Nigeria’s War on Terror


    1.0. Background

    Nigeria’s war on terror is approaching a crossroads between external influence and domestic control. The country faces a multidimensional threat picture spread across and beyond its territory. From north to south, salafi-jihadist militants continue to influence and destabilise an already fragile situation despite governmental and international efforts to counter.

    Military operations targeting the prominent Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), and other militant actors have not ended ongoing insurgencies. Apart from the increasing efforts clear in domestic capabilities and international partnerships, the fragile situation with spillover effects from neighbouring countries may have implications for future stability in the coup-struck region. Moreover, with impending elections in February 2023 [source], prospects for escalating violence and further security challenges are clear.

    A Nigerian Navy operator

    2.0. Situational Report

    2021 marked a 22 percent increase in politically motivated violent events in the country. The estimated 9,900 fatalities make up a 30 percent increase compared to 2020 [source]. In 2021, the rivalry between Boko Haram and ISWAP escalated. After the killing of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in May 2021, dozens of Boko Haram followers swore allegiance to rival ISWAP [source]. Moreover, since 2021, there has been an increasing expansion of insurgent activities, which traditionally have had a local focus [source]. The jihadist development marks a trend not isolated to Nigeria; it is a recurrent phenomenon in neighbouring states, especially with jihadist spillover to coastal West Africa.

    In 2022, Nigeria placed 6th on the Global Terrorism Index [source]. Nigeria has become one of the most targeted countries by Islamic State activities worldwide [source]. ISWAP is currently the most lethal group in the Sahel [source]. Despite considerable domestic and foreign efforts, the jihadist and militant groups continue to develop and expand in the country and across its borders. Thus, Nigeria’s war on terror is a complex and multidimensional issue with implications for regional security. Regarding the Nigerian Armed Forces, there are indications of widespread corruption and “ghost soldiers”, i.e., military personnel only existing on paper [source; source].

    2.1. Areas of Operation

    1. The Northeast Zone

    2. The North Central Zone

    3. The Northwest Zone

    4. The South Zone

    5. The Southeast Zone

    6. The Southwest Zone


    The Operational zones of Nigeria’s counterterrorism forces.

    3.0. Threat Actors

    Sometimes regarded as synonymous, ISWAP and Boko Haram make up the main violent groups in Nigeria. Even though ISWAP was founded as an offshoot of Boko Haram in 2015, they are not to be regarded as the same entity. However, ISWAP continuously aspires to absorb Boko Haram into one group [source].

    Also, apart from these two key actors, other groups are worthy of attention. Among them are the Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram-affiliated Ansaru group and bordering actors such as the Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP, formerly the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel) operating along the Benin/Niger border in the Northwest Zone [source].

    3.1. ISWAP

    ISWAP primarily focuses its targets on military structures, government and security personnel, traditional leaders, and contractors. Since its founding, the group has had a discriminatory agenda primarily targeting non-Muslims. However, a shift in tactics was clear in 2020 as the group gave civilian targets more attention. Hence, the group has evolved into the deadliest terrorist group in Nigeria and the Sahel as a whole.

    The group is primarily operating from its headquarters in the Alagarno forest. Still, it has developed influence in the northern Borno countryside, south-central Borno, North Adamawa, and the country’s northwest. Hence, the group is primarily active in the Northeast Zone. Estimates from October 2021 suggest that the group’s membership is between 3,500-5000 [source]. ISWAP makes up a prime target in Nigeria’s war on terror.

    3.2. Boko Haram

    Like ISWAP, Boko Haram promotes establishing a caliphate in Nigeria. The group holds territory in the Northeastern zone. Still, it is dislodged from the previously vast land areas it controlled as of 2015. The group has conducted large-scale attacks targeting governmental entities, international NGOs, and civilians. Some prominent examples are the attack on the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Abuja in 2011 [source], the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in 2014 [source], and the multi-day massacre in Baga and surrounding towns in 2015, killing approximately 2000 people [source].

    3.3. Ansaru

    For some while, Ansaru, a former breakaway faction of Boko Haram, has primarily been acting silent on the terrorism threat landscape. However, there are indications of a reemergence with increasing links to abductions and violence. In addition, the group is promoting a “hearts and minds” strategy, claiming to act to defend the interests of local communities. The group’s compelling narratives and increasing influence are potential domestic and regional instability drivers. Ansaru is primarily active in the Northwest and North Central zones [source].

    4.0. Nigerian counterterrorism units

    As Nigeria is facing two parallel domestic conflicts against Boko Haram and the ISWAP, its military and police personnel, as well as civilian entities, are a part of the counterterrorism apparatus. However, mapping every single branch of the armed entities fighting terrorists in Nigeria is beyond the scope of this article. Thus, focus is on specific military Special Operations Forces (SOF), Police units, and the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).

    4.1. Nigerian Armed Forces

    The Nigerian Armed Forces consist of three branches: the Air Force, the Army, and the Navy, all of which have developed their Special Forces (SF) and SOF units. These units continuously engage in joint exercises with western SOF personnel, aiming to combat and eliminate the influence of terrorist organisations active in Nigeria. The military SF and SOF units constitute a crucial element in Nigeria’s war on terror.

    4.1.1. The Armed Forces Special Forces

    The Armed Forces Special Forces (AFSF) is the most visible and versatile of the SF/SOF units of the Nigerian Armed Forces. AFSF comprises  a mix of Army, Air Force, and Navy personnel and continually leads the way, making them more visible than other entities. The AFSF commandos are Tier 3 operators. They have participated in several important missions, including the recapture of Bama, Baga, Damboa, Marte and Kangarwa. The unit has received training from Russia, Belarus, and Pakistan [source].

    Nigerian Navy SBS operators. Image: Toju Weston.

    4.1.2. The Nigerian Air Force “Panthers”

    Initially a Quick Reaction Force, the Nigerian Air Force “Panthers” is a Tier 2 operating unit. However, like other SF/SOF in Nigeria, it has broadened its focus embracing domestic missions targeting terrorist groups and other militant actors [source]. Today, mainly focusing on intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, the Panthers are an expanding unit with a high number of operators on active duty, reportedly exceeding 2000. In addition, the Panthers are repeatedly conducting exercises with the British Military Assistant Training Team as a part of Operation TURUS [source; source].

    4.1.3. The Nigerian Army 72 Special Forces Battalion

    Initially a paratrooper unit, the 72 Special Forces Battalion (72 SF) is reportedly the SF unit of the Nigerian Army. Unfortunately, available information on the 72 SF is scarce and there are several indications of the unit being dissolved. Still, available data suggests the 72 SF or a replacing army unit is conducting joint operations with the Panthers with a primary focus targeting Boko Haram and ISWAP insurgents in the Northeast Zone [source; source].

    A Nigerian Army SOF operator. Image: Toju Weston.

    4.1.4. The Nigerian Navy’s Special Boat Service

    Regarded as Nigeria’s single Tier 1 unit, the Nigerian Navy’s Special Boat Service (NNSBS) is conducting unconventional operations on air, land, and sea. Like any other SOF unit, the NNSBS carries out missions and solves complex tasks behind enemy lines, conduct counter-terrorism operations, handles hostage situations, and eliminates opponents. However, the primary focus of NNSBS is on the maritime environment, enforcing maritime security, conducting anti-piracy operations, and VIP protection. The unit is initially a replica of and trained by the British SBS but continuously conducts joint exercises with SF units worldwide, such as US Army Special Forces [source; source].

    The Nigerian Navy Special Forces load blank ammunition into magazines during a Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) in Lagos, Nigeria April 27, 2022. The teams focused on honing basic skills such as close quarters battles, small unit tactics and mission planning. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexandra Minor)

    4.2. The Nigeria Police Force

    Regarding counter-terrorism units of the Nigeria Police Force, official sources provide information on two conventional entities. However, because of their similarity, there is a likelihood of them being the same unit. Moreover, the Nigerian Police Force also command SF capabilities in its top tier unit commonly known as the “Black rangers”.

    4.2.1. The Anti-Terrorism Squad

    A Commissioner of Police heads the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS). The unit’s prime focus is conducting special operations and investigations targeting terrorist organisations, groups, and individuals [source].

    4.2.2. The Counter-Terrorism Unit

    Founded in 2007, the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) of the Nigeria Police Force primarily focuses on countering national terrorism acts. The CTU has reportedly played a crucial part in the success of Operation Puff Adder, resulting in a drastic reduction of kidnappings on significant highways. Moreover, the CTU mainly carries out combat operations and investigations targeting terrorism and organised crime organisations [source]. CTU constitutes a significant capability in Nigeria’s war on terror.

    4.2.3. The Black Rangers

    The Black Rangers is the Special Forces within the Nigeria Police Force. The unit is a mix of personell drawn from the CTU, the Police Mobile Force (PMF), and the Special Protection Unit (SPU). Initially trained in Belarus in 2014, the Black Rangers is specialising on hostage rescue operations, specific combat missions, and foreign internal defence operations. The unit is actively participating in Operation Puff Adder.

    4.3. Civilian Joint Task Force

    Founded in 2013, the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) was formed to support the Nigerian Armed Forces fighting Boko Haram in the Northeast Zone. In addition, the group has been expanding since, focusing on protecting local communities and providing security for internally displaced populations. A Western equivalent is the Home Guard. Even though assisting the Nigerian government’s fight against terrorism, the group has been subject to accusations of abuse, sexual violence, and child recruitment [source; source].

    Members of the CJTF with Nigerian Army SOF operators. Image: Toju Weston.

    5.0. Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures

    5.1. Weapons

    Nigeria has its own domestic defence industry, the Defence Industries Corporation of Nigeria (DICON). Most often, tactical details of SF/SOF units are classified information. Hence, this is a partial list of the weapons used by the country’s Counter-Terrorism units in Nigeria’s war on terror. However, it may indicate what equipment is used in the fight against terrorists apart from equipment imported from international partners.

    5.1.1. Guns

    • OBJ-006 (AK-47 clone)
    • NR-Light Automatic Rifle (LAR)
    • Sub Machine Gun – PMS 12
    • Nigerian Rifle 1 Model 7.62mm 1 7.62
    • Nigerian Pistol 1 (NP1)
    • General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG)
    • Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher (RPG)

    5.1.2. Ammunition

    • 7.62mm X 51 Soft Core (Ball) Cartridge 
    • 7.62mm X 51 Blank Bulleted Cartridge 
    • 9mm Blank Star
    • 9mm X 19 Parabellum Cartridge 
    • 7.26mm X 65 Blank Star Cartridge

    5.1.3. Ships

    • Andoni Seawards Defence Boat I  
    • Karaduwa Seawards Defence Boat II

    5.1.4. Armoured Vehicles

    • Proforce Ara Mine Resistance and Protected (MRAP) Vehicle  
    • Infantry Patrol Vehicle (IPV)
    • PF 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier
    • Igirigi Armoured Personnel Carrier
    • Ezugwu MRAP
    • TY Buratai Combat Vehicle
    • Innoson Patrol Vehicle

    5.1.5. Nigerian made drones

    • Tsaigumi Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
    • Amebo Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
    • Gulma Unmanned Aerial vehicle
    • Star Tiltrotor

    5.1.6. Other

    • M36 Hand Grenade
    • Buratai Overhead Manned Turret (BOMT)
    • 31 mm Rocket System
    • Automated Sniper Rifle (ASR)


    A Nigerian and French Navy joint exercise. Note the NNS Kada in the background. Image: Toju Weston.

    5.2. Counterterrorism operations timeline

    2011-2013: Operation Restore Order I, II, & III.

    2013: Operation Boyona

    2013: Operation Zaman Lafiya

    2015: Operation Lafiya Dole

    2021: Operation Hadin Kai


    5.2.1. Additional Ongoing Operations

    • Operation Hadarin Daji
    • Operation Awatse
    • Operation Puff Adder

    [source; source]

    6.0. International support and International Partnerships

    6.1. Multinational Joint Task Force

    Initially organised as a solely Nigerian force in 1994, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) consists primarily of military units from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. The mission’s aim is to eliminate Boko Haram’s influence around the Lake Chad Basin [source].

    6.2. Operation Turus

    Launched in April 2014, Operation Turus is the British military operation assisting the Nigerian Armed Forces in targeting the Boko Haram insurgency. Prime minister David Cameron approved the initiative after the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping. The primary focus is training and advising to increase Nigerian operational capability in the Northeast Zone and the Lake Chad Basin [source]. Operation Turus is a crucial element in Nigeria’s war on terror.

    A Nigerian Air Force K9 Unit training with UK troops. Image: Toju Weston.

    6.3. Operation Juniper Shield

    Operation Juniper Shield is the US-led military counter-terrorism operation in the Sahara and Sahel regions. The mission primarily focuses on training and advising countries struck by terrorism. Western participants are the UK, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and Sweden [source; source].

    Nigerian SBS training with UK Marines. Image: Toju Weston.

    6.4. Russia

    In August 2021, Russia and Nigeria signed an agreement on Russia training and supplying the Nigerian Armed Forces [source].

    7.0. Weapons import

    In 2020, Nigeria spent $149 million on military weapons, making up the 3rd largest weapons importer in the world. China was the most prominent supplier, accompanied by South Africa, Bulgaria, Russia, and the US [source]. However, the first half of 2022 saw a significant decline in imported weapons [source]. The trend may show Nigeria is moving towards more independence because of increasing resources allocated to the domestic weapons industry.

    8.0. Assessment of Future Development

    8.1 Identified trends

    • Domestic and regional jihadist expansion and spillover.
    • Nigerian ambitions of independence.
    • Increasing international attention, i.e., military cooperation and potential external influence primarily from China and the US. There are indications of growing Russian military influence in the country.
    • Emerging and reemerging violent groups.
    • Widespread corruption and “ghost soldiers”.

    The inability of the Nigerian government to contain jihadist and militant violence in the country is worrying. With elections to be held in February, there are prospects for escalating violence and further security challenges. Moreover, the situation opens for external influence, which may further destabilise, especially as external interests among powerful Western and Eastern actors clash in an already vulnerable region.

    However, Nigerian aspirations for independence, particularly from a well-developed arms industry, may enable future control. If Nigerian stakeholders take a firmer grip on the terrorist group’s influence, there are implications for enhanced stability. One step would be the development of a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to improve ongoing military operations further and unify the chain of command. By bringing together the SF and SOF expertise, the prospects for containing the contemporary threat will likely increase. However, such a project will probably face obstacles because of the corruption evident in the Nigerian Armed Forces.

    Nigeria’s war on terror is approaching a crossroads of external influence and domestic control. Hence, the impending elections will likely determine the way forward.

    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren
    Oscar Rosengren is a student at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm. His main focus area is the Sahel Region and West Africa. Specific interests are asymmetric threats, mainly terrorism, covert action, and cyber threats.

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