Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for August 6, 2020

Previous roundup here.

On August 4, after meeting with his top security personnel, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered what his National Security Advisor Babagana Monguno has referred to as “an immediate re-engineering of the entire security apparatus” (it is not clear to me whether this framing represents Monguno directly quoting, or just paraphrasing, Buhari). It is not immediately clear, however, what this might actually mean (Hausa).

Snapshots of some of the latest violence:

Issue 245 of the Islamic State’s Al-Naba’ (July 30, p. 10) details ISWAP’s attacks in Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon as part of the Islamic State’s “Attrition Campaign (Ghazwat al-Istinzaf.” Available here for registered users of the website Jihadology.

On August 2, presumed Boko Haram fighters killed at least 16 people in an attack on an IDP camp at Nguetchewe (or Guetchewe), Cameroon, near the Nigerian border. Here is a French-language video report (saying 18 people killed):

For context, here is UNHCR:

This attack follows a significant rise in violent incidents in Cameroon’s Far-North Region in July, including looting and kidnapping by Boko Haram and other armed groups active in the region. The Far North region, tucked between Nigeria’s Borno and Adamawa states and Lake Chad, currently hosts 321,886 IDPs and 115,000 Nigerian refugees.

The incident is also a sad reminder of the intensity and brutality of the violence in the wider  the Lake Chad Basin region that has forced more than three million people to flee: 2,7m are internally displaced in Northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, while 292,682 Nigerian refugees fled into neighbouring countries.

Cameroon reports that since January this year, it has recorded 87 Boko Haram attacks on its northern border with Nigeria. Twenty-two of them were in the northern district of Mozogo alone.

More context, from FEWS Net, on the economic impact of Boko Haram attacks in Cameroon’s Far North:

Markets in the Far North region play an important role in regional trade with neighboring Chad and Northeast Nigeria. The Douala – Maroua – Kousseri corridor that extends to Chad includes the flow of imported commodities. The Maiduguri (Nigeria) – Maroua and Maiduguri – Kousseri corridor, both continuing to Chad, includes the flow of processed goods and also the re-export of key staples such as sorghum and rice back into Cameroon during the lean season and imported staples from surplus producing areas in Nigeria during harvest and postharvest periods. However, as result of frequent Boko Haram attacks, these trade corridors are often closed by the government re-orientating trade flow more towards southern destinations precisely Yaounde, Douala, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Central Africa Republic (CAR).

Via Nigeria’s The Guardian, new possible indications of Boko Haram activity in Niger State, north central Nigeria:

The Abubakar Shekau-led faction of Boko Haram has released a video showing members claiming to be from Niger State.

A footage seen by The Guardian Nigeria shows about 100 persons praying Eid in the heart of a bush before showing three fighters sending Eid greetings in Hausa, English and Fulfulde.

Malik Samuel of the Institute for Security Studies writes, in a short article, that “Boko Haram is extending its reach from north-east Nigeria into the country’s north-west. It is taking advantage of old and new local conflicts and insecurities to further embed itself in the area through violent extremism.” This is now a widespread narrative among journalists and analysts. I’m reserving judgment until I see more evidence.

In another story, on August 5, This Day reports, the Borno State Police Command announced the arrests of 45 alleged criminals, including one alleged Boko Haram logistics supplier. According to the police, the individual had 200,000 Naira in cash, which might sound like a lot but it’s a little over $500. I’d be surprised if this individual was a major player.

Meanwhile, there is continued fallout from the July 29 attack on Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum’s convoy in Baga. My post on the incident, and the ensuing battle to control the media narrative, is here. Ambassador John Campbell has also blogged about the episode here. The Nigeria Governors Forum, among others, have expressed support for Zulum.

Zulum’s camp has voiced skepticism about the military’s narrative regarding the Baga incident. Responding to that, the Defence Headquarters Media Operations has once again stated that

From the analysis, [the attack] was purely that of the enemies, Boko Haram, in that area. From the tactics, and from the search conducted, it was the insurgents. So, our fears were allayed within 48 hours. It is not anything sabotage from the tactical, operational and strategic level, that is if you want to rate it from rank down to the person on the frontline.

Finally, on another note, Ewan Davies writes about the Urban Africa Labelling (URBAL) tool and how it can be used to analyze violence:

The URBAL tool can also be used to study how the patterns of attacks of specific extremist groups such as Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa have changed over time (Figure 1). For both groups, the percentage of events and fatalities occurring in urban areas have dramatically decreased over the years despite the rapid population growth of cities in Somalia and northern Nigeria. While Al Shabaab and Boko Haram were predominantly active in cities until the early 2010s, both groups have reorganized into rural guerrilla forces following the counter-offensive of the African Union Mission (AMISOM) in Somalia and the Nigeria-led Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) around Lake Chad.

Feel free to share any relevant links in the comments.

Nigeria: Competing Narratives Circulate in the Aftermath of Attack on Borno Governor Zulum’s Convoy

On July 29, the convoy of Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum was attacked in the town of Baga (map), possibly by Boko Haram. The incident has generated competing narratives and speaks to the wider “information war” that is a core part of the crisis – even Boko Haram’s own leader Abubakar Shekau has referred to the centrality of the “information war (yakin bayani).”

In the aftermath of the attack, some of the main contention is between the governor and the Army. Various videos of the attack (see here) have circulated, including one clip from the vantage point of a driver in the convoy, and one short clip of Zulum arguing with a Nigerian Army officer. Zulum has also been quoted as saying to the Army officer:

You have been here for over one year now, there are 1,181 soldiers here; if you cannot take over Baga which is less than 5 km from your base, then we should forget about Baga. I will inform the Chief of Army Staff to redeploy the men to other places that they can be useful. You people said there’s no Boko Haram here, then who attacked us?

Some of Zulum’s staff have also been blunt in their criticism of the military:

MNJTF here refers to the Multi-National Joint Task Force, which includes the militaries of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon with some participation by Benin as well. Note too that part of the information war concerns not just who perpetrated the attack, but also how serious it was or wasn’t.

In remarks to the press the day after the attack (see also here), Zulum appeared to imply that there were no actual Boko Haram fighters involved in the attack, and that there was “serious shooting by the Nigerian armed forces.” These remarks are tricky to parse. The prominent Nigerian analyst Bulama Bukarti has implied that the military staged the attack (or feigned being under attack?):

I’m not convinced. It seems to me that if the Army wanted to block Zulum from Baga, it could have done so without staging a kind of theatrical performance. But anything is possible.

Zulum also stressed, in that press interview, the economic importance of Baga. He suggested that eventually it may be necessary for the military to leave Baga, if they cannot secure the town, and for the local population “to take destiny into their own hands.”

In additional remarks that were, I believe, delivered over the weekend, Zulum noted that the situation in Borno since 2015 has been different, and in his view better, than in the period 2011-2015, but he made headlines (even more so than for the other interview) for referencing “sabotage within the system” as a (the?) reason why the insurgency persists.

More coverage of Zulum’s remarks can be found here.

Amid the competing narratives, part of what’s at stake is that the governor’s ability to move around the state is, both practically and symbolically, inseparable from his ability to demonstrate control – both in the face of the jihadist insurgency and vis-a-vis the military. Threats to his free movement are also threats to his political capital.

In the aftermath of the attack (as beforehand), Zulum has emphasized his direct physical outreach to Borno’s most vulnerable populations. I don’t think such gestures are cynical or empty, but I also think they have a political dimension:

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Nigerian Army has framed the attack as a Boko Haram attack but also as “an isolated and most unfortunate incident that occurred in a territory where normalcy has since been restored with socio-economic activities picking up.” We see a hint of a gap between the statements of the officer who appears in the video I linked to above, who can be heard saying “there is no Boko Haram inside the town,” and the official Army statement, another portion of which reads, “The good people of Baga town and indeed the entire Borno State are enjoined to continue to provide credible information that will assist the security agencies to successfully combat terrorism as well as apprehend and flush out the perpetrators of the attack.” The Army is keen to present itself as being in control, but there is the faintest acknowledgment here that they do not have the human intelligence they need. The reasons for that are manifold, but one obvious reason is the Army’s own past history in Baga. The statement has also promised an investigation into the incident.

The Army is also keen to control the narrative about the trajectory of the conflict – in other words, the Army would like audiences, local, national, and international, to believe that the trajectory is positive. This convoy attack, however, has prominent voices in Borno and beyond saying that the situation is deteriorating – the State’s foremost religious leader, the Shehu of Borno, said, “If a convoy of such highly placed person in the State will be attacked, I repeat, nobody is safe. The matter is getting worse, I urge everyone to raise up our hands to seek Allah’s intervention.” This is precisely how the Army does not want people to feel.

There are multiple audiences in play. One is President Muhammadu Buhari – Zulum explicitly said, in his remarks about sabotage, that this is something he is conveying to the president. The Army, obviously, also wants Buhari to be convinced that they are making progress. Another key audience is ordinary people (and voters) in Borno. And there is an international audience too, obviously.

Who controls what now, in Borno? The picture is constantly shifting, but humanitarian access maps give one perspective – here is one June 2020 map of educational activities in Borno, for example. For context, Baga is located in Kukawa Local Government Area (LGA), northeastern Borno State. The map does not classify Kukawa as inaccessible but it does mark two nearby LGAs, Abadam and Marte, as red zones. Adjacent Monguno LGA is also very dangerous. Contrary to the military’s claims, Baga is still very much part of the conflict zone.

Finally, for further context, this is not the first time a Borno governor’s convoy has been attacked – Zulum’s predecessor, Kashim Shettima, was attacked on the road between the state capital Maiduguri and the northeastern town of Gamboru in February 2019.

Boko Haram/ISWAP Roundup for July 30, 2020

I’m considering doing a weekly roundup on Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here’s my first stab at it:

United Nations Security Council, Report of the Secretary-General, “Children and Armed Conflict in Nigeria” (July 6, posted to Relief Web July 24). The report covers January 2017-December 2019. One excerpt (p. 6):

According to information gathered and verified by the country task force, the recruitment and use of children accounted for the greatest number of verified violations in north-east Nigeria. A total of 3,601 children (780 girls, 2,820 boys, 1 sex unknown) aged between 6 and 17 years were verified to have been recruited and used by CJTF [Civilian Joint Task Force] (2,203), followed by Boko Haram (1,385) and the Nigerian Security Forces (13). Of the total attributed to CJTF, 41 children were recruited and used between January and September 2017 while the remaining 2,162 were recruited and used between 2013 and 2016 but verified as such during the reporting period. Within the framework of its action plan, CJTF granted access to the country task force to carry out extensive verification of children formerly associated with the group.

On Wednesday, July 29, gunmen attacked the convoy of Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum as it was returning from Kukawa to Baga, northern Borno – see The Cable‘s report and video:

Some of the latest violence by ISWAP:

Issue 244 of the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ newsletter is available here (with registration). Page 7 discusses ISWAP operations in Nigeria and Chad, while page 9 features a brief (and quite generic) biography of a slain company commander.

Kingsley Omonobi, Vanguard, “Chaos as Boko Haram/ISWAP executes its own ‘governor of Lake Chad’ in power struggle” (July 28). I’ve been tinkering with a separate post about all these reports and rumors of internal violence, and how difficult it can be to verify any of what’s reported.

Channels Television, “601 Repentant Boko Haram Members Graduate From DRR Camp Set For Integration” (July 26).

On the other hand:

More on Ndume’s comments here.

Shola Oyepipo, This Day, “In Buratai’s Nigeria, Insecurity Now ‘Under Control’” (July 26).

Finally, here is the latest weekly roundup from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker, covering July 18-24.

Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

The analyst José Luengo-Cabrera periodically posts graphics capturing different trends in violence and displacement in the Sahel; these graphics are indispensable for thinking about conflict in the region, and I really respect his work. He recently posted graphics for the first half of 2020. I want to briefly comment on some of the trends here.

Let’s start with the regional picture:

In addition to the points Luengo-Cabrera makes, here are a few other basic observations:

  • It’s worth repeating often that even though the current wave of crisis in the Sahel began with the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, most of the intervening years and particularly the last three and a half have been more violent than 2012. Mali is not in a “post-conflict” phase, despite the signing of a peace agreement called the Algiers Accord in 2015.
  • It also bears repeating that northern Mali has, for some time now, not been the most violent zone in the conflict. Kidal, the heartland of the 2012 rebellion, is not even mentioned in Luengo-Cabrera’s breakdown of violent regions. The most violent areas of the current conflict are central Mali (note that Mopti is the most violent region on his list, and that adjacent Ségou is eighth on the list – more violent than Timbuktu) and northern Burkina Faso (note that while eastern Burkina Faso is heavily affected by insecurity and jihadism, it is the north that is substantially more violent).
  • What appears to propel mass violence, in my view, is multi-directional conflict where the key protagonists/decision-makers are not well-known elites. Why is northern Mali less violent than central Mali? Northern Mali has no shortage of militias – but they tend to be led by seasoned politicians and fighters, in some cases by figures who have been political fixtures since the 1990s. In contrast, in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso one finds the violence is often led by people who have emerged as key actors only during the conflict itself, and who were relatively unknown before.
  • The trend lines, particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, are horrific. In my view much of the increase in violence stems from the compounding effects of previous violence – as I have said before here on the blog, I am skeptical about the idea that COVID-19 on its own triggered major spikes in violence and/or decisively empowered jihadists in the region.

Let’s now turn to country-specific graphics. Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Mali:

A few thoughts:

  • The fine print is important here, namely that the fatalities shown for Gao are actually for both Gao and Ménaka; the latter, still-emergent region is obviously part of the tri-border zone that is now the epicenter of the whole Sahel conflict.
  • Note too that within Mopti, the deadliest region, the east (or non-flooded zone) is substantially more violent than the west. Among the factors here may be that according to some Malian experts I’ve talked to, jihadist control is much more consolidated in the west (in cercles/districts such as Tenenkou and Youwarou) than in the east. I think Stathis Kalyvas’ model about contested control driving violence is too schematic (see Laia Balcells’ Rivalry and Revenge, for example, for a more complex view), but this issue of fragmented control certainly seems to be one element in making the east more violent than the west. Additionally, inter-ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into mass violence in eastern Mopti – it is there that the most infamous massacres of the conflict (Ogassagou March 2019, Sobane-Da June 2019, Ogassagou February 2020, etc.) have occurred.
  • Why was 2017 the real turning point to mass violence? Some analysts may immediately answer “JNIM,” referring to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaida-sponsored coalition that was announced in March 2017). But the constituent elements of JNIM were all present in the conflict before their formal grouping under that umbrella. Other factors, then, include the spread of the central Malian conflict into eastern Mopti, the emergence of ethnic militias such as Dan Na Ambassagou (which was formed in the final months of 2016), and an escalating cycle of abuses by both the militias and the state security forces (and the jihadists, obviously). This is not an exhaustive list of the forces driving a really complicated conflict, of course. But perhaps in sum one might say that 2017 is the year that various trends really collided to produce an accelerating downward spiral.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Burkina Faso:

My comments:

  • The puzzle we have in explaining why things really deteriorated in Mali in 2017 is, mutatis mutandis, the same puzzle we have for 2019 in Burkina Faso. Again, one could posit the same basic collision of factors: jihadist violence, inter-ethnic tensions, and security force abuses. A symbol for all of 2019 could be the massacre at Yirgou that opened the year; in that event you have all the elements for multi-directional violence – a (presumed) jihadist assassination, a collective reprisal against an ethnic group, impunity for perpetrators of violence, etc.
  • Another puzzle that I’ve meant to work on is why the Nord region is not more violent. Note that the Sahel Region accounts for over 1,000 fatalities but that the Nord Region has little more than 150. Yet the Nord Region is actually closer to eastern Mopti than is the Sahel Region. One lesson here, then, is that Burkina Faso’s conflicts are not merely a spillover of central Mali’s conflicts.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:

Remarks:

  • Luengo-Cabrera notes in a follow-on post that it is 66%, rather than 86%, of the fatalities for the first half of 2020 that occurred in Tillabéri. Still, Niger’s trends are fundamentally different than neighboring countries’ because Niger’s deadliest zone used to be far in the southeast, in other words in the zone affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots. 2015 was a bad year in Diffa, as southeastern Niger experienced a wave of attacks, partially representing Boko Haram’s reprisals against Niger for Niger’s participation in the joint Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian campaign that broke up Boko Haram’s formal territorial enclave in the first several months of 2015. Diffa was already under a state of emergency by February 2015, and has remained under one ever since. In contrast, it was not until March 2017 that the Nigerien authorities declared a state of emergency in parts of Tillabéri and adjacent Tahoua. Things have only worsened since then, and this year looks to be the rough equivalent for Niger of 2017 for Mali and 2019 for Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Diffa is relatively calm compared to the situation there in 2015, or the situation in Tillabéri now.
  • The best thing I’ve read on Tillabéri recently is this Crisis Group report.

Finally, here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Chad (Mauritania is relatively calm, so I won’t cover it here):

A brief comment is that the areas affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots are deadlier than whatever rebellion(s) are simmering in the north. Daniel Eizenga’s briefing on Chad and Boko Haram from April of this year remains highly relevant for understanding the situation there.

I don’t have much to offer for a conclusion except that things are quite bad, especially in the tri-border zone. I don’t think counterterrorism operations are really helping that much. And in addition to the violence, you have mass and growing displacement (for which Luengo-Cabrera has also made graphics, but I’ll leave that for another time), food insecurity, and many other factors contributing to a really nightmarish picture for millions of people.

Two Recent Reports on Conflict, Children, and Education in Nigeria and Burkina Faso

Two reports came out last week examining, respectively, conflicts in Nigeria and Burkina Faso. They make for effective if troubling paired reading.

The first report is Amnesty International, “‘We Dried Our Tears’: Addressing the Toll on Children of Northeast Nigeria’s Conflict.” An excerpt (p. 6):

Both sides of the long-running armed conflict in the Northeast have committed crimes under international law, including against children. They continue to commit such crimes regularly. Almost everyone in the Northeast has been affected, but the impact on girls and boys has been and continues to be particularly pronounced. Absent a major shift in strategy by the Nigerian authorities, an entire generation may be lost.

And another excerpt (p. 7):

People who recently fled Boko Haram-controlled areas, including children, describe worsening food insecurity. [Abubakar] Shekau’s faction [of the Boko Haram insurgency] seems especially under strain, pillaging villages and forcing families to give larger percentages of their harvest than in prior years. Families struggle to feed themselves, though at times still feel that staying and growing their own food is safer than being displaced to a site where they would depend on inconsistent aid delivery. Food insecurity is exacerbated by Boko Haram’s attacks on aid workers and the Nigerian military’s restrictions on humanitarian access. Amnesty International documented deaths of young children in 2018 and 2019 related to acute malnutrition in Boko Haram-controlled territory.

For further context on food insecurity in northeastern Nigeria, see FEWS Net’s May update.

And a third and final excerpt (p. 8):

The military’s practice of mass unlawful detention is as ineffective as it is inhumane. Many of the children interviewed by Amnesty International, including those who said they had been recruited “voluntarily” by Boko Haram, described hearing messages on the radio that told them if they fled Boko Haram territory, they would find safety and support in government areas. Instead, they often suffered years of unlawful detention and torture or other ill-treatment, while never facing any charges. Many former child detainees said that, after their experience, they would not counsel others to come out from the bush; several former child soldiers said they would not advise those still in Boko Haram to surrender. Some expressed regret at having fled themselves. And women, men, and children who fled Boko Haram-controlled villages in late 2019, after never having any involvement with the group other than being forced to relinquish part of their harvest, told Amnesty International that there were many more people who want to flee, but are reluctant because they fear the military will detain them or their relatives in brutal conditions for an extended period.

Amnesty is critical of the Nigerian government’s Operation Safe Corridor, a program for “rehabilitating” former Boko Haram members – more context on that program here, here, and here.

The second report is Human Rights Watch, “‘Their War Against Education’: Armed Group Attacks on Teachers, Students, and Schools in Burkina Faso.” An excerpt:

[Jihadist] attacks, the terror they generated, and worsening insecurity have resulted in a cascade of school closures across the country, undermining students’ right to education. By early March 2020, the Ministry of National Education, Literacy, and the Promotion of National Languages (“education ministry,” or MENAPLN) reported that over 2,500 schools had closed due to attacks or insecurity in Burkina Faso, negatively affecting almost 350,000 students and over 11,200 teachers. This was prior to the country’s Covid-19 outbreak, which resulted in the temporary closure of all schools from mid-March.

And a second excerpt:

Of the five regions most affected by the conflict-related school closures, Sahel region topped the list in early March with a reported 947schools closed (80 percent of the region’s schools), followed by 556 schools in Est (38 percent), 366 in Centre-Nord (21 percent), 357 in Nord (18 percent), and 239 in Boucle du Mouhoun (13 percent). The remaining closed schools were in Centre-Est (46) and Centre-Sud (1).

For additional context, see UNHCR’s most recent humanitarian snapshot for Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger. Out of the estimated 4,043 non-functioning schools in this region, Burkina Faso has 62% (2,512), but Mali has approximately half that number, and western Niger has 270 schools closed which is, though nothing like the figures in its neighbors, still a real educational crisis on top of the other multi-faceted crises the region is suffering.

Roundup of Recent Reports on Boko Haram, Ansaru, ISWAP, and the Surrounding Conflict

Philip Olayoku and Bassim Al-Hussaini, Spoor Africa, “Beyond the Decade of Boko Haram Insurgency in Nigeria: Counterinsurgency through the Eyes of Key Stakeholders.” For me, the most interesting part was Chapter 4, “Multi-Stakeholder Counterinsurgency Approaches in Nigeria’s Northeast.” An excerpt (pp. 12-13):

Abiola Sanusi, the Chair of the Safe Schools Declaration Sub-Committee of the Education in Emergencies Working Group Nigeria emphasised the fact that women and children remain the worst sufferers as they constitute 79% of the IDPs. Overall, women make up 54% of the total IDP population as most of them have become household heads resulting from death of or separation from their spouses. In giving the statistics of the impacts on these vulnerable groups, wom- en and children in the base states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, about 2.7million women and children need nutrition, out of which around 350, 000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition (SAM) and 250,000 others from moderate acute malnutrition (MAM). Children victims include at least 3,500 recruits by the insur- gents while young girls have been most targeted as human bombs numbering up to 136 from 2017 according to the available data. Education has also been un- der severe attacks with 867 schools reportedly closed, leading to at least 390,150 children out of school and 19,000 teachers displaced. Also, 645 teachers have been killed and 1,500 schools destroyed or occupied (by the insurgents, military or IDPs). There is however the effort to create safe schools through the develop- ment of the Policy on Safety and Security in schools to ensure minimum stand- ards for ensuring that school children, teachers and administrators are protected from harm in schools. Edwin Kuria, Director of the Humanitarian Programmes at Save the Children, Nigeria puts the total number of people in need of assistance in affected communities at 7.1million across Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States, with about 930,000 people in very remote areas that are hard to reach resulting in very minimal or no access to aids by humanitarian actors, and 230,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women acutely malnourished. 2.8 million children reportedly out of school in Borno State alone while children constitute 58% of the total num- ber of 5.8 million people in need of assistance. He therefore advanced the need for the special protection of children facing grave human rights violations to avert a lost generation of children.

Zoë Gorman, Aspenia Online, “Chad: Extremist Violence and Recession in the Wake of the Pandemic.” A quote:

[Chadian President Idriss] Déby, who has held office since 1990, is struggling to balance a need to confront internal vulnerabilities with external military engagements critical to his continued political longevity.[6] Home to 60 million people from more than 200 ethnic groups, Chad is surrounded by conflict states — Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR), as well as the Lake Chad states, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria.[7] Against a highly variegated security landscape and a faltering oil-dependent economy, Chad faces internal insurgency and youth unrest. Elections for the national assembly have been repeatedly postponed or cancelled since 2015 with security concerns cited, and soldiers are increasingly frustrated with rampant corruption and ethnic discrimination concerning the payment of military salaries and access to medical care.[8]

Abdullahi Murtala, The Republic, “The Resurgence of Ansaru.” I wasn’t convinced by this one. From the article itself:

Ansaru claimed responsibility for the 17 January attack on a convoy in Kaduna State. This was the group’s first attack since 2013. Through Al Qaeda’s Al Hijrah Media, Ansaru stated that it targeted a military convoy and destroyed several vehicles along the Kaduna-Zaria road. It was later revealed that the military contingent attacked was escorting the convoy of the Emir of Potiskum, the northeastern town. In response, the Nigerian Police Force conducted a raid that supposedly killed 250 Ansaru members in the group’s Birnin Gwari camp in Kaduna. The 17 January attack is a disturbing signal that Ansaru is resuming its activities. Furthermore, the group is currently exploiting ungoverned spaces, vulnerable rural communities, and the existing climate of insecurity in the North, a region that has been plagued by kidnappings, armed rural banditry, and violence.

That’s the contradiction that runs through so much of the writing on Ansaru (and other jihadist groups) – any time they make a public statement or claim an attack, it’s supposedly a sign of their resurgence; but then they’re treated as super insidious because of all their supposedly unclaimed attacks. Which is it? If they’re dangerous because they’re in the shadows, then why is it a big deal when they make a statement? And if they only claim a few attacks, then how can we be confident they’re so powerful in the shadows?

One could ask related questions about the new International Crisis Group report on violence in northwest Nigeria. An excerpt (p. 12):

Many Nigerian security and other independent local sources interviewed by Crisis Group corroborate that amid the breakdown of stability in Zamfara and elsewhere, two Boko Haram offshoots are making inroads into the region, where they are forging tighter relationships with aggrieved communities, herder-affiliated armed groups and criminal gangs. The first is Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (or the Group of Partisans for Muslims in Black Africa), better known as Ansaru, an al-Qaeda-linked group that declared itself independent from Boko Haram in 2012 and was operating in north-western Nigeria until it was largely dismantled by security forces by 2016. Now it seems to be making a comeback. Secondly, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – another splinter of Boko Haram in Nigeria’s North East zone – has forged links to communities in the north-western region on the border with Niger, which is separately in the throes of fighting its own local Islamic State insurgency. Ansaru, which has a long history of operating in the North West (where it engaged in the high-profile kidnapping of expatriate engineers between 2012 and 2013), is forging new relationships with other smaller radical groups in Zamfara state, particularly in the areas around Munhaye, Tsafe, Zurmi, Shinkafi and Kaura Namoda. The group has also deployed clerics to discredit democratic rule and the state government’s peace efforts, a “hearts and minds” campaign aimed at winning support from rural communities. It is also wooing some of the armed groups to its ranks, including by offering or selling them AK-47 rifles supplied by its allies in the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), at lower than the prevailing market price. Security officials say it has been recruiting members, and that it previously sent some recruits to Libya for combat training.

First, why should these statements from security officials – or even from ICG’s other interviewees – be accepted uncritically? And second, if Ansaru is so embedded in the conflict that it traffics arms, allies with other groups, and operates a preaching network, why does it not announce these activities? Are they shy? Again, you see this pattern throughout much analysis of jihadism. “The group made a statement! Drop everything!” and then in the next breath “This group is too clever to proclaim themselves publicly! Drop everything!”

Finally, Folahanmi Aina, Wilson Center Africa Up Close, “Re-Engineering Counter-Terrorism Efforts in Nigeria’s North East: The Pursuit of Peace.” Aina discusses what he calls “mutuality”:

Let us consider two levels of mutuality, using the case study of Nigeria’s North East region. The first level is international—the Nigerian state and its neighbors and partners under the umbrella of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJT)—which can be seen as the two ends of the same cord. For peace to be nurtured and achieved, it has to be rooted in mutuality between the two actors as distinct political entities. This requires their respective political leaders to commit to upholding agreements and commitments in the common war against the region’s insurgencies.

A second level of mutuality needed to nurture and achieve lasting is internal: each state must be able to secure mutuality with its own society in attaining shared goals. This internal mutuality is what this essay focuses on. This essay argues that the chances of ensuring lasting peace are better when this second level of mutuality (internal) is pursued alongside the first level (international), rather than being completely ignored.

COVID-19 and Jihadists, Part Two

See part one here, where I lay out a few reasons to be skeptical of the now widespread media/think tank narrative saying COVID-19 benefits jihadists. I’m going to revisit this as necessary because I think the narrative is still very flawed. It’s still too soon to tell.

For example, last week saw a piece from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled “Extremist Groups Stepping up Operations during the Covid-19 Outbreak in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The piece opens with a seemingly strong argument, seemingly backed by data:

Sub-Saharan African extremist groups are poised to make strategic gains during the Covid-19 outbreak, outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces. Violent attacks in the region’s hotspots rose by 37 percent between mid-March and mid-April, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) database, and groups have begun to release pandemic-related propaganda. Meanwhile, African states—like governments worldwide—are shifting military resources to the pandemic response, potentially undercutting counterterrorism operations.

On closer examination, though, there are problems:

  1. The individual attacks and incidents discussed in the piece don’t fit the supposed pattern. In one paragraph, the authors cite three incidents: the March 19 attack on a Malian army base; the March 25 kidnapping of Malian opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé; and the March 22-23 attack by Boko Haram on Chad. At the time of all of these incidents, however, confirmed case counts in Mali, Nigeria, and Chad were very low. Mali didn’t even confirm its first two cases under March 25; Nigeria’s first confirmed case was reported on February 27, but Nigeria only reported its first COVID death on March 23; and Chad’s first official case was on March 19. One could make the argument that the global pandemic and/or the response to it was already emboldening jihadists and constraining security responses in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin by mid-March, but I think even that is a tough sell. When we look at the kidnapping of Cissé, moreover, it could arguably be blamed not on jihadists being emboldened by the pandemic but on Malian authorities’ decision to press ahead with legislative elections despite the pandemic – Cissé was kidnapped while campaigning in the ultra-dangerous southern Timbuktu Region. And the reality may be even murkier than that; one account (French) says that Cissé had actually brokered a deal with local jihadists to campaign in their area, but was then kidnapped by a rival jihadist group. Assessing the causal role of COVID-19 in any of these incidents is pretty difficult, to say the least, and there are a lot of grounds for blaming other factors.
  2. The trend lines were already bad. The ACLED numbers quoted by the authors sound bad, but they do not unpack them – and they do not contextualize them. 2017-2019 were already very bad and worsening years for Mali and Burkina Faso, and the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency in northeastern Nigeria/Lake Chad has been quite bad for some time as well. A 37% jump in violent attacks sounds bad (and again, the authors don’t unpack this – attacks by whom?), but consider that Burkina Faso had a 25% jump in displacements from January to February 2020, or that there was a roughly 57% increase between December 2019 and January 2020 in what the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker calls “incidents” in the Boko Haram conflict – meaning, to put it less dramatically, that there were 19 incidents in December and 30 in January. So for one thing, the numbers concerning attacks, deaths, and displacements are just bad all around; and for another, there is significant variation in levels of attacks even without a pandemic around. Certainly COVID-19 must be having an impact on these conflict zones, but in complex ways and in combination with other factors.
  3. Jihadist governance can be brittle. I wrote this in the last post, but it’s worth revisiting here. The authors argue that jihadist propaganda and service delivery will win them support while governments stumble. But it is not at all clear that jihadists are skilled at managing humanitarian emergencies – in fact, they often create humanitarian emergencies around them, and many, many people simply flee jihadist control. The authors of the CSIS piece write, “Al-Shabaab, for example, took advantage of the famine in Somalia three years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families, blaming the crisis on regional and international governments.” But this is not evidence of success, it is only evidence of propaganda; meanwhile, various experts have argued that al-Shabab grossly mismanaged the 2011 famine in Somalia. Here is one quote from a study: “Al-Shabaab has poorly managed the famine crises. The Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) has declared that the crisis broke in several southern regions of Somalia. Al-Shabaab had expelled most of the intergovernmental and non-governmental relief organizations. They have also denied that there was a famine in the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to seek food and shelter in TFG- controlled Mogadishu and neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. To the victims, al-Shabaab was complicit in their suffering” (emphasis added, because that’s a crucial point – jihadists’ propaganda can be clumsy, it’s not always masterful). If jihadists botch their pandemic response through inflexibility, lying, and harsh treatment of civilians, it could be a setback for them in various ways.
  4. African militaries are not necessarily pulling back yet. Here, the authors seem to conflate possibilities with actualities. They write, “A memo from Nigeria’s army headquarters called on soldiers to be on ‘maximum security alert and be ready for deployment’ and suspended leave passages for all personnel.” But suspending leaves doesn’t mean that counterterrorism is slackening (it might be, it might not be!). A glance at the Nigerian Army’s Facebook page shows them heralding supposed counterterrorism successes as recently as April 29. There are a lot of competing claims and counter-claims to sort out when it comes to the Nigerian military’s own propaganda, obviously, but one shouldn’t assume that militaries will pull back. In fact, recently there have been several excellent (and disturbing) Twitter threads (see below) from experts pointing to patterns of severe and persistent security force abuses in the Sahel. Will CSIS write a piece arguing that COVID-19 is emboldening security forces to commit abuses? It seems to me you could make that case just as easily as the case that the pandemic is emboldening jihadists.
  5. International forces are not yet pulling back majorly. The authors even note this themselves, despite the title of the relevant section of their piece – and furthermore, Irish troops coming back from peacekeeping in Mali, and the British suspending a training mission in Kenya, do not add up to a major shift. And as I said in the last piece, it’s way too soon to tell with some of these supposed trends. And one might even wonder whether international forces pulling back a bit – say, if AFRICOM did ease up on drone strikes – might not improve the overall situation a bit in Somalia and elsewhere.
  6. The policy recommendations are thin and predictable. “Enhance civilian outreach,” “uplift religious leaders,” and “exploit insurgent missteps.” None of these ideas are new, and there is a particularly unfortunate line saying “Somali imams and teachers, in collaboration with Somali government ministries, have been broadcasting best practices for staying safe during the pandemic—tying them to Koranic dictates.” The authors act surprised that imams would try to keep people safe (!), and act as though this basic function of religious leaders should be harnessed to some kind of counterterrorism agenda. But most Muslim clerics around the world have been trying to protect their co-religionists (and their societies more broadly) while remaining true to their visions of what authentic Islam is. In fact, it’s probably better to let religious leaders speak for themselves rather than trying to “uplift” them, because there are substantial dangers into trying to fashion clerics into the mouthpieces of some kind of “official Islam” – governments trying to co-opt clerics can even inadvertently undercut them. Finally, one irony in the “exploit insurgent missteps” is that the point the authors are making is both obvious and in some instances already happening. The authors write, “if extremists attempt to launch operations beyond their capabilities and overextend themselves, security forces should retaliate, hitting poorly defended bases and safe havens.” This is effectively what Chad has done, although there are real limits to what Chad’s offensive is likely to accomplish. In any event, it’s odd that if the authors consider the situation so scary, that they didn’t put more effort into the policy recommendations.

Relevant Twitter threads on security force abuses:

Chad’s Big Anti-Boko Haram Campaigns Are the Exception to the Rule

After Boko Haram killed some ninety-two Chadian soldiers at the Boma/Bohoma peninsula on March 23, Chad launched a reprisal operation called the “Anger of Boma” on March 29. The background to these incidents, the course of the operation itself, and Chadian President Idriss Deby’s open frustration with his Nigerian and Nigerien counterparts, are covered in depth by Le Monde here (French), and by Dan Eizenga here.

I have four brief thoughts:

  1. Chad has impressed observers again and again with its military capabilities, but Chad does not appear willing or able to sustain operations like this for long. My assumption is that if Chad could maintain an operational tempo that would permanently disrupt Boko Haram’s activities in Chadian territory and on Lake Chad, it would do so – which means that a burst of activity like this is at least partly intended to show strength and beat Boko Haram back for the medium term, but not to establish a new normal for the long term.
  2. I do not think that a fundamentally greater level of regional cooperation and integration in the fight against Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is forthcoming. I can certainly sympathize with the chorus of voices urging Chad and its neighbors to take full advantage of this moment, consolidate the gains Chad has made, and use regional frameworks (i.e., the Multi-National Joint Task Force) to begin decisively encircling and defeating Boko Haram and ISWAP. But I think if that was going to happen, it would have already happened.
  3. If Chad’s big military campaigns against Boko Haram (2015 and 2020) are the exceptions to the rule, and if Nigeria, and to a lesser extent Niger and Cameroon, are visibly slow to take advantage of the resulting opportunities, then that reinforces what I am far from the first to say – the governments of the Lake Chad Basin region, Chad included, can tolerate a certain and even a high level of Boko Haram activity. I don’t mean that in a conspiratorial sense, in terms of government actively abetting Boko Haram; I mean it in the more passive sense of governments having multiple priorities and of top leadership not always seeing Boko Haram as a key threat, especially to themselves. If Chad intervenes massively when they feel the situation has gotten out of control, then the corollary to that is that authorities in all four countries may regard certain levels of violence as still being “under control” – from their own perspective.
  4. The idea that a certain level of insurgency/violence can be tolerated by the governments of the region can help to explain why the insurgency has persisted so long. Imagine for a moment that there was complete and effective regional coordination, and that all four militaries (plus Benin, if you like) really were prepared to hunt down Boko Haram and ISWAP throughout the entire region, somehow avoid unwittingly angering civilians in the process, then hold all the territory they had retaken, and then implement massive programs of economic and physical reconstruction, victims’ justice, post-conflict social contracts, etc. How much would that cost? How long would it take? I don’t know for certain, of course, but I imagine some policymakers in Abuja, Niamey, N’Djamena, and Yaoundé have taken a hard look at the situation and decided that it’s not worth it. By no means do I point that out to justify or excuse such decisions – my point is rather than Chad’s operation appears to me less like turning the page, and more like a familiar part of an extended cycle whose end I, for one, cannot foresee.

 

“Africa Past & Present” Podcast Episode on Boko Haram

I was up at Michigan State University last week for a classroom discussion (on Salafism in Nigeria, my first book) and a talk on Boko Haram (i.e., my second book and also some ongoing research). MSU has a fantastic African Studies community, including my host, Prof. Mara Leichtman, whose book examines the Shi’a in Senegal. At MSU I also had the opportunity to go on the Africa Past & Present podcast with Prof. Peter Alegi. The episode has now been posted here.

Recent Media Quotes/Review

I’ve been quoted in a few media reports recently, and a new review of my book on Boko Haram came out.

Media:

  • Voice of America, “French Airstrikes in N. Chad Affirm Support for President Déby”
  • BBC, “Nigerian Elections: Has Boko Haram Been Defeated?”
  • The Economist, “Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Jihadist Group, Is Regaining Strength.”

The review appeared in International Affairs, by Caroline Varin, whose own book on Boko Haram can be found here. Varin highlights things that I see as the book’s strengths, and she also makes some solid critiques of the book – writing conclusions, in particular, has never been my strength!