The World’s Deadliest Terrorist Organization

It’s not ISIS.

A Boko Haram flag flies over Damask, Nigeria, in March 2015. (Joe Penney / Reuters)

The grisly attacks in France and Lebanon last week have fixed attention on the violence perpetrated by ISIS. But a study published this week indicates that the world’s deadliest terrorist organization actually operates thousands of miles south of Paris and Beirut, in Nigeria.

The 2015 Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics & Peace, found that Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist group, was responsible for 6,644 deaths in 2014, compared with 6,073 at the hands of ISIS. Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002 as an Islamist movement against Western education and morphed into an armed insurgency in 2009, has rapidly expanded its scope and ambitions over the past two years, achieving international notoriety in the spring of 2014 by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls. Much like ISIS, the organization controls territory in Nigeria (although it has lost some of it over the past year) and has declared a caliphate in that territory. The group is also international; although based in northeastern Nigeria, it has launched attacks in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In the latest incident, Boko Haram is the suspected author of an attack in the Nigerian city of Yola that has left more than 30 people dead.

Global Terrorism Database / Institute for Economics and Peace

The scale of Boko Haram’s bloodlust may come as a surprise to those who are more used to hearing about Mosul than Maiduguri, but the Obama administration is well aware of the threat posed by the group. The U.S. government has been providing training, equipment, and funding to countries menaced by Boko Haram, though it has notably declined to sell weapons to the Nigerian government. Two weeks before announcing his decision to send Special Operations Forces into Syria, Barack Obama authorized the deployment of 300 U.S. troops to Cameroon, accompanied by unarmed Predator drones, to help in the struggle against the Nigerian terrorist group.

Data from the Global Terrorism Index, which is based on the University of Maryland’s database of terrorist attacks around the world since 1970, demonstrates why Boko Haram is worthy of such attention. In last year’s index, which my colleague Kathy Gilsinan explored, Nigeria had the fourth-highest number of deaths by terrorism of any country in the world; in this year’s, it had the second-highest, falling only behind Iraq. Nigeria also experienced the largest increase in deaths from terrorism on record: a 300-percent increase from 2013 to 2014. Notably, Boko Haram was responsible for fewer terrorist incidents than ISIS—453 compared with 1,071—which only emphasizes the lethality of its attacks. In 2014, the group perpetrated half of the world’s 20 most fatal terrorist attacks.

The study’s authors write that there are significant differences between terrorism in Nigeria and terrorism in the Middle East. “Terrorist activity in Nigeria has more in common with the tactics of organized crime and gangs, focusing more on armed assaults using firearms and knives than on the bombings of other large terrorist groups,” they observe. ISIS relies heavily on explosives in Iraq, whereas 67 percent of deaths from Boko Haram attacks were due to firearms. But tactics may have shifted last year. “Whilst previously the use of suicide attacks by Boko Haram was rare, in 2014 they were responsible for 31 suicide attacks. … No other group in Nigeria conducted suicide attacks in 2014.”

This move toward bombings hints at a larger question: the extent to which Boko Haram and ISIS have joined forces. Boko Haram actually pledged allegiance to ISIS earlier this year, and there is evidence that ISIS has advised Boko Haram on improving the latter’s tactics and media presence, according to General David Rodriguez, the head of U.S. Africa Command. But there is little indication so far of ISIS providing Boko Haram with financial or material support; nor is there evidence of ISIS advisors working on the ground in Nigeria. For now, the allegiance seems more symbolic than operational.

It’s also worth emphasizing that the Global Terrorism Index’s data is from 2014, and thus does not include what may be a shift in ISIS strategy toward more attacks outside of Syria and Iraq, including a bombing in Turkey that claimed more than 100 lives, the explosion of a Russian airliner over Egypt that killed 224 people, and more recently the attacks in Beirut and Paris.

Global Terrorism Database / Institute for Economics and Peace

More broadly, this year’s index reports that 2014 was the worst year yet for terrorism, with an 80-percent increase from 2013 in fatalities, to 32,658. Sixty-seven countries experienced at least one or more deaths from terrorism, as opposed to 59 countries in 2013. Some things stayed the same, though: Just as in 2013, the vast majority of deaths from terrorism occurred in one of five countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. As for progress since last year in staunching this bloodshed, be it from Boko Haram or ISIS? The year 2015 is not drawing to a promising close.