The Gap

5 terrorist groups in Nigeria, their history and how to tackle them

5 terrorist groups, their history and how to tackle them

For many Nigerians, terrorism did not become a phenomenon until 2009, when rapid attacks were carried out on a larger scale and by sophisticated means occurred. The recent attack on St Francis Church in Owo, Ondo State, in June 2022 only sadly reminds citizens that this menace has not been effectively neutralised. More importantly, the attack shows that members of terrorist groups in Nigeria can crisscross across the country unhindered, which is a disturbing pattern.

According to the United States government, terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. In the same vein, the same government defines a terrorist group as any group practising or that has significant subgroups that practise international terrorism.

Simply put, terrorism involves illegal acts of violence by groups to strike fear into citizens and the government of a country or gather sympathy for an ideological cause. This is what has been happening in Nigeria continuously for over 13 years. A person or group of persons deliberately commit homicide to send a message to the government, using acts such as bombings, sabotage, assassination, and mass violence to wreak havoc at the expense of the lives and businesses of majorly defenceless people.

Terrorists are deemed as outlaws by both Nigerian and international law, yet they continue to have a field day, killing innocent citizens. So, who are these terrorists? Why have they remained unstoppable, and what are the best means to tackle them effectively?

History of terror groups in Nigeria

As earlier stated, terrorism became prevalent in Nigeria in 2009 with the rise of the insurgent group Boko Haram. However, the origin of terrorism in the West African nation can be traced back to the activities of the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF) shortly after independence. The NDVF was an armed militia group led by Isaac Adaka Boro, an Ijaw nationalist, and the group used force to demand self-determination for the Niger Delta.

The militant group, in February 1966, just over a year before the Nigerian Civil War began, attacked a police station, ransacked the armoury, and abducted some officers, including the officer in charge of the police station. They also blew up oil pipelines, declared the “Independent Republic of Niger Delta,” and engaged the police in a gunfight. They were ultimately subdued by the Nigerian military.

The country remained relatively calm after the Boro episode and the civil war in terms of large-scale violence until the Maitatsine uprisings of the 1980s. The Maitatsine was a group that attempted to impose a religious ideology through the use of force. Initially, several confrontations occurred between Mohammed Marwa, the Cameroonian-born propagator of the Maitatsine sect, and his adherents against the police in the 1970s. Marwa condemned Western culture, education, and technology, and his Yan Tatsine movement swelled with numerous followers.

ALSO READ: Most dangerous places to visit in Nigeria

It, however, became a full-scale crisis with the 1980 Kano crisis following Marwa’s death. It then spread with the Kaduna and Bulumkutu uprising in 1982, the 1984 trouble in Yola, and the 1985 upheaval in Bauchi before it was eventually quelled by the military. Although there were other crises in the northern region of Nigeria in the subsequent years, they were mainly religious crises and not widespread like that of the Maitatsine uprising.

The periods from 1994 to the early 2000s saw the rise of ethnic militia groups such as the O’Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC), the Movement for the Actualization for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), the Arewa People’s Congress (APC), the resuscitated Niger-Delta Volunteers Force, Bakassi Boys, Egbesu Boys, and Mambilla Militia groups. These groups made crime and criminal activities rampant and, at times, carried out human rights violations, particularly gruesome decapitations, incinerations, and other forms of extrajudicial killings. However, the scope of their violence was limited and did not have the sophistication of modern-day terrorism.

However, the brand of terrorism that is currently bedevilling Nigeria can be traced to the emergence of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in the mid-2000s. By 2006, the group had begun abducting oil workers, staging armed assaults on production sites, bombing pipelines, and public infrastructure, and deliberately targeting security agencies and formations. The two prominent attacks that the group is known for are the 2010 Presidential Inauguration day bombing and the 2010 Independence Day bombing, both in Abuja.

Exploiting the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni nine by the military government in 1995 and using the impoverishment of the Niger Delta people and the degradation of their environment as their defence, these acts of violence continued until they declared a ceasefire in 2014. While the MEND members declared themselves as freedom fighters and not terrorists, they certainly utilised terrorist tactics and strategies and caused the wanton destruction of lives, properties, and businesses while trying to send a political message.

Meanwhile, in the early 2000s, a new group similar to the Maitatsine sect emerged in the North-East region of Nigeria. Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic Islamic cleric, established the Jamāʿat Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Daʿawah wa al-Jihād (meaning “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teaching for Propagation and Jihad”) in 2002. Locals, however, referred to it as Boko Haram (translated to mean “Western education is forbidden”).

Boko Haram started as a doctrinal group that preached against the adoption of Western education and values, as well as the existence of government and the political state. Its membership immediately swelled up as the message spread wide and near across the region. What followed were frequent clashes between the group and the Nigerian state, which was bothered about its popularity. But things took a whole new shape in 2009 following a spate of attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Borno State. The government responded to this act of non-state aggression with brute force, and after the death of Yusuf in 2009, the group rejigged a year later, and since then, it and its subsequent factions have sustained a relentless campaign of terror against Nigerians. It has employed all strategies and tactics used by terrorist groups across the world.

Just as crises were brewing in the northern part of the country, the call and demand for a self-actualised state of Biafra in the South-East region intensified following renewed complaints of perceived marginalisation. The curtailment of and eventual pullback of MASSOB led to the birth of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). What started as an expression of opposition on Radio Biafra against the perceived maltreatment of its people turned into a full-scale crisis in 2015 with attacks on police stations, government institutions, military formations, and prisons.

Just like MEND, IPOB claims to be a freedom fighting group, but all its activities have heavily incorporated terrorist styles and tactics: bombings, assassination, decapitation, and hijacking of travellers either in buses or their private vehicles.

A recent phenomenon that has gained ascendancy in the country in the last five years is banditry. The instigators, who are known as bandits, engage in violent acts such as kidnapping, arson, shooting, rape, cattle rustling, killing, and looting to achieve their aims. Unlike Boko Haram and its resultant factions: ISWAP and Ansaru, as well as IPOB, the bandits seem to be slowly working hard to spread across Nigeria.

Understanding the history of terrorism in Nigeria sets the scene for you, the reader, to know about the…

ALSO READ: 10 most dangerous places to visit in Africa

Terror groups in Nigeria

As highlighted above, several non-state actors are employing the use of force that is solely meant for the state (the state in this context means Nigeria as a political state).

However, the main terror groups operating in the country are five, and they have been enumerated briefly in the aforementioned section. They are:

  • Boko Haram
  • Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)
  • Ansaru/Al-Qaeda Africa
  • IPOB
  • Bandits

Boko Haram

Just as mentioned earlier, the original name of this group, which was founded as an Islamic religious organisation, is Jamāʿat Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Daʿawah wa al-Jihād. However, the local population called it “Boko Haram” due to the message propagated by the group: the opposition to western values and education, as well as the existence of government.

The group first became known internationally following the 2009 sectarian violence when several sect members were arrested by the police, which included Mohammed Yusuf, the group’s defender. Following the extrajudicial killing of Yusuf and his colleagues, including that of his father-in-law, Baba Fugu Mohammed, Boko Haram took a radical turn in approach and began to attack the Nigerian state and everything domiciled in it. The then newly installed leader, the late Abubakar Shekau, openly proclaimed that the establishment of a “truly Islamic” system of governance was the only way forward for Nigeria.

Shekau had initially pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the multinational terrorist group, but then reversed his decision in 2015 after he declared the group’s loyalty to the Islamic State. Tensions and a deposition meant that the alliance became unsuccessful by 2016, and Boko Haram returned to its original name. The group operates in a decentralised manner, with the active cadre of terrorists operating in divided groups called cells. Several cells link up operationally into a column for intelligence and combat support purposes.

The group lost all the towns under its control in March 2015 following intensive fighting by the Nigerian military and the Multinational Joint Task Force. But despite these counter-insurgency efforts, the group has still been able to conduct sporadic attacks in the North-East region and sprinkled its presence a bit in the North-East region. Not even the proclamation by the Nigerian government in 2019 that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated” has deterred them. The group has also spilt over and is active in Chad, Niger, and northern Cameroon.

Methods used: suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mass attacks and violence, kidnapping, and deliberate shooting.

ALSO READ: Cultism: History, causes, major groups in Nigerian varsities

Responsible for:

  • The 2010 New Year’s Eve bombing of Mogadishu Military Cantonment Mammy Market, Abuja
  • The 2011 Mammy Market bombings in Bauchi
  • Bombings of the Police Headquarters and the United Nations office in Abuja in 2011
  • 2011 bombings of social drinking sports in Maiduguri, Borno State; and Zuba, an outskirt of Abuja
  • The 2011 bombings of Army Task Force Operational, Police Headquarters
  • Bombings of government buildings in Damaturu, Yobe State; and Maiduguri in Borno State
  • The 2011 Christmas day bombing at St Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger State
  • The January 2012 Mubi, Yola, Gombe, and Maiduguri bombings;
  • The Kano bombings of January and February 2012
  • The attack on the HQ 1 Division Nigerian Army of February 2012
  • The killing of 59 schoolboys in Buni Yadi, Yobe State, in February 2014
  • The kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State, in April 2014
  • The 2013 Baga massacre
  • The 2014 Maiduguri bombing and the Kano Central Mosque attack
  • The 2015 bombings of Maiduguri and Monguno (both in Borno State), the Kuje (Abuja) and Nyanya (Nasarawa State) bombings, the suicide bombings of the village of Dar (Adamawa State) and Damaturu (Yobe State)
  • The Dalori mass attack in 2016
  • The 2016 Dikwa and Maiduguri bombings
  • The 2017 Rann, Mubi, and Maiduguri bombings
  • The 2018 kidnapping and killing of students in Dapchi State
  • The 2019 Konduga bombing
  • The 2020 Gamboru bombing; the Auno, Goneri, Gajigana, Koshebe, and Pemi attacks and massacres.; and many more attacks.

Islamic State in West Africa/Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP)

The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) emerged in 2015 following a split in Boko Haram. Boko Haram had in 2015 pledged alliance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), whose brutality, at that period, was at its height in Iraq and Syria. Abubakar Shekau, the then leader of Boko Haram, declared his group’s loyalty to ISIS’s self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdad.

Following the declaration, ISIS declared Boko Haram as its West African Province. However, cracks began to appear over this alliance, and the group was subsequently troubled by internal disputes. The ISIS central command had ordered Boko Haram to stop using women and children suicide bombers, as well as refrain from mass killings of civilians, but Shekau refused. By August 2016, Al-Baghdadi replaced Shekau with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s initial leader. As a result of the slip, Shekau reverted Boko Haram’s name to its original name, and there was a subsequent split.

The target of ISWAP is the Nigerian state, as it opposes the secularism practised by the latter. It insists that the Islamic style of administration is the best for Nigeria. It argues that the government of Nigeria is illegitimate, corrupt, and unIslamic, irrespective of whether it is being governed by a Muslim or not, and that the adoption of western values and education taints the spirituality of all Nigerians.

Just like Boko Haram, ISWAP operates in a decentralised manner, with the active cadre of terrorists operating in divided groups called cells. Several cells link up operationally into a column for intelligence and combat support purposes. The group has a central command and governorates, which are each headed by a wali and have their governing structures. Its central command is, however, subordinate to IS’s core group in Iraq and Syria.

The group has utilised mass violent attacks, shootings, bombings, and assassinations as its means to cause terror across the North-East region where it operates. But unlike its forerunner, ISWAP attempts to win the support of the local community by providing basic government services and amenities. It also collects taxes on agriculture and trade in its territories and takes care of security through the establishment of law enforcement structures.

Methods used: suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mass attacks and violence, kidnapping, and assassination.

ALSO READ: How voter apathy affects elections in Nigeria, ways to tackle it

Responsible for:

  • The 2020 killing in Gubio Village, Borno State
  • The 2020 Monguno and Nganzai massacres, Borno State
  • The 2020 killing of soldiers in Mainok, Borno State
  • The 2020 killing of five aid workers in Borno State
  • The firing of rockets close to the Maiduguri Airport in December 2020, killing one civilian
  • Bombings of Iware and Jalingo in Taraba State in April and May 2022, respectively, and many more attacks.


Another faction of Boko Haram, Ansaru, emerged as an independent terror group in 2012. The Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa, as Ansaru is formally known, is loyal to al-Qaeda, the Sunni jihadist group; no wonder it is also referred to as al-Qaeda in the Lands Beyond the Sahel.

Ansaru, just like its precursor, is highly motivated by an anti-Nigerian government and anti-Western agenda, respectively. The group, however, split from Boko Haram due to differences with the late Shekau, especially on what it deemed as Boko Haram’s indiscriminate killing of civilians.

The group has carried out deadly attacks on security forces and abducted several expatriates across northern Nigeria. Although the frequency of its attacks is not as high as that of Boko Haram or ISWAP, Ansaru has continued to attack sporadically while maintaining a dominant online presence and using the Internet to propagate its message.

It is believed that Ansaru has killed several hostages it abducted.

Methods used: bombings, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mass shooting attacks and violence, kidnapping, and assassination.

Responsible for:

  • The 2012 prison break at the Special Anti-Robbery Squad headquarters in Abuja
  • The January 2013 attack on a convoy of Nigerian troops on their way to Mali
  • The May 2013 attack on a French-owned uranium mine in Niger
  • The May 2011 abductions of a Briton and an Italian from Kebbi State
  • The December 2012 kidnapping of a French engineer in Katsina State
  • The February 2013 kidnapping of seven foreigners in Bauchi State
  • The January 2020 attack on a convoy of the Emir of Potiskum


What started as agitation on a radio station has turned about to be a full-bloodied separatist group. The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) arose in 2012 and was established by Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian dual citizen from Abia State. Following perceived marginalisation by the South-East region, Kanu, in 2012, started Radio Biafra, a radio station based in London, the British capital, to articulate and aggregate the grievances of the region’s people.

Kanu criticised the Nigerian state over its adjudged ill-treatment of the Igbo people and demanded an independent state of Biafra, which was the similar agitation led by the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and subsequently led to the Nigeria Civil War of 1967 to 1970. His utterances were crude, hostile, and tantamount to war-mongering.

Following the violent arrest of Kanu by the Nigerian Army in Abia State in October 2015, a group of pro-Biafran protesters began to protest regularly. Mobilisation of people occurred, and what started as peaceful protests turned violent. IPOB members clashed with the police several times in virtually all parts of the South-East region. The scale of violence then increased to mass violence, attacks on soldiers and security formations, and bombings.

After he escaped from the country in 2017, Kanu escalated his rhetoric and encouraged the people of the South-East to attack the Nigerian state and its apparatus. The scale of the violence increased in 2020 after the IPOB leader announced the formation of the Eastern Security Network (ESN), a regional security force for “Biafra land.” Not only were people killed, but buildings of prominent government buildings and equipment were also destroyed.

As a result of the violent acts, IPOB was proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the Federal High Court, Abuja, in September 2017. Kanu was re-arrested and extradited in September 2021.

Methods used: bombings, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), mass shooting attacks and violence, kidnapping, assassination, and arson.

ALSO READ: All there is to know about June 12 in Nigeria’s history

Responsible for:

  • Assassination of Ahmed Gulak, a former presidential aide, in Imo State in May 2021
  • Destruction of police stations, INEC offices, and courts in May 2021
  • Burning of buildings and killing of persons in Imo State in January 2021
  • Killing of soldiers in Imo State in January 2021
  • Murder of pregnant women of northern extraction and children in Anambra State in May 2022
  • Beheading of Anambra State lawmaker in May 2022; and many more attacks.


These are the latest set of terrorists ravaging the country. The bandits are a loose group of people who commits crimes such as extortion, robbery, and murder.

The emergence of the bandits can be linked to the herder-farmer conflicts that have constantly plagued Nigeria. A feature that has escalated the crisis has been the large-scale weapon smuggling that criminal gangs have accessed.

Unlike other terror groups which operate with sophistication, bandits majorly on motorbikes to commit their dastardly acts, notably kidnapping and looting. They have also killed. They also tax the inhabitants of villages that they largely occupy in exchange for protection.

Following the incessant wave of attacks, the Federal High Court, Abuja, on 25 November 2021, proscribed bandits as terrorists. The groups proscribed are Yan Bindiga Group, Yan Ta’adda Group, and other similar groups.

Methods used: Mass shooting attacks and violence, bombings, kidnapping, assassination, and arson.

Responsible for:

  • April 2020 Katsina attacks
  • December 2020 Kankara kidnapping
  • February 2021 Kaduna and Katsina attacks
  • February 2021 Zamfara kidnapping
  • Afaka kidnapping of March 2021
  • Greenfield University kidnapping of April 2021
  • Kebbi and Zumi massacres of June 2021
  • Chikun kidnapping of July 2021
  • Zamfara massacres of January 2022
  • Attack of Kaduna Airport in March 2022
  • Abuja–Kaduna train attack of March 2022; and many more attacks.

How to stop terrorist groups in Nigeria


Proper surveillance and gathering, procession, and utilisation of information to counter potential attacks by terrorist groups.

Target Hardening

Reinforcing and strengthening the security of potential target places by ramping up safety measures such as adding hard barriers, constructing fences and walls, utilising scanning machines and metal detectors, and other anti-terrorist protective measures.

ALSO READ: History of jungle justice in Nigeria, causes, cases, what the law says


The action of discouraging terrorists through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences. This can be done by strengthening the military and law-enforcement agencies with the necessary equipment and toughening the laws and regulations.

Empowering the citizens with good governance

This entails that the government should provide good amenities such as education, employment, and healthcare, improving the social security safety net and the enabling business environment for all citizens to thrive. Most importantly, the government must entrench good governance by defeating corruption and promoting meritocracy.

Religious re-orientation

Clerics of all religions should interpret the doctrine of their faiths properly to their adherents to prevent extremism. The clerics should also advise their adherents to exemplify and display good behaviour, stop stoking ethnic and religious crises, and respect the sanctity of life and the authority of the state at all times.

Involvement of critical non-state actors

Civil society groups, NGOs, foundations, and private businesses should involve in engagement with grassroots organizations, including youth and women’s groups, think-tanks to promote the rule of law, good governance, and peace and security; as well as promote the economic, social, and political development of the country.

ALSO READ: Minimum wage in Nigeria, US, Europe, others

Previous ArticleNext Article
Gabriel is a trained political scientist, and a qualified and versatile communications professional who has worked as a journalist and Public Relations executive. He has a knack for content creation and development and is a keen digital native interested in all things good.
Send this to a friend