Recent years have seen a dramatic escalation in the levels and intensity of violence associated with the northern Nigerian Islamist group, commonly referred to as ‘Boko Haram’. The deliberate and brutal targeting of civilians has been an increasingly pronounced feature of this conflict, contributing to acute civilian vulnerability. Often ascribed to the specific ideological and ethno-religious configuration of Boko Haram, we argue that this violence is similar to that of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), tactically and in the evolution of both groups over time. In addition, violence inflicted on civilians by both groups has necessitated complex strategies of civilian navigation of insecurity risks, including the establishment of informal local security providers. Drawing on both quantitative conflict event data, and qualitative sources, we present a comparative analysis of Boko Haram and the LRA to demonstrate the importance of common strategies of group mobilisation, evolution in rhetoric and tactics, and armed state and non-state responses to insurgency, in driving violence against civilians in particular. The findings reflect the importance of shared local and historical conditions in producing violence; and placing civilian protection, and the multifaceted ways in which it is undermined, including by state responses, at the centre of peacebuilding theory and practice.