In the first article we reviewed Boko Harams current campaign in Northern Nigeria in which Boko Haram meticulously prepared, shaped and then isolated the battlespace before launching their offensive and then defended their gains. In this instalment will examine reasons for Boko Harams operational success and ways to counter it.
It is difficult to discern the enemies’ strategic or even to a degree operational intent. In their halting negotiations with the Camerounian and Nigerian governments there has been no articulation of a desired end state that would make sense to a group fighting to enforce a particular way of life. Every armed group has a desired end state even those which are merely armed proxies of warlords such as in 19th Century China or present day DRC. This is not so with Boko Harams who’s stated objective is an Islamic state in Nigeria yet have failed to advance an intellectual argument for this (even by Islamists standards) . Their interpretations of Islamic Law in captured areas appear to revolve around forced marriages, forced conscription and punishments by stoning, beheading, amputation and floggings. The Taliban by contrast would arbitrate cases in their Islamic courts to which were generally seen as fairer and quicker than Government courts. Hezbollah provides social services that rival the Palestinian Authority.
Negotiations with Boko Haram appear to have revolved around finance (ransoms, compensation for deaths and damaged property) and personnel (release of captured leaders, fighters, wives and children).
This could indicate they are of the opinion there is no negotiated way to achieve their ends thus are focussed purely on the functional tasks of raising money and maintaining their numbers (and keeping those members entertained). Or it could mean they do not actually have any logical higher strategic intent.
Irrespective of their strategic intent, operationally the enemy needs to:
1. Ensure the continued physical, financial and material survival of the collective groups and its leadership.
2. Maintain freed of movement in their key terrain
Boko Harams Operational Success
I would assess that the reasons for Boko Harams survivability and tactical success has been their ruthlessness, unity of purpose, operational flexibility, mobility and use of geography. We can analyse these factors further.
Boko Harams operational mobility allows them to take advantage of porous borders, poor infrastructure and overlapping family, linguistic and tribal ties to cross borders with ease.
Poor communication and coordination between these border states allows the enemy to evade follow up, capture or detection simply by crossing the border from one country to the other.
The use of motorcycles and utility vehicles means that bush tracks that are impassable to MRAPS or APCS are legitimate avenues of approach.
Tactically they are able to rapidly concentrate forces for an attack against targets, resupply and reinforce using tracks and terrain considered impassable to the security forces.
Boko Haram needs vehicles to get around just as much as Nigerian, Camerounian, Nigerien or Chadian forces. It is in essence a road bound force despite its more practical vehicle and route choices.
Motor vehicles need roads, heavy vehicles need wide and/or all weather roads. Lubricants, tires, spare parts but most importantly fuel. Specialist vehicles need trained drivers and operators and mechanics.
Greater coordination, cooperation and eventually complete integration between the four Border States, would degrade Boko Harams operational mobility costing them respite and sanctuary.
Boko Harams dependence on vehicles means that fuel, spare parts, lubricants and even tyres are a strategic asset to them. The need for these items presents numerous opportunities for ruses to lure the enemy into ambushes or set them up for deliberate attacks.
The enemies need for roads also presents opportunities for ambushes. Bush paths can be easily ambushed by even a small force, reducing their freedom of movement and forcing them to divert forces and resources to force protection.
Degrading Boko Harams vehicular mobility runs the risk of causing Boko Haram to devolve once more into a smaller more compact force with a reduced range and footprint but the same lethality.
Destroying their vehicular mobility could lead to an increased use of IEDs particularly in smaller towns and along roads and against infrastructure
Restricted enemy mobility in the North East could see them spreading further south and west, where thicker vegetation affords them more hiding places.
Boko Haram has used terror as a weapon to demoralise soldiers, uproot the populace and cause a severe humanitarian crisis.
This ruthlessness means that civilians are extremely compliant and security forces when surrounded or at risk of defeat would rather withdraw rather than risk a final close quarter battle that might result in capture and beheading.
Using coercion and terror they can develop a network of supporters, helpers and spies.
Terror has been used in indiscriminate IED attacks to distract the security forces and divert resources and personnel from kinetic operations.
IEDs are relatively cheap, as are bladed weapons which can be used quietly and repeatedly. Terror is thus an extremely cost effective and efficient tactic
Indiscriminately killing the population you wish to govern generally means they are less likely to support your cause and even if they do, being dead is somewhat disadvantageous to providing aid and sustenance.
Attacks on the population causes them to leave, thus depriving the enemy of human shields, sources of food, shelter, medical care, fuel etc.
Killing soldiers rather than capturing and co-opting them as has been done in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya etc deprives the enemy of a potential pool of trained men who could lead effective operations or infiltrate friendly forces camps on their behalf.
Boko Harams ruthlessness means they have conceded the battle for hearts and minds
The overt, humane treatment of civilians, IDPs and prisoners of war will produce a large pool of intelligence and local knowledge
A significant proportion of their foot soldiers are forced conscripts forced to fight and commit atrocities. A well-resourced and publicised demobilisation and reintegration programme would incentivise many to surrender.
Terror has been an effective weapon for the core leadership, when threatened they are more likely to increase its use than decrease it.
Terror is a tool that binds even unwilling conscripts to the group through collective guilt.
Indiscriminate terror, such as IED attacks will always generates a response thus is an effective way to distract and fix security forces at relatively low cost particularly when the enemy main force is under pressure.
Unity of Purpose
The various factions of Boko Haram are unified in that they have a common enemy
Boko Haram’s leadership more than anyone in this conflict understand their intentions, how they intend to achieve it and what resources they have.
They have several predominant common goals, the first of which is survival.
Their unity is borne as much out of necessity as ideology
The mutual distrust and the legacy of previous betrayals means that in moments of stress the different factions could rupture.
Ego and arguments over spoils have previously led to deadly clashes
As is true of any ‘idealistic’ collective, ideological purity is extremely subjective and narrowly focussed and as has been seen from Communist, Fascist and Islamist group or even animal rights groups or environmentalists, orthodoxy can become so narrowly defined that anyone not holding the view of a particular faction or more often than not a particular individual becomes an enemy. This is especially prevalent in groups who hold a viewpoint in an ideology in which they only have a rudimentary understanding.
The differences in the factions can be exploited using a combination of psychological operations and direct kinetic actions. Pressure on the battle field combined with a skilled campaign to make certain factions to believe they are either being betrayed or let down by others could cause tensions, distrust and eventually fratricide.
The different factions will have different desired goals and end states that will become more apparent the closer they are to success. By understanding these nuances, factions can be negotiated with to either ceasefire or surrender leaving other factions isolated
As long as the different factions and individual commanders believe they have a chance of winning they have no reason to seek accommodation.
Without an understanding of their higher strategic intent it is unlikely that a psychological operation can work on the senior leadership who have the most to lose.
Pressure or fear of defeat could actually cause them to resolve their differences and bind closer together.
The geography of the Area of Operations is a mixture of far flung, sparsely populated villages, wooded hills and mountains, caves, swamps, forests and deserts which favour light, mobile forces.
The large distances and poor infrastructure restricts friendly forces movement
The huge expanse of space means the security forces have a large expanse of ground to cover, long supply lines and a multiplicity of targets to defend
The poor infrastructure mean that rivers in the rainy season are only passable at certain points particularly by a motorised force
Certain geographical features such as the Mandara Mountains or Lake Chad are multi jurisdictional and multi lingual, which the enemy can exploit.
Local knowledge allows enemy forces to utilise the terrain providing them covered approaches, hiding places and maintain the element of surprise.
The enemy has to cover long distances as well in order to secure their conquests
Water features and mountains present obstacles to enemy forces and also restrict their movements
The enemy is channelled by their use of vehicles, destroyed bridges and the limited roads to certain routes, roads, river crossing points, mountain passes, and paths through swamps or forests
The rainy season further limits enemy movement due to swampy terrain, flooded rivers and muddy tracks.
Conditions in the mountains, forests and swamps are quite harsh thus the enemy is forced to emerge and raid villages to sustain themselves
Superior friendly force mobility with helicopters, patrol boats, etc means that they can move quicker and concentrate forces at will.
The need for roads, mountain passes, bridges etc means that enemy movement can be predicted, interdicted and directed by friendly forces.
Operating on all sides of international borders means that more than one force element can be brought to bear on them with better coordination.
The inhospitable terrain means that the enemy is susceptible to pressure if surrounded and cut off from supplies.
The enemies’ use of ground is superior at the operational level to friendly forces
Tactically the inhospitable terrain favours light, highly mobile forces
Many of the enemy are locals with significant local knowledge of the area
Operating in difficult to reach areas will generate huge logistical challenges. Aerial or vehicular resupply would be subject to ambush and interdiction.
The enemy has evolved from urban to rural ops with ease
They have developed a conventional capability and built a terror infrastructure which they have been able to utilise singly or together at will.
The enemy has shown they are capable of taking an opponent with air superiority and superior firepower and winning
They are only as flexible as their opponents are inflexible. When faced with a well led, disciplined force with effective fire support such as at Konduga, they have been defeated, rather than bypassing the town or attempting different tactics they attacked in exactly the same way repeatedly and suffered the same results.
It takes different skillset at both the command and operator level for mobile rural guerrilla warfare, mobile rural conventional warfare, urban warfare and terror operations. As attrition sets in a few truly effective commanders will remain but the rest will be inexperienced substitutes leading to a degradation of capability
Coordinating the conventional and unconventional, rural and urban elements of their operations requires a communications and logistic network which can be interdicted
Flexibility is a battle winning asset. As long as the enemy retains a significant element operational flexibility they will retain the initiative
As long as the enemy retains a significant element of tactical fluidity they can dominate the battlespace when in the ascendant and retreat when under attack.
The enemy can switch between rural or urban battlespaces as the situation dictates or from lowland to highland or one country to another.
Friendly Forces Courses of Action
In order to restore constitutional rule throughout Northern Nigeria friendly forces must destroy the enemies will and ability to fight, their ability to sustain themselves, their ability to regroup regenerate or recover by neutralising enemy strengths, exploiting their weaknesses and mitigating potential threats.
If Boko Harams success are due to their creative mobility over a multi jurisdictional area of difficult terrain, using ruthless and flexible operational and tactical manoeuvres then the answer to defeating them is by using mobility and counter mobility to isolate them in these areas of difficult terrain, restricting their freedom of movement and operational and tactical flexibility.
The key geographic features in the area of operations are the Mandara Mountains and Lake Chad. These two natural features and the land around them are key to Boko Harams operational mobility thus any attempt at destroying their operational capabilities will involve, isolating, seizing, clearing and holding this area.
Phase 0: Integration
As mentioned this area encompasses 3 countries, so for any counter insurgency strategy to be effective the forces operating in this area must be fully integrated under a single chain of command. A Corps HQ encompassing the 3 North Eastern States, Extreme Nord Region in Cameroun and Lac Prefecture in Chad should be set up integrating Police, Army, Air Forces, Customs and other Para military units in one chain of command.
Phase 1: Preparation
For success friendly forces should go through the necessary steps to build up combat, artillery, air, logistic and engineer forces correctly structured and balanced, integrate intelligence gathering and analysis, develop doctrines and harmonise equipment particularly communications. The Legal framework necessary to allow Nigeria to base air and ground forces in neighbouring countries should be ironed out as well. Also combat operations would have to continue to prevent Boko Haram from making any more gains
Phase 2: Isolate the Area of Operations
The second phase of this operation should see the start of large scale combat operations to cut Boko Haram off, block their easy movement across the battlespace and isolate them from population centres, food and fuel sources. This would require strong forces holding a line on both the Nigerian and Camerounian side of the battlespace, preventing further movement east, west, north or south by the enemy and harassing them with constant raids.
Phase 3: Isolate enemy safe areas
The next option should be to deny Boko Haram their safe areas in Cameroun. Historically these are around Kousseri, Waza Forest, Mayo Sava, Lake Chad and the Mandara Mountains etc. Rather than isolating by national boundaries, isolation should be done by natural geographical features. By starting in Cameroun rather than Nigeria it not only destroys enemy safe areas and normal lines of communication but will cause Boko Haram to remove forces from Nigeria to defend their rear.
Phase 4: Destroy Enemy Forces
It is assumed that Boko Haram will be forced to react to this threat and try and eradicate friendly forces in their key terrain and to reopen lines of communication with their rear areas. Attacking well-constructed, well supplied mutually supporting bases with organic fire support and air and artillery support acting should denude Boko Haram as an effective conventional fighting force.
Simultaneously the enemy could attempt to launch an urban IED campaign or armed attacks beyond the battlespace. This should have pre-empted and negated during the preparation phase, through proactive police action. However forces should not be diverted from the offensive whatever the provocation
Phase 5: Clear
Even if Boko Haram does not oblige and attack friendly forces in their key terrain and engage in a battle of attrition, friendly forces continuing the offensive would clear the area from the Lake Chad- Mandaras axis up to and beyond Damaturu of enemy main forces. As majority of the enemies effort is focussed west in Nigeria it might be prudent to move again from east to west, i.e. from Cameroun to Nigeria, forcing the enemy to either retreat towards the blocking forces stand and fight or disperse.
Phase 6: Hold
As clearance operations are ongoing, the hold phase should begin, with troops and the police garrisoning the cleared areas and maintaining security. At the same time repair damaged infrastructure with emphasis on roads, bridges, electricity and telecoms.
The Clear and Hold phases would most likely be running at the same time as the Destroy Phase as certain areas will be cleared of enemy forces before others and will need to be secured. It is at this point that the danger of an evolved threat will arise through infiltrations, assassinations, IEDs and highway attacks. The enemy must be kept off balance through robust and aggressive actions, constant patrols and quick reaction to any incident.
Phase 7: Secure
As part of the effort to secure the recaptured land and populace a significant effort should begin with securing and sustaining the IDP and refugee population from the conflict. Well run, hygienic camps with educational facilities should be used to secure the displaced population. This has the advantage of ensuring they are far enough away from the conflict zone to avoid being used as cover by insurgents and that they can be registered a recorded so that once they return the security forces will have better knowledge of who lives in the area of operations.
Securing the cleared areas would require a strong force presence from the military and the police and maybe even the formalisation of local vigilante groups as Police Auxiliaries.
It is the opinion of this reviewer that Boko Harams current success emanates as much from a well planned and intelligent campaign as errors by the security forces. Their efforts are vulnerable to clear weaknesses from the factional alliances of convenience, to their need for fuel, forced recruits and supplies over rugged terrain. To defeat Boko Haram, the fight must be taken to them, to destroy them they must be denied access to their key terrain and their safe areas. This means a wide ranging offensive not just in Nigeria but in Cameroun, Chad and Niger. For this offensive to work and to prevent the enemy from simply hopping over the border when the going gets tough, the entire effort must be integrated, with one HQ controlling all force elements.
Not being able to make a propaganda video for Sallah or Independence Day with video clips of an attack on Maiduguri notwithstanding, Boko Haram still retains the initiative across the battlespace by virtue of the huge swath of territory they control, a point they underscored with their latest video featuring a resurrected ‘Shekau’ and the murder of a Nigerian Air Force POW.
Within their plan they will expect a counter attack and they will definitely fight a bloody and costly defensive battle as they retreat to their safe areas, hoping to bleed Nigerian forces and leave a trail of destruction behind them so by the time they get to their key terrain having given up their conquests the calculation would be that there would be limited resources or stomach for a fight to the finish in the Mandaras and more importantly in Cameroun.
It is thus imperative that friendly forces go back on thee offensive and at the bare minimum isolate the Mandaras and Lake Chad before the onset of the Dry Season.
“The Germans did the right thing every time and their men are quite steady. They ‘know war’ which we don’t…….” Lt Lees 2nd Battalion, Nigeria Regiment, Northern Cameroun in 1914
Despite the British in this First World War attacking from Nigeria and not just having artillery but twice as many men and allied to the French attacking from the North and East; the Germans (14 Germans, 125 local trained African Askaris and 65 locally recruited troops), repeatedly beat them, even counter attacking into Nigeria, until besieged on Mora Mountain. They held out through several seasons before being finally persuaded to surrender in 1916.
I add it to illustrate that the more things change, the more they stay the same. A determined enemy with local knowledge will prove a tenacious foe. But history also shows that despite initial missteps that foe can be beaten.