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.


Four Recent Reports/Translations on Boko Haram

So far this month, two important new reports on Boko Haram have caught my eye, as well as two important new translations.

The first report is Fulan Nasrullah‘s “Strategic Thinking Behind Ongoing Insurgent Offensive Operations In Northeast Nigeria- An Analysis.” Here is an excerpt, describing the period after August 2016, when Boko Haram split into two factions led respectively by Abubakar Shekau and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi (who became head of the official “Islamic State West Africa Province” or ISWAP):

At that point in time, with high tempers on both sides of the divided insurgency, there was a fear within ISWAP that Shekau would either deflect pressure from his group (which was weakened by the split and was solely bearing the heat of pressure from the Nigerian and other regional militaries), by negotiating a deal  with the Nigerian authorities to provide them with intelligence to wipe out ISWAP and get Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi/Mamman Nuur(there were extant suspicions and accusations that Ansarul-Muslimeena Fee Bilaadis-Sudan’s urban operations networks and Cameroonian camps had been wiped out by Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities as part of a deal Shekau had made with them), or, he would launch an all out fratricidal war on the nascent group he was regularly denouncing as deviants.

Although spontaneous clashes would erupt between individual units along a very much undefined mix of territory with no clear front line demarcating them, all out war was prevented by ISWAP’s leadership seeking for and holding deconfliction meetings with the Shekau group[6]. While Abubakar Shekau himself was inclined to disregard attempts to deconflict the situation, his Shuraa (the decision making body, or what was left of it after the split) impressed on him the need to avoid intra-insurgent conflict for religious and operational reasons[7].

The whole piece is fascinating. The weakness, as with other writing by Nasrullah, is in the sourcing. Nearly every endnote says something like “conversations had with people with knowledge of these events at the time they occurred, and recently to confirm the details before writing this paper” (that’s the text of endnote 7). So one’s assessment of the report’s credibility essentially comes down to your assessment of Nasrullah’s credibility. You can attempt to fact-check him by comparing his assertions with other sources and accounts, but you cannot fact-check him by accessing and assessing his own sources. When I cited some of Nasrullah’s writing in my book, particularly when it came to discussing Boko Haram’s fight for Damboa, Borno in summer 2014, I tried to deal with this difficulty by saying things like, “According to [Nasrullah]…” In other words I would treat this as a valuable account but I wouldn’t regard it as confirmed.

The second report is from International Crisis Group, entitled “Cameroon’s Far North: A New Chapter in the Fight Against Boko Haram.” An excerpt:

Since 2014, vigilantes, numbering some 14,000 in the Far North, have played an essential role against Boko Haram. They provide critical intelligence to Cameroonian forces, act as scouts and guides, and sometimes confront jihadists directly and protect their villages, especially against suicide attacks. The authorities offer them little support, however. Some have become disillusioned and abandoned the struggle. Vigilante groups also have come in for criticism. Some members were previously cattle thieves, smugglers or bandits, others have been arrested for collaboration with Boko Haram and some are suspected of human rights abuses against captured Boko Haram suspects. As the conflict quietens, plans for their future will become ever more urgent. The absence of such plans could lead groups to fragment, with some vigilantes turning back to crime.

Two important translations have also appeared this month, both from Aymenn al-Tamimi.

One is the account of Tunisian member of Ansar al-Sharia who helped Boko Haram with communications, perhaps some time in 2014-2015, during the period leading up to Boko Haram’s/Abubakar Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in March 2015. Vincent Foucher has a short Twitter thread with some analysis here. One passage from the translated text stood out to me, just because it underscores the remoteness even of Boko Haram’s media people, let alone its fighters:

In order [for the Tunisian author’s Nigerian interlocutor] to upload one of the group’s releases, he had to travel to a place some 300 km away from his village, as mobile phone network coverage would be available to upload a release of poor quality on an upload site, and the time for uploading this release, whose size did not exceed 50 MBs, took 9 whole hours. Then he would give me the link to re-upload it on a number of sites with the help of some of the brothers specialized in Rapidleech. Then we would publish it in the forums and on the page of Ifriqiya lil-‘Ilam.

The Tunisian author also claims to have been the key intermediary between Boko Haram’s media people and the Islamic State’s:

Subsequently we tried to establish connection between our brother and our media guy brothers in the beloved Islamic State and the groups supporting it in Africa, and praise be to God, the desired coordination arose months later, and the blessed Mu’assasat al-Urwa al-Wuthqa was established, and a special transmission was achieved in the quality of the releases. May God bless all who facilitated that and strove for that from near and afar. And that was a key to refute the doubts that some of the hyenas and crows strove to publish in the field of West Africa- they got to the point of sending an envoy from them to there in an attempt to convince the group not to give allegiance to the Caliph at all as they did in the Caucasus, Lebanon, Libya and Tunisia. And despite that, and by the grace of God the Exalted and Almighty, the group’s leadership, represented in Sheikh Abu Bakr Shekau, decided to give allegiance to the Caliph in order for ranks to be united, the force to be strengthened, and in order for the enemies of God to become enraged.

This makes it sound like the pledge was orchestrated remotely, rather than through any face-to-face negotiations between Islamic State emissaries and Boko Haram. In any case, read Vincent’s thread, as it makes the important point that the Tunisian author manages to both wax enthusiastic about Shekau and the Islamic State, and simultaneously imply that it was Shekau who held back the pledge to the Islamic State for some time. That’s a pretty self-contradictory position to try to hold onto.

The other translation by al-Tamimi is the full version of the text I discussed here and here, namely the anti-Shekau polemic released in June by “Islamic State West Africa” and authored by the “two sons” of Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf.

I am very glad that al-Tamimi has made the full translation available. It is a fantastic resource for understanding (at least from its authors’ perspective) the history of Boko Haram. I do, however, disagree with some of the analysis al-Tamimi has appended to the text. One point al-Tamimi makes is this:

It has been claimed that Shekau’s group and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province represent two rival factions professing loyalty to Baghdadi and competing for recognition as the Islamic State’s wing in the West Africa. In fact, this claim is incorrect. Shekau clearly does not recognize the Islamic State as a legitimate authority whatsoever, and on multiple occasions his group has actually fought the Islamic State’s West Africa Province, which deems Shekau and his followers to be Khawarij.

Based on both evidence and logic, this doesn’t quite add up. In terms of evidence, there have been a few communications from Shekau to the leadership of the Islamic State where he appeals to them against al-Barnawi/ISWAP. If ISWAP calls Shekau a Khariji, Shekau calls ISWAP murji’is – in other words, each faction tries to delegitimize the other on theological grounds. Perhaps Shekau’s attitude toward the Islamic State central leadership has changed in recent months, but for quite some time he maintained that he was simply misunderstood and that al-Barnawi’s people had lied about him to the central leadership. Logically, too, it doesn’t follow that if Shekau attacks al-Barnawi’s group, that means he has completely rejected the authority of the central leadership – it just means that he has rejected al-Barnawi’s authority. Also, who is the intended audience of this (Arabic-language) book? It seems to me that part of the intended audience might be any waverers, including waverers abroad, who are still sympathetic to Shekau and who may not be completely convinced that deposing him as Islamic State “governor” was the right move. Otherwise why write it?

Another point from al-Tamimi is his assertion that one of the book’s most important parts is its

Discussion of the nature of relations between al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ‘Boko Haram’ after Muhammad Yusuf’s death. It should be noted that ‘Boko Haram’ never became a formal affiliate of al-Qa’ida in the manner of AQIM or al-Shabaab in Somalia, but there were very much concrete links and correspondence between AQIM and ‘Boko Haram’.

This idea of “concrete links and correspondence” is not at all new – indeed, the entire book can be seen as a recapitulation and extension of al-Barnawi’s 2016 interview with al-Naba’, available in translation here, where he also briefly discusses these contacts. This issue has now been analyzed to death by Nigeria watchers, including me, and what this new text describes is in line with sources released during 2015-2017, which confirms links and correspondence – the extent and meaning of which can and should be debated, but the existence of which cannot. In fact, other sources, such as this one, are a better bet if you want a detailed portrait of the Boko Haram-AQIM relationship after Muhammad Yusuf’s death.

But from the perspective of this new text’s authors, the relationship with AQIM is a tertiary issue at best, discussed on a handful of pages. This text is above all a theologically-oriented polemic against Shekau, a drama in which the two factions are the central actors, in which the Islamic State is the central love object, and in which AQIM is a minor player.

There are many other interesting passages from the text to highlight, but let’s close with this one. It comes in the context of intra-Boko Haram debates about calling other Muslims unbelievers – when can you call someone an unbeliever? Was someone an unbeliever all along, or did they at some point commit apostasy? This anecdote from the text (and we should bear in mind it is recounted by Shekau’s bitter enemies) is not dated, but perhaps comes from 2015, given remarks a few paragraphs earlier about Shekau forcibly taking concubines and slaves in northeastern Nigerian cities. The discussion is surprising to me in a way because it hints that the election of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 as Nigeria’s president was something that some Boko Haram members had to sort of debate and process, rather than instantly dismissing out of hand. Here is the passage (bracketed additions mine):

One day a brother quarreled with one of the students of al-Sheikawi, regarding the kufr [unbelief] of Muhammadu Buhari- the Taghut [ungodly tyrant] of Nigeria: was he an original disbeliever or a murtadd [apostate]? So the student went to his sheikh and informed him about the dispute that happened between him and the brother, so al-Sheikawi arose raging and thundering, and raised his voice saying: “Disbeliever! Disbeliever! By God a disbeliever! Disbeliever.” So the people gathered around him- of course the people of his centre and we were in attendance- and he began with idle talk and bleating for a period of around two hours, building one and destroying another, making an argument at one moment and then contradicting it in another, until he drew the following result as a conclusion:

That the principle regarding Muhammad Buhari, Ja’afar Mahmoud Adam [the estranged mentor of Muhammad Yusuf, assassinated in 2007] and other noteworthy names of those who claim affiliation to Islam, is that they are original disbelievers. And he said- and the recording of it is available and published: “The one who asserts the apostasy of Bukhari [sic] from Islam is a disbeliever. Yes, asserting that they are apostates is not allowed. They are not apostates but rather original disbelievers.”

This is crazy extreme, obviously. But again, what’s interesting is the extent of debate within Boko Haram – including debate about the events of the outside world.

Finally, it’s worth concluding with a passage from the Tunisian jihadist, which brings us back to the question of audience:

As we know that regrettably most of those who read our long articles are from the disbelievers, apostates and hypocrites, we conclude by challenging to mubahala the disbelievers, apostates, idolaters, secularists, modernists, moderates, adherents of Islam of enlightenment, tolerance, modernism, Qur’anism, America and secularism, the sheikhs of fabrication and falsehood from the ‘ulama of hypocrisy and shoes of authority, those who claim a doctorate, to be thinkers and to be of good understanding and analysis, and imams of damage and preachers of the pulpits of shame.

This is something for us all to keep in mind, I think – here the author himself admits that perhaps he has a bigger readership among his enemies (and among Western analysts?) than among his intended audience. All these texts, then, whether individually or in the aggregate, are only a partial window into what jihadists think and do.