Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad) – more known as Boko Haram – came in the centre of attention in Nigeria in mid-2009 when they clashed with police squad ’Operation Flush’ in Borno State capital, Maiduguri, resulting in more than 800 deaths. The leader, Muhammad Yusuf, was arrested and killed while in police custody. This followed a pattern of how the Nigerian state has approached similar radical Islamist groups before. This time, however, the strategy resulted in a spiral of violence between Boko Haram, the police, and security forces that is taking an ever more vicious face.

There is a tradition of radical Muslim movements in the north of Nigeria out of which Boko Haram has developed. The group is rooted in north-eastern Nigeria where it has been based since 2002 and where most of their attacks have taken place. Their ideas about creating an Islamic state draw, like other groups in the area, on the Caliphate structure that preceded colonial rule. There is a religious aspect which connects to earlier movements, even if Boko Haram deploys a particularly violent version.

However, the new phenomenon that has created uncertainties about the group is its amorphous structure and the nature of the attacks they pursue. Suicidal attacks are previously unseen in Nigeria and West Africa. High profile targets such as the UN building in Abuja and well-coordinated attacks in January in Kano, in which more than 180 people died, are varied with bomb attempts that have been diverted when plastic bags with homemade explosives have been spotted before exploding.

What also stands out is the capacity to continuously target the security forces and other targets despite killings and arrests of reportedly centrally placed individuals. Later development has seen a broadening of targets, from more or less exclusively focusing on state representatives to also target Muslim leaders seen as cooperating with the government, churches, media houses and, since last month, mobile masts in an attempt to disrupt communications and tracking of their whereabouts.

In all, this has raised the questions of what kind of resources Boko Haram holds and what kind of networks they are engaged in. Boko Haram gives a divided impression of its capacity and several observers point to the fact that there are different groups operating, some more capable than others. And some more connected to the ideological leadership than others, who may have less spiritual reasons for their attacks.

Boko Haram has limited support among people in the region, but they act in a context of widespread poverty, unemployment and inaccessible state functions. Even if these circumstances do not explain why Boko Haram has evolved, they have created the space for the group to operate. The government’s actions have done little to change that. It has responded to Boko Haram in the same way as with similar groups before, such as the Maitatsine movement in the 1980s and the ‘predecessor’ of Boko Haram, ’the Nigerian Taliban’ in 2002 – that is, with force and a mainly militaristic strategy. Police and military have shoot-at-sight orders and young men are arrested indiscriminately in hundreds at a time.

The security agencies have in many places become as big a part of people’s insecurity as Boko Haram. In Damaturu, Yobe State, people have been reported to leave the town in thousands, as they tend to be caught in-between Boko Haram and the security forces. The developments have not only led to increased insecurity but also a militarization of society. The failure of this strategy is even more underlined as the government and the security forces appear to have little capacity to handle the issue. This is exploited by Boko Haram, who rebuts information from state agencies and the government on a variety of issues, ranging from identities of arrested members to whether or not there is a dialogue going on with the government.

Even though there are reports that the new joint military and police task force ’Operation Restore Sanity’ has made hundreds of arrests of claimed Boko Haram members and there are weekly reports of alleged militants being killed, the militaristic strategy have little prospect to succeed in the long run. So far, the heavy handed response has rather resulted in further radicalization of the group. The best that can be achieved is to quell the violence in the short run. Grievances and breeding ground for similar movements are, however, still there.

Northern Nigeria experiences challenges not only in the form of militant movements such as Boko Haram. Relations between Muslims and Christians in northern and central Nigeria have worsened in the last decades. Tens of thousands have been killed in violence between different groups. Boko Haram attacks have targeted Muslims as much as Christians but by attacking churches the group has come to reinforce both a north/south divide nationally on a religious basis and local contention between Muslims and Christians.

Most significantly in places like Kaduna and Jos, where Boko Haram attacks have come into play with local political conflicts that have taken an increasingly religious turn. There have been, in these places, so called ’reprisal attacks’ after Boko Haram bombings. In these attacks, Muslims in general have been targeted on basis of their faith. There is, accordingly, need not only to address the acute threat from Boko Haram but also to find a political strategy that take broader regional and national dimensions into account.

Boko Haram can be seen as a symptom of a dysfunctional state, and a comprehensive solution of the problem involves a transformation of the state itself. Even if Boko Haram would eventually be crushed in a heavy handed strategy there will soon emerge new radical Islamist groups unless efforts are made to address the underlying issues. There is need to reform police and security forces to become credible and functional, but there is also need to have inclusive state services and a strategy for creating conditions for productive lives for people in northern Nigeria.

Henrik Angerbrandt is a doctoral student in political science at Stockholm University. He is at the final stages of his thesis on ethnic and religious conflicts in Northern Nigeria and has followed the region for several years. This post was previously published by NAI forum.