The IED in Boko Harams Harmattan Offensive

The enemies’ IED tactics and techniques in this campaign have evolved significantly. We will examine these changes and attempt to draw conclusions and examine possible future trends.

IED Characteristics: IEDs can be characterised by size and method of detention;


IEDs in this campaign devices have mainly been

  • Medium sized– ranging from a backpack to Ghana-must-go bag or suicide belt

    Medium sized IED contained in gas cylinder-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

    Medium sized IED contained in gas cylinder-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

  • Large– such as vehicle borne devices

Method of detonation

5 main methods of detonation have been used in Nigeria/ Cameroun

  • Victim Operated IED (VOIED): such as land mines or pressure plate IEDs which are detonated by the victim, these have been used in the vicinity of Fotokol and Amchide as well as in Adamawa and Borno State, Nigeria particularly Hong LGA
  • Timed: devices detonated by a timers be they mechanical (clock) or electrical (electrical timer)
  • Remote User Operated: where the operator is sufficiently removed from the device that when the operator detonates it against the target they are able to survive
  • Improvised indirect fire weapons: where the device is propelled by the user at the victim.
  • Suicide User Operated: in which the device is detonated by the operator whilst it is either carried on or about their person (Person Borne Suicide IED (PBSIED)) or vehicle (Vehicle Borne IED (VBIED)).

Current Operational Threat

There have been no reported IED attacks in Chad or Niger, in Nigeria and Cameroun the pattern of IED attacks can be divided into civil and military targets.

Nigeria-Military: small, medium and large IEDs are used in standalone attacks or to support set piece attacks. There do not appear to have been any innovations in small devices, however the increased use of medium sized VOIEDs to deny buildings, roads, bridges and other vulnerable points as part of Boko Harams defensive measures, while not new appears to be on the increase. The few reported incidents indicate a use of timed or remote operated devices (such as at Mararaba Mubi).

The objective of these attacks appears to be to cause casualties, destroy equipment, delay and disrupt military operations.

VBIEDs have been used to attack armoured vehicles and checkpoints or support attacks against bases. A recent attack at Bajoga, Gombe State had a fairly lethal device of 8 daisy chained High Explosive (HE) 105mm and 155mm artillery shells, with a surprisingly crude switch (possibly why they didn’t detonate), if Boko Haram can correctly use these captured shells (a fairly simple proposition) in their IEDs, the military grade HE will have a more devastating effect than homemade or commercial explosives on their targets. The use of HE shells could be a reaction to the Nigeria’s reported use of more heavily armoured vehicles or simply due to the easier availability of these items.

Commercial explosives and det cord-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

Commercial explosives and det cord-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

The objective of these attacks appears to be to cause casualties and destroy equipment.

Nigeria-Civilian: Majority of the attacks have been medium sized person borne devices in densely populated public places. While symbolic targets such as mosques and educational institutes feature in the target list, markets, roads, educational institutes and motor parks are the most popular targets in that order.

These are excellent target choices as they directly affect the populace creating a detrimental financial and psychological effect on the poorest population segment. Even when markets are closed as in Jos, informal markets spontaneously open, which are even less secure making them even juicer targets.

Markets and motorparks are cash based commercial hubs with a well organised concentration of casual labour/ thugs/ criminals in structures under the byzantine control of the motorpark or market leader, a powerful resource for politicians, militants and terrorists alike. A lot of Boko Harams extortion rackets have revolved around motorparks and markets as well as other businesses and these attacks may not only serve as terror attacks but possibly the extension of Boko Harams protection rackets.

Markets have almost exclusively been targeted by medium sized female person borne

Zaha'ru Babangida-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

Zahra’u Babangida-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

devices. This commentator speculated that the devices were remotely detonated as opposed to suicide detonated, however the testimony of captured 13 year old suicide bomber Zahra’u Babangida and a review of her suicide belt indicates that the devices are in fact user operated, suggesting that those who arrested like young Zahra’u were not sufficiently motivated to complete the act. The combination of fear, indoctrination and peer pressure used on the young has obviously been effective but doesn’t work on all of them.

The use of females appears to be a logical (if cynical) tactic. Young females are ubiquitous in Nigerian markets and motor parks either hawking goods, working as apprentices or travelling with parents or guardians. For Boko Haam it is the famous maskirovska tactic of hiding in plain sight; children hawking, women with bags or baby’s on their back are so common that they can get through security much more easily than men or even boys. Also the lack of females at checkpoints means the more innocuous or fresh faced can get through with limited scrutiny.

The device itself consisted of 7 metal cylinders similar to a 30mm shell case filled with explosive and daisy chained together with a large battery pack (roughly the size of an AK47 magazine) and switch. These were all contained in a purpose made black holder which fitted snugly to the users body. Although the device would have been detected by a proper body search the operator could easily wear it and move around particularly in native or Islamic dress.

Suicide IED belt-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

Suicide IED belt-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

Young Zahra’u’s testimony confirms Boko Haram not only doubles up but apparently triples up their attacks, an intelligent tactic; as once the first device goes off, the confusion allows the secondary bomber to infiltrate the crowd of first responders and maximise casualties with their detonation.

Other medium sized devices have been improvised from various implements with homemade explosives contained in cooking oil drums, concealed in sacks of produce or in bags and initiated by mechanical timers or remote control.

HE shells from VBIED, Bajoga, Nigeria-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters.

HE shells from VBIED, Bajoga, Nigeria-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters.

VBIEDs have been used in Kano, Borno and Gombe State (although against military targets in the latter). The attacks in Kano appear strategic striking the Central Mosque a key symbol of Nigerian Islamic orthodoxy and a petrol station whilst the attacks in Borno appear to be in tactical in nature as part of Boko Harams defensive actions.

The attacks in Gombe are quite interesting as it is not a frontline State but saw the first use of female suicide bombers. The enemy apparently takes advantage of the relatively short distance from Mubi and other enemy held areas in Adamawa to use Gombe as the test bed for certain innovations and to attack friendly forces in their ‘rear’ areas.

Kano, Borno and Gombe States are the most targeted States with Kano City, Maiduguri and Jos the most attacked cities. The other interesting comparable is that up until the last week of December Bauchi State suffered 3 times the number of attacks that Yobe did. This can imply that friendly forces IED prevention procedures have been successful or that the enemy had different priorities.

The objective of these attacks seem to be almost exclusively to cause casualties, Boko Haram apparently takes the phrase ‘war against the people’ literally with absolutely no attempt to avoid or limit casualties in anyway. Attacks against any of these targets at night or when they were empty would demonstrate capability and disdain but even attacks against strategic targets such as churches or mosques always take place when they are packed full of people. The conclusion is that the primary target is not the buildings or the institutions but the people who use them.

Cameroun-Military: The enemy has been more selective in his targeting in Cameroun using IEDs to support set piece attacks or interdict lines of communications.

Large devices such as VBIEDs have been used to support attacks against Camerounian positions in Amchide and improvised rockets have been fired into built up areas such as Fotokol, Amchide and Djokana. However the most pernicious threat the Camerounians face is the mine.

There are no publicly available photos or specifics of the devices so one cannot analyse their construction but it would appear the enemy uses a mixture of victim operated and remote operated devices, placed under or beside roads. The indicate that the VOIED devices most likely consist of an explosive charge, container, power source, detonator and pressure sensitive switch.

The former is deduced from the civilian vehicles (including a donkey cart) that have activated devices, whilst the latter is assessed by the recent spell of combined small arms/ IED attacks in which the enemy halts a military convoy by disabling a vehicle with an IED, attacks it killing soldiers and stealing vehicles.

IED Crater, Nigeria-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

IED Crater, Nigeria-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

This is a tactically and operationally sound action. Cameroun has limited protected mobility for its infantry and other troops beyond several light tanks and APCs with soft skin all terrain vehicles as the main form of transport for BIR.

The Camerounians are appear to be statically defending their bases and towns combined while using targeted raids to disrupt the enemy. Whilst this is an intelligent use of their limited resources, it means their supply and operational routes are fairly predictable and thus easy to target. The combination of unprotected vehicles, predictable routes and fixed, positional warfare means the Camerounians are exceptionally vulnerable to this type of attack.

Destroyed Boko Haram APC, Amchide, Cameroun- 2014 Eugene Nforngwa/The Standard Tribune, Inc

Destroyed Boko Haram APC, Amchide, Cameroun- 2014 Eugene Nforngwa/The Standard Tribune, Inc

This creates a key operational problem for Cameroun: To secure lines of communications requires a lot of troops, some in fixed positions and some on patrol as well as an intelligence gathering, analysis, interpretation and exploitation capability. The entire Camerounians Armed Forces are less than 35,000 strong on paper and is road bound. Of the 16 combat battalions only BIR and Garde Presidentialle are up to strength, well trained, well led and well motivated, however these units have been fighting for 3-6 months and cannot sustain this level of combat.

Cameroun also has the festering civil war in CAR, a Chadian pipeline running through the east, militants and oil bunkerers in Bakassi as well as conventional policing and internal security priorities. In short Cameroun has nowhere enough troops to defend its line of communications from IEDs.

Thus Boko Haram can use IEDs to gradually strangle Camerounians towns and garrisons, isolating them physically and psychologically in preparation for an attack. Fotokol and Ashigashiya are prime examples, where frontal attacks have failed making an isolation by IED policy a cheap and efficient way to avoid Camerounian strength and attack their weaknesses.

The objective of these attacks are to cause casualties, deny routes to Camerounian forces and restrict their freedom of movement

Future trends

Nigeria: the pattern of IED attacks is unlikely to change. The attacks on markets and motorparks have been extremely successful whilst the use of IEDs in tactical situations add danger and complexity to the planning and execution of Nigerian military operations.

The IED is an easily manufactured and deployed weapon that properly applied causes casualties and destruction and has a disproportionate effect to its cost in terms of resources needed to counter it. Thus it is apparent that whenever Boko Haram needs to have an effect on the battlefield they are incapable of facing head on they will use IEDs, be it in the lead up to an offensive or while under battlefield pressure or even during lulls in fighting when they need to keep some sort of offensive action going. It is thus apparent that the stream of IED attacks will continue as long as Boko Haram maintains the capability

Strategic attacks with either with VBIEDs or PBSIEDs will continue in Borno, Yobe, Kano, Adamawa, Gombe, Plateau and Bauchi States.

Kaduna, Nasarawa and possibly Taraba and Benue States are vulnerable to these types of

VBIED, Nigeria-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

VBIED, Nigeria-Copyright 2014 . Nigerian Defence Headquarters

attacks particularly PBSIEDs due to their proximity to the conflict area, existing ethnic conflicts and a displaced population. These conditions make it easy for an IED cell to either set up or penetrate these areas. It is more likely that these attacks will be with PBSIEDs with VBIEDs used occasionally.

Cameroun: the use of VOIEDs will probably increase in number and lethality. The enemy can attrite Camerounian forces, isolate their towns and bases, demoralise the populace, inflict casualties and gather stores and vehicles using cheap devices with limited risk to themselves. The only way to defeat an IED threat is to disrupt the IED cycle i.e. prevent the IED from being made, laid or detonated, if the Camerounians can develop an efficient counter IED force on time, they will weather the storm, if not these IEDs will have a decisive negative effect on the outcomes.

WMIK Landrover, Afghanistan-Authors collection

The Camerounian dilemma mirrors the situation UK forces faced early on in Iraq and Afghanistan operating from fixed bases with limited routes in or out generally through dense urban areas or restricted rural areas mounted in soft skin Wolf, Snatch and WMIK Landrovers against an ever increasing IED threat. We tried to negate the combination of predictable routes and unarmoured vehicles by adding as much variation as we could into routes, times etc and observing strict counter IED drills. Although these did work the enemy only needed to be lucky once and with the sheer preponderance of devices they were lucky more than once. Even when we moved to armoured vehicles, the enemy simply moved on to bigger and more sophisticated IEDs

This is the likely trajectory for Cameroun, the increased intensity of fighting in late December including attacks on Camerounian villages and the wholesale killing of villagers indicates that much of the previous restraint has gone, thus there is the probability of deliberate IED attacks against civilians this year.


Boko Haram is facing pressure on the battlefield both in Cameroun and Nigeria and has thus complemented their conventional actions with a liberal use of IEDs.

For both parties but particularly Cameroun the security forces need to

  • Predict: enemy actions, targets, tactics, techniques and procedures
  • Dissuade: the enemy from laying IEDs by discouraging and preventing them
  • Detect: devices that have been laid or are about to be laid using Bomb detecting dogs, appropriate military training and tactics and involving locals so as to benefit from their Local knowledge
  • Manage the Risk: with appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), training, tactics and procedures and vehicles
  • Exploit: all information from captured insurgents, detonated devices, IDPS etc

From a military point of view Nigeria has evolved sufficiently to weather enemy threats, although there will be a severe toll of civilian casualties. Nigeria also has sufficient armoured and mine protected vehicle and experienced bomb disposal personnel to prevent the use of IEDs from interfering with military operations.

Cameroun on the other hand whilst having fought a gallant and skilful (if limited) campaign against Boko Haram is extremely vulnerable to IED attacks on its lines of communications. Attacks on its population with IEDs could potentially overwhelm Cameroun’s capabilities as forces and resources are sucked in to protect population centres to the detriment of offensive and even defensive actions.




About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Counter insurgency, Defence, Nigeria Defence, Nigeria Strategy, Terrorism, West Africa Defence, West Africa Strategy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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