The current Boko Haram offensive appears to have progressed beyond the initial opening moves and is developing the preliminaries of the main effort.
This commentator broke the prior offensive into 5 stages.
- Preparation of the Battlespace
- Shaping the Battlespace
- Isolating the Battlespace
- The Attack
- The Defence
This offensive appears to be following a similar pattern with the Preparation phase has been completed but without a distinct Isolation Phase although as will be seen Isolation of particular targets is still ongoing as part of Shaping Operations.
I’ve decided the Harmattan Offensive has so far undergone the following phases
- Preparation of the Battlespace
- Shaping the Battlespace
- Isolating the battlespace
- The Attack
It will thus be presented that the preliminary elements of The Attack (i.e. main effort) Phase of this Offensive has begun.
Caveat: this analysis is based on open source media reports and eye witness accounts in the public domain.
Shaping the Battlespace
The enemy has sought to maintain a continuous offensive posture throughout the campaign, which has served the purpose of dispersing friendly forces, keeping them off balance and constantly on the defensive and demoralising the populace. This has been done using raids and IED attacks.
IED Attacks: the enemy has made prodigious use of IEDs against densely populated public places. The geographic spread has increased with attacks as far apart as Cameroun and Niger State.
Types: The most popular devices have been medium/ bag sized devices with larger devices used in strategic attacks such as at Kano Mosque. VBIEDs have also been used in Konduga, Damaturu and Fotokol to support major attacks. Mines or victim operated IEDs were used in Fotokol however it seems the main target were military patrols or convoys, however as is inevitable, civilians bore the brunt of the detonations before the suspected bomber was arrested. Rockets and improvised mortars have been used against Nigerian forces and Camerounian towns such as Amchide and Fotokol.
Targets: most IED attacks in Nigeria are against densely populated public places. While symbolic targets such as mosques and educational institutes have predominated the target list, markets are the most popular followed by motor parks; targeting the poorest and least protected section of the population, risking this almost becoming a Battle of the Markets (An interesting exercise as well would be to establish how many of these motor parks and market have been targeted by Boko Haram for extortion and how many of them paid up?). Majority of the VBIEDs have been used in Kano suggesting that these attacks are strategic and are part of the attempt by Boko Haram to disrupt the conservative Islamic orthodoxy in Nigeria. However the inability or unwillingness of the enemy to dedicate resources against high profile symbols of secular government such as courts or political party rallies (although political party offices have been burnt in raids) is instructive and indicates that the IED campaign is operational in nature supporting the offensive by tying up the security forces on the counter IED tasking and demoralising the population. The use of IEDs in Cameroun is less indiscriminate than in Nigeria with no deliberate attacks against civilian targets.
Bombers: This particular IED campaign has also been marked by the prodigious use of female suicide bombers, who are almost always dressed in traditional Islamic dress. Boko Haram does not seem worried about the backlash that this might generate against women in Islamic dress or else provoking such a backlash is part of their objectives. Curiously strategic targets such as Kano Mosque or the Ashoura Parade and schools in Potiskum were targeted by male bombers and ‘ordinary’ targets by females. This can indicate that females are less trusted for major strategic targets and that their use is more due to availability of ‘bodies’ and their increased probability of beating security than any deep strategic intent.
Method of detonation: majority of the devices have been suicide detonated although there are indications that some of the female Person Borne Suicide IEDs (PBSIED) have been remotely detonated. This can be deduced from the number of fully kitted out females who fail to activate their devices at the point of arrest and the fact that the bombers are generally seen with males prior to detonation and at arrest. It is unclear whether this indicates Boko Haram does not fully trust the bombers or that they are acting under duress. Timed and victim operated devices also made an appearance but these seemed to be limited to particular sectors like Mubi and Fotokol.
Method of attack: majority of the attacks have utilised simultaneous or sequential secondary devices to maximise casualties. Double the attackers means double the risk of detection but also means that even if one device is stopped at least one more will get through. It will also eventually have the effect of preventing people from assisting at attacks although such a reaction will not be effective as crowds will inevitably gather at cordons or where traffic stalls.
Borno State has suffered the majority of Boko Harams raids and major attacks, followed closely by the area bounded by Fotokol and Kolofata in Cameroun and then Hong and Maiha LGA in Adamawa State. There are distinct geographic variations which we will look at in turn.
North Borno/ North Extreme Nord: this area bordering Chad and Niger Republics has Kouserri, Cameroun as the eastern boundary and the Borno/ Yobe border as the western boundary linked by the Niger Republic border and the southern shore of Lake Chad. This is an extremely remote and deprived part of an extremely remote and deprived area that the enemy has devoted significant forces to with heavy and determined attacks on Fotokol, Makary, Abadam, Damasak, Doron Baga and others. This could be due to the need to develop and protect new supply lines through Niger Republic, by defining a clear ungoverned space in this border area, Boko Haram would control major smuggling routes from the Sahel into Cameroun and Central Africa, which would not only sustain their operations but provide them with a lucrative income stream.
South East Adamawa: attacks in this area of Adamawa encompassing Gombi, Song, Mubi North and Mubi South, Hong and Maiha LGAs to the south east of the area of operations remains consistent with the enemy’s sentimental attempts to occupy areas linked to the old Adamawa Emirate and Borno Kanem Empire and to more practical efforts to control access to the Mandara Mountains. Thus these attempts to push down towards Yola constitute a further expansion in order to dominate more access points to the Mandaras and the Adamawa Plateau as well as a proactive forward defence of already captured areas.
Bauchi and Gombe: these attacks are quite interesting. The repeated IED attacks on Azare, Bauchi State and raids into Bajoga, Nafada and Ashaka in Gombe State have been characterised as logistics raids, however they could also be seen as part of the preparatory stage for a Westward campaign to occupy the north of Gombe and Bauchi States further isolating Damaturu and by default Maiduguri. This follows the established pattern of raising funds by robbing banks and businesses and stockpiling food and supplies, stealing vehicles and explosives in preparation for a major offensive combined with an IED campaign tie up security force resources especially considering the considerable insurgent presence already in Balmo Forest in Bauchi.
With the Chadians becoming more proactive it is possible the enemy wish to develop new lines of communications to the west of Lake Chad. The actions in Abadam and Malam Fatori protects the enemy’s northern flank and secures their smuggling routes in the vicinity of Lake Chad, also isolating Baga, making it a difficult if not untenable base of operations for the new Multinational Joint Task Force.
It is instructive that villages such as Sagme, Gouma, Dambore and Soueram in Logone et Chari Department, Cameroun around the southern shore of Lake Chad bordering Chad’s Lac State are overtly occupied by the enemy in contrast to their slightly more discreet operations within Cameroun proper. These villages are the closest habitations to Lake Chad much like Damasak, Abadam and Malam Fatori.
Enemy actions to the south consolidate their hold on access to the Mandara Mountains and the Nigeria/ Cameroun border region making it harder to launch and sustain a counter offensive.
The raids and urban terror attacks are very useful in keeping friendly forces off balance but the large forces needed to capture and hold major cities such as Yola, Potiskum, Damaturu or Maiduguri make it unrealistic for Boko Haram to attempt to capture these cities but they will armd raids and IED attacks will continue.
The attacks in the centre in Gombe and Bauchi could be seen to be preparing the ground for a westward attack. This would benefit Boko Haram by further isolating Damaturu and Maiduguri but also stretching security forces further in another area that is less militarised and would have more food and fuel and a less displaced population to feed off.
The Chadian profile in all of this has become more pronounced and complex. Chad’s typical game of supporting, sponsoring or turning a blind eye to rebels in neighbouring countries (see CAR, Sudan, Libya for reference) in this case is more to do with necessity than geopolitics Although the popular opinion in Nigeria is that Chad is the Machiavellian power behind the insurgency it is this commentators opinion that Chad’s role is more complex. Southern Chads is situated is also a hotbed of current and former rebel groups, bandits and desperately poor people.
Much as Cameroun ‘rode the tiger’ of Boko Haram as long as it could until it got bitten it would appear Chad is trying to do the same and trying to keep them onside so they focus their attacks on Nigeria and Cameroun. However this issue needs more review and analysis but a cooling of relations with Chad (due maybe to French pressure?), would indicate why Boko Haram would seek to expand further west
Based on the above one could tentatively assess that this campaign has two basic objectives Defence and Expansion split into several specific tasks:
- Defend their current gains by threatening major cities in order to suck friendly forces into defending them
- Expand to the North by expressly defining an ungoverned space along the Nigerien border similar to that along the Camerounian border
- Expand to the Southeast in order to further cover the approaches to the Mandara Mountains.
- Initiate fundraising, logistics and terror actions in order to prepare for an attack west into Northern Gombe and Bauchi
Taken together it be seen that the Enemy is strategically isolating the Area of operations, protecting its gains by pushing out to the west both at the Northern border and in the centre around Bauchi and Gombe as well as south east, insulating its earliest acquisitions against recapture.
Although the recapture of towns such as Mubi, Gombi etc are welcome, they do not solve the key underlying problem of fighting a mobile, asymmetric enemy which is that they do not actually need to take or hold territory. They win by simply making their opponents fight for it.
Unless the enemy units occupying each of these towns is being destroyed in situ then they simply escape to fight another day.
It remains this reviewers considered opinion that the recapture of the towns from the Lake Chad border south to Maiha are key, Gamboru Ngala, Banki, Gwoza, etc and more importantly dominating the area around Lake Chad and the Mandara Mountains.
It is unlikely we have the force numbers or logistics for such an operation but one would hope such a counter stroke to the heart of the enemies geographic vital ground would be something to plan and aim for.