Nigeria: Rhetoric And Reality Have A Showdown


August 17, 2015: President Buhari sees Boko Haram as a personal enemy. Since he took power in late May Boko Haram has unleashed a series of attacks in the northeast that have left nearly a thousand dead so far. Boko Haram makes it clear that they do not like Buhari and are determined to regain areas they controlled earlier in the year but lost to a multi-national offensive. Another one of those is coming and after that something more. That’s because Buhari recently ordered his newly appointed senior military leadership to end the Boko Haram reign of terror in three months. While this is an exciting announcement it is disappointing to those who know how Islamic terrorist movements have evolved and survived in other parts of the world. It’s unclear if Buhari, a Moslem and retired general, really believes new commanders can crush Boko Haram within 90 days or, more realistically, develop tactics and procedures to contain and control the Boko Haram terror and disruption to life in the northeast. When rhetoric and reality are in conflict reality inevitably wins.

As part of this new military campaign a new multinational (Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin) force of 8,700 troops is being assembled and is about to carry another major operation against Boko Haram. The neighboring countries want to end the Islamic terrorist threat coming out of Nigeria and this coalition force has been expanded (with 800 troops from Benin) since it first went into action earlier in the year.

In the northeast troops continue searching the Sambisa Forest for Boko Haram camps. The Islamic terrorists have been driven out of parts of the forest several times but keep returning. The Boko Haram men are learning and troops have noted that recently found camps include more bunkers built with layers of logs to provide better protection from aerial bombs or artillery shells. Air force pilots have gotten a lot of practice attacking targets in the Sambisa Forest and survivors of these attacks realize that more robust bunkers are a matter of life or death. When given enough time Boko Haram will also surround new camps with landmines and traps. This is a growing problem because good (and often reused) camp sites are increasingly dangerous to everyone (Boko Haram, soldiers, local hunters) because fleeing Boko Haram do not remove landmines and booby traps and troops do not find all of them either. So Boko Haram have to be careful reusing old camp sites because of the forgotten landmines.

Troops have been regularly searching this this large (60,000 square kilometers), hilly, sparsely populated area since April. The Sambisa Forest straddles the borders of Borno, Yobe and Adamwa states and has long been a hideout for the Islamic terrorists and, before that, bandits. Regularly patrolling the forest on foot is not practical because it would require more troops than are available. Instead the military relies on aerial surveillance and things like heat sensors (and more exotic sensors the American aircraft employ) to spot people trying to hide from aerial view. These targets can be attacked from the air or with artillery and then ground troops are sent in to collect any documents, prisoners or weapons the fleeing Boko Haram leave behind. Sometimes these air or artillery attacks are coordinated with ground forces that get close to the camp before the air or artillery attack and can rush in before documents can be destroyed and wounded Islamic terrorists carried away. The military has found that while Boko Haram has become very wary of establishing new bases in the Sambisa Forest the Islamic terrorists will continue trying if the aerial surveillance does not continue. Even with the aircraft and UAVs constantly overhead there are always some new Boko Haram groups who believe they can outsmart the military and move back into the forest.

As an alternative many Boko Haram establish new bases in remote villages where the locals are terrorized into cooperating. This tactic turned out to be more dangerous than staying in the forest because people often have cell phones, or someone in another village who will notice something wrong and tell the police. Boko Haram have adapted by moving around a lot, even if that is time consuming and leaves you vulnerable to discovery and attack while in transit. But you need bases so more bomb attacks can be planned, prepared and bombers sent on their missions.

A lot of women and children have been used as bombers recently. Some bombs have not gone off, because of poor construction or materials. Many bomb building workshops were captured and destroyed in the Sambisa area but most of the bomb builders got away. Then there are the continued Boko Haram raids. There are still instances of Boko Haram attacking towns and villages. These are actually raids to seize needed supplied (food, fuel and so on). But Boko Haram will try and leave the impression that they are just demonstrating that they are still active. The victims do tend to notice that these raiders do not, as was common in late 2014, take over the place and replace the government. The victims of these raids also note that the security forces are still not able to protect them, despite all the speeches by generals and politicians that the people of the northeast are now safe.

Boko Haram is more frequently operating in neighboring countries, especially around Lake Chad, where there are a lot of Christians to attack. Boko Haram is obsessed with killing non-Moslems but more and more of these have fled to friends, family or refugee camps in the cities or left the Moslem north altogether. Boko Haram has to be careful in neighboring countries, which have more effective security forces and, for Boko Haram, a much more hostile population. So most of this Boko Haram activity consists of raids just across the border and then a quick retreat to Nigerian territory.

The northeast is not the only part of the country suffering from major crime. In the south there are still pirates and oil thieves. Since 2010 the piracy threat has shifted from Somalia to Southeast Asia and the coast of Nigeria, where 13 small tankers and cargo ships were taken during the first half of 2015. During that period pirates attacked 134 ships compared to 116 for the first half of 2014. Most of these attacks are robbery and assault on crews as well as kidnapping of a few officers. In the first half of 2015 pirates temporarily held (and robbed) 250 merchant sailors, assaulted 14, (injured nine and killed one) and kidnapped ten for ransom. These days the ships are most in danger of hijacking while off West Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. Most of the pirates there are Nigerians and they attack and briefly hijack ships that are vulnerable. The Nigerian pirates have no safe place to keep captured ships while a large ransom is negotiated. Instead they rob ships they attack and quickly leave. In some cases they arrange to hijack much of the cargo, usually at sea, by transferring to another ship at night and then scampering away before the navy or police show up. This temporary hijacking is also popular in Southeast Asia, but not nearly as expensive as it was off the Somali coast.

In Nigeria a major motivation for pirates is the illegal oil trade. For decades gangs have punched holes into pipelines and gathered oil for use in crude illegal refineries that produce low grade kerosene. There are also brokers who will buy stolen crude oil and use bribes to ship it to neighboring countries where it eventually becomes “legal” crude oil and can be sold at full price. The military complains that while they can destroy illegal refineries and seize trucks and other items needed to plunder pipelines and move stolen crude, the corrupt and inefficient justice system makes it nearly impossible to put oil thieves and pirates into prison for long periods. The gangsters consider bribes, seized or destroyed equipment and legal fees a cost of doing business and keep at it because the outlaw life works for them. The new government pledges to fix this as well but the current corrupt judiciary has been at it for decades and will not be easy to fix.

August 15, 2015: In the northeast (Borno) local defense volunteers prevented a Boko Haram suicide bomber from entering a crowded marketplace. The bomber set off his explosives at the entrance, killing himself and wounding one of the volunteers.

August 11, 2015: In the northeast (Borno) local defense volunteers found Boko Haram letters to locals in a market place that had just been hit by a Boko Haram bomb that killed nearly fifty people. The letters warned locals that they must either join, or cooperate with, Boko Haram or face more such attacks. This is a classic Islamic terrorist tactic but it is not working in northeast Nigeria where the locals see Boko Haram as a well-meaning bunch of Islamic militants who have gone bad and must be put down.

August 7, 2015: In the south (Bayelsa state) pirates attacked a small military base, killing four soldiers and a policeman. The raiders that looted the base and escaped with weapons, ammo and military equipment. Police investigated and four days later raided a remote pirate hideout and seized many weapons and large quantities of ammo. Six suspects were arrested and troops were pursuing others who had fled. When the pirates and oil gangs kill military or police personnel the response is usually quick and violent.

August 4, 2015: In northern Cameroon (Chakamari) near the border of northeast Nigeria, a large group of Boko Haram attacked a village, kidnapping 135 people while killing eight others. The raiders then burned down most buildings and looted the place before leaving. This comes soon after the Cameroon government announced it is sending another 2,000 soldiers to the north to deal with Boko Haram. Cameroon is also forcing nearly 20,000 Nigerian refugees to return home. In part this is because Boko Haram has supporters (not all of them voluntary) among the refugees and these refugees assist Boko Haram in carrying out terror attacks in Cameroon. 

August 2, 2015: In the northeast (Borno) an army sweep of an area near the Cameroon border revealed a Boko Haram base which was attacked. Most of the Islamic terrorists fled but the troops found and freed 178 civilians (101 children, 67 women and 10 men) being held captive.

August 1, 2015: The army revealed that when they cleared Boko Haram out of an abandoned Borno state college campus last week they discovered that the Islamic terrorists had used a chemistry lab as a bomb building workshop.





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