Nigeria: Notes on Recent Boko Haram Violence

In Nigeria, Boko Haram and its offshoot Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) have perpetrated several major attacks and a number of micro attacks recently. Here are some of the most prominent incidents in recent weeks:

  • An ISWA attack on a military base in Baga (map), 26 December
  • An ISWA attack on Rann (map), 14 January
  • An ISWA attack on Geidam (map), 23 January,
  • Attacks attributed to Boko Haram, targeting two military bases/outposts at Pulka (map) and Logomani (map) on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, 26-27 January
  • A second attack on Rann, attributed by some reports to Boko Haram rather than ISWA, 28 January

Some of these places are small cities – the number of displaced from Rann alone is estimated at 30,000. Most of these towns/cities have been previously, even repeatedly, exposed to Boko Haram and ISWA violence. Much of Borno State remains extremely dangerous for civilians and soldiers; all of the attacks mentioned above occurred in Borno save the one in Geidam, which is in neighboring Yobe State.

Reporting on these attacks also emphasizes the unpreparedness of the Nigerian military. See the following thread:

The assault on Geidam also shows how individual attacks can build momentum for future violence, as fighters seize weapons and equipment and as the attacks shake soldiers’ and even officers’ confidence. The accounts about Geidam do not all agree on the details, but different reporters and ISWA’s own readout all say that ISWA took supplies in Geidam, perhaps including fuel, a tank, other military vehicles, and weapons. Meanwhile, the attack seems to have caught the military by surprise:

In separate interviews with PREMIUM TIMES under anonymity on Friday morning, military officers were troubled by Boko Haram’s ability to inflict such damage on an area that had long been fortified to serve as a buffer against unchecked movement of insurgents south of River Komadougou-Yobe.

Geidam has been regularly targeted since November 2011 when Boko Haram launched a string of deadly assaults on residents in the community and Damaturu, the state capital. The military, however, moved swiftly to frustrate easy movement of the insurgents by setting up bases in the communities near River Komadougou-Yobe, which is a minor tributary of the Lake Chad.

While other Yobe communities, especially Buni Yadi, live in fear of regular Boko Haram attacks, Geidam was relatively calm, which security analysts credit to the military’s ability to prevent terrorists from using the nearby river.

But the military base in Geidam, which sits near the border with Diffa, Niger Republic, was perhaps the first target of the latest deadly raid, according to military sources.

Amnesty International’s report on the second Rann attack offers an even more damning portrait of military unpreparedness – or outright fear of Boko Haram/ISWA:

Disturbingly, witnesses told us that Nigerian soldiers abandoned their posts the day before the attack, demonstrating the authorities’ utter failure to protect civilians.

Alleged withdrawal of troops, triggered a massive exodus of civilians to Cameroon, as fear spread that Boko Haram would take advantage and attack the town. At around 9am on 28 January, a group of Boko Haram fighters arrived on motorcycles. They set houses ablaze and killed those left behind. They also chased after those who attempted to escape and killed some people outside the town. Eleven bodies were found within Rann town, and 49 bodies were found outside.

Another theme worth noting about recent violence is that even micro attacks can have wide impacts. For example, recent ambushes and abductions on a road running from Damaturu (Yobe) to Biu (Borno) caused widespread disruption:

The road which is about 120 kilometres has remained the only safer means as linkage to people living in southern Borno senatorial district reach Maiduguri, the state capital following closure and danger posed on other closest roads.

Sources said, after the abduction, security forces had to close down the road for motorists and passengers. A driver who plies the road on daily basis, Mallam Ali Isa told our Correspondent that he had to follow through 400km Gombe-Potiskum- Damaturu- Maiduguri road after the news filtered that the road was not safe on Friday. His words: “The Damaturu-Buni Yadi- Biu Road was not safe. Today is Buni Yadi Market where thousands of people from the surrounding communities come for business, unfortunately, there was an attack on the road which led to abduction of unspecified number of travellers with looting of foodstuff, and this warrant the military to close down the road including the market,” Isa learnt.

As a closing thought, a lot of the reporting has discussed these incidents in the context of Nigeria’s approaching presidential (February 16) and state (March 2) elections. But I am not sure that the electoral calendar is uppermost in the minds of either Boko Haram or ISWA. I think they operate on a longer timeline and that electoral disruption is a lower priority for them than (a) military positioning, (b) keeping fighters happy/occupied, and (c) obtaining or expanding their supplies and their overall political, economic, and religious influence.

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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.

Roundup on the Recent Boko Haram Attacks in Borno and Yobe

Two significant Boko Haram attacks occurred in recent days, one in Borno State and the other in Yobe State. Amid conflicting accounts, it’s difficult establishing exactly what happened.. In place of an analytical post, then, here’s a roundup:

Borno (Bama Local Government Area, likely 13 July)

Reuters: “About 20 Nigerian soldiers are missing after a clash with Boko Haram militants in the northeast of the country, security sources said on Monday, though the military denied reports that some troops could not be found. The confrontation between militants and troops took place on Saturday in the Bama area of Borno…An army spokesman said suspected Boko Haram militants had tried to seize military vehicles in an attempted attack on troops in Bama but they had been repelled by troops backed by the air force.” For more statements from the Nigerian Army, see here.

Daily Trust: “One of the sources told Daily Trust on Sunday that the troops who were based in Bama town in central Borno, were ambushed around 2pm Friday near a village called Bulagallaye,  while moving in a convoy  of 16 Hilux trucks loaded with soldiers  and vigilantes. ‘They were on their way for an operation in Bulagallaye along Bama /Dikwa axis when the assailants ambushed them…You know this is raining season and operations along that axis are increasingly becoming tough because of the terrain. One of the trucks in the convoy got stuck in the muddy area and while efforts were being made to pull out the truck, the terrorists attacked’.”

Punch: “A source close to Bama, said, ‘The update is that 10 corpses of soldiers ambushed in Borno have been recovered. The army is still looking for the rest of them. The terrorists are said to have links with ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province] and they are from the [Abu Mus’ab] Al-Barnawi faction. The army cannot sweep these attacks under the carpet because there were eyewitnesses to the two attacks in Borno and Yobe which happened on Saturday and Sunday.’ But the army spokesman, [Brigadier General Texas] Chukwu, said the troops repelled the terrorist attack on Bama, adding that only two personnel were injured. He said, ‘The army wishes to state categorically that the report is not true. There was an attempted attack on troops at Kwakwa and Chingori communities in the Bama area by suspected Boko Haram terrorists as a result of the difficult terrain where our vehicles became bugged [sic] down’.”

Yobe (Geidam Local Government Area, 14 July)

Punch: “ ‘Boko Haram terrorists attacked troops of the 81 Division Forward Brigade at Jilli village in Geidam district. The terrorists came in huge numbers around 7:30 pm (1830 GMT) and overran the base after a fierce battle that lasted till 9:10 pm,’ said the military source. ‘The base had 734 troops. Currently the commander of the base and 63 soldiers have made it to Geidam (60 kilometres away) while the remaining 670 are being expected,’ he said.”

Daily Trust: “A soldier who survived the attack told our correspondent that the terrorists went to the military facility in fleet of military painted vehicles with camouflage colours. ‘There was trench around the base, but they confidently approached the gate and we opened it thinking they were troops from Gubio. They started shooting and we engaged them before they overran us,’ he said. ‘About 10 of us ran to Ngilewa village where a Good Samaritan drove us to Damakarwa village and handed us to the troops from Geidam,’ he said.”

Blueprint: “The Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-General Tukur Buratai yesterday held a crucial meeting with the Theater Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole and other top military officers at the Military Command and Control Centre, Maiduguri, Borno state.
Although the outcome of the meeting was not made public, a military source said the meeting was to review and re-strategise the ongoing operations, especially Operation Last Hold in Northern Borno and Lake Chad fringes.”

For further context, it’s worth reading this thread from Ahmad Salkida and this report by Omar Mahmood and Ndubuisi Ani, and it’s worth watching this video from al-Barnawi’s faction.

Africa News Roundup: President Kenyatta, Maiduguri Bombings, CAR, and More

Reuters:

Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding president, won the presidential election with a slim margin of 50.03 percent of votes cast, provisional figures showed, just enough to avoid a run-off.

Reuters again:

Seven loud explosions shook Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri on Friday, witnesses said, hours after President Goodluck Jonathan ended a trip there to try to galvanize support for his battle against Islamist insurgents.

The Punch: “Boko Haram Destroys 209 Schools in Yobe.”

CNN:

French forces have seized a significant arms cache in northern Mali believed to have belonged to Islamist jihadist groups, including “tons” of heavy weapons, suicide belts and equipment for improvised explosive devices, France’s defense minister said Friday.

Magharebia: “Algeria Focuses on [AQIM Fighters in] Kabylie.”

IRIN: “Briefing: Militias in Masisi.”

RFI (French): “Central African Republic: Refugees Continue to Flee Fighting and Insecurity.”

What else is happening?

Nigeria: Major Crackdown on Boko Haram in Yobe and Adamawa States

Mosque, Damaturu

Mosque in Damaturu, by Jeremy Weate

Last week, Nigerian security forces in Kano and Maiduguri killed at least four suspected high-ranking members of the Boko Haram sect and arrested two others. That tally includes the group’s infamous spokesman Abu Qaqa, who has been reported dead before. This week, security forces have mounted crackdowns on Boko Haram in Yobe and Adamawa States. While clashes between security forces and sect members are frequent, these crackdowns have been significant for their scale.
AFP on the crackdown in Yobe:

“The Joint Task Force has succeeded in killing 35 Boko Haram terrorists in shootouts between Sunday evening through Monday,” said Lieutenant Lazarus Eli, a military spokesman in Yobe state, of which Damaturu is the capital.

A round-the-clock curfew was imposed in the city late Saturday, ahead of the operation that also led to the arrest of 60 suspected Boko Haram members.

The curfew has been relaxed and residents are now allowed out of their homes from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm (0600 GMT to 2100), Eli said. The ban on movements in Yobe’s economic capital of Potiskum has also been eased.

Military forces went door-to-door through three Damaturu neighbourhoods beginning late Sunday and engaged militants in “a fierce exchange of gunfire” through to the early hours of Monday morning, the spokesman added in a statement.

Two soldiers were injured in the fighting.

[…]

A list of weapons that Eli said were recovered from Boko Haram hideouts included dozens of guns, explosive devices and hundreds of rounds of ammunition as well 32 arrows and two swords, among other items.

PM News on the crackdown in Mubi, Adamawa:

“In the three-day operation, the town was placed under 24-hour curfew, which enabled soldiers to comb the nooks and corners,” said Lieutenant Saleh Mohammed Buba, military spokesman in Adamawa.
“A total of 156 suspects were rounded up in raids of suspected (Boko Haram) hideouts. A sect commander known as Abubakar Yola who went by the alias Abu Jihad was shot dead in a shootout while trying to flee,” he added.
The detained suspected gunmen would soon be produced in court, Buba said.
[…]
The spokesman said about 300 explosive devices were discovered in what he described as an armory used by the sect, where about two dozen AK-47 guns were also being stored.

These crackdowns follow Boko Haram’s attacks on cell phone towers earlier this month. A suicide bombing at a church in Bauchi State on Sunday is believed to be the group’s work.

The crackdowns, along with the arrests and shootings of sect commanders, certainly put pressure on Boko Haram. Their success in disrupting the group’s activities will have to be judged over time, though. For one thing, militant groups and terrorist movements are often able to replace slain commanders with relative ease – the headline “Al Qaeda No. 3 Killed” has been written so many times that it has become a joke in some quarters. Second, the massive crackdown on Boko Haram in 2009 did succeed in driving Boko Haram underground for months, but it also seems to have fueled the group’s grievances against the state, especially security forces.

Force will undoubtedly be part of the state’s response to Boko Haram. What matters is how force gets used. To the extent that security forces can target known sect members while avoiding harming and harassing civilians, and can pair forceful tactics with sophisticated strategies for answering the political challenge the sect poses, the crackdowns may help resolve the problem of Boko Haram. If not, then crackdowns risk becoming just another element of a cycle of violence.