These were some of the dynamics at play when Nigerian security forces pulled over Yusuf's followers for not wearing bike helmets.
"Clearly, some political decision had been made by the people around Governor Sheriff that they were going to crack down on this group that had now outlived its usefulness to them," Pham said. The bike-helmet law just happened to be on the books, waiting to be enforced. "Boko Haram intended the funeral to serve as a demonstration of strength, and the government was going to not let that go unreacted to."
Since 2009, Pham said, Boko Haram has undergone several transformations. After the violence in July of that year, its remaining members divided into two groups, with one faction heading to the Sahel and linking up with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the other migrating to southern Somalia and training with the militant group al-Shabab.
"This is where what I call 'version 2.0 of Boko Haram' was born," Pham said. "It once was a radical group, but working as a political actor in Nigeria." When it returned to the country, however, several things had changed. Ideologically, it "adopted a much more strict, orthodox, Salafist line in keeping with al-Qaeda. Its rhetoric included references to Iraq, to crusaders." Tactically, "they were much better trained—they brought to Nigeria the first suicide bombing, vehicle-born improvised explosive devices."
What we've seen since the start of 2013, he noted, has been "version 3.0"—a result of Boko Haram receiving training in AQIM-controlled northern Mali. The revamped group is now carrying out operations like kidnappings of Nigerians and Westerners.
Whatever the significance of the bike-helmet episode, Pham told me that Nigeria's bloody summer of 2009 offers several lessons for confronting Boko Haram today. For one thing, the Nigerian government didn't take its first major showdown with the group as seriously as it should have. Amid the violence in July 2009, Umaru Yar'Adua, the Nigerian president at the time, went ahead with a state visit to Brazil. "It was not viewed as a national-level threat," Pham noted. "It was viewed as a nuisance in one corner of the state."
The Nigerian government also relied heavily on the military to counter the Boko Haram threat in 2009, and it continues to do so, to the country's detriment, according to Pham.
The response "cannot be purely military," he said. The government also needs to fight poverty and provide basic security in Boko Haram's strongholds. "There is a reason why people in northern Nigeria in general, but northeastern Nigeria in particular, feel alienated politically, economically, socially," Pham explained. "Marginalized people don't necessarily make radical people, but they certainly provide a deep pool from which these radicals can be recruited. And the government has yet to adopt any strategy that deals with some of these very legitimate grievances."
"The Nigerian military is a blunt instrument," he added. "It has massive firepower, it has resources, but in many respects it's very hollow on the inside."