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.

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.

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:

Recent Analyses and Articles on Boko Haram

Recently there has been a spate of interesting work on Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) or Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Here are some links and excerpts. As always, it can be difficult to verify some journalists’ and analysts’ sources, especially when they claim rare of exclusive access to insiders.

  • The journalist Ahmed Salkida is covering ISWAP’s military endeavors in northeastern Nigeria. See here and here. An excerpt from the former: “Boko Haram/ISWAP policy with respect to physically holding territories changed after the steady losses they suffered in the run up to general elections in Nigeria in 2014. They do not want to physically hold unto territories anymore than they are determined to ensure that the military does not have any sustainable presence in the territories. Furthermore, ISWAP is paying more premium to wooing local communities to feel more secure with them than they could ever be with the military. That is their strategy…ISWAP is no longer showing interest in taking a formidable military base such as was in Baga and staying put there. It doesn’t apparently serve their tactical and strategic interest well. They are more interested in taking over military hardware and ammunition in those bases while instilling fear on the troops and making it extremely difficult for the military to have the comfort to plan and launch attacks.”
  • Babatunde Obamamoye has written an interesting-looking article about negotiating with Boko Haram. From the abstract: “A notable shocking development in the advancement of the Boko Haram terrorist revolt was the abduction of about 276 Chibok girls in April 2014. Shortly afterward, while the terrorists made known their extremist determination to offer the girls for sale, the Nigerian government vowed unconditional rescue of the girls. Notwithstanding the evident opposition of both adversaries to nonviolent engagement, some of the victims were eventually released through negotiations. What then were the rationales that paved the way for negotiations? What are the implications of this approach? This article demystifies the rationales for negotiation between the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram terrorist group over the abducted girls. It argues that nonviolent engagement in this context arose out of intersecting interests but, more important, reinforced the “vulnerability” of the “new” religious terrorists to negotiation when violence proved futile in accomplishing some of their vital objectives.”
  • Christian Seignobos has also published a fascinating article (in French) on local dynamics of Boko Haram’s violence and the insurgency’s broader effects in the year 2017. The abstract is available in English: “The 2017 chronicle of events belies the assertions of the concerned governments diagnosing the impending end of the group. In Nigeria and neighbouring countries of Borno State, the bands called Boko Haram are still as active as ever. Fishermen, breeders and traders who want to continue to live of Lake Chad have to live with it, and sometimes take advantage of the chaos to oust their rivals. For its part, Boko Haram had to make choices in its local alliances. The insurgents interests have coincided with those of the Buduma indigenous people: the first wanted to expel the populations who refused to accept to pledge allegiance and pay them taxes, while the latter took the opportunity to try to chase away «foreigners» who had taken over their islands’ lands and pastures. In Cameroon, the «movement» had gradually established itself in the departments of Logone-et-Chari which cover the Kotoko country, and of Mayo-Sava, which includes the former kingdom of Wandala in the foothills of the northern Mandara Mountains. It is currently trying, from its multiple withdrawal sites, to escape the intervention of the army and its auxiliaries.”

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.