Roundup on the Recent Boko Haram Attacks in Borno and Yobe

Two significant Boko Haram attacks occurred in recent days, one in Borno State and the other in Yobe State. Amid conflicting accounts, it’s difficult establishing exactly what happened.. In place of an analytical post, then, here’s a roundup:

Borno (Bama Local Government Area, likely 13 July)

Reuters: “About 20 Nigerian soldiers are missing after a clash with Boko Haram militants in the northeast of the country, security sources said on Monday, though the military denied reports that some troops could not be found. The confrontation between militants and troops took place on Saturday in the Bama area of Borno…An army spokesman said suspected Boko Haram militants had tried to seize military vehicles in an attempted attack on troops in Bama but they had been repelled by troops backed by the air force.” For more statements from the Nigerian Army, see here.

Daily Trust: “One of the sources told Daily Trust on Sunday that the troops who were based in Bama town in central Borno, were ambushed around 2pm Friday near a village called Bulagallaye,  while moving in a convoy  of 16 Hilux trucks loaded with soldiers  and vigilantes. ‘They were on their way for an operation in Bulagallaye along Bama /Dikwa axis when the assailants ambushed them…You know this is raining season and operations along that axis are increasingly becoming tough because of the terrain. One of the trucks in the convoy got stuck in the muddy area and while efforts were being made to pull out the truck, the terrorists attacked’.”

Punch: “A source close to Bama, said, ‘The update is that 10 corpses of soldiers ambushed in Borno have been recovered. The army is still looking for the rest of them. The terrorists are said to have links with ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province] and they are from the [Abu Mus’ab] Al-Barnawi faction. The army cannot sweep these attacks under the carpet because there were eyewitnesses to the two attacks in Borno and Yobe which happened on Saturday and Sunday.’ But the army spokesman, [Brigadier General Texas] Chukwu, said the troops repelled the terrorist attack on Bama, adding that only two personnel were injured. He said, ‘The army wishes to state categorically that the report is not true. There was an attempted attack on troops at Kwakwa and Chingori communities in the Bama area by suspected Boko Haram terrorists as a result of the difficult terrain where our vehicles became bugged [sic] down’.”

Yobe (Geidam Local Government Area, 14 July)

Punch: “ ‘Boko Haram terrorists attacked troops of the 81 Division Forward Brigade at Jilli village in Geidam district. The terrorists came in huge numbers around 7:30 pm (1830 GMT) and overran the base after a fierce battle that lasted till 9:10 pm,’ said the military source. ‘The base had 734 troops. Currently the commander of the base and 63 soldiers have made it to Geidam (60 kilometres away) while the remaining 670 are being expected,’ he said.”

Daily Trust: “A soldier who survived the attack told our correspondent that the terrorists went to the military facility in fleet of military painted vehicles with camouflage colours. ‘There was trench around the base, but they confidently approached the gate and we opened it thinking they were troops from Gubio. They started shooting and we engaged them before they overran us,’ he said. ‘About 10 of us ran to Ngilewa village where a Good Samaritan drove us to Damakarwa village and handed us to the troops from Geidam,’ he said.”

Blueprint: “The Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-General Tukur Buratai yesterday held a crucial meeting with the Theater Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole and other top military officers at the Military Command and Control Centre, Maiduguri, Borno state.
Although the outcome of the meeting was not made public, a military source said the meeting was to review and re-strategise the ongoing operations, especially Operation Last Hold in Northern Borno and Lake Chad fringes.”

For further context, it’s worth reading this thread from Ahmad Salkida and this report by Omar Mahmood and Ndubuisi Ani, and it’s worth watching this video from al-Barnawi’s faction.

Advertisements

Tired Clichés from The Economist about Jihadism in Africa

The Economist is out with an article, more or less about Boko Haram, that contains all the clichés one expects in a piece like this.

  1. The conflation of diverse conflicts: “Nigeria’s main north-eastern city is at the centre of a series of jihadist campaigns stretching in two broad belts across Africa on either side of the Sahara. The northern one hugs the Mediterranean, from Egypt through Libya and Tunisia to Algeria. The southern one extends from Somalia and Kenya in the east through Nigeria and Niger and on to Mali, Burkina Faso and Senegal in the west.” Aside from the bad writing – how can Nigeria be at the center of campaigns in “two belts” if one of the belts does not include Nigeria? – the conflict in Nigeria is not equal to the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, etc. Hell, even Mali’s conflicts (plural) have different characteristics, and the insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has many, many local wrinkles and permutations.
  2. Amplifying the voices of anonymous, cynical Western military officers while making various other actors sound like credulous idiots. “A retired general who once held a senior post at AFRICOM, America’s military command for Africa, puts it thus: ‘If Nigeria goes down it would make a giant sinkhole that would suck in six or seven other countries.'” What a weird metaphor. And what would it mean for Nigeria to “go down”? Is this person saying that Boko Haram is about to march into Abuja and overthrow the government?
  3. Sloppy summaries about causality that read like guesswork: “In each country, conflict may be fuelled largely by local grievances. But the insurgents share some ideological traits. Many have been strengthened by the breakdown of Libya after the downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Weapons spilled out of Libya’s armouries, and smuggling networks for everything from people to drugs developed across the Sahara. There are signs that the jihadists are learning from one another and sucking money and support from militant groups in the Middle East.” So basically, conflict “may be” local (is there no way to find out, or at least decide?), Libya might be a factor, and “there are signs” that Arab money is a factor. Also interesting to learn that Qadhafi’s fall was what birthed Saharan smuggling. Thanks for wrapping things up so neatly.
  4. Acknowledging that increased militarization won’t work, but pushing it anyway: “Some think that, far from cutting back the military effort, it needs to be stepped up. A Western air campaign could inflict heavy casualties and knock back ISWAP’s ability to organise by a year or more. But air strikes alone would probably not be enough to defeat the group. ‘We could knock out the leadership, but would that make things any better?’ asks one British officer. Western officers talk of the need for a long-term commitment to train, equip and assist local forces, and to give them air support when needed.” Like there has been no training or air support before – hell, if you believe al-Barnawi (.pdf, p. 268), “We see the airplanes of those countries, fighter planes and reconnaissance planes, hovering over us densely.”
  5. And no article on jihadism in Africa would be complete without the inevitable comparison to Afghanistan: “General Hicks compares the rise of jihadism in Africa to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1993. The threats they pose to the West ‘are still in a nascent stage and can be dealt with at a price that’s affordable in both blood and treasure,’ he says. Leaving the danger to fester might allow the threat to grow until Western forces are compelled to intervene directly and massively. But the experience of the West in Afghanistan since 2001 holds another lesson: military intervention alone cannot solve the problem. It can disrupt jihadists and buy time to win back the allegiance of the disgruntled and marginalised. For the most part, that is a job for Africa’s beleaguered rulers—if they are up to it.” Sure thing – it’s always the venal local elites who are the problem, and never the counterinsurgency doctrines. And are we sure a quick anti-Taliban mission in 1993 would have gone smoothly?

Parts of the article are good, especially the actual on-the-ground reporting in it. But on the whole, the piece reads like an MRI of the confused, self-contradictory Western thinking about jihadism. It’s local! It’s foreign! We need to act! If we act we’ll make it worse! Locals have to solve the problem for themselves! Locals are too venal to solve this! And on and on.

 

Quick Thoughts on the VOA Interview with Abubakar Shekau’s Mother

Recently Voice of America’s Chika Oduah found the mother of Abubakar Shekau, the long-time leader of Boko Haram who continues to act as head of one of its two principal factions (here is a photo of Oduah and Shekau’s mother together).

A quick note on surnames in northern Nigeria might be useful – many surnames are either the person’s father’s name (i.e. Muhammad Yusuf was most likely, “Muhammed, son of Yusuf”) or the place where the person is from. Shekau’s surname is the latter – “Abubakar, from Shekau.” So VOA found his mother, or a person claiming to be his mother, in – you guessed it – the village of Shekau, which is located in Yobe State, northeastern Nigeria. To an extent I am surprised that it took journalists this long to speak with her; and one hopes that Nigerian authorities had thought, long before, to interview her as well…

The interview does not shed much light on Shekau’s biography, perhaps because his parents lost track of him some fifteen years ago. And the few details in the interview raise many unanswered questions. For example, his father was “a local district imam before passing away a few years ago” – although, as is so often the case, it is hard to know what journalists (or their interlocutors) mean by “imam.” Was he the imam of a mosque? Or just a man with some religious learning? Did he have a school?

We read further that Shekau “left Shekau [village] as a boy to continue his Islamic education in Maiduguri, a center of religious studies for hundreds of years.” Crisis Group (.pdf, p. 19) places Shekau (the man) in Maiduguri’s Mafoni Ward as of 1990, when he was in his teens or early twenties (I’ve seen estimated birth dates for Shekau that range between 1967 and 1976). Shekau’s mother told Oduah that the turning point in his life was meeting Muhammad Yusuf, who is widely considered the founder of Boko Haram. Various analysts (including me) believe that by 2009, when Yusuf was killed by security forces in the aftermath of Boko Haram’s mass uprising that summer, Shekau was more hardline than Yusuf – but in the beginning it seems plausible that Yusuf heavily influenced Shekau. It would be extremely interesting, of course, to know exactly when the two men met – again, in Crisis Group’s account, Shekau enrolled in the Borno College of Legal and Islamic Studies in the 1990s, met Mamman Nur (another future Boko Haram leader) there, and then met Yusuf through Nur. But the meeting could have occurred at any point in the 1990s or even in the early 2000s.

Being a student at the College, of course, meant that Shekau was exposed to some degree to the very “boko” (Western-style education) that Boko Haram later declared haram. The College was meant to be a bridge for people coming from a classical Qur’an school background and seeking to enter into formalized study in the state system and from there to enter the salaried economy. I have never found confirmation of how long Shekau attended or whether he attained a degree there.

At Premium Times, Oduah provides more details about Shekau’s mother’s life in recent years – including how Boko Haram’s attacks have forced her to repeatedly relocate. Of course I’m always hungry for more information, but I should say that I’m really impressed by how Oduah speaks about this woman – Oduah displays an exemplary sensitivity to the complexities of her life and her context.

As for why Ms Oduah wanted to get the story, she told PREMIUM TIMES, “It is important to know that members of Boko Haram come from somewhere. They have parents and siblings and hometowns. This woman’s voice is crucial in understanding the man who plays a major role in this insurgency, which is entering ten years.

On a final note, I’m reminded of the story (I can’t remember where I read it, possibly in Lemine Ould M. Salem’s book on Mokhtar Belmokhtar) that Algerian authorities somehow set up a meeting between Belmokhtar and his mother, who had not seen him for many years. According to the account, Belmokhtar wept when he saw her and said her would leave armed jihadism – but then, after the meeting, went back to his ways.

Niger: States of Emergency Extended in Diffa, Tahoua, Tillabéry

In Niger, the cabinet met yesterday and issued its communiqué (French). Two notable, though unsurprising, items include the extension of the state of emergency covering Diffa and the partial state of emergency covering two departments in Tahoua ((Tassara and Tillia) and five departments in Tillbéry (Ouallam, Ayorou, Bankilaré, Abala, and Banibangou). For context, here is a map of Niger’s regions.

The state of emergency in Diffa has been in effect since February 2015 and primarily reflects insecurity stemming from Boko Haram. Diffa suffered a suicide bombing earlier this month. The state of emergency in Tahoua and Tillabéry has been in effect since March 2017 and primarily reflects spillover from jihadist violence Mali, as well as a growing conflict matrix (militia-based, ethnic-based, and jihadist, to put it a bit reductively) that increasingly implicates certain border communities as well. Both states of emergency must be renewed every three months, so this renewal is essentially a routine measure, extending the states of emergency through mid-September.

[Note: no post tomorrow, given the likely Eid al-Fitr holiday.]

Blog Post for RESOLVE Network on the Dapchi, Nigeria Kidnapping

Over at RESOLVE Network, I have a blog post on the kidnapping of over 100 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigeria.

Here’s an excerpt:

The students Boko Haram often targets are those who come from relatively more privileged backgrounds, and in contrast to its effort to entice and coerce young men into joining in other settings, it is striking that Boko Haram often chooses to simply slaughter the young men it finds in boarding schools. If Boko Haram’s treatment of the Chibok girls is any indication, the group relishes having power not just over girls in general, but particularly over girls from families with means and mobility that are poised to go on to university or to independent careers.

A Response to a Review of My Book on Boko Haram

Sam Wilkins, a U.S. Special Forces officer who deployed to Nigeria earlier this year, has written a fairly negative review of my new book on Boko Haram. Most of Wilkins’ review reacts to one section dealing with the Islamic State and Boko Haram, and to a second section discussing how the War on Terror has shaped Nigeria’s responses to the group.

Wilkins makes some good points, but he also attributes positions to me that I do not hold:

  • “Thurston’s treatment of the CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force, the civilian vigilantes] mirrors his treatment of the Nigerian military as a whole. He dismisses the contributions of both groups due to human rights concerns.”
  • “A policy of humanitarian assistance without military assistance, as advocated by Thurston and others…”
  • “[Thurston] posit[s] a false equivalence between the security forces and the insurgency.”

Wilkins misinterprets analytical points as moral judgments. In the book, when dealing with the Nigerian military and the C-JTF, I try to explain unintended consequences. The Nigerian military’s heavy-handed approach exacerbated and prolonged the conflict. The C-JTF partly secured cities but ended up pushing Boko Haram into the countryside, contributing to Boko Haram’s bid to take mass territory in 2014. I suppose there is an implicit moral judgment in those arguments, but the point is to explain what happened. On p. 13, however, I do say that I “unequivocally condem[n] Boko Haram.” The book contains no equivalent statement directed at the Nigerian military or the C-JTF.

Wilkins says that because he’s been in Nigeria, he can determine where my arguments are “theoretical and divorced from the reality on the ground.” But many foreigners have been “on the ground” in Nigeria, and then there are obviously the millions of Nigerians who live in Nigeria and whose perspectives must also be taken seriously. To say the least, all of these people often disagree with one another about how to interpret events. Nigeria is a complicated place.

Wilkins says, “During my time in Nigeria, I learned to see the CJTF as the Nigerians saw it.” This is a red flag. If he feels that “the Nigerians” see anything in just one way, then he is being overconfident about his experience. For what it’s worth, in my fieldwork in Kano for my first book – when I was speaking with people in Hausa and Arabic, when I met leading religious figures, and when I was an independent researcher unaffiliated with any government – I always knew that I had only gotten part of the story. You have to triangulate between your experience and other points of view, and even then you will not get everything right.

Wilkins also, I think accidentally but also revealingly, puts some of Amnesty International’s words in my mouth when he dismisses my writing on the U.S.-Nigeria security relationship. Obviously, I agree with Amnesty and quoted them for that reason (p. 287). But Wilkins’ mistake matters: Amnesty has researchers “on the ground” in Nigeria, so Wilkins’ rhetorical strategy wouldn’t work as well against them. Easier, perhaps, to attribute Amnesty’s words to me, and then dismiss me.

Notably, two pages before, I discuss the Nigerian military’s open hostility toward Amnesty. I write, “The War on Terror has given Nigerian military and political hardliners a set of rhetorical tools with which they can easily rebut and undermine criticism: Boko Haram or ‘the terrorists’ are depicted as purely evil, Nigeria’s government is presented as a heroic participant in a global struggle, and all critics are cast as either deliberately or unwittingly proterrorist.” Is there no relationship between what Wilkins does in his review, where he bristles against criticism of the Nigerian military or the U.S. government, and the way that Nigerian senior military officers castigate Amnesty?

On Wilkins’ other major objection to my book – that I’m not sufficiently alarmed by “Islamic State West Africa” – I have less to say. I take them seriously. I suppose I’m just a bit more cautious than Wilkins about hyping them as a threat, and about reifying their Islamic State ties.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning Wilkins’ plan to defeat Boko Haram (and “ISWA,” if you go for that stark division between the two groups). Here, there is significant common ground between us – we both favor a combination of military and political measures, and Wilkins thoughtfully considers some of the more unattractive but probably necessary political measures I mention, such as amnesties for fighters. But Wilkins emphasizes the military approach more than I do, and he is more optimistic than I am about what will follow military campaigns. Much of the process Wilkins advocates – “a meaningful ‘follow-through’ of governance, pro-government religious messages [seriously?!], and enduring local security” – seems unlikely to happen, or at least to happen cleanly. That’s why I think the government of Nigeria should start, or rather restart, negotiations now, and keep looking for political opportunities even as the military conflict continues. Some of this is already happening, of course, perhaps more in Niger than in Nigeria. The point is that the end of the Boko Haram conflict is probably going to be messy. No one has all the answers, including me.

In any case, I encourage you to read the review. And perhaps read the book as well! There’s a bit more to it than Wilkins lets on.