Washington — The United States is monitoring reports militants aligned with Boko Haram are taking over communities in north-central Nigeria, part of what appears to be an attempted revival by the al-Qaida-linked terror group.
Officials in Nigeria’s Niger state have been warning of Boko Haram activity for months, recently claiming that the group’s fighters are present in more than 500 villages across eight of the state’s 25 wards.
“They tell local people that they are not fighting with them but with government and its institutions,” Suleman Chukuba, an official with the Shiroro local government, told VOA.
“They are saying only Islamic education is allowed… They also use bombs to attack people,” he added, noting the terror group’s flag has been raised in a growing number of villages. “These are Boko Haram’s ways of operation.”
But U.S. officials are leery of drawing any conclusions given the fast-evolving terror landscape, which has seen the fortunes of Boko Haram and its Islamic State-aligned rival, IS West Africa, rise and fall multiple times over the past several months.
“The United States is aware of reports that Boko Haram militants are present in Nigeria’s north-central Niger state,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
“Boko Haram has terrorized civilian populations in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger for more than a decade,” the spokesperson said, adding the U.S., “will continue to seek to help further develop the capabilities of the Nigerian security services to respond to these threats.”
U.S. intelligence officials are also concerned.
“Boko Haram’s remaining elements continue to be a threat to local communities,” one official told VOA, requesting anonymity in order to discuss the information.
So far, Nigerian officials have sent some military and police units to Niger state to help, though local officials say it is not enough to combat what they see as a growing threat.
One factor that could be boosting Boko Haram’s current efforts are reports that the leader of IS West Africa is dead, potentially giving Boko Haram the time and space to rebuild.
Nigeria’s military announced the death of Abu Musab al-Barnawi last week (October 14) though U.S. officials cautioned previous reports of the IS West Africa leader’s death had proven to be unfounded.
Yet even if al-Barnawi is dead, Boko Haram is likely to still face significant challenges as it attempts to regroup.
“Their resources continue to be drained by ongoing clashes with ISIS-West Africa, some fighters’ attempts to disengage from the battlefield, and continued counterterrorism pressure from Nigerian security forces,” the intelligence official told VOA, using another acronym for Boko Haram’s IS-aligned rival.
U.S. officials also tell VOA that Boko Haram was hit hard earlier this year by the death of its leader, Abubakar Shekau, following his capture by IS West Africa.
Even though some high-level Boko Haram commanders managed to escape the IS West Africa assault, the defeat led to mass defections, whittling Boko Haram’s fighting force to as few as 500 fighters.
“They are definitely on their back foot,” a U.S. military official, who like the other U.S. officials requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, told VOA.
The official, who described Boko Haram’s recent setbacks as significant, also said there are questions about how effectively the group can recruit as it attempts to overcome something of a leadership vacuum.
“[Boko Haram] was significantly driven by Shekau and his leadership,” the official said, noting the group’s command and control is “not as cohesive as it was.”
Some analysts who study Boko Haram also have doubts about the group’s ability to rebound, despite reports of ongoing, low-level clashes with IS West Africa.
“There are still remnants,” James Barnett, a research fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, told VOA. “But it’s difficult to gauge at this point whether those remnants are coalescing into a cohesive, smaller insurgency.”
“The best evidence now points to Boko Haram being, at best, a very marginal player for the near term,” he added.
VOA’s Hausa Service and Mustapha Batsari in Minna, Nigeria, contributed to this report.