The last two months have been marked in Nigeria and the neighboring countries by a surge of violence led by the deadly Boko Haram, the radical insurgent group. After a relatively short lull following the regional joint front launched in February by Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, the Northern Nigerian based terrorist group has escalated its violent campaign in the wake of President Mouhammadu Buhari’s inauguration in May.
Its recent tactics consisting of using young girls as suicide bombers, posting videos showing the beheading of their victims and expanding its attacks in the capital cities of Chad, Cameroon and Niger constitute concrete signs that Boko Haram has become a regional and multifaceted security threat.
New modus operandi
Boko Haram became more violent and deadly under Abu Bakr Shekau who took over the leadership of the group after the killing of Mohamed Yusuf by the Nigerian Police in 2009. The group adopted a new strategy inspired by the Alqaeda in Islamic Maghreb 9 (AQIM) in Algeria and Northern Mali and Alshabaab in Somalia. Boko Haram made its first big impact by attacking the United Nations headquarters in Abuja on 11 June 2011 killing at least 18 people.
Yet, the weeks following the regional coalition in February 2015 have been very decisive for the survival of Boko Haram. Faced with a heightened war on terror and a sizable recent loss, Boko Haram has reconsidered its tactics. On 7 March 2015, in a recorded audio message, Abu-Bakr Shekau announced his group’s allegiance to ISIS, which the US considers as the most dreadful terrorist group in the world. Though the allegiance was not a surprise, the use of young abducted girls by Boko Haram for fighting on the front or for serving as suicide bombers illustrates the dramatic shift in their approach. For example, for over two days in early January 2015 two 10 year old girls commited suicide as they bombed the crowded market of Maiduguri in Borno State and one in Yobe state. These attacks killed more than 20 people.
It is highly unlikely that Boko Haram will succeed in controlling territories for the establishment of its Caliphate because of the regional coalition and the military pressure. What is feared is the dispersion of the group with a systematic asymmetric warfare involving bomb attacks on soft targets, on worship places and on security services in order to cause collateral damage especially in the countries taking part in the regional front.
Boko Haram going for regional “Jihad”
As a consequence of their engagement and the leading role they are playing in combating the Nigerian Northern based terrorist group, Chad, Cameroon and Niger are paying a heavy price.
Chad and Cameroon have become the preferred targets of the Islamist group as retaliation for their involvement in the regional force against Boko Haram. The violent attacks unleashed on these two countries have cost the lives of more than 100 people since June 2015. On 15 June, Chad recorded its first ever attack in its capital city, Ndjamena, with a double bomb attack near a police training school and more recently on 11 July with a second attack in the Ndjamena central market leaving 16 dead and 80 wounded. As for Cameroon, it has seen also the attacks increasing. In less than a month after its attack in Ndjamena, Boko Haram targeted a restaurant and a military camp in Fotokol on 12 July in the Northern Cameroon killing 11 people including 1 Chadian soldier. More recently it was reported that two young girls blew themselves up in the market of Maroua causing the death of 13 people and 32 wounded.
These repetitive attacks in Chad within 25 days and in Cameroon within 10 days reveal that Boko Haram is well established in Nigeria’s neighboring countries and its intention to heighten attacks against all countries taking part in the regional offensive.
In addition, by hitting the heart of Chad and Cameroon and to some extent Niger, Boko Haram has achieved its objective by establishing a climate of fear in the sub region. This fear is manifested by a “burqaphoby” which consists of prohibiting the use of Burqa in public places in Chad and Cameron.
Limits of regional cooperation
The increased threat represented by Boko Haram, sparked the creation of a regional force by the members of the Lake Chad basin commission (Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Benin and Niger). With the blessing of African Union, the neighboring countries formed a coalition of 8700 troops from Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin.
The Chad engagement is responsible for many recent defeats of Boko Haram. Following over a month of heavy gun battle, the Islamist insurgents have been weakened and have lost most control of occupied territories. Boko Haram also sustained important human and material losses as a result of seized stocks of arms.
These series of victories over the terrorist group led Goodluck Jonathan, the former Nigerian President to state that “The tide has definitely turned against Boko Haram.”
Yet, the coalition failed to sustain a victory over Boko Haram. This ephemeral success shed the light on several dysfunctional issues pertaining to the regional coalition. Reasons for such failure range from mistrust between members of the coalition, serious problems of coordination and nonexistent intelligence sharing. Furthermore, it has been reported that there is no follow up after the recapture of town from Boko Haram. In an interview accorded to Radio France International on 27 March 2015, Idriss Deby, the Chadian President confirmed this and accused the Nigerian army of “laxism.”
It is evident that the new dimension of the Boko Haram threat constitutes a serious challenge for the newly elected President Mouhamadou Buhari on whom the Nigerian population relied to wipe out the terrorist group. Goodluck Jonathan has paid the price of his inability to defeat Boko Haram. This is to say that the capacity to contain or dismantle Boko Haram henceforth will be an important parameter and barometer with which to judge the realization of the government in Nigeria.
Though the Buhari’s willingness to end Boko Haram rule of terror seems to be real, as shown in the first measures he took following his inauguration which included the relocation of the military command to Maiduguri, a State visit to Chad and Niger and more recently to the US, is important as it reminds us that only a concrete and sincere regional cooperation will help contain Boko Haram. The new Multi National Joint Task Force lunched by the regional leaders during the Abuja summit in early June and which was to be deployed by 30 June stands as the last card, after the repetitive failure of regional cooperation. Failure to defeat Boko Haram in the short term, will undeniably beget new security dynamics in the entire region.
In addition to the military response, the Nigerian government should also promote economic development in the northern regions.
Chad, Cameroon and Niger, which are experiencing their first ever attacks by Boko Haram on their soil, should learn lessons from Nigeria, the failure of counterinsurgency. In other words, Chad, Cameroon and Niger should avoid the enemy centric approach especially with the extrajudicial killing of terrorists, which is often counterproductive and rather employ a population centric approach. They also should promote criminal justice after dismantling terrorist cells or capturing them. Issues around the Burqa should be handled with care to avoid resentment, which is likely to fuel more violence.