Boko Harams second Ramadan offensive differs in scale from last years in size of forces and ambition, however the spread and pattern of attack does give a general indication as to Boko Harams short to medium term objectives.
The key event for the enemy this year was the Nigerian Presidential election, when Nigeria’s security forces would be overstretched and the world’s attention would be on the country.
They were unable to successfully complete their general offensive by breaking into or besieging Maiduguri or prevent the election and thus suffered a clear strategic defeat. A conservative Muslim president should also take the winds out of the sails of those who were crusading against a southern President, however in the world of Takfiris, President Buhari is an apostate anyway.
The next key milestone is the MNJTF becoming operational. This force, in place and properly handled, operating around Lake Chad and Northern Cameroun, could be a game changer for Boko Haram, cutting them off from their supply routes and harassing them in their safe areas.
If viewed in this context the upsurge in attacks both home and abroad would indicate that Boko Haram is seeking to concentrate the minds of the MNJTF member countries, and increase their considerations as they commit forces to the MNJTF.
These governments will now be under pressure to secure not just their capitals but isolated villages a task they have neither the manpower nor logistics to undertake.
The enemy, showing their normal resilience absorbed their defeats from Nigeria’s Valentines Offensive to withdraw, consolidate, rebrand and change tactics in preparation for a Ramadan counteroffensive. The loss of their bases within striking distance of Maiduguri and heavy equipment freed them from the constraints that they suffered previously and the Nigerian and other forces are suffering now of long exposed supply lines, whilst returning to their origins of a as a light, mobile force.
As observed earlier, heavy armoured vehicles, towed artillery are actually an impediment (particularly in the rainy season) due to their need for good roads, bridges, fuel, lubricants, skilled operators and spares. Anyone can drive a pick up or motorcycle or fire a Dshk after a fashion.
The enemy showed skill and planning in their response to the offensive, although they resisted the advance they used their time in occupation to liberally spread IEDs along roads and in buildings, slowing down and channelling friendly forces.
They have used the transition period to their advantage, whilst Nigerian forces concentrated on Sambisa Forest, the enemy shifted their strength and began their counteroffensive literally the day after the Inauguration.
I believe the enemies has assessed its adversaries as follows;
Chad: I believe the enemy has assessed Chad as the biggest external threat due to the fact that Chadian forces (ANT) pioneered and refined the rezzou tactics Boko Haram has used successfully and the danger that the Chadians pose to their networks in the Sahel and Central Africa. Their fluid, aggressive tactics with armoured vehicles, air and fire support would wreak havoc against enemy attack columns if the Chadians were able to pin them down, with their experience of long range desert patrols, enemy supply and smuggling routes are at risk. Likewise the Chadians favoured status with the western powers means they have access to ISR, intelligence, planning and logistics, fire support and other goodies.
Chad has been generally isolated from the effects of the conflict as this has been an expeditionary effort with limited damage on the home front (till now). As this conflict has shown the Chadians are able to launch successful set piece attacks but are unable to sustain their efforts or hold onto captured territory, preferring to withdraw after a media circus rather than risk attrition or defeat. This is further evinced by their withdrawal from Mali on the grounds that they were not structured for sustained COIN ops and the near defeat the ANT suffered in the 2008 Battle of N’djamena.
The Chadians forced into a fight not of their choosing would most likely not come out as well as their propaganda implies. Their Army might be efficient but it is small with commitments in the North of Chad, on the Libyan border, in Darfur and Centrafrique.
It is salutary that the Chadians have been unable to maintain a presence in Gamboru or Damasak despite these towns being closer to their bases in Cameroun and Niger than they are to Maiduguri.
Thus the enemy will calculate that a sustained IED campaign against N’Djamena as well as raids on far flung outposts and villages will severely stretch the Chadians causing them to husband forces even tighter and be more cautious about their commitment to the MNJTF.
The other effects on Chad such as the ban on the niqab and burqa (always a crowd pleaser in an Islamic country allied with infidels), the ban on fishing and river traffic in the Chari River and the closure of the bridge and the roads to Cameroun provides another pressure point to the fairly unpopular Deby government, who runs a fine line between exploiting swift, successful foreign military adventures and unwinnable quagmires.
The enemy is likely to sustain and expand its IED campaign, at least 2-3 cells are in operation in the vicinity of N’Djamena, it is likely that more still exist. The rapidity with which claims of responsibility and ‘martyrdom’ videos have been released for the Chadian raids indicates that these cells are still in place and operating to a definitive plan. This weekend’s failed attack against the Chadian Refinery north of N’Djamena is a classic example of Deby’s major nightmare.
A successful attack on the refinery or on a pipeline particularly in the present climate of low oil prices combined with the economic strangulation due to the insecure trade routes south of Chad would destabilise Chads already fragile economy.
Unlike for Nigeria or Cameroun, a sustained war with Boko Haram will actually be existential for Chad, a consideration that no one can ignore.
Cameroun: I believe Cameroun has reverted to its Nelsonian practices of turning a blind eye to Boko Haram, whilst the enemy refits, retrains and restocks, in Extreme Nord Region. This is due less to political considerations than the inability of Cameroun to generate the level of force needed to sustain its earlier sterling effort.
I would assess the enemy has 2 objectives in Cameroun, maintenance of their safe areas and supply routes as a rear area for operations in Nigeria in the Waza Forest- Mandara Mountains axis and access to their key terrain in Lake Chad.
The Waza-Mandara axis appears consists of training or rest camps as evinced by the number of abductions and ambushes of food and supply trucks in the area.
The Gamboru Fotokol represents control of the crossings into the Lake Chad area, a zone the enemy needs to dominate in order to maintain control of the Sahelian supply routes. This area is likely to see the largest concentration of attacks.
To achieve these objectives they need Camerounian forces confined to base or else overwhelmed with force protection and population protection tasks, rather than offensive action.
The enemy is thus likely to mount several set piece attacks on bases with small arms and IEDs, IED and small arms ambushes on roads, indirect fire attacks on major bases and population centres and attacks and abductions on isolated villages particularly in Logone et Chari Department in order to convince the Camerounians there is a consequence to being too keen. If the Camerounians do respond then attacks in Mayo Sava and Mayo Tsanaga Departments will be likely increased to try and isolate and stretch Camerounian forces.
Niger Republic: always the weakest link is likely to see multiple small scale attacks which cause casualties and stretch their forces. These attacks will have the benefit to the enemy of not requiring the diversion of substantial forces from the fight in Nigeria and can use existing local networks. It is still believed that the enemy’s networks in Niger are still functional, the displacement of the populace from Lake Chad is unlikely to be a positive as it creates an untethered pool of unemployed young men. Niger appears to have been a benign recruiting and logistics area for the enemy and its entry to the war appears to have particularly irritated them or more likely they had the forces already in place to react as they did.
Nigerien forces will most likely be focussed on preventing mining operations in Arlit being threatened from the south as well as north and west, the reported deployment of French Special Forces to the region supports this theory. If so preoccupied they will be less likely to interfere with Boko Harams cross lake and cross border activities.
Nigeria: The enemy is likely to continue his wide ranging IED campaign against Nigerian targets in the North, due to the multiplicity of targets, existing networks and the pressure it puts on the forces directly involved in combatting them.
The IED attacks can be considered strategic and tactical.
Strategic attacks target the rear areas of the 7 and 3 Div such as Maiduguri, Jos, Kano, Kaduna etc, the targets are not just areas where mass casualties will ensue but calculated targets such as clerics, churches, restaurants popular with North Easterners and so on.
The attacks in Borno are both strategic and tactical, I consider the attacks in Maiduguri to be strategic as Maiduguri is the HQ for the effort in Borno State as well as the new MCCC (a Corps HQ) in all but name).
By attacking Maiduguri it sucks in the strength of Maiduguri’s Sectors combat units that have been fighting in Sambisa Forest as well as demoralising the population.
The attacks on the outlying villages along the traditional routes into Maiduguri, I consider to be not just terror attacks but shaping ops in preparation for armed raids. The objective is not just to attrit and demoralise the troops and vigilantes but switch troops that would be used on patrols and offensive operations into force protection tasks.
Operationally the enemy is likely to try and use this strategy to isolate Maiduguri and ensure that the Damaturu- Maiduguri Road which is the only safe daylight route becomes insecure forcing the Army to dedicate resources to route clearance and protection.
Strategically the most dangerous course of action would be a successful (or attempted) attack in the South East or South South, either of which in Nigeria’s convoluted, conspiracy theory ridden polity would provoke a hostile public reaction require massive reinforcement of troops to prevent a reoccurrence and police to most likely prevent riots and revenge attacks on mosques and northerners.
It would appear that the enemy’s key objective is to keep friendly forces off balance while they reconstitute and defend the areas still under their control.
The pattern of attacks and past experience indicates that the area they wish to hold onto is the Gamboru/ Lake Chad area.
Friendly forces will rapidly lose the initiative if this threat is not recognised and addressed as soon as possible with a combination of kinetic and non kinetic means.
To dislocate and isolate enemy forces in Sambisa and Gamboru, Dikwa must be secured.
The actual status of the town is currently unclear but reports indicate the enemy holds the hinterland and friendly forces hold the town. An operation to clear the road all the way up to Gamboru and hold both these towns with strong forces that can dominate the area would force the enemy to now have to either relocate and thus launch attacks from further away or stand and fight for the towns. Such attritional battles would favour Nigerian forces.
The same applies to Abadam or Damasak, thus a simultaneous operation in that area would have the effect of pushing them north into Diffa for the French and Nigeriens to deal with.
A better alternative would be fixing the enemy in place by blocking the escape routes and forcing the enemy into a decisive set piece battle, however this is easier said than done in that terrain.
The burning of churches in Jos after the mosque attack is an indication of the way enemy attacks can exploit existing tensions.
An intelligent and transparent strategic communication effort explaining the current status of the conflict and why certain decisions are made such as the movement of prisoners to the South East rather than a confusing jumble of denials, retractions, statements or clarifications, helps to manage dangerous rumours and conspiracy theories. Engaging key leaders and influencers in all parts of Nigeria, from clerics, pastors, priests, politicians, traditional rulers, intellectuals and the media and presenting a clear narrative and issuing honest warnings and preparing the population for attacks would help counter these populist conspiracy theory narratives
The enemies resilience and flexibility is one of their key assets, to defeat them requires a frenetic operational tempo that forces the hunters to become the hunted