Tracking tactics of Boko Haram with open source intelligence

Boko Haram can run from the Nigerian army, but they can’t hide from the internet. EPA

In the midst of the hunt for the missing schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria, news was soon breaking of another attack by terrorist group Boko Haram. This time they had struck the Lagos-Ibadan highway. This was all only a few weeks after the group had carried out a bombing at a bus station in the capital Abuja.

It would eventually transpire that this latest attack on the highway was in fact no more than a swirl of rumours, but the whole episode captures the fear and apprehension permeating Africa’s most populous nation around what might be next for the militant sect.

On the surface at least, Boko Haram is seemingly striking with increased frequency as well as displaying a renewed capacity to infiltrate and attack the nation’s capital in their quest to destabilise the country. All of this calls into question the government line that they have been successful in suppressing the group and curtailing their activity to the more remote north eastern parts of the country.

Being able to effectively assess such questions in the past has been impeded by a lack of data – especially in a country where both sides have often been engaged in a war of propaganda – but an increasing amount of data that falls under the umbrella of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) provides new opportunities for analysis. Using resources such as the Armed Conflict Location & Event Database (ACLED) we can now robustly examine the patterns and trends of Boko Haram activity, and how the group may be evolving. Visually mapping this data provides a quick snap shot of some of these trends. Each visualisation displays Boko Haram attacks with bubbles sized by the number of fatalities.

Reviewing the data on Nigeria we can establish that with each passing year Boko Haram has been responsible for an increasing number of fatalities. While in 2011 they were involved in events that led to an estimated 1002 casualties, this number had jumped to over 4,500 by 2013 (it should be noted that on occasion some of these fatalities included Boko Haram members).

While it is true that Boko Haram attacks may have become more deadly we should also note the increasing concentration in certain areas. During 2012 the group were increasingly striking outside of their strongholds of the north east, including notable attacks in Kano, Kaduna as well in the Plateau State. It seemed only a matter of time before the group would be able to pull off an attack in the country’s economic heartbeat of Lagos.

However, in response to the growing threat a state of emergency was declared in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. Figures 2 and 3 clearly demonstrate that the introduction of a state of emergency has been effective in restricting the scope of Boko Haram operations.

The clampdown led to a change of tactics. Back in 2012 Boko Haram focused their efforts on government strongholds, such as military barracks and police stations; but since the state of emergency the group has increasingly targeted civilians, where there is little or no security. This is clearly demonstrated when the ACLED data is mapped, with a shift from military engagements by the group to a focus on civilian targets.

And the following year. Note the increased concentration in the north and east:

All of this highlights that while Boko Haram still pose a serious threat to the stability of Nigeria, the group is being forced to change its tactics and areas of operations as the government steps ups its effort to disband the group.

The recent bombing in Abuja provides an obvious counter to this assertion, and was clearly intended to send the message that the group still had the capacity to strike outside of the North-East. Whether this is an anomaly or a sign of a renewed capacity of Boko Haram to strike effectively outside of the North-East is yet to be seen.

What is clear is that the fact that the group has shifted its focus to civilians means any government “success” in curtailing their operations is bittersweet, as it is has arguably left the population more exposed. Future efforts to stem the influence and impact of the group must take into account the changing focus of the attacks to provide a more comprehensive defence against the group. This is of course a difficult challenge considering the group is both versatile and reactive to initiatives by the Nigerian government.

As such, governments facing increasingly complex adversaries must embrace any available opportunities to gain an edge. Here, open source intelligence provides a huge opportunity. More than ever, the amount of data to be consumed is burgeoning, driven by technological advances in our ability to identify and extract intelligence from what is being recorded on the web. Further analysis allows for trends and patterns to be spotted and connections to be made, and it is this that will be crucial in helping to defeat groups such as Boko Haram.