On Monday 16 January, Boko Haram hit a mosque inside the University of Maiduguri. The attack, confirmed by eyewitnesses as a suicide operation, was reportedly carried out in the early hours of the day by a teenage girl using improvised explosive devices. Three people, including a professor and the bomber, were killed, and the blast wounded at least 17 others.
In the heat of the confusion, another bomber detonated explosives at one of the university’s gates - apparently before reaching his target - killing only himself. Security forces said they gunned down a third bomber before they reached their target. The same day, Boko Haram claimed responsibility in an audio message purportedly by the group’s disputed leader Abubakar Shekau.
What were the implications of this attack? And what does it mean for the ISIS affiliate?
The incident opened a new chapter in the Islamist militant group’s guerrilla warfare. It was the first time Boko Haram attacked the university, and was in fact the first time a higher education institution was attacked in the capital city of the area most affected by Boko Haram’s insurgency. This was the second time that the group attacked a place of worship inside a university, with the first being an attack on a church in Bayero University, Kano in 2012. The Maiduguri attack was also the first time in three years that a school was hit by the group after the February 2014 attack on the Federal Government College in Yobe State, in which at least 40 students were murdered, and the April 2014 kidnapping of over 200 school girls from their school in Chibok, Borno state.
With this latest act of violence, Boko Haram showed it is as committed to its cause as ever. The tone of the audio message claiming the attack reaffirmed this. In a 2014 video, Shekau had vowed to attack the university saying, "And for your information, Western education (meaning the European system of education) is forbidden. University is forbidden, you should vacate it… You should quit university, I hate it."
Boko Haram has now made good on the threat, while also showing that it has metamorphosed into an organisation capable of planning and carrying out coordinated attacks in the face of tight security. In other words, Boko Haram is still alive, despite the Nigerian government’s claims in December 2016 that it had finally "crashed" the group. This incident, and others, indicate that the army has merely dislodged Boko Haram and its foot soldiers from some of its known bases. Boko Haram quickly claimed responsibility for the blast to send the above messages.
The fact that the group yet again used a teenage girl as a perpetrator is significant. It shows that Boko Haram continues to recruit to keep its ideology alive, because young boys and girls are more susceptible to the group’s worldview, and easier to convince that a greater good comes from suicide bombing. Children are also more difficult to spot as possible suspects in public places. This is perhaps, another reason that Boko Haram uses them in operations.
Further, targeting the university speaks volumes when it comes to the current state of Boko Haram. A group that mainly targeted and attacked security formations now attacks soft targets such as schools. This may appear to suggest it has been weakened, and would resonate with what security forces in the region have been communicating. But it is also a signal for the authorities to beef up security in schools, hospitals, IDP camps, markets, motor parks, and other soft targets, and for the public to continue to be extra vigilant.
This was not the first time Boko Haram has released an audio message. The group used a recording to pledge allegiance to ISIS in 2015. In August last year, Shekau used an audio message to respond to his purported replacement by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. This time, unlike Shekau's past messages - which have taken several days to surface after an incident - the audio was released just hours after the attack. Boko Haram might not have used video, as it has done in the past, because it did not want to reveal the current location of its leadership and give security agencies a lead. It could also be because there is something Shekau did not want to reveal, such as bodily injuries.
Aside from claiming responsibility for the attack in the six-minute recording, which was released in Hausa, the group also reiterated some of its core beliefs. These include that any Muslim who practices democracy is a non-Muslim, and a hypocrite; that every non-Muslim is an enemy; that whoever fights them is fighting God; and that God is stronger in power. Referring to people who sang in praise of the army when it was making gains against Boko Haram in 2016, Shekau also warned singers that the group's attacks have just begun, and that they would continue to explode bombs until their mission is achieved.
While implicitly admitting that jihadi ideology does not normally allow women to take part in attacks, Shekau said it was permitted to use women in exceptional circumstances, citing the Quran as his authority for these assertions, and called on all Muslims, especially scholars, to join them. Finally, he challenged Muslims to prove Boko Haram's ideology and narrative wrong if they could. These fit into the bigger picture of the core themes of the ISIS affiliate and other jihadi groups: attributing power and victory to God for whom and in whose name they claim they fight (tawhid); takfir against anyone that does not share in their interpretation of Islam; and the inevitable triumph of their version of truth over falsehood.
What stands out from this incident is how far Boko Haram is driven by an ideology, which is based on the misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and misapplication of Islam. An ideology can only be fought with an alternative. Guns can kill extremists, but not extremism. Shekau's final invitation to Muslim scholars to disprove the group if they can drives this point home further.