The current Boko Haram campaign has been going on for at least a year, I have chosen to characterise this as the Ramadan Offensive ( Ramadan in Nigeria fell between 9th-28th July) because it’s catchy and because I believe the decisive phase began in June/ July as I will try to lay out below. It is difficult (and unfair) to try and analyse an ongoing campaign sitting safe, thousands of kilometres from theatre but it is still an important and interesting exercise, although I will add all the necessary caveats that this involves a huge amount of opinion and educated guesswork.
Introduction Boko Haram’s campaign appears to have the capture or reduction of Maiduguri as its objective. In order to better understand the campaign I have broken it into 5 phases
- Preparation of the Battlespace
Boko Harams preparation for this offensive has been long sighted and meticulous. It has combined an intelligent understanding of their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and a ruthless singleness of purpose. There have been at least 3 key preparatory actions.
Finance: Boko Haram has been ruthlessly fundraising, with generous contributions from France via the kidnappings of the Moulin-Fourniers, Francois Collomp and others, ransoms from kidnapped Nigerians and Camerounians, a systematic taxing of Camerounian and Nigerian traders, villagers, smugglers, market people and business people in the border areas as well as straight forward armed robbery and highway robbery.
Logistics: Boko Haram has stolen large numbers of trucks and other vehicles in the past 12 months. It is believed that fuel is obtained in the form of tax on fuel smugglers from Nigeria, bought legally in Cameroun and stolen in Nigeria. Ammunition and heavy weapons are believed to be sourced through the Sahelian and Central African arms market. At the same time Boko Harams most generous suppliers have been the Nigerian people and security forces. Weapons, ammunition and equipment captured from the Nigerian forces has significantly boosted the stocks of Boko Harams. Food seems to be obtained sometimes benignly by purchase whilst on most other occasions is stolen from villagers’ or vehicles in transit.
Manpower: For the past 12 months Boko Haram has been actively recruiting more fighters from 3 key sources. Al Majiris i.e. disaffected, unemployed or impressionable youth from Northern Cameroun (and to a lesser extent Northern Nigeria). Forced conscripts young men (and women) abducted during raids or at illegal checkpoints in Nigeria. And finally mercenaries: professional criminals and fighters from Nigeria, Cameroun, Sudan, Niger, Chad and Central African Republic employed as foot soldiers, weapons specialists and in some cases junior commanders.
2. Shaping the Battlespace
Boko Haram appears to have skilfully shaped the battle space using various methods the key ones I would list as urban IEDs, ethnic violence, raids and propaganda. Boko Haram painstakingly rebuilt their urban IED networks and systematically reactivated them.
The focus of the early attacks was Borno State with 5 attacks up until April with 3 VBIEDs being detonated in and around Maiduguri. In April came the first attack outside the North East with a VBIEDs in Nyanya, Federal Capital Territory. Nyanya was attacked again in May with an attempted attack in Yobe State in May and 2 attacks in Kano, Kano State and Jos, Plateau State each. June saw a female suicide bomber in Gombe State, 1 attack in Yobe, 2 in Kano, 1 in Adamawa, 1 in Abuja, 1 in Bauchi and then in July, 1 in Gombe, 1 in Bauchi, 2 in Kaduna, 2 in Borno, 2 in Yobe and 7 in Kano State. As can be seen the urban IED attacks reached their peak in number and geographical spread in July (i.e. during Ramadan). These attacks generated powerful images of destruction, inflicted high casualties (but not as high as those being created every week in rural areas) which had the effect of diverting strategic and operational attention to urban population centres. Troops and intelligence assets and resources were dedicated to attempting to interdict IEDs and protecting the population centres.
In February just prior to the restart of the IED campaign well-armed fighters described as Fulani began attacking villages in the Middle Belt, North Central and North East. The attacks were as widespread as Zamfara, Benue, Plateau, Nasarawa, Kaduna, and Taraba States but in an area roughly between longitude 7⁰and 12⁰ and latitudes 7⁰ and 10⁰. These fighters although described as Fulani did not appear to be Nigerian and generally attacked tribes or villages that had historical disputes with Fulanis and Muslims or pastoralists and farmers.
Thus these attacks not only caused civilian casualties but reignited the pre-existing cycles of violence, tying up large amounts of military, police and intelligence resource, to first stop the attacks, neutralise the attackers, maintain the peace and then attempt to stabilise the conflicts.
At the same time Boko Haram mounted vicious and well-coordinated raids against towns and villages mainly in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa States. These raids were characterised by extreme and indiscriminate violence particularly against civilians and destruction of property.
Boko Haram also increased its propaganda efforts with crude but effective and consistent messaging reinforced with brutal ‘propaganda of the deed’ activities such as circulating footage of beheadings and murders of captured servicemen and civilians, spreading rumours of attacks, random attacks farms and village, using ‘night letters’ to threaten villagers etc. Videos released to the media all supported their central messaging and maintained the central themes of condemning democracy, secularism and western influences, paying tribute to fellow jihadis worldwide (to the best of my knowledge they are yet to return the compliment), boasting of past and future deeds, showing off weaponry, threatening other local Islamic leaders and railing against Western powers and national leaders (both alive and dead).
Their highpoint was the GSS Chibok abductions and resultant #BringBackOurGirls campaign which in all probability had an effect far out of proportion to their expectations however they very skilfully exploited the notoriety they gained to achieve one of their most coveted goals, of being considered a major jihadi player in the international media. Their propaganda efforts have also been inadvertently assisted by the confused and generally poor messaging from friendly forces.
Terse press releases, contradictory statements, negative local and foreign reports of mutinies and desertions, allegations of war crimes, allegations of corruption, poor welfare and resourcing of troops all resonate with Nigerians who are used to stories of corruption and incompetence. This narrative is further enhanced with reports of purchases of VIP aircraft for the political elite whilst troops (incorrectly) complain of insufficient arms and ammunition.
The failure of friendly forces to counter this narrative in a believable, accessible and consistent manner is fairly strange and it is important to not underestimate the fairly decisive effect the loss of the media battle has had on Nigerian military and civilian morale.
Collectively these actions had several effects; they diverted the attention of the security forces, fixed large amounts of security and military personnel and frightened the populace by creating an impression of an all-powerful, brutal enemy with a wide indiscriminate reach. The refugees and IDPs from massacres and ethnic cleansing created a humanitarian crisis and depopulated these areas making it much more difficult for the security forces to gather information but conversely making it easier for the marauders to manoeuvre and hide.
The most important effect it had was of dispersing Nigeria’s combat power, forcing the military and police to mobilise and deploy more and more units to deal with different crisis. Forces had to be found to secure the urban population centres against IEDs as well as prevent the rural ethnic attacks as well as conduct operations in the Niger Delta, North East and Foreign Peace Keeping Operations. This dispersion of combat power is key to many of the issues facing the current counter insurgency effort.
Forces deployed in North Central, North East and Middle Belt are manoeuvring over huge areas characterised by poor infrastructure, difficult terrain and isolated population centres. This means the enemy using pickup trucks, motorcycles and their legs almost always have the initiative and majority of the security forces time is spent reacting to insurgent attacks after they have occurred.
In order to protect the population the security forces must be widely dispersed, however this means the outposts are usually undermanned and thus vulnerable to attack requiring huge logistics resources to sustain them. If the logistics cannot keep up with the pace of operations it means food, water, fuel and ammunition either runs out or has to be rationed, vehicles, radios and weapon systems cannot be properly maintained, all of which has a depressive effect on troop morale and makes commanders less keen on risky proactive offensive measures for fear they will have no way to evacuate casualties, replenish expended ammunition or stores or be cut off without relief. Troops being dispersed over vast areas in small numbers can barely maintain a sustainable sentry rotation system much less go out on patrol or pre-empt attacks, meaning that they are generally unable to have an effect beyond their base positions against which of course the enemy can concentrate their forces at leisure.
From a strategic point of view it also ruins the troop rotation system for example troops from 3 Div or 81 Div for example who should have been replacing those in 7 Div or at least providing a reserve element or battle casualty replacements end up deployed themselves and needing troops from other Divisions to backfill them, leading to troops stuck on operations for extended periods and becoming tired and demoralised.
3. Isolate the battlespace
The enemy has used isolation operationally and tactically with positive results by ignoring international borders in order to facilitate their attacks and protect their withdrawals, develop safe areas and generally protect their flanks and rear.
International: The key terrain (in this observers view) is the axis from the Northern tip of Lake Chad down to Mubi, Adamawa State, encompassing the Mandara Mountains. This area is key to the enemy for training, moving between the 4 border countries, storing arms, fuel and ammunition, recruiting and attacking and withdrawing. Cameroun constituted their rear/ safe area, where they took advantage of the underdeveloped area to develop bases and support structures and forge links with local politicians. In the main they limited their overt actions to high profile kidnappings (the proceeds of which flowed through the hands of the regional elite), recruitment of poor disaffected youth and preying on poor townspeople who generally have no voice anyway. This situation could not last as this commentator predicted in the previous articles.
After the #BringBackOurGirls abductions in April, it would appear that Boko Harams high profile contacts were no longer able to protect them and Cameroun began to move against them. Boko Haram skilfully pre-empted serious counter measures by kidnapping more foreigners and launching attacks upon border towns in several Prefectures of Extreme Nord Region such as Mayo Sava and Mayo Tsanaga. In July Boko Haram began major operations in Cameroun attacking Gendarmerie, Customs, Police and military posts in the vicinity of Zina, Zigague, Fotokol, Amchide etc and bases in major population centres such as Kouserri and Kolofata. Attacks on these outposts had the effect of pushing Camerounian forces away from the border, whilst attacks on the main bases and ambushes along the highway had the effect of forcing the thinly spread Camerounians to focus on defending these towns and trying to keep lines of communication open, preventing them from interfering with Boko Haram operations or interdicting their supply lines to Nigeria.
National: Within Nigeria there have been persistent and repeated attacks on towns such as Bama, Buni Yadi, Gamboru Ngala, Damboa, Gwoza, with these attacks preceded by attacks on surrounding hamlets and villages, with Boko Haram cutting off access roads with ambushes and IEDS. In June Boko Haram’s raids began to include attempts to destroy bridges with IEDs, with bridges at Dhimankara, Garkida, Gamboru and Katarko damaged or destroyed.
This had the effect of further isolating communities and channelling civilian and military vehicles through certain routes, which Boko Haram could easily interdict with illegal checkpoints and ambushes. These routes become impassable to all but the most heavily armed units, which again by virtue of being road bound could only advance on a very narrow front thus were also extremely vulnerable to ambush.
By these methods, Boko Haram has systematically, isolated, cut off and then captured several towns and villages and eventually whole Local Government Areas and denied huge swathes of countryside to friendly forces. It can be seen that Boko Haram have not only managed to isolate the Camerounian battlespace from the Nigerian battlespace but with the capture of Gamboru Ngala and Dikwa to the north east, Bama, Gwoza and Madagali to the south east and Damboa and Buni Yadi to the south west they have succeeded in isolating Maiduguri, leaving only the West-North west axis free for reinforcement or withdrawal which is in itself vulnerable to interference from enemy forces in Buni Yadi.
4. The Attack
In June/ July the same time frame as the peak of the IED offensive, ethnic cleansing and major operations in Cameroun, Boko Haram began to move fighters down from the Mandara Mountains to Ashigashiya and physical occupy the area in the vicinity of Gwoza. The local people used to constant raids and massacres realised that in fact Boko Haram was not going anywhere and began to leave. Much the same way at a local level Boko Haram would isolate a target area and then attack, having isolated the Nigerian and Cameroun battlespace they began their main offensive confident that their flanks and rear were secured. Their technique consisted of the constant attacks on villages, generally depopulating the countryside, leaving the main population centres which contained the garrisons, cut off and vulnerable.
Boko Harams tactics in major attacks appears to begin with an assault by waves of foot soldiers, who are brought forward on motorcycles or dropped off from vehicles nearby. At a guess one would presume these are forced conscripts, child soldiers or less experienced fighters. These initial human wave attacks have the dual objective of fixing friendly forces and causing a huge expenditure of ammunition. If they are successful they proceed with the normal looting, murder and burning, if unsuccessful then the second wave attacks consisting of more seasoned fighters supported by vehicles mounted with heavy weapons. Boko Haram propaganda videos have shown mortars and captured artillery pieces, it is unlikely that they have the correct aiming systems or appropriate skills to use these weapons accurately but as area weapons for harassing fire they would suffice.
The enemies’ strongest assets in the attack is their mobility which gives them the ability to concentrate forces and firepower at their convenience against thinly spread friendly forces are so they can confidently advance form up and concentrate forces for an attack confident that there is a high probability they won’t be detected and if they are there are insufficient forces that can respond quickly before their attack develops. The second strongest asset is their ruthlessness. Their willingness to inflict heavy punishment on civilians puts psychological pressure on friendly troops who feel both vulnerable due to the incessant attacks around them and impotent due to their inability to stop them.
Boko Haram has consolidated their gains by aggressively defending the captured areas. This has been made all the more easier by friendly forces insistence on generally attacking in a predictable manner using the main roads and deploying from nearby towns. As Boko Haram has already isolated these areas by destroying bridges, cutting roads and ambushing lines of communication, the assaulting forces are channelled into easily laid ambushes. The element of surprise is lost by the fact that troops deploy from towns which are generally close to the fighting and by logical extension already under observation by the enemy. The advantages of airpower appear to be negated by the enemies’ skilful use of camouflage and by embedding themselves in civilian areas. By making maximum use of their mobility and attacking new targets they also keep the security forces constantly off balance in having to react to new crises.
Boko Haram’s strategy for this campaign appears both ancient and modern in construct. They have essentially laid siege to Maiduguri by incrementally cutting off the roads leading to the city and capturing towns along those roads. Short of a major counter offensive which pushes them out of the captured towns, they are well poised for a prestige battle at the gates of Maiduguri. Logically there is no way they should be able to capture or hold a city of 1.2m, but their tactics of isolation and psychological warfare combined with an unimaginative defence could allow them to actually penetrate the city.
It is the opinion of this reviewer that Boko Haram does not intend to capture or hold Maiduguri nor do they have the capability to do so, a more logical intent would be to attack the town hold a portion of it and force friendly forces into a brutal and embarrassing prestige battle to push them out of Maiduguri. A series of attacks on Maiduguri or even gaining a toehold on the city would provoke a ferocious response, most likely with artillery and air strikes. This would serve the double purpose of drawing friendly forces into the meat grinder of urban warfare, and causing devastation to the people and city of Maiduguri, for whom the enemy seem to particularly dislike. The destruction, civilian and military casualties would generate huge embarrassment for friendly forces as well as a humanitarian disaster. Unless friendly forces can score a devastating victory leading to a headlong enemy retreat, a slow, grinding counter offensive to painstakingly clear the towns, villages and surrounding countryside of Boko Haram will follow, causing more casualties and destruction.
I will add one final caveat, this is the opinion of an observer who is trained in Western doctrine. I have interpreted this campaign in a way that makes sense to me and it might not in any way correspond to Boko Harams thinking or planning nor is it exhaustive, for example I have not touched on the interesting internal politics that has seen the amalgamation of different enemy factions.
One cannot fully understand what objective they would have in capturing Maiduguri or Borno State or how they can translate any success into anything other than an embarrassment for the state and suffering for the people but then again I do not live in or understand their world or way of thinking. This is a strange campaign in which hunter has become the hunted. The general convention is that the security forces have to win every time and insurgents merely have to not lose. However if Nigerian security forces defend Maiduguri successfully, they have at least ‘not lost’ but they are still far from victory.
In the next instalment we will look at the campaign from friendly forces perspective and attempt to identify counter measures (hint: Cameroun will feature heavily).