, including Ansaru – a breakaway faction with perhaps a close relationship to the core. The report examines how the ideological narratives championed by the key leaders of Boko Haram have shaped the group’s present-day structure and tactics and a military approach alone is insufficient to defeat the group. With a newly-elected government, Nigeria has the opportunity to address the Boko Haram threat effectively, but true success will rely on a solid understanding and appreciation of this elusive and resilient opponent.

About the Authors

Raffaello Pantucciis Director of International Security Studies and a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. His research focuses on counter-terrorism as well as China’s relations with its western neighbours.

Prior to coming to RUSI, Raffaello lived for over three years in Shanghai where he was a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS). Before that he worked in London at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. He has also held positions at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) and International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College, London.

He is the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2015), and is currently working on a writing project looking at Chinese interests in Central Asia. His journal articles have appeared in Survival, The National Interest, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Terrorism and Political Violence, and the RUSI Journal amongst others, and his writing has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, CNN, Guardian, Foreign Policy, South China Morning Post, and more.

Dr Sasha Jespersonis a Research Analyst with the National Security and Resilience Studies programme at RUSI. Her research interests include organised crime, particularly in relation to strategies to address it, connections to security and development, law enforcement and counter narcotics. She is also interested in the motivations of individuals engaged in organised crime and the rapidly evolving nature of organised crime groups.

Sasha holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics, which examines international initiatives to address organised crime through peacebuilding missions under the framework of the security-development nexus. She also completed an MSc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics and worked for Amnesty International, primarily focused on human rights in conflict and post-conflict contexts.