top of page

Threat Assessment: Increasing Instability and Havoc in Nigeria

Allegra Berg, Faye Lax, Niall Paltiel; Extremism, AFRICOM

April 14, 2021

Political map of Nigeria[1]


Nigeria has been facing an increase in violent attacks perpetrated by extremist and bandit groups. Active groups in the region are likely exploiting the deep vulnerabilities and grievances in the region. In turn, the violence and attacks further fuel the instability, creating more havoc in an already struggling landscape. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) estimates that it is nearly certain that this cycle of insecurity in Nigeria will continue.

  • Bandit groups and gunmen activity have been on the rise in Nigeria. Cooperation between bandit groups and extremist groups in the region is likely. The groups are especially capitalizing on COVID-19 and the grievances it has fueled.

  • Boko Haram has been increasingly growing its presence in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon. The group continues utilizing kidnapping tactics for ransom and elicits mass propaganda for the group. With the Nigerian forces intensifying their operations to counter the group, Boko Haram is likely to retaliate and seek revenge, rendering them a greater threat.

  • The Islamic State's West Africa Province (ISWAP) is increasingly taking the role of the predominant terrorist ‘faction’ from Boko Haram within Nigeria as they have greater manpower and more access to funding. ISWAP is possibly receiving support from outside sources such as other ISIS affiliates, as well as becoming the primary narrative driver for Islamic extremism within Nigeria through propaganda efforts.

CTGs threat matrix suggests that the threat to Nigeria’s security is high. Groups such as Boko Hara, ISWAP, as well as bandits and criminal groups are very likely to continue taking advantage of local grievances in the region. As Nigerian security forces no longer respond to ransom demands and continue to boost their operational capabilities, clashes with the groups will very likely be heightened, and the groups will seek alternative methods to expand their membership. As the Islamic State seeks to establish itself in Africa, there are roughly even odds that ISIS will be attracted to Nigeria; an easy target where the group will easily be able to manipulate the cycle of violence.


Increase in bandit/gunmen attacks and activity

Bandit activity within Nigeria has recently risen due to spiking youth unemployment rates as a result of COVID-19, as well as increased cooperation with terrorist groups such as Boko Haram.[2] Aside from driving youth unemployment upwards, the way the Nigerian government handled the pandemic has also fuelled resentment against the state, resulting in police facilities being increasingly targeted by bandit groups in coordinated strikes.[3] The high rate of these attacks likely indicates that bandit groups are enjoying growing support amongst segments of Nigeria’s unemployed youth populace. Bandits are being emboldened by the public backlash the government is receiving and possibly recruiting some of the unemployed to join in these strikes. The increased rate of attacks and support for bandit groups amongst the Nigerian population is, however, likely temporary so long as the Nigerian government quickly and effectively responds to the population’s economic needs.

The economic degradation across the country has aggravated existing tensions in northern Nigeria between the farmers and herders.[4] The lack of technological advancement in the Nigerian livestock sector has left many rural farming communities in the north vulnerable to increased raids and cattle thefts which have sustained bandit activity across northern Nigeria over the years, as cattle are viewed as a legitimate form of currency. The increased economic hardship and cattle theft by bandit groups will likely only worsen the poor relations between northern Nigeria’s farming and herding communities unless the Nigerian government takes proactive steps to either resolve the long-standing historical tension between the two communities or actively seeks to strengthen the economic situation within the country.

Cooperation between the bandit groups and Boko Haram is also rising. This could signify an evolution in Boko Haram’s strategy as it may seek to use bandit proxy forces to distract Nigerian security forces by sharing intelligence with them, allowing for Boko Haram to ease the security forces’ pressure on itself. This would enable Boko Haram to regroup, reorganize and restart operations at a much faster rate than before. Alternatively, the rising cooperation between both parties is also likely down to an increased ‘Islamization’ of bandit groups as Boko Haram fighters flee from security forces and merge into the bandit factions.[5] This raises further concern about the possibility of bandit groups becoming proxy forces for Boko Haram to use as a distraction for Nigerian security forces.

Bandit groups have also recently begun actively funding Boko Haram.[6] Aside from signifying closer cooperation between both groups, it could also suggest that the millions of Naira the Nigerian government has spent paying off bandit ransoms over the years could, inadvertently, have been passed along to Boko Haram. This also raises the possibility of the bandit kidnappings being ordered by Boko Haram to secure funding originated from the Nigerian government. Not only would this finance Boko Haram's activities but it would also remove precious resources from the Nigerian government that it could use to combat Boko Haram. Thus, this tactic could see a severe draining of Nigerian security force resources and allow Boko Haram to gain funding through passive means by allowing the bandits to act as the front and pass on the revenue from kidnapping ransoms.

Boko Haram

A recent CTG report assessed that Boko Haram was increasing and changing its tactics, and estimated that it was highly probable the group was behind a 2021 surge of kidnappings in Nigeria.[7] CTG’s assessment of the group remains unchanged. As Boko Haram advances its arsenal and changes its tactics, Nigerian forces have stepped up their operations to counter the group. This will highly likely snowball into a cycle of clashes between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces, with civilians almost certainly caught in the crossfire.

In 2021, Boko Haram began implementing a new trend in tactics by using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), allowing the group to target more populated civilian areas strategically. Utilizing RPGs in recent attacks also highlights the arsenal that the group has. Most recently, Boko Haram claimed in a video to have shot down a Nigerian military Jet that went missing during a Boko Haram operation. While analysis concluded that such a claim was fake, Boko Haram’s false propaganda likely aimed to portray their desired arsenal.[8] Boko Haram likely intends to procure such weapons and may utilize funding from their recent kidnappings to do so, making the group extremely dangerous. While the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has urged that the video’s contents be ignored, the jet and two pilots are still missing.[9] Boko Haram should not be undermined nor ignored.

Boko Haram has been expanding its presence and attacks in neighboring Cameroon. A 2020 report highlighted that Boko Haram attacks against civilians in Cameroon were higher than those in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad combined, with attacks increasing by 90 percent.[10] Boko Haram’s increasing presence in the Far North of Cameroon is of concern to the safety of Cameroonian civilians, but also suggests the group has the means and capabilities to expand its operations so vastly. It is likely the group is expanding to obtain supplies; their growing capacity is likely to progress, thus endangering the lives of many more civilians. Forces in the region must strategically expand and strengthen their counter-insurgency capabilities to match those of Boko Haram.

The Nigeria government has a history of paying kidnapping ransoms, encouraging groups such as Boko Haram to continue their kidnapping tactic, possibly through proxies, to fund other internal operations. The Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-rufai, however, has recently announced, “even if my son is kidnapped, I will rather pray for him to make heaven instead because I won’t pay any ransom.”[11] While it is essential to cut Boko Haram off from ransom funding, the group will likely continue kidnapping in hopes that the victims’ families will pay ransoms without the knowledge of the government. Alternatively, the group will seek alternate means for funding, but the Nigerian forces will have to adapt to the new methods, which will likely take time and resources that they do not have. Nigerian forces have recently conducted successful operations against the group, including the recent rescue of 11 abducted victims and elimination of 48 Boko Haram members.[12] While Nigerian forces have massively increased their operations against the group, there is a roughly even chance that their successes will lead to retaliatory attacks and clashes with Boko Haram. Most recently, Boko Haram killed three Nigerian soldiers in Borno State while attempting to overrun a military formation, and will likely continue attempting to undermine the security forces by targeting them.[13]


The Islamic State's West Africa Province (ISWAP) is increasingly becoming a predominant terrorist ‘faction’ within Nigeria. ISWAP overwhelmingly has more human resources, support, funding and is frequently overrunning military bases in Nigeria.[14] This suggests the group is receiving international support, likely from other Islamic State affiliations, predominantly in the Middle East. ISWAP’s increasing dominance within the region will become a primary narrative driver for Islamic extremists and Sharia law implementation throughout Nigeria. While ISWAP does have connections to Boko Haram, they are not entirely aligned with their efforts and goals. Due to ISWAP having a bigger presence in both territory and action and Boko Haram escalating their violence and efforts, this increases the likelihood of either clashes or an alliance between the two groups. Both scenarios are concerning since clashes would result in large-scale violence, and an alliance would make it challenging for Nigeria to combat them successfully. ISWAP and Boko Haram have been clashing in the Lake Chad region, resulting in the death of 54 terrorists.[15] Future conflicts can result in local civilians being caught in the crossfire as well as irreversible local destruction.

ISWAP has faced some setbacks recently when Nigerian armed forces eliminated two commanders in the Borno State - Amir Abu-Rabi and Mohamed Likita.[16] Responsible for tax collection and attack coordinates, respectively, this may result in a temporary disruption in ISWAP’s activities in the northeast of Nigeria, specifically during the transition to new leadership. This provides a potential opportunity for the Nigerian armed forces’ operations within the Borno state to advance and gain more territory as they attempt to combat ISWAP.

ISWAP, similarly to Boko Haram, is not for Western ways, including religions such as Christianity. Over the past several months, there has been an increase in violence targeting Christian clergy. Some kidnappings occurred in the middle of religious services, displaying the brazen actions by the group and the confidence in their skills to commit these actions with spectators. Nigeria has had a history of violence against Christians, specifically due to groups’ local interest in implementing strict Sharia law. Both ISWAP and Boko Haram have historically targeted Christians, with Nigerian forces having little to no results in capturing the perpetrators. Christian clergy have previously been kidnapped, held for very high ransom demands and, upon a lack of a willingness or ability to pay, are found dead.

Nigeria has been struggling on a humanitarian level, with food and water security increasingly becoming a concern. Aid workers are struggling to reach those most affected and are aware that there are well over a million people who they cannot directly reach as they live in lands controlled by ISWAP and Boko Haram. Because of the vulnerability present and the necessity of this aid, ISWAP targeted hubs of UN humanitarian workers in the northeast of Nigeria. Most recently in March 2021, nine humanitarian hubs in Dikwa, the locations where aid workers live and sleep, were targeted. This provides a challenge for future humanitarian aid within Nigeria during the COVID-19 pandemic as food, supplies, and vaccinations need to be distributed. This could result in massive setbacks locally and increased tension in the region, creating desperation and vulnerability in locals to turn towards extremist groups for support.

This is coupled with recent attacks on the power grid in Nigeria, which can have multiple repercussions. On March 27, 2021, there was a power outage in Northern Nigeria in the city of Maiduguri.[17] Additionally, power was just restored on March 24 for a city of 3 million from an incident that occurred in January. Targeting power grids is of concern as it can have both humanitarian as well as economic repercussions. This also continues to portray the Nigerian government and its infrastructure in a negative light, which terrorist groups can easily exploit: by ensuring a government and/or leading party look weak, those vying for power can display their strengths and gain support from locals.

Most concerningly, ISWAP appears to be attempting a heart and minds campaign rather than showcasing pure brute strength. Despite all of the violence and destruction, they are causing, they are attempting other tactics to attack new supporters and increase their popularity. There are reports that ISWAP is attempting to blend in with local Muslim communities by taking over certain roles within the state, such as social programs and loans.[18] This is in sharp contrast to actions by other Islamic State factions and what Boko Haram is currently attempting in the country. By attempting this strategy, they can further establish a legitimate position in the country, similar to the Taliban in Afghanistan. A hearts and minds campaign increases their local support and local authority, making it more challenging for Nigerian forces to combat them, as well as for Boko Haram to be successful against them as locals may begin to support ISWAP and their actions.

Prison Break in Imo

On April 5, there was a massive prison break in Owerri, a town in the state of Imo with 1,800 prisoners breaking free.[19] Reportedly, there were armed attackers with rocket-propelled grenades who assisted in the break. Previous incidents of militant violence and prison breaks tend to have occurred in North Nigeria, primarily in the Borno state, with this most recent break being one of the very few incidents in the South. This does come following a recent increase in violence in the southeast of the country. After the incident, the Inspector General of the Police Muhammed Adamu was fired, with his deputy chief, Usman Alkali Baba, assigned to replace him.[20]

No one still has claimed responsibility for the violence; however, local security forces have blamed the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and their paramilitary wing, the Eastern Security Network (ESN). IPOB is a Biafran separatist group, and ESN was established in December 2020. The group runs a radio show in the region, and it appears their grievances are against the Fulani herders rather than looking for autonomy.[21] Their main grievances are with grazing patterns, and the Nigerian courts view IPOB as a terrorist organization. ESN has previously said that they are looking to protect the Igbo people from foreign armed invaders. In 2015 and 2016, IPOB had violent clashes with the Nigerian military and police. However, if IPOB is the group behind the most recent attack, it shows a massive escalation. Alternatively, Nigeria should investigate other group’s involvement in this attack. While Southern Nigeria is not typically targeted by Boko Haram (see annex A), they have recently implemented RPGs in their attacks, making them suspected perpetrators. Possible motives for this attack may be to garner support from the freed prisoners who may feel inclined to join the group in return for their freedom. By boosting their numbers and support in the South, Boko Haram may be attempting to expand its footprint to counter other groups in the region.

Future Implications

Vulnerabilities, grievances, and general insecurity in Nigeria may offer Boko Haram, ISWAP, and other extremist groups an opportunity to establish a hold in the region. ISIS is seeking a foothold in Africa in general, but with increased vulnerabilities presented by internal clashes, coupled with traditional instability, it presents avenues for new groups to gain power. Other factions of ISIS, along with ISWAP and Boko Haram, will likely exploit the current state in Nigeria. Groups such as ISWAP already have deep links to the Islamic State, and benefit from its support, training, and financing.[22] This raises concerns within Nigeria and Africa, but also regarding the strength of the Islamic State, which is spreading throughout the world. By gaining territory and power, as well as allies throughout the region, the Islamic State will continue to proliferation - especially into regions with limited forces to counter them, such as Africa and the Middle East.

Within conflict regions, there are also concerns regarding the success of combating COVID-19, specifically through the distribution of vaccines. There are already issues regarding the supply in Africa, with countries like Russia and China disseminating their vaccines. \China’s vaccine has recently been shown to have low effectiveness, suggesting that a large portion of Africa’s supply is relatively useless at combating COVID-19.[23] This comes at an already concerning time as Nigeria needs to limit their first doses of vaccines being distributed due to supply concerns.[24] Extremist groups seek to exploit vulnerabilities of legitimate forces, such as the government or military, to make themselves appear as “heroes.” Groups like ISWAP and Boko Haram have the opportunity to gain power, legitimacy, and support by further disrupting the supply chain of vaccines, either by destroying doses or stealing shipments and disseminating them themselves.

Nigeria overall has been seeing increased instability in the North and South. This shows a general trend of destabilization and a lack of ability from local forces to address the threats. Based on this current trend, without an increase in counter operations of external assistance, Nigeria has a strong likelihood to further destabilize and for internal clashes to spread to other neighboring countries. As seen in other regions of Africa, such as the Horn of Africa, situations that begin in one country can rapidly spiral out of control, spill further into the region, and become increasingly challenging to counter and control.

CTG assesses that violence and instability are highly likely to increase and expand within Nigeria and across its borders. While bandits and gunmen, and groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP wreak havoc in Nigeria, they are likely able to do so by taking advantage of local grievances and conflicts. CTG recommends that although counterterrorism and insurgency operations must continue, addressing the local grievances, especially amidst COVID-19, will be crucial. CTG’s Extremism and AFRICOM teams will continue to collaborate and monitor the footprints of the mentioned groups by using open-source intelligence (OSINT) and social media intelligence (SOCMINT). CTG’s threat hunter and WATCH programs will also ensure that members of the Extremism and AFRICOM teams are alerted with any new concerns or updates in Nigeria.



Map of group violence in Nigeria[25]

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[2] Nigeria competing with bandits to recruit jobless youths, says Tinubu, The Guardian Nigeria, March 2021,

[3] Bandits again set police division in Imo on fire, The Guardian Nigeria, April 2021,

[4] Bandits have lost rights to live, must be wiped out - El-rufai, Vanguard Nigeria, April 2021,

[5] Who Are the ‘Bandits’ Behind Nigeria’s Mass Kidnappings?, The Defense Post, March 2021,

[6] Nigeria: Bandits Funding Boko Haram- El-Rufai, allAfrica, April 2021,

[7] Threat Assessment: Increase and Change in Boko Haram Tactics, CTG, March 2021,

[8] Blast in video of purported shootdown of Nigerian military plane is fake, analysis shows, CNN, April 2021,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Boko Haram Violence against Civilians Spiking in Northern Cameroon, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, November 2020,

[11] I won’t pay ransom even if my son is kidnapped, says El-rufai, Nigerian Eye, April 2021,

[12] Nigerian Soldiers Ambush Boko Haram Fighters, Kill 49 - Official, All Africa, March 2021,

[13] Boko Haram Attacks Maiduguri, Kills Three Nigerian Soldiers, Sahara Reporters, April 2021,

[14] Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), Global Security, N.d.,

[15] ISWAP, Boko Haram: Battle for territorial supremacy kills over 54 terrorists, herders, The Sun, March 2021,

[16] Nigerian military eliminate ISWAP leaders Amir Abu-Rabi, Mohamer Likita, Daily Post, April 2021,

[17] Nigeria: Attack On Transmitters Cuts Power to Nigerian City - Again, All Africa, March 2021,

[18] Growth of Islamic State in the Sahel Threatens Christian Communities, Voice of America, March 2021,

[19] Manhunt on for 1,800 inmates after brazen Nigeria prison attack, Reuters, April 2021,

[20] Nigeria police chief sacked after jailbreak attack, Africa News, April 2021,

[21] Nigeria’s Diverse Security Threats, Africa Center for Security Studies, March 2021,

[22] The Islamic State Franchises in Africa: Lessons from Lake Chad, International Crisis Group, October 2020,

[23] Top Chinese official admits vaccines have low effectiveness, Associated Press, April, 2021,

[25] Group violence in Nigeria, made on Google Maps & Canva, by Niall and Allegra



bottom of page