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US Counterterrorism Efforts in Nigeria Are, At Best, Counterintuitive

Aiming for peace with violence, trust with arbitrary arrests, and security with indiscriminate killings doesn’t defeat terrorists – it creates them. Weapons and military assistance may be needed to curtail immediate security threats, but having it as the only long-term solution in Nigeria is a guaranteed recipe for pervasive instability.


Much to America’s surprise, the world’s greatest complexities can’t be resolved through bullets, tanks, and airstrikes alone. For the past 2 decades, the U.S. has provided over $2 billion in military weapons, security assistance, and training programs devoted to bolstering Nigerian troops in their fight against Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group present in multiple African nations. The intention behind training the Nigerian military was to effectively strike terrorist leaders down while promoting safety for local civilians. Instead, innocent Nigerian families were targeted through indiscriminate helicopter strikes, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detentions from the same military that vowed to protect them. In the past 10 years alone, more than 10,000 civilians have died in the custody of the Nigerian military, claiming they had ties to Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria.

The human rights abuses that have been fueled by U.S. military support aren’t just limited to inhumane detentions, but direct attacks on innocent Nigerian families. In January 2017, a Nigerian Air Force fighter Jet bombed a refugee camp — claiming over 160 lives in an event deemed as a US-Nigerarion operation in classified military documents. Though verbal condolences were temporarily offered, the U.S. stubbornly stuck to its overly simplistic, military-driven counter-terrorism approach. The following year, the U.S. supplied over $593 million worth of rockets, bombs, and 12 Super Tucano warplanes. Despite NGO reports claiming that indiscriminate attacks on children, farms, and villages have dramatically risen in recent years, the Biden administration promptly approved a $1 billion arms sale of attack helicopters to Nigeria.

Targets of such indiscriminate attacks aren’t the only victims left behind: it's the children that now have to grow up without parents at home or the small business owners that had their shops turn into rubble. As a result of the escalating conflict, over 8.4 million civilians in Northern Nigeria are currently in need of life-saving humanitarian aid. While Nigerians continue to see their families suffer at the hands of their own government, dwindling economic opportunities, and purchases of U.S. weapons rather than combatting their dire needs, it's no wonder why a poll in 2021 discovered how they had the lowest trust in their government across every single African country.

With a government people cannot rely on for safety, much less provide them with basic necessities, the breeding grounds for terrorist recruitment have unintentionally been set in place. In a study of former youth recruits for Boko Haram, some of the key factors for their membership included a need for business or financial support and a directed frustration against the Nigerian state for security abuses or governmental inadequacies. That’s likely why, despite countless years of U.S. military assistance, Nigeria earns a threat level score of 8.233/10 from the 2021 Global Terrorism Index — placing it in the top 6 out of 163 countries. Sure, the blame can be pointed at Boko Haram blame for manipulating vulnerable citizens into their deadly terrorist network. However, the larger issue lies in how the US-Nigerian partnership has propagated such detrimental conditions in the first place. If the US truly wants to counter terrorism in Nigeria, it needs to stop creating it

Setting aside the long list of disappointing counterterrorism failures, it begs the question of what can be done to best stabilize Nigeria’s future. In order to determine how to adequately address Boko Haram’s threat, it’s equally important to assess how they currently operate; Boko Haram routinely controls remote villages, pockets of territory, and sporadically launches deadly suicide attacks. The local regions farthest from the government are most susceptible to Boko Haram’s reign of terror, but they are also the solution.

That’s precisely why local civilian contributions are essential to combating Boko Haram. Terrorists thrive by hiding themselves in remote locations and blending with the rest of society through loosely flexible networks — rendering conventional warfare and traditional Western counter-terrorism efforts obsolete. The military, by nature, prepares its combative capabilities for the purpose of interstate war, making smaller-scale violence against terrorist groups that swiftly relocate their bases particularly troublesome. This is the exact reason why the Nigerian government can’t blindly brute force its way through Boko Haram with US fighter jets and attack helicopters. After all, it’s nearly impossible to win a tactical game of cat and mouse with a missile launcher.

On the other hand, Civilian Joint Task Forces and community policing can uniquely combat the inherent inner workings of Boko Haram’s operational structures. As the latter name implies, civilians themselves contribute to the military effort by closing informational, security, and intelligence gaps that are unique to their specific localities. After the peak of Boko Haram-related deaths in 2015, civilian casualties decreased by over 80% in 2016 — largely attributed by many scholars to the civilian contributions and informational assistance provided by the Joint Task Forces. Furthermore, community-based policing for counter-terrorism measures also stands as a viable solution for intelligence gathering and preemptive mitigation. Collaboration between police and the public seeks to quickly resolve sudden internal disruptions and disorders in a community — before they exacerbate into violent extremism. Evidently, preventing terrorist attacks before they even have the chance to occur, rather than reacting to them through military measures, yields more effective results. In a study evaluating over 168 terrorist groups that permanently ended their activity, over 40% was attributed to community policing efforts, as opposed to a measly 7% from military intervention. If military intervention has been deemed to be an improbable predictor for putting terrorism to a full stop, it only strengthens the case for the US to reprioritize its investments to solutions that carry a more pragmatic chance for success.

If these alternatives have proven to be so desirable, it’s only intuitive to ponder on why they haven’t been succeeding in the status quo. The primary reason can be explained by the Nigerian government’s excessive emphasis on arbitrarily detaining its civilians — claiming they are suspected terrorists. Civilian contributions can’t be made in a conducive manner if they are rewarded with arbitrary arrests, unlawful killings, and poor standards of living.

This further necessitates a holistic approach that aims at restoring public faith in the economic, social, and political institutions of Nigeria. The application of courts, justice, and due process of law stands as a considerable priority for upholding human rights in the Nigerian counterterrorism effort — which is what the US can focus on developing through its assistance and training, rather than teaching thousands of troops how to launch military-grade weapons that end up putting innocent civilians in the crossfire. Additionally, US investments in humanitarian and developmental aid can remove the structural incentives that terrorists like Boko Haram capitalize on.

Above all else, restoring trust between communities and the government should be an utmost priority to further enhance collaboration and information sharing against Boko Haram. Over the past five years, three states in Nigeria’s Middle Belt have created peace agencies, built early response systems for local conflicts, and developed grassroots conflicts resolution infrastructure such as mediation and restorative justice. A significant limitation to the expansion of these organizations is a lack of funding and resources — shortcomings that the U.S should be more than capable of filling.

Once governmental trust is restored, localized informational gaps can promptly close in on terrorist networks in the short run, while economic grievances will be removed in the long run. Military responses should no longer be seen as the prevailing solution to removing Boko Haram in its entirety; rather, they should only be used under immediate threat.

By slowly chipping away at all of Boko Haram’s areas of operation, financial incentives that can no longer be exploited, or social frustrations that are now aimed away from the government and towards terrorism, it's only a matter of time until Boko Haram shatters in both strength and numbers.

A long-term possibility is an economic spillover effect that not only uplifts Nigeria out of Boko Haram’s reign of terror but the shackles of cyclical poverty. After a sharp reduction in terrorism, foreign investors would likely gravitate toward the region and pour a greater share of financial capital — given how easily their investments can be jeopardized by the looming threat of terrorism. As a matter of fact, one study quantifies that a sample standard deviation increase in terrorism reduces international investment by approximately 30%. As the threat of terrorism is mitigated, more investments into capital and infrastructure can materialize — reinvigorating economic growth with abundant employment opportunities and higher wages for previously impoverished Nigerians. More specifically, a study conducted by Purdue University finds that for every 10% increase in Foreign Direct Investment, the poverty rate is expected to decline by 7.6%. As standards of living improve and public grievances gradually fade away, there are fewer opportunities for Boko Haram to exploit in their recruitment efforts. With declining terrorist members, Nigeria reaches greater stability and opens the opportunity for greater investment incentives — creating a positive feedback loop for terrorist reduction.

It’s easy to just sign an arms deal, turn a quick profit for the weapons industry, and blindly pretend that everything will be okay. However, the US needs to realize that doing what is simple isn’t always doing what is right. It takes time, resources, localized efforts, proper governance, economic development, and robust institutions to adequately address the Boko Haram threat. After all, a multifaceted problem demands a multifaceted solution.

Mridul Prasad is a first-year CLEG major in the School of Public Affairs. He is a Staff Writer for the American Agora.

Image courtesy US Army, Creative Commons.

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Nov 20, 2022

Very well articulated and well researched. Terrorism is a tough problem to solve. It only gets more complicated by creating more war groups.


Nov 20, 2022

So true and totally agreeing to each point drafted so precisely, Kudos to you, Mridul 👏✨


Nov 20, 2022

Collateral damage is conveniently pushed under the rug and never gets a mention by the main publications, when caused by US actions. It is just business for most US companies and their contractors, many of them retired ex-military folks.


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