As 2016 develops we can look back on Boko Harams use of IEDs for the period 01 March 2015– 01 February 2016 and attempt to understand their techniques, tactics and procedures.
This time period encompasses the successful Nigerian Valentine Offensive by 7 Div and 3 Div under Op Zaman Lafiya to defeat Boko Haram main forces and secure the elections and the subsequent change in political and military leadership and renewed offensive by the MCCC under Op Lafiya Dole to reclaim occupied territory and Boko Harams response to this effort.
As Nigerian and allied forces went on the offensive, with varying levels of financial, diplomatic and operational support from the EU, US, France, UK, AU, ECOWAS and ECCAS, it was assumed that military defeat would lessen Boko haram attacks. This has not been the case.
IED attacks ranged across Northern Nigeria encompassing the military Area of Operations (AO)-Borno, Yobe Adamawa- as well as Gombe, Plateau, Kano and Kaduna States, Niger Republic’s Diffa Region, Cameroun’s Extreme Nord Region and Chads Lac, N’Djamena and Chari Barguimi Regions.
Using open source data collected by this author (with all the necessary caveats that entails) it is hoped that one can better understand Boko Harams use of IEDs, their tactics, intent and concept of operations.
To do this we will look at the IEDs themselves, their use and analyse the tactical, operational and strategic use of IEDs in the campaign during this time frame.
IED Types and Characteristics: for the purpose of this article IEDs are classified by size, type of explosive, container, method of emplacement and method of detonation in as much as that information is publicly available.
Size: Boko Haram IEDs in this period have mainly ranged from small handheld devices (drink can or beer bottle) to medium device (backpack, food flask, explosive vest, small gas cylinder or fire extinguisher). There have been a few large devices (e.g. vehicle borne) however they have not featured heavily in this campaign.
Explosives: Boko Harams devices have used a mix of commercial, Home Made and military explosives
Commercial explosives: Boko Haram is known to have stolen explosives from cement
factories, mines, road builders and quarries in Gombe and Yobe State and Waza. These have been described as dynamite but could include a wide range of low/ high explosives such as ANFO. These raids would also have netted detonators, det cord, blasting caps and other IED components
Homemade Explosives (HME): there is no open source specifying the type of HME used by Boko Haram but due to the consistent discovery of fertiliser at IED making facilities, one can assume they are mainly ammonium nitrate based explosives. North East Nigeria has a large agricultural sector of which the majority are small holdings, thus fertiliser is stored and distributed widely and manufactured in the region. Chemicals that are used in the manufacture of HME appear to have been sourced from educational institutes in some cases. These explosives are used in small, medium and large devices
Military Explosives: Boko Haram has used captured ordinance such as 60mm and 81mm mortar bombs, 105mm and 155m artillery shells to devise medium to large IEDs. The most interesting piece of military ordinance used is the French made GR 66-EG, anti personnel cluster sub munitions normally air dropped in the Belouga 305kg BL 66 cluster bomb made by Matra. Each bomblet contains shrapnel, weighs just 1.3kg and has a lethal range of up to 50m making it an ideal and lightweight IED. Examples have shown Person Borne IED vests containing up to 5 bomblets, which are compact and lightweight, thus easy to conceal. They have also been used in devices concealed in buckets, hand bags, food flasks and shopping bags.
How Boko Haram obtained these devices is unclear. They have been reportedly used in Africa twice; first by France in 1986/87 during operations against Libya in Northern Chad and Nigeria during ECOMOG operations in Sierra Leone in 1997. Other African users of cluster munitions such as Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea or Centrafrique use Russian made weapons. Due to the good condition of the bomblets they are unlikely to be UXO from Northern Chad and the serial numbers indicate they were from a batch sold to Nigeria.
They are unlikely to have been captured during the attack on Maiduguri Airport in December 2013 as they didn’t make an appearance until 2 years later. Considering the age of these devices (Matra stopped making them in the 1980s) it is likely these are obsolete NAF bombs that were improperly disposed of in a sparse rural area and subsequently stolen by the enemy. In March 2015, helicopters dropped objects in the Gombi Hills of Adamawa State. The NAF stated it had disposed of ‘obsolete bombs’ State, the types were never specified nor what was the method of disposal.
The use of military grade explosives, particularly purpose built anti personnel bombs in medium devices can account for the increased lethality of certain attacks.
Containers: Boko Haram uses widely available everyday items as containers for their IEDs, to hold the components and explosives. These containers are almost always metal, producing a shrapnel effect when the device detonates and increasing their lethality. The presence of metal detectors in captured Boko Haram IED making facilities could indicate the enemy actively seeks to reduce the metal content of their devices (or some components) in order to avoid detection.
Small IEDs: other than purpose built military ordinance housed in metal cases, other small devices have been contained in aluminium soft drink cans, plastic soft drink bottles, food cans, aerosol cans etc. we can estimate they contain 0.33-1.00kg of explosive.
Medium IEDs: these devices have been contained in fire extinguishers, 10-12.5kg cooking
gas cylinders, 100kg gas cylinders cut in half, metal lamp posts, pipes or other containers. Some of these containers are fabricated by welding metal sheets into rectangular or cylindrical containers, we can estimate they contain 10-50kg of explosive.
Large IEDs: devices are contained in gas cylinders and vehicles, as these devices generally vary in size it is unclear how much explosives are used, however they could contain up to 100-500kg of explosive, generally a mix of HME, commercial explosives, military ordinance and fuel.
Methods of emplacement: the most popular method of emplacement have been Person Borne, sub surface laid, surface laid
Person Borne IED (PBIED): devices are carried on, by or about a person and detonated
either by that person or remote control. The devices are either carried close to the body in a vest or in an external container such as a bag or food flask. The bearers have almost always been on foot although there have been successful motorcycle borne attacks as well as bicycle borne devices discovered but with no reported use.
Surface laid IED: this includes small and medium devices used in attacks or else left in
public places disguised as ordinary goods such as firewood bundles, food flasks, handbags, luggage, electronics etc. These are usually detonated remotely by the user or by use of a fuse.
Sub surface laid devices: whilst these appear to anecdotally be more prolific than person
borne devices, most attacks are in combat zones and are not that well reported, particularly in Nigeria. However these consist of medium sized devices buried under the ground generally on roads, paths or other likely routes, which are either detonated remotely by the user or the victim.
Methods of Detonation: IEDs activate when a circuit is closed connecting a power source (electric or thermal) to the detonator which activates the explosive main charge. The most popular methods of detonation have been;
Suicide User operated: the user activates the device while it is in close proximity to themselves using an improvised electrical switch.
Thermally detonated devices: the device is activated using a fuse lit by a flame which burns down to the detonator, activating the device.
Victim Operated devices (VOIED): devices consist of a switch which is activated by the victim, examples include pressure plates, consisting of 2 flexible metal sheets separated by pieces of rubber slippers. These are generally buried beneath the ground and when pressure is applied the sheets make contact, closing an electrical circuit and activating the device.
Timed: devices are activated by mechanical, electrical or improvised timers
Remote User Operated: devices are activated remotely by wireless device such as a mobile phone or an electric cable connecting the device with the user who is a safe distance away.
Improvised indirect fire weapons: these devices are propelled by the user at the victim, generally by explosive means.
IED factories: Between March 2015 and February 2016, security forces reported capturing 6 IED making facilities.
Most of these locations are to the east of the AO, surrounding Maiduguri in an arc running East to South;
March 2015-Buni Yadi, Gujba LGA, Yobe State
July 2015- Faljari, Dikwa LGA, Borno State
August 2015- Dikwa, Dikwa LGA, Borno State
August 2015- Miyati and Nyaleri, Damboa LGA, Borno State
September 2015-Awaisari, Jere LGA, Borno State
November 2015- Gonin Kurmi, Bama LGA, Borno State
February 2016- Ngoshe, Gwoza LGA, Borno State
Targets: the enemies’ main targets have been crowded public places of which markets and mosques are the most numerous. A large number of devices detonated at checkpoints guarding the approaches to towns, mosques or markets and most devices appear to have been activated remotely or by the users upon detection.
The choice of targets indicates that causing mass casualties appears to be the main objective.
Dates and Times: July, October and January were the worst months for IED attacks (in that order).
Attacks mostly took place in the morning, with early morning (0600 to 0900) being the most popular time to attack followed by evenings (1600-2100). Attacks seem to be timed to cause maximum casualties at prayer times or when the markets are full. How much influence, the distance travelled from their launch point, traffic patterns and mode of transport plays on the timing of IED attacks is unknown.
Geographic spread: The geographic spread of this campaign differs in that more attacks took place to the east and north east of the AO than before. Attacks to the west of the AO were comparatively limited.
Borno State, Extreme Nord Region and Yobe State sustained the majority of the attacks which in Borno were heavily concentrated in Maiduguri Metropolitan area and the surrounding LGAs. In Extreme Nord Region the most affected area was Mayo Sava Department, whilst in Yobe State it was Damaturu.
Attacks also seemed to follow a broad axial pattern along lines of communications or key terrain features for example along the Potiskum to Damaturu to Maiduguri Road, Damaturu to Biu Road, Maiduguri to Bama, Bama to Gulak, a corridor from the El Beid River Crossing at Gamboru Ngala/ Fotokol to the Chari River crossing at Kousseri/ N’Djamena, the eastern approaches to the Gwoza Hills forming a triangle with Mora as the point anchored at Kerawa and Mozogo in Cameroun and the Yobe River Crossing from Damasak to Diffa
Some of these ‘IED corridors’ contained or were near IED making facilities for example Damaturu to Biu Road (Buni Yadi), Maiduguri to Bama (Gonin Kurmi to the east), Bama to Gulak (Ngoshe to the East), Gamboru Ngala/ Fotokol (Dikwa to the west) , Kerawa to Mozogo (Ngoshe to the west).
Whilst there is insufficient data one can make the following assumptions; IED making facilities are mainly in Nigeria and close to the border areas, based on the distribution of attacks and IED making centres, it would appear they are generally within 50km of their target areas. It can also be assessed that the enemy must have a large, well hidden supply of components and more importantly experienced personnel as attacks do not seem to be affected by the loss of these facilities.
Security Force Response: the security forces in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroun and Niger have responded in several ways
Checkpoints: on main roads, access points to towns, villages, markets and within built up areas have been used with great success particularly in Nigeria, Cameroun and Niger to deter IEDs. Whilst it might not be a positive outcome for the people manning the checkpoints, devices activating at checkpoints protects the targets which are normally densely populated areas.
Vigilantes: the use of vigilantes in Nigeria and Cameroun has greatly improved the effectiveness of the Counter IED effort at checkpoints. As both countries are multi tribal, the average soldier is as ignorant of local affairs as a non African. The vigilantes ability to spot out of place people, speak the local languages and dialects, understand local customs and pattern of life, has greatly aided the detection of devices. Vigilantes also have access to local networks such as hunters, farmers etc who are the first to notice strange people trying to infiltrate through the bush etc.
Clearance Operations: repeated clearance operations disrupt enemy plans, capture IED making facilities and disrupt freedom of movement.
Routine Patrols: patrols disrupt enemy freedom of movement, intercepting or deterring supplies and the bombers
Media operations: All nations have used radio, print and posters to inform the public of the dangers of IEDs, what to look out for etc.
Police work: good police work, through interrogation, investigation and exploitation of captured enemy has resulted in several arrests and convictions, the most dramatic case being in Chad after the N’Djamena attacks, when the attackers were rapidly (some might say suspiciously rapidly) found, arrested, tried, convicted and executed. These efforts in Chad, Nigeria and Cameroun have required painstaking surveillance, investigation and exploitation.
Analysis: we will analyse this period in terms of the tactical, operational and strategic implications.
Tactical Uses and Factors: tactically small IEDs have been used like grenades or
landmines and medium to large IEDs have been used as Operational Support (OS) weapons (like artillery or air dropped weapons) to destroy, suppress or neutralise targets such as strongpoints or armoured vehicles, achieve surprise and create gaps in defences in conjunction with a small arms attack. The enemy has used these devices prolifically and shown a certain imagination in their tactical deployment but to limited operational military effect.
Medium IEDs such as PBIEDs have been successfully as OS to target checkpoints and other positions as part of an attack but interestingly also as a second echelon force to exploit conventional small arms attacks and infiltrate an area in order to cause mass casualties amongst fleeing civilians rather than destroy military targets, as happened in Dar Village, Adamawa State in October, Zabarmari Muna, Jere LGA in July and Maiduguri in December.
Large IEDs i.e. VBIEDs have been used offensively and defensively as OS such as in Mada, Kala Balge LGA in November 2015 and in Marte, Marte LGA where an attack was initiated by a VBIED detonating next to an APC and in the defence of Bama where waves of VBIEDs (and PBIEDs) deployed from behind a belt of victim operated IEDs (in essence an improvised minefield) tried to halt or delay the towns liberation. Interestingly the enemy was defeated in all of the reported actions in which VBIEDs were used.
Operational Uses and Factors: Boko Haram uses IEDs to shape the battlespace defensively and offensively.
Defensively, small to medium sized victim operated devices IEDs have been used liberally on roads, around enemy positions and to booby trap liberated towns with the apparent objectives of route and area denial, attrition and delay.
This is sound practice as entire Battlegroups can be halted by dangerous and time consuming counter IED route clearance for a comparatively low investment in time, manpower, and resources. IEDs also channel friendly forces into killing zones for enemy ambushes, allowing the enemy to conserve their forces behind their IED belts and withdraw or counter attack at leisure.
The proliferation of IEDs also prevents the rapid exploitation of successes as significant friendly resources are absorbed with clearing IEDs and UXO from routes to and from the liberated areas, constraining patrolling and further advances.
Offensively IEDs have been used to interdict and ambush military convoys and patrols in Borno State, Extreme Nord Region, Lac Region and Diffa Region, increasing the lethality of ambushes and thus the probability of success again for minimal investment in time, manpower and resources.
The use of IED and combined small arms/ IED ambushes, disrupts freedom of movement for the security forces and civilians, provoking reaction from friendly forces. For example attacks along the route Nationale 1 (running North- South) particularly in Mayo Sava Department between Limani and Bonderi have forced repeated clearance operations by the Camerounians. Whatever the successes of these type of operations, they absorb valuable combat troops and supplies to the detriment of offensive operations.
Operationally the use of IEDs has a disproportionate effect on security forces, forcing them to modify routes, develop new tactics, undertake specialised training, restrict movement or accept casualties or invest in expensive (to buy and maintain) armoured vehicles and specialised equipment, and diverts intelligence and ISTAR assets to countering these attacks.
Strategic Uses and Factors: I would consider a strategic IED attack as the use of IEDs against targets of no immediate military value that support the strategic aims of Boko Haram, and other than sub surface IEDs these are the most prolific types.
Whilst these attacks appear aimed at shaping the campaign, diverting troops and resources and demonstrating will and capability by causing mass casualties, the nature of the attacks have changed with Boko Harams fortunes.
While PBIEDs retain their primacy, VBIEDs have not been used in a successful strategic attack. Pre March 2015, many VBIED attacks took place to the west of the Area of Operations in Gombe, Kano etc. or to the south east of Maiduguri. Although they were used tactically in March/ April 2015, to support the defence of Bama and attack Marte and Konduga (unsuccessfully), they were not deployed again until June with an attack in Maiduguri and then several were captured intact in N’Djamena and Faljari 40km west of Maiduguri.
VBIEDs whilst powerful weapons, need alot of explosives, a functioning vehicle, fuel for
the vehicle, a willing/ capable driver/ operator, a safe area to construct and store the device and the ability to deliver the device to target. The Valentine Offensive and subsequent Lafiya Dole Offensive, retook enemy safe areas and arms caches, interdicted their fuel supplies and pushed them further away from target areas. Boko Harams crude VBIEDs are easily detected by patrols or checkpoints thus are more vulnerable the further they have to travel to their targets.
Person borne devices on the other hand present a different set of problems, they need a smaller amount of explosive, to be concealable, to be transported from place of storage or manufacture and a willing/ reliable user. The enemy has used various ruses to ensure their devices get to target; such as using women, young girls, young boys, groups of young girls, mixed groups of boys and girls. Curiously the indoctrination of PBIEDs by the enemy remains quite strong, with remarkably few failing to detonate. Those that fail to detonate and are captured, do not appear to be fanatics but in most cases abductees. The enemies transport and mobility issues are also reflected in some PBIEDs using public transport to attempt to get to their targets, or being dropped off near targets and attempting to use bush paths or back roads to infiltrate, thus a large proportion detonate at checkpoints away from or outside their targets, reducing their strategic effect.
Strategic targets fall into roughly two categories; mass casualty targets and symbolic targets.
Mass casualty targets such as markets and mosques are favoured by Boko Haram, other targets include entertainment venues, motor parks, crowds etc. There are several cases of insurgents launching small arms attacks specifically to allow PBIEDs infiltrate communities and detonate and an incident of gunmen gathering people and then a PBIED detonating amongst them. These attacks and targets have no military value beyond causing casualties. The enemy in Cameroun has even launched attacks at wells and rivers, again a place where people must go to and generally congregate in large numbers. It is propaganda of the deed of the most extreme kind, demonstrating to civilians that the enemy still has the reach, will and capability to affect them, irrespective of battlefield fortunes.
Most strategic IED attacks in Borno State were in, around or approaching Maiduguri, this is logical as it is not only the administrative and military centre of the operation but its population is widely reviled by Boko Haram as immoral and rejectionist. A look at the patterns of attacks shows places like Ajilari Cross (where Mohammed Yusuf’s mosque used to be) and Baga Road Fish Market to have suffered a large number of attacks.
In Yobe at least 7 attacks took place in Damaturu, 3 in Potiskum and 1 in Wajir, Gujba LGA. These attacks targeted Markets and Mosques/ prayer grounds in the main. The attacks in Potiskum targeted a church, Shia Mosque and local vigilantes, the attack in Wajir successfully targeted a Grain Market.
Of the 9 attacks in Adamawa, one could define as strategic attacks 5 were in and around Yola, 2 in Madagali and one in Garkida, Gombi LGA. Of the 8 successful attacks 50% were in or near Markets, one each in a mosque and motor park. The attacks in Yola have mainly focussed on the Jimeta Area north of the city.
In Extreme Nord Region attacks have mainly been in Mayo Sava and Logone Et Chari Departments, with Mora and towns on the Eastern Approaches to the Gwoza Hills the worst hit, followed by Fotokol.
Symbolic IED attacks traditionally target pillars of society, such as symbols of the state (courts, government, police or security forces), economic targets and the population (religion, education, commerce, entertainment) these attacks show more planning and skill, however they are also rarer due to the amount of resource required to successfully execute them.
In Chad there have been attacks on the Public Safety Directorate and Police Academy in N’Djamena, a month later they attacked a market in N’Djamena and attempted to attack the CNPC Oil Refinery at N’Djarmaya, Chari Barguirmi 40km north of N’Djamena.
In Cameroun IEDs detonated in Maroua capital of Extreme Nord region, symbolic in itself as it had never been attacked before, targeting bars frequented by BIR and a market.
In Nigeria symbolic attacks have taken place in Kaduna, with a small arms and IED attack at a Government Office, in Kano with an attack on a Shia procession and in the GSM Market, an attack on Police Station and Market in Kuje and Nyanya, FCT, on a Church and then a small arms and IED attack on an Izala Mosque and PBIED attack on a restaurant popular with people from Borno State.
The selection of targets fits in with Boko Harams list of enemies: other Islamic sects, Christians, the Government, the security forces and of course the Nigerian people themselves. However the reasons for the selection of specific targets are unclear especially as some areas are repeatedly targeted, which could be for reasons specific to Boko Haram or due to familiarity with the area by that particular IED cell.
Boko Harams tactical and operational use of IEDs is fairly orthodox and is in keeping with most 20th and 21st Century guerrilla movements, whilst their strategic use is also in keeping with other fanatical terror groups such as Daesh, Algeria’s FIS or GIA, Peru’s Shining Path or Greece’s ELAM for whom war was literally for the people, alive or dead.
But what does this tell us about Boko Harams tactics, intent and concept of operations?
Attacks reduced after the February 2015 offensive picking up in May 2015 reaching their peak in July 2015. This could be attributed to Boko Haram consolidating after their earlier defeats and launching a ferocious counter attack with their easiest and most prolific weapon system. As Nigerian forces advanced deeper into enemy held territory, the enemy used IEDs tactically and operationally to delay the offensive while simultaneously striking into friendly and allied forces rear areas.
Attacks against major national or international economic targets, would have a more decisive strategic effect however the enemy appears to have identified the population as their target and seeks to impose their will by inflicting mass casualties.
The enemies’ tactics have been shaped by the operational environment, in which offensives and basic force protection counter measures such as patrols and checkpoints have reduced the mobility of their IEDs. Checkpoints, vigilante posts and security guard searches accounted for the second most numerous detonation points in both Nigeria and Cameroun. In both countries the incorporation of local vigilantes with local knowledge has foiled numerous attacks and prevented the enemy from penetrating deeper into their targets and causing more casualties.
The enemy has tried to counter this by deploying multiple devices to catch first responders or to exploit the confusion to detonate amongst the fleeing crowd. They have tried using young children, females, mixed groups of females and males, infiltrating by car, bicycle and public transport. Curiously despite their prolific use of females and the controversy of the GSS Chibok abductees, every attack actually claimed by Boko Haram has featured men, some of whom have conducted their attacks disguised as women.
The geographical spread of their attacks tells us less about their intent and more about their capabilities with the majority of their attacks taking place close to contested or enemy areas, with caches, IED factories located fairly close to their targets such as Faljari 40 km from Maiduguri or Awaisari less than 20km from Maiduguri. However their choice of targets could indicate that the enemy intent is to attempt to inflict a strategic defeat on friendly and allied forces by causing unacceptable civilian casualties (or at least that’s the most logical military explanation).
This logically informs a concept of operations in which Boko Haram, when under military pressure withdraws behind a screen of IEDs to delay, deny and attrite friendly forces while they attempt to keep friendly forces off balance with a constant stream of IEDs against their rear areas.
The security force response has been correct (despite appearances) however to degrade enemy capabilities to the point where they are negligible requires them to attack the IED networks. The two most important components for IEDs are the explosives and the IED makers. Whilst the only remedy for explosives already in the hands of the enemy is capturing or destroying it, robust methods to prevent further access to explosives must be considered, such as better security of explosive stores, armouries and agricultural supplies.
It is the opinion of this commentator that the enemies use of IEDs tactically and operationally in a conventional manner as operational support weapons or as defensive or offensive weapons to delay or divert friendly forces, is based on a logical military assessment as to their ability to fight conventionally and hold ground. Strategically IEDs are used to attack into the rear of friendly forces and cause casualties.
As barbaric as this tactic is, it is similar in intent to the aerial bombardments against population centres during World War 2 (or in Syria or Bosnia or the Iran/ Iraq War), which had the ostensible reason of depopulating urban industrial centres or destroying factories or communications centres but in reality for almost all the countries involved was simply a way to inflict as much damage on the opposing population and break their will.
The IED is a cheap, easy weapon to deploy and has a completely disproportionate effect to the cost of manufacture and deployment.
It is and will remain a weapon of choice irrespective of Boko Harams battlefield fortunes.