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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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