Boko Haram has launched a series of attacks that have inflicted substantial casualties on Nigerian government forces and contradict claims by senior officials that the extremist Islamist group is on the brink of defeat.
The group made headlines last month when it released 21 female students abducted more than two years ago. The women, taken in a night raid on a school in the small town of Chibok, were the focus of a global campaign and many analysts saw their liberation after negotiations with officials as evidence of Boko Haram’s weakness following an internal split.
On taking power 18 months ago, the Muhammadu Buhari, vowed to crush Boko Haram and has since boasted that the group, which launched a violent insurgency seven years ago, was “technically defeated”.
During a visit to Nigeria in August, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, congratulated the government for reclaiming swaths of territory, while Brig Gen Mansur Dan-Ali, the defence minister, told local media last week that the government had “eradicated almost 95% of Nigeria’s security challenges within one year”.
But clashes with Nigerian security forces in recent weeks have suggested Boko Haram is more resilient than claimed and, though forced out of much of the territory it once held, is still capable of inflicting significant losses.
“There is little to indicate the group is nearing its end or even that it is severely weakened,” said William Assanvo, an expert on Nigeria and militancy at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
Boko Haram launched 12 strikes on military targets in August, 24 in September and 22 in October, according to ISS research.
In one of their boldest recent strikes, militants overran a remote military camp in the north-eastern state of Borno a month ago, leaving 13 soldiers wounded.
An army spokesman, Col Sani Kukasheka Usman, called the attack a “temporary setback” committed by “remnants of Boko Haram”.
Recent weeks have also seen further losses in Borno. Two soldiers were reported dead in a bomb attack on a remote road, while at least three more were killed in attacks on bases near the towns of Kangarwa and Kwada.
The death of a officer killed while defending a military post in Malam Fatori, a town in Borno that has changed hands repeatedly, prompted widespread grief in Nigeria and focused attention on the continuing casualties.
Lt Col Muhammad Abu Ali, a 36-year-old father of three decorated for his role in previous operations, was one of seven soldiers who died when attacked by Boko Haram militants. The attack was eventually beaten back and 14 militants killed, according to military spokesmen.
The death of Ali has received widespread coverage in Nigerian media, and led to debates in the national assembly.
Speaking anonymously to a Nigerian news website, a military officer said Boko Haram had been helped by the beginning of the dry season, which made it easier to travel through the remote scrub and forest where much of the fighting was taking place.
However, a shortage of equipment had exacerbated the Nigerian army’s problems, the officer said.
“The truth is that from September to November this year, we have lost so many troops that can’t even be accounted for … All reasonable persons can see that Boko Haram is still a formidable force,” the officer said.
Thousands of people have been abducted by Boko Haram during its seven-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state. The abduction of the Chibok girls – about 200 of whom are still missing – prompted outrage worldwide and their plight was publicised using a Twitter hashtag, #bringbackourgirls.
Government forces have made significant progress against Boko Haram factions operating in neighbouring Cameroon, observers say.
“We’ve seen a dizzying downwards spiral in the number of attacks and suicide bombings,” said Hans De Marie Heungoup, author of a recent report by the International Crisis Group, an NGO.
He said that two years ago, Boko Haram launched attacks on an almost daily basis in Cameroon, but the number had fallen to between six and eight a month since September.
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