Since April 2016, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies has tracked the levels of attacks associated with all militant Islamist groups in Africa on a quarterly basis, using data compiled from the widely used Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) Project.
In a July 21 Monkey Cage post, Salem Solomon and Casey Frechette challenged the validity of an Africa Center analysis that noted that al-Shabab had surpassed Boko Haram as Africa’s most deadly militant Islamist group. Of course, no battle data can offer reliable and unbiased assessments of who began the fight, who killed whom and how many died from each side — and collecting the data can be complicated. A review of the ACLED data set, however, can shed some light on two of Africa’s most active groups, Boko Haram and al-Shabab.
Which group should be considered the “deadliest”?
Al-Shabab is a violent fundamentalist Islamist group with 7,000 to 9,000 fighters allied with al-Qaeda operating in Somalia and parts of Kenya. ACLED data indicate that in 2016 al-Shabab was involved in the largest number of violent events by a conflict actor in Africa recorded that year (1,136), resulting in a total of 4,282 reported fatalities — the total includes both al-Shabab deaths as well as those of opponents/victims (see Figure 1).
Boko Haram is a militant Islamist fundamentalist group based in northeastern Nigeria loosely aligned with the Islamic State. ACLED data show that in 2016 Boko Haram was involved in 419 events resulting in 3,500 reported fatalities overall — including both Boko Haram deaths as well as those of opponents/victims (see Figure 1). This means that while an average of more than three people were killed in every event involving al-Shabab, each Boko Haram event left an average of more than eight people dead.
However, there’s an important caveat: Fatality numbers are frequently the most biased and poorly reported component of conflict data. They are often debated and can vary widely. Conflict actors may overstate or underreport fatalities to appear strong to the opposition or to minimize international backlash against the state involved. And the numbers can be off simply because it’s difficult to collect exact data mid-conflict. While ACLED codes the most conservative reports of fatality counts to minimize over-counting, this does not account for biases that exist around fatality counts at-large.
The deeper cost of conflict
Further, the true cost of conflict cannot be measured by “battlefield” deaths alone. Conflicts that result in fewer deaths may still cause instability that ultimately results in additional deaths from food insecurity or lack of access to medical facilities. Other scholars point out that tallies of “battlefield” deaths are also necessarily “biased towards men’s experiences of armed conflict.” While more men may be killed fighting, women and children are often the victims of sexual violence and other forms of violence “off the battlefield.”
The true threat of these two groups in Africa, therefore, can’t be based solely on fatality numbers — numbers that ACLED explicitly acknowledges as inadequate to capture the full impact of conflict.
The “deadliness” of a conflict group is essentially a proxy for the threat it poses
The threat of a conflict group is multifaceted and is based on where the group commits violence, over which time period, against whom and toward which goals. Fatalities or incidents of violence alone do not paint the full picture.
When considering these many facets of threat, important differences in the profiles of al-Shabab and Boko Haram emerge. With regard to known civilian deaths in 2016, fewer civilians were reportedly killed by al-Shabab than by Boko Haram (329 versus 550). However, given that Nigeria’s population is almost 13 times larger than Somalia’s, the average Somali civilian was at greater risk of being killed by an armed group than the average Nigerian.
Historically, al-Shabab has targeted civilians less frequently than Boko Haram (see Figure 2). The average rate of violence against civilians as a proportion of al-Shabab’s overall violent activity is 10 percent, compared with 37 percent of Boko Haram’s overall violent activity. That being said, ACLED analysts have long suspected that al-Shabab employs unidentified armed groups to kill civilians.
The two groups also differ greatly in the scope of their activities. While reported fatalities involving Boko Haram have been spatially limited to northeastern Nigeria and along the borders inside Cameroon and Niger, those involving al-Shabab have taken place across much of Somalia and in several locations in Kenya (see Figure 3).
ACLED’s research indicates that Boko Haram has declined markedly as a force in the past 18 months: The organization is smaller, weaker and scattered along Nigeria’s northeastern borders with Cameroon and Niger.
In contrast, al-Shabab has gained significant strength and territory during the same period. This trend is visible in the Africa Center’s series of maps and analysis of all major militant Islamist groups in Africa from 2010 to 2016.
Given the multifaceted nature of the threats posed by militant groups and the limitations of conflict fatality data, it is important for media and policymakers to bear in mind that fatalities should be considered as just one element in the broader assessment of these actors’ potency.
Olivia Russell is project manager of ACLED.
Wendy Williams is a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.