Comments on WaPo Article about Deradicalization of Boko Haram Members in Niger

I’m still catching up on important reporting that came out last month and throughout the fall. One such report is the Washington Post‘s November 20 article about deradicalization efforts for former Boko Haram members in Niger. The article, which is very good, focuses especially on the State Department’s role in shaping and possibly, soon, funding the program (see some official background here).

I’m enthusiastic about such programs, not because they’re perfect but because (a) these fighters or ex-fighters are human beings, and maybe they can be redeemed, and (b) concrete non-violent solutions seem more promising to me than just straight counterinsurgency paired with vague talk of socioeconomic reconstruction. If the fighters in the bush hear that they have choices beyond continued combat or unconditional surrender, perhaps more of them will turn themselves in.

No one says this is easy, though. The following excerpt was, for me, the core of the article:

“It was in D.C. that I realized the Americans might suffocate this program, even with good intentions,” [former Diffa Region Governor Dan Dano] Lawaly said. “They would say, ‘These defectors of yours may have committed war crimes, so we have to get the legal framework sorted out.’ And I’d say, ‘They’re abused kids, for God’s sake.’ ”

A legal framework would, however, codify the program, ensuring its survival beyond Lawaly’s tenure. And as it happened, Lawaly was sacked earlier this year when his party pulled out of Niger’s ruling coalition.

“It can’t be a one-man show if this is going to be sustainable,” said [Neal] Kringel, the State Department official. “We have to have a process that categorizes and then deals with each defector appropriately.”

I lean more toward Lawaly’s perspective, but you definitely don’t want hardened offenders slipping through the cracks or taking advantage of the program.

Yet as the article’s anecdotes suggest (and as Sarah Topol’s amazing reporting also suggests), much of Boko Haram’s recruiting was circumstantial and partly coerced. Such recruits came to do horrendous things, but I believe there is a road back for them, albeit one that might fade if authorities (American or Nigerien) place too much emphasis on retributive and punitive justice. That’s a grim thing to say – who wants to choose between justice and peace? This is not my choice to make when it comes to Niger, of course, but I would say that the State Department should heed the voices who prioritize peace.

The other voices who matter, though, include the communities affected by Boko Haram’s violence. This theme comes up in the article, and it came up on my trip to Nigeria last month. It is eminently understandable that survivors and victims may not forgive. In Kano, including in conversations with people from northeastern Nigeria, I heard very different perspectives on what might be done with “rehabilitated” Boko Haram fighters. Some very smart people said that it was impossible for such fighters to go home, given the level of anger and even violence they may face from victims and survivors. Other Nigerians I spoke with even doubted that rehabilitated fighters could successfully integrate in big cities, given that they might somehow stand out and raise questions even in neighborhoods in Kano or Lagos or other cities outside the epicenter of the conflict. But some folks I met did think that big cities might afford a degree of anonymity that would facilitate a new start for the genuinely repentant. In any case, I’m not sure anyone has really worked out a promising solution for the long-term dilemmas about how ex-fighters can lead successful lives – or what compensation the affected communities deserve (a lot) and what they might realistically get (probably much less than what they deserve).

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Thoughts on the Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Attacks on Metele and Kangarwa

On November 24-25, the “Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWA)” faction of Boko Haram attacked the town of Kangarwa in Nigeria’s Borno State, near Lake Chad, and claimed control there on the 25th (see a brief video here). The attack on Kangarwa followed a November 18 assault by ISWA on Metele, also in northern Borno.

Neither Kangarwa nor Metele appears on Google Maps. For context, then, here is a useful map of Borno’s Local Government Areas (LGAs). Kangarwa is in Kukawa LGA and Metele is in Guzamala LGA.

What exactly happened in Metele is unclear, given disputes over how many Nigerian soldiers were killed there, but some kind of major attack or even massacre occurred. The Nigerian Army says that 23 soldiers were killed, but Premium Times (same link) puts the figure at 118 killed and 153 missing in action. As you will see below in the translation of an Islamic State account of what happened at Kangarwa, the Islamic State is claiming that the killings at Metele so frightened the soldiers in Kangarwa that they left without a fight, even though they had previously been determined to hold the town. We should add that soldiers in Metele themselves have complained that their weapons are obsolete and broken down: in the video below, the narrator repeatedly asserts that their equipment dates to the regime of Shehu Shagari (1979-1983):

There are now a lot of moving parts to the equation in northern Borno State.

First, there is the question of what ISWA wants – or even what it is – in the wake of the reported death of Mamman Nur, a longtime senior Boko Haram operative and by some accounts the power behind the throne in ISWA since it broke with Abubakar Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram circa August 2016.

The emerging conventional wisdom (well articulated here, and quite possibly correct) is that ISWA is growing more militarily aggressive and more ideologically hardline, and that Nur’s death was both a result of and a further catalyst for that trend. It is worth noting, however, that some informed observers (notably the Nigerian Colonel Timothy Antigha, whose analysis of Nur’s death I discussed here) present things in a somewhat different light, highlighting ideological changes within Boko Haram but seeming to say that the lines between Shekau’s faction and ISWA are less clear that many think, and that Shekau-like voices are ascendant in ISWA.

Second, the attacks are causing political turmoil for President Muhammadu Buhari – according to one outlet, even the Shehu of Borno recently told Buhari to his face that the government and the military needed to “review the strategies in nipping this lingering crisis in the bud.” Amid growing criticisms of Buhari’s handling of Boko Haram, the media narratives are growing extremely contentious and murky. Take this report, for example, where an anonymous officer in Maiduguri is quoted as saying the following about Nigeria’s military command:

The distrust [among senior officers] arises from the fact that no one knows who among them is giving Boko Haram information because they all know that the terror group has infiltrated the Nigerian Army. Everyone is edgy and suspicious of one another. The situation is really bad. Everybody present in that barracks in Melete was wiped out. Another important point to note here is the massive corruption in the hierarchy. A lot of people are feeding fat from this war.

Some of this is certainly true, above all the “feeding fat” part (why are there Shagari-era vehicles in Metele, after all?). But it is also election season and a moment of mounting frustration, where it becomes even harder than normal to sort out what information is true from the information that is planted or spun to advance certain narratives. Is it true that Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian Army (news that would make the army and the president look bad)? Is it true, as the military now asserts, that Boko Haram/ISWA has a rising number of foreign fighters (news that could absolve the president and the military of some responsibility for the rising violence)? Is it true, as Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai recently said (the quote is a paraphrase), that “the troops should be mindful of what they see and read on the social media as most of the stories are either doctored or fake”? There are now serious calls for various heads – Buratai’s, for one – and so everyone, pro or con, will be trying to shape how the media covers these latest attacks.

A lot of this, moreover, feels like a replay of how Boko Haram was discussed by official sources and journalistic outlets circa 2014, as the Goodluck Jonathan administration was facing heavy criticism over its handling of Boko Haram. The same accusations of double agents and massive international backing were very prominent during Jonathan’s time, including in statements by Jonathan himself. Now, this is not to say that Buhari will lose, but it is to say that Boko Haram’s tenacity has now twice posed significant political problems for incumbents – and that affects how politicians and political actors discuss the issue.

To close this post out, let’s look at the brief description of the Kangarwa attack included in the latest issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter al-Naba’ (p. 7; h/t “Edward“). Here is my translation:

The Islamic State’s Soldiers Control the Town of Kangarwa and Target the Apostates in the Town of Arge

On Sunday, the 17th of Rabi al-Awwal, the soldiers of the Islamic State in West Africa took control, by the grace of God alone, of the town of Kangarwa near Lake Chad following an attack they carried out on the apostates in the town. They also targeted elements of the apostate Nigerian army in the town of Arge with machine guns, which led to hitting many of them.

According to the media office, the soldiers of the Islamic State launched a vast attack on the town of Kangarwa located near Lake Chad, where God cast terror into the hearts of the apostates such that they turned their backs and ran. God protected the muwahhidin [monotheists] in the fighting, and they returned to their positions safely.

The media office added that previously, six battles had broken out between the soldiers of the Islamic State and the apostates for control over this village, but the apostates were defending it desperately due to its importance to them. But they left it and fled from it this time without fighting, due to their fear of the caliphate’s soldiers after they saw what was done to their apostate brothers in the nearby town of Metele and other towns.

[The last paragraph repeats nearly verbatim the above-translated paragraph about Arge, except that it adds “and to God is the praise and the benefit.”]

On the one hand, this is scary stuff. On the other hand, I find it revealing that the so-called master propagandists of the Islamic State chose to write a brief and highly repetitive statement that is, if one looks closely, quite thin on content. What do official proclamations of control (as opposed to unofficial influence or sway) really mean? These statements give little clue, ultimately.

Quick Background and Analysis of a Video Report on Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor

TVC Nigeria has an interesting video report on Nigeria’s Operation Safe Corridor – a program for processing the surrenders and rehabilitation of Boko Haram members. The video focuses more on the program’s architects and overseers than it does on Boko Haram members themselves, but it is still well worth a watch:

A bit more background on some of the figures mentioned and interviewed in the video.

  • T.Y. Danjuma is a retired Nigerian general and active philanthropist. He is perhaps the best-known living ex-general who has not served as head of state. He is currently the chairman of the Presidential Committee on the North East Initiative (PCNI). In the meetings portrayed in the video he is represented by Asmau Joda, a longtime civil society activist and herself a PCNI member. Here is an interesting 2005 interview with Joda about Islam, women, and sharia in Nigeria.
  • Major General Bamidele Shafa is the Coordinator of Operation Safe Corridor.
  • The video has footage from Yola, Adamawa State, whose governor is Jibrilla Bindow.  In the meetings shown in the video, the governor is represented by Christian Pastor Agoso Bamaiyi.

The newscasters and several interviewees stress the idea that many Boko Haram members joined under duress – which I think is likely true, although I think sometimes that ideological recruitment gets overlooked. But the emphasis on duress may be intended to make the idea of forgiveness and reintegration more palatable to the Nigerian public.

Chad: An Example of How the State/Military Describes the Anti-Boko Haram Campaign

Following up on my post earlier this week about a Nigerian colonel’s analysis of Boko Haram, I want to highlight an official Chadian readout of the military’s efforts to secure the Lake Chad region, and specifically Chad’s Lac Province.

The readout, from earlier this month, describes President Idriss Deby’s 17 October visit to Kaïga-Kindji (or Kinjiria), the site of a Boko Haram attack on 9 or 10 October (the official readout says 9 October, but most news reports give the date as 10 October). The official readout also gives the figure of six soldiers killed, in contrast with news reports saying eight dead. The attack followed one in late September on Moussarom and Ngueleya, as well as one on 22 July near Daboua.

Not unusually for official military/security press releases, it strikes a triumphalist note and emphasizes ‘s role not must as head of state, but also as commander-in-chief. The readout notes that Deby came to “review the troops and shake the hands of all the general officers deployed on the ground.” The readout repeatedly uses words connected to valor and glory to describe and hail Chadian soldiers, and emphasizes the theme of vigilance in the midst of an asymmetric conflict. Deby’s visit seems to have been calculated to boost morale and to showcase his own willingness to travel to the frontlines. The visit also showcased the wider political and national security team. One aim seems to have been to project an image of integration and coordination at the national and sub-national levels – Deby was met at Kaïga-Kindji by the governor of Lac Province, Mahamat Abali Salah, and the president was accompanied by a host of officials and commanders including Defense Minister Bichara Issa Djadallah and Deputy Chief of Army Staff Hamada Youssouf Mahamat Itno (who, as you might deduce from the name, is a relative of the president – a nephew, from the sources I’ve seen).

I would not say that Deby is worried, either about Boko Haram or about the prospect of mutiny, but I do find it significant that he would make and publicize such a trip. The authorities seem keen to make the soldiers feel seen and supported.

A Window Into How Part of the Nigerian Military Views Boko Haram

Earlier this month, Colonel Timothy Antigha, the Chief Military Press Information Officer for the Multi-National Joint Task Force, published an essay entitled “Counter-Insurgency: The Broader Implications of Recent Execution of Boko Haram Commanders.” The essay is a follow-up to earlier analyses Antigha has disseminated, including the December 2017 piece “Boko Haram: State of Counter-Insurgency Operations.”

Antigha’s writings give insight not just into the state of Boko Haram (where some caveats and questions are in order regarding his analysis), but also into how parts of the Nigerian military views Boko Haram. This latter aspect of the writings is most interesting to me.

Antigha’s analyses, I should note at the outset, are more sophisticated and blunter than the typical verbiage one encounters in Nigerian military press releases. Many of those promote a one-dimensional, triumphalist narrative of brave soldiers killing “Boko Haram Terrorists” or surmounting temporary setbacks.

Consider, by way of contrast, this passage from Antigha’s December 2017 piece:

Apart from being religious fundamentalists, Boko Haram is a terrorist social movement.

Like all social movements, it represents groups that are on the margins of society and state, and outside the boundaries of institutional power, Boko Haram seeks to change the system in fundamental ways, through a mix of incendiary religious dogma, unbridled criminality and unmitigated terror.

The strategic end state of the insurgency is the establishment of an Islamic State in the Sahel covering parts of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, in the likeness of what ISIS envisioned for Iraq and Syria.

Without doubt, 2011 – 2014 was Boko Haram’s most active and successful years.
During this period, the public lost confidence in the ability of the military to defend Nigeria’s territorial integrity.

This is pretty three-dimensional stuff. One might take issue with parts of it, but it’s clear that Antigha is light years beyond the “snuff out all the BHTs” guys.

Now, some of the caveats: Antigha is very positive on the Nigerian military’s performance starting in 2015, i.e. under the current administration of Muhammadu Buhari. One could be forgiven for concluding that politics plays into how he periodizes the counter-insurgency. I agree with him that 2011-2014 (or I would say into early 2015) were Boko Haram’s most successful years, and available data on the numbers of attacks and the extent of territorial control would bear that out. But it’s too neat to just emphasize that “the emergence of a new government and leadership in the Nigerian Army in 2015 resulted in a new operational framework and design for the North East.” For one thing, Boko Haram’s fortunes declined before Buhari took office, amid the Chadian-Nigerien (and then Nigerian) push into Boko Haram-held territory. SInce Buhari took office, moreover, some old problems have continued to plague the Nigerian military, including corruption, brutality, and a weak rural presence. All of this is to say that we must remember, when reading Antigha’s analyses, that he is an information officer working for the Nigerian military and the MNJTF. He is not an independent or disinterested voice.

Now, turning to Antigha’s more recent analysis, a few interesting points stand out:

  • Antigha does not differentiate starkly here, as do so many analysts and reporters, between Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi’s Islamic State West Africa. That is, when discussing the recent reported assassinations of Mamman Nur and Ali Gaga (both of whom are typically identified as having been affiliated with al-Barnawi’s group), Antigha sees the dividing line within Boko Haram not as Shekau vs. al-Barnawi but as “moderates” vs. “radicals.” Antigha sees this divide as one centered on relations with civilians. According to Antigha, Nur and Gaga “were trying to win back the confidence of the people when they met resistance by younger and radical commanders.” Antigha expects further fragmentation, again not along lines determined by global affiliations but along lines determined by strategy: “Commanders and foot soldiers who were loyal to the executed commanders may, subject to their assessment of their chances of survival go their separate ways as terrorists or denounce terrorism and surrender.” Al-Barnawi’s name does not even appear in the text, and Antigha seems to see factional divisions as secondary to this issues of “moderates” versus “radicals.” Antigha writes, “Following the execution [of Nur], Mustapha Kirmimma has succeeded Nur as second in command. Kirmimma is reputed as a Shekau type of terrorist.” Is Antigha saying that both factions now have strong Shekau-like contingents within them – or is he suggesting a different understanding of how Boko Haram is organized? After all, Antigha uses the singular when he argues that Boko Haram is “an organization that has a semblance of core values, is well policed and governed by strict rules and regulations.” The accuracy of any of this is less interesting to me, in this context, than is the insight into how Antigha (and, by extension, at least part of the Nigerian military and the MNTJF) understands Boko Haram’s organizational structure. A number of questions follow – is this analysis based on flawed information? Or information not available to the public? Or is it simply a different reading of what the 2016 split really meant?
  • Antigha is not really concerned at all about external linkages. He writes, “It becomes difficult to ignore the view that Boko Haram has become a highly poisonous brand, which is unattractive to global terror entrepreneurs who are looking for conflicts to invest in. More so, opinion is building among analysts and commentators that Boko Haram could be a liability rather than asset to the Islamic State which it claims affiliation to.” For me, again, this is interesting not because of the question of whether he is right or wrong in his diagnosis, but because his portrayal is a far cry from what we hear/have heard from some other voices within the Nigerian government, past and present. If you want to be ultra-cynical (more cynical than I am willing to be, actually), you could say that when Nigerian officials want to maximize their chances of gaining more external military support, they play up Boko Haram’s transnational ties; and when they want it to appear that the counterinsurgency is working and that Boko Haram is on the back foot, they downplay those ties.
  • Antigha concludes by attempting to manage expectations, in a really interesting way: “Likely fallout of the recent executions could be more Boko Haram skirmishes against defence forces and of course more attacks on soft targets in the area of operation. However, the skirmishes would not be borne out of a desire by Boko Haram to gain any strategic or operational advantage; (the capacity is really not there) rather, the attacks will be driven by the need for some publicity by the radicals who have seized power in Boko Haram. The aim of these attacks, some of which have been reported already, is to hoodwink supporters and sympathizers to believing that Boko Haram is still a viable and reckonable terrorist organization.” Translation: Antigha knows that there will be more attacks, but he wants to portray these attacks as Boko Haram’s last gasps rather than as signs of a continued resurgence by the group. The big question to me, though, is who controls the countryside in Borno and Yobe; many Boko Haram attacks appear, to me, to be not so much about publicity as about preventing the Nigerian military from establishing firm control over rural and remote areas.

In conclusion, read the whole piece. It is the most interesting Nigerian government/military statement that I’ve seen about Boko Haram in quite some time. Again, I don’t agree with all of it, but it does give a window into how *some* top military officials see the jihadist organization. A final question, as with figures in the previous administration who also seemed to have a sophisticated viewpoint, is how much influence such analysts really have – or whether the guys who think in terms of body counts are the dominant figures after all.

France’s Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly in Chad

Yesterday French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly visited Chad. She met President Idriss Deby and Defense Minister Bichara Issa Djadallah, and she visited military bases connected with the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multi-National Joint Task Force.

The visited seems meant as a vote of French confidence in Chad and as a further demonstration of French support for these two African-led regional counterterrorism forces. It is hard not to think that the visit is also at least partly in response to recent flickers of insecurity in Chad, including the CCMSR rebellion in the north and a recent Boko Haram attack near Lake Chad. RFI predicted that issues of financing and strengthening the G5 Sahel Joint Force “will be at the center of the discussions.” RFI adds that French President Emmanuel Macron may visit Chad around Christmas to see French troops there.

Finally, a quick note on Djadallah – he’s something of a fixture in the defense ministry, having been in his current role since August 2016 (making him something of a survivor amid repeated cabinet reshuffles) and he previously served in the role in 2008.

Roundup on Boko Haram/ISWA Attacks in Gudumbali and Baga, Borno State, Nigeria

In recent days, the Boko Haram faction led by Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi and known as “Islamic State West Africa” (ISWA or ISWAP) has attacked two towns in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria – Gudumbali and Baga. The latter, of course, has been the target of prominent attacks by Boko Haram dating back years. (Note also that there was a recent kidnapping attributed to Boko Haram in Borno.) As often with Boko Haram attacks, conflicting information makes it hard to assess what happened. But here’s a roundup of coverage and analysis:

Gudumbali (map of Local Government Area)

AFP: “Boko Haram jihadists were in control of a town in northeast Nigeria on Saturday [8 September] after sacking a military base, in the latest attack that raises questions about claims they are weakened to the point of defeat. Local officials and security sources said scores of fighters believed to be loyal to a Boko Haram faction backed by the Islamic State group overran troops in Gudumbali.”

Vanguard: “The Nigerian Army on Sunday [9 September] said it had restored normalcy in Gudumbali and environs with the concerted effort of troops of Operation Lafiya Dole deployed to the area. Newsmen report that scores of jihadists in gun trucks and bearing various calibre of arms, stormed the town and engaged troops in fierce battle that lasted for many hours.

Premium Times: “Mr Bukar said when he realised the criminals were not targeting civilians, he decided to lock himself with his parents with a padlock so they would not come into their home. ‘They left the town after several hours. They were chanting ‘Munkama garinsu gabadaya’ which means we have taken over the town completely,’ he said. ‘The rains of bullet suddenly stopped but we were advised to remain in the house. At that time we knew that the military had also left the place because they fought nonstop for almost 12 hours.'”

Nigerian Army (official): “It will be recalled that Gudumbali is one of the communities in Borno state, that were recently reoccupied by Internally Displaced Persons who had voluntarily returned to their ancestral homes. The people of Gudumbali community and Guzamala Local Government in general are urged to remain calm and resilient as Operation Lafiya Dole troops tirelessly combat the terrorists. They are also implored to maintain high level of vigilance and monitor strange faces to prevent fleeing Boko Haram terrorists from infiltrating and hibernating in their communities.” My comment: this reads to me as insensitive and paranoia-inducing language. Better to say something along the lines of “we won’t be sending any more people back to these areas until we’re sure they’ll be safe there.” Note also that the Army’s statement contradicts press accounts, particularly in terms of the assertion that “no human casualty was recorded in the encounter.”

Baga (map)

Punch: “Boko Haram terrorists have staged a fresh attack on a military base in Baga in the Kukawa Local Government Area of Borno State, a day after they invaded Gudumbali area in the Guzamala Local Government Area and sacked the residents.”

Finally, see also the group’s recent video release (filmed, of course, before these recent attacks), consisting of battle footage and displays of soldiers’ corpses and Book Haram’s arsenal.