Since Boko Haram pledged its allegiance to the so-called Islāmic State, Nigerian security forces have retaken most of the territory under the group’s control and also destroyed its bomb-making facilities. Nevertheless, Atta Barkindo is still worried that Boko Haram remains a security threat, both to Northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad border regions. Here are the reasons why.
By Atta Barkindo
Nigerian security forces have intensified their offensive against Boko Haram since the group pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islāmic State (IS) in March 2015, retaking most of the territories under the group’s control and destroying their bomb-making factories.
However, Boko Haram remains a security threat, both to northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad border regions. IS recruiting cells, led by Boko Haram members, have also been uncovered in Kano and Katsina states.
Following Boko Haram‘s leader, Abubakar Shekau‘s bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to the self-proclaimed Islāmic State (IS) in March 2015, the group has changed its nomenclature to Islāmic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Some security analysts consider Boko Haram‘s pledge to IS as mere propaganda posing no security threat (Derek Harvey, 2015). The affiliation of the two, they argue, could be undermined by sociological factors, like differences in ethnicity, geography and language. Others suggest that Shekau‘s penchant for power makes it unlikely for him to cede control of his group to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Additionally, Boko Haram may face competition from other Al Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel region, since both IS and Al Qaeda are seeking to increase their number of affiliates there.
Wary of IS’ advances, Al Qaeda may target dissidents of Boko Haram, leading to possible emergence of other factions and the eventual weakening of Boko Haram‘s pledge to IS. One of these factions is Ansaru – a breakaway faction of Boko Haram – with whom Al Qaeda is likely to improve relations. Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Lands better known as Ansaru, is an Islamist jihadist militant organization based in the northeast of Nigeria.
However, Boko Haram‘s newly-declared affiliation to IS should not be taken lightly. For instance, IS‘ spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani encouraged IS fighters to join Boko Haram if they are unable to travel to Syria (Dabiq 2014). This can increase Boko Haram‘s fighting force and pose a significant security threat to the region. Moreover, security sources indicate that as of October 2015, 150 Nigerians have been recruited by Boko Haram to join IS (Author‘s Interview, 2016). Boko Haram‘s pledge of fealty was also celebrated with a parade of IS fighters across provinces of Al-Barakah, Homs, Halab (Aleppo), Al-Jazirah, Al-Furat, Al-Janub, Al-Raqqa, Al-Khayr and Diglah (BH Videos 2015). Following Boko Haram‘s pledge of allegiance, the group has received logistics and support from IS.
On April 20, 2016, Chadian soldiers intercepted a large cache of weapons sent from IS affiliates in Libya to Boko Haram insurgents in the Lake Chad region. Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, commander of US Special Operations in Africa, confirmed the deepening links between IS and Boko Haram. Bolduc said the Boko Haram‘s way of conducting ambushes, setting improvised explosive devices and undertaking high-profile attacks on hotels clearly show that it shares ―tactics, techniques and procedures with IS (Sahara Reporters 2016).
Boko Haram-IS Connection
Boko Haram is recruiting fighters in Nigeria and around the region, including in Chad, Niger, Mali, Libya, Senegal and Algeria. In February 2016, Nigerian security forces arrested Abdussalam Enesi Yunusa in Kano for recruiting five individuals for IS. Security forces also uncovered an IS cell in Daura, Katsina state, led by Ibrahim Mohammed Daura and five of his colleagues from the Ansaru faction of Boko Haram. Earlier, the military had arrested five IS cell members in Kano; they were going to Libya with their families to join IS (Premium Times 2016).
In November 2015, Makhtar Diokhané, a Senegalese national, was arrested in Niger. He was on his way to negotiate with Nigerian security services for the release of his associates who were arrested while fighting for Boko Haram. Investigations following Diokhané‘s capture led to the disruption of his cell in Senegal and the arrest of other cell members. This included Diokhané‘s wife, imams, and relatives of other Senegalese nationals fighting with Boko Haram. In January 2016, Malian authorities detained four West African nationals (two from Guinea Bissau, one from the Gambia and Guinea) who were travelling to join Boko Haram. In February 2016, eight more Senegalese were also arrested in Mauritania for allegedly planning to join Boko Haram. These arrested individuals claimed that at least 23 Senegalese nationals have become Boko Haram members since 2015 and confessed that the terrorist group‘s membership includes some Mauritanians as well (Omar 2016). In March 2015, Boko Haram members were reported to be training with IS in Mauritanian camps (Yapching 2015).
IS’ newly established stronghold in Sirte, Libya, is also of significance as it serves as IS‘ strategic center of operations. The area is surrounded by open borders, which makes it easy to recruit from neighboring countries, including from Niger and Chad where Boko Haram is active. The support Boko Haram is getting from IS provides the group essential services such as recruitment of fighters, production of propaganda videos, fundraising and logistical support. As such, it has enabled the group to increase the number of attacks. Between June and July 2015, Boko Haram carried out attacks in northern and central Nigeria, particularly in the cities of Zaria, Jos, Munguno and Kukawa, as well as the Malari, Alau and Miringa villages in Borno state. The attacks have killed over 500 people and injured thousands of others.
Boko Haram has also extended its reach beyond Nigeria. On June 15, 2015, twin suicide bombs exploded in the capital city of Chad, N‘Djamena, where more than 23 people were killed and 80 others injured (The Guardian 2015). This was followed by another attack on June 18, 2015, when Boko Haram militants entered the state of Diffa in Niger and attacked two villages, killing more than 40 people (The Economic Times 2015). On July 13, 2015, Boko Haram fighters carried out two suicide attacks in Fotokol, northern Cameroon, killing more than 12 civilians and a Chadian soldier (Al Jazeera 2015).
Since Boko Haram declared allegiance to IS in March 2015, the group has also increased its use of female suicide bombers alongside increased number of terrorist attacks. Between March and July 2015, Boko Haram had carried out 52 suicide bombing attacks, using 126 bombers, among them, 31 young girls. As of October 2015, Boko Haram is alleged to have recruited over 150 Nigerians to fight for the so-called Islamic State (ONSA 2015).
Nigeria’s Counter-Terrorism Approach
Since the start of Boko Haram‘s violent uprising in 2009, Nigeria has used military force to counter the threat. However, the military approach neither ended the conflict nor prevented Boko Haram from changing its strategy. Apart from the military or hard approach, the government’s current strategy also involves soft approaches, like rehabilitation and community engagement.
The hard approach involves military offensive against Boko Haram, its networks, cells and hideouts. The Nigerian government has prosecuted top military officials who are said to have embezzled funds allocated for fighting Boko Haram (Nnenna 2015). Nigeria is establishing a framework to train competent members of the local vigilante groups, hunters and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) for enrollment into the military and other security agencies. So far, bomb-making factories of Boko Haram have been discovered and shut down in Potiskum, Buni Yadi, Mubi, Gwoza, and Maiduguri.
By April 2015, these measures enabled the troops to capture and destroy three Boko Haram camps inside the Sambisa Forest, including the notorious Tokumbere camp, where Boko Haram has carried out Sharia-based amputations and other forms of physical punishment. Moreover, Nigerian troops have managed to rescue 200 girls and 93 women. The man responsible for supplying Boko Haram food and fuel was also arrested (Nnenna 2015). On April 1, 2016, Khalid Al-Barnawi, once a deputy of Shekau, was arrested in Lokoja, the capital of Kogi state. Khalid had close ties with Al Qaeda in the Islāmic Maghreb (AQIM) and sought to target Westerners (Raffaello and Sasha 2015).
On May 1, 2016, Muhammad Ali, the leader of the Baga branch of Boko Haram, was arrested by CJTF in Kano (Security Source 2016). As this approach has also forced many Boko Haram members to lay down their arms, the Nigerian military is now putting plans together to establish camps for the surrendered members. The camps are likely to serve as a period of transition where the detainees are classified according to their radical beliefs before being sent for rehabilitation in different detention facilities (Sahara Reporters 2016).
The soft approach is centered on mitigating violent extremism and rehabilitating both victims and perpetrators of the conflict. In this context, there is a plan to establish a North-East Development Commission (Iro 2015) to rebuild the region destroyed by terrorist activities. Among the many goals of the commission is the need to create the necessary economic environment that will provide opportunities for young people and distract them from being radicalized and recruited by Boko Haram. Furthermore, the government is providing security in territories recaptured from Boko Haram, clearing them of landmines and bombs while ensuring the safe return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had to move because of Boko Haram‘s atrocities.
Government agencies and local NGOs such as the Adamawa Peace Initiative (API) are coordinating local community dialogue and reconciliation programs within and between communities of different faiths with the approval of the government. Community leaders, traditional rulers and religious groups partake in this.
Along with this, the government has also established the Presidential Initiative for the North-East (PINE) to cater for the needs of displaced people. PINE also ensures prompt and adequate delivery of relief materials, including medical supplies to them. Furthermore, in April 2016, the Nigerian government, through the Office of the National Security Adviser and with the help of the European Union Technical Assistance to Nigeria‘s evolving security challenges, launched a manual for de-radicalization of violent extremists in Abuja. The guide provides the framework for engaging with Boko Haram members in rehabilitation centers and in the military established camps.
Those in camps are also being prepared for rehabilitation. This process of rehabilitation will include the classification of perpetrators to ascertain their level of ideological motivation, which ultimately determines the type of rehabilitation and intervention needed.
The pilot project began in Kuje prison on the outskirts of Abuja, the capital city, where 39 violent extremists were engaged for rehabilitation. Thirty-three of the violent extremists voluntarily accepted the program and were selected to embrace education, arts therapy and different vocational training (Umar 2016). The Nigerian government has concluded plans to train personnel from all Federal Ministries on the significance of soft approaches and ways to counter violent extremism in schools and communities.
Future Trajectory of the Boko Haram-IS Alliance: Local and Regional Implications
The future trajectory of security threats posed by this alliance has implications for domestic, regional and international security. At the domestic level, thousands of Boko Haram members have surrendered either by force or as part of their conflict strategy, which is to use detention centers for further radicalization and recruitment by targeting other inmates. They may even organize prison breaks to free other members as seen in the past (The Guardian 2010). As such, prisons and the military established camps may turn out to be incubators of radicalization and violent extremism for Boko Haram. There is also risk of recidivism if the de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs are not properly carried out.
Another security concern is the fear of reprisal attacks as displaced communities and ethnic groups return to their homes re-taken from Boko Haram territories. In some communities, Boko Haram has conducted selective destruction of homes, shops and farms belonging to non-Muslims. On occasion, this selective destruction is carried out with the support of inhabitants who did not flee. There is heightened tension given that returnees are likely to embark on revenge killings. Recent events indicate the infiltration of Boko Haram members in local communities, civilian populations and public places. The military has issued warning to young people about potential enticement by Boko Haram, using cash and other incentives. This trend is likely to continue if the government does not engage local communities.
At a regional level, the growing security threat arises from mobilization and recruitment across the region. With IS’ strongholds in Sirte, Libya, the recruitment of radical elements from Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia and other countries is likely to be on the increase if no urgent steps are taken to stop the tide. These areas have formed a strong support base for Boko Haram, which is already recruiting for IS. IS’ presence in Libya means recruitment efforts for IS will be stepped up as the latter sets its sights on expanding its reach in the region. In addition, Boko Haram’s use of female suicide bombers has increased over the last few months. Although there are fewer incidents on Nigerian side of the border, the threat of female suicide bombers has amplified in northern Cameroon. This trend is likely to remain because Boko Haram retains the capacity to abduct more people, especially women and girls to be used as suicide bombers.
At the international level, the military pressure on IS and its affiliates by the coalition of international forces is likely to bolster Boko Haram territories. As IS fighters are forced to relocate from Iraq, Syria and some parts of the Middle East, North and West Africa will be the likely destination. The Lake Chad border region – Boko Haram‘s base – could become a recruitment hub for Islāmic State West Africa Province, where some local Islāmic sects share similar ideologies as IS. In the absence of strong regional security collaboration, and sustained military and intelligence operations, Boko Haram‘s ability to move men and material across the border into Nigeria will improve and attacks may resume. Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that while the movement of militants throughout the region is of concern, with the continued military pressure in northeast Nigeria and Cameroon, the group will find it increasingly difficult to extend its reach any time soon.
When Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS in March 2015, many critics believed the announcement was nothing more than propaganda. In November 2015, IS titled its monthly magazine Dabiq, ‗‗Sharia alone will rule Africa‘‘ (Dabiq 2015). The article praised Boko Haram‘s jihad, and emphasized the importance of Boko Haram for global jihad. The operational feasibility of this alliance was invisible or limited to many, probably due to geographical distance between the Syria/Iraq and Nigeria/Lake Chad border region. But evidence of concrete operational links between Boko Haram and IS has emerged, amid an increase in the recruitment of young men in Nigeria and beyond by IS West Africa Province. To disrupt terrorist attacks by an emboldened alliance between Boko Haram and IS, regional intelligence-sharing and national community-based prevention program are more important than ever.
This article originally appeared in the Counter Terrorist Trends and Analysis Vol 8, Issue 6, published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in June 2016.