Towards the end of April the rainy season begins, dry riverbeds and ponds fill up, streams and rivers flood, low lying land near water features become swampy. Farmers will begin planting, herdsmen will bring cattle to graze and water, fishermen will return to rivers and ponds.
Warfare globally is seasonal and Nigeria is no exception, these changes make unprepared roads and tracks muddy and some impassable, rain clouds and storms affect air operations and radio communications.
From 2015 Boko Haram lost territory as well as the operational and strategic initiative, it also faced internal divisions in 2016 when Daesh recognised Abu Musab al Barnawi as its Amir renaming his Boko Haram faction- Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Abubakar Shekau left reverting his faction to Boko Haram’s original name of Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid Dawah wa’l Jihad (JAS). Following the split each faction more or less stuck to a distinct Area of Operations, with ISWAP operating roughly in northern Borno and Yobe State/ southern Diffa Region, Niger Republic and around Lake Chad and the Camerounian border, whilst JAS operated to the south of Maiduguri in the Sambisa Forest.
The increased number and tempo of operations by Nigerian and allied forces since the middle of 2016 have disrupted and displaced both groups. Op Rescue Finale in the Sambisa Forest displaced Boko Haram JAS toward the forests of Kala Balge LGA near the Camerounian border, which had been mainly dominated by the Mamman Nur faction of Boko Haram ISWAP, likewise Op Thunder by the MNJTF around the Mandaras and Op Rawan Kada by the MNJTF around Lake Chad, defeated and displaced Boko Haram ISWAP forces leading to them operating in places as far south as Biu.
The Nigerian government has characterised the successes of these operations as indicating Boko Haram is in disarray, fleeing or starving.
However, a review of Boko Harams actions shows that far from being in disarray, they appear to be conducting a deliberate set of preparatory actions.
We will review some of these enemy actions and analyse what this indicates in terms of the enemy’s situation and intent.
Deep Strikes/ Spoiling attacks: Both factions have used different types of pre-emptive attacks to disrupt friendly operations and try to achieve local successes. ISWAP has launched attacks on military posts and ambushed troops, using fairly distinct TTPs (Training, Tactics and Procedures). Following a battle drill consisting of preparation, with a period of build up to mass forces, vehicles and supplies, approaching using cover deception and concealment such as forests or even rain storms, to the attack; using armoured VBIEDs as fire support and motorcycles, trucks and even horses and camels for mobility, fight through and regroup/ withdrawal. A clear example took place in mid March as Nigerian forces from Damasak were conducting clearance operations around Lake Chad. ISWAP massed forces in villages in a 20-40km radius from Magumeri for several days, and then concentrated about 10km away. Their advance whilst during daylight used deception as they used vehicles resembling military vehicles. When the attack was launched it came from several flanks overwhelming the defenders with small arms and support weapons.
To recapture the base, friendly troops from Damasak counterattacked and spent several days pursuing the enemy, who withdrew in relatively good order with captured weapons and vehicles. Other attacks have followed a similar pattern of forcing friendly forces to divert assets to retaking captured bases and pursuing enemy forces disrupting friendly operations.
JAS on the other hand has used person borne IEDs (PBIEDs) to attack Maiduguri and its southern approaches. Whilst these attacks have shown an increase in number there has been very little innovation in TTPs and a marked decrease in lethality from their 2015 and 2016 IED campaigns.
The attacks have been mainly in southern Jere and Mafa LGA and Konduga LGA both on the approaches to Maiduguri from the Sambisa Forest.
Other than demonstrating the ability of Boko Haram to conduct deep attacks into Maiduguri the IED attacks have very little operational or strategic utility, in that majority of the checkpoints in and around Maiduguri are manned by vigilantes and other Federal paramilitaries such as the NSCDC, thus troops are not being diverted from other tasks to defend Maiduguri or to seek out IED facilities.
The inability of the PBIEDs to penetrate deep into Maiduguri or attack military or strategic targets such as the military or government simply reduces these attacks to mass casualty ‘terror raids’ designed to have a psychological effect on the civilian population.
Sustainment: there have been extensive raids on village throughout the Dry Season, especially in Camerouns’ Extreme Nord and Adamaou Regions as well as in Yobe, Borno and Adamawa State. These have included theft of foodstuffs, livestock, fuel and medicines as well as illegal taxation of food, money and other materials from villagers with reports of some targeted killings certain individuals such as herdsmen, fishermen, village heads and farmers linked to punishment for non-compliance.
Each faction again uses different TTPs; ISWAP robs and taxes villagers but has been at pains to and inform civilians they mean no harm. Likewise although they have abducted young females, they have mostly avoided gratuitously murdering males.
JAS on the other hand has maintained much the same raiding pattern as before, robbing villages, killing locals and burning the villages down, displacing and terrorising the population.
The use of middlemen and sympathisers to purchase goods in markets continues but it is difficult to judge from open sources whether this is on the increase or decline.
Civilian relations: the 2 factions again show a differing approach to civilian interactions. ISWAP has taken pains to show discrimination in their operations, reassuring villagers of their safety during robberies and attempting to avoid causing civilian casualties and using a less harsh interpretation of Sharia Law in areas under their control. JAS on the other hand has not attempted to soften its image or try and develop positive links with the civilian population and still revels in publicising its harsh treatment of civilians for alleged ‘crimes’.
Propaganda: looking at 4 of the most recent Boko Haram videos, one shows the murder of 3 men described as spies, the next were 2 directed at Cameroun and the 4th is more conventional directed at the Nigerian government and Buhari.
The first of the Cameroun videos involved footage of an attack, complete with explosions and Shekau delivering a speech in front of a Boko Haram flag refuting claims made earlier by Camerounian forces that they had rescued 5,000 hostages and killed 60 Boko Haram fighters. He also claimed the IED attacks on Maiduguri and ended on a high note by insulting various world leaders. The video ends with footage of captured equipment including Galil rifles, magazines, solar chargers, boots, clothing, passports and loose ammunition.
The second Cameroun video showed footage of an attack (very similar to that in the previous one) followed by men fully kitted out in uniform again mocking Camerounian forces and standing over a pile of kit which is again remarkably similar to that in the previous video.
The terrain appears flat, as opposed to the rocky hills of the Mandaras, which could indicate this fighting took place in Kala Balge or around Lake Chad.
Defensive operations: the enemy have used similar TTPs to defend their bases, particularly ambushes with IEDs, small arms and support weapons on attacking forces, IEDs on roads and tracks to deny areas to friendly forces and attrite men and materiel. Small arms are used for ambushes as well as in defence
On average contacts during patrols and clearance operations cause relatively low enemy casualties and prisoners and captured weapons. Whilst modern weapons and vehicles are routinely captured, dane guns and even bows and arrows are also prevalent. Very few wounded enemy are captured.
Abductions: reports of females and children being abducted have increased recently particularly in the border areas. Adult males do not appear to be targeted for abduction.
Espionage/ Counter espionage: Boko Haram’s use of children, women, IDPs and others as spies remains unchanged. What appears to have changed is the number defecting, being arrested or simply trying to go home. Whilst not in epidemic proportions this factor is a good indicator of cooperation by local people, enemy morale and friendly counter intelligence efforts.
The military has been keen to highlight the number of operations it conducts based on local tips and intelligence. It would appear the enemy has taken note of this with increased reports of murders of suspected spies and the propaganda video devoted to the issue.
Both sides struggle with counter espionage, friendly forces more so due to Boko Haram having the advantage of a vast pool of local men, women and children to utilise, who only need to lurk near bases to provide information. The constant influx of IDPs to government controlled towns, gives Boko Haram perfect cover to infiltrate their spies, who even when caught can simply claim to have been coerced or trying to surrender or return home. Most suspects appear to be identified by denouncements from local civilians, more intelligent and humane handling of captives appears to have led to the unravelling of several Boko Haram networks.
From the friendly forces perspective very few people go into Boko Haram territory, making infiltrating or recruiting agents very difficult.
Environmental: the rains which will reduce the number of crossing points over rivers, make untarred and unmaintained roads impassable, help conceal the noise of vehicle movements and wash away tracks. It will be easier to mass forces near to bases as the foliage will be thicker giving greater cover from aerial surveillance. More source of water will be available, however the period between harvesting and planting are traditionally periods of food scarcity in the region.
Situation Friendly Forces: Nigeria, Chad, Cameroun and Niger Republic are engaged in active combat operations (Benin Republic turns up for meetings). Active support in terms of ISR, training, equipment, advice and mentoring comes from France (the only foreign country with a complete battlegroup in the region), the US (with UAVs, contractors and Special Forces), UK (with training, equipment and ISR). Others such as Germany, Canada also assist with equipment and training.
Of the combatant nations, Nigeria despite having a sickly President is unusually politically stable but struggling with low oil prices and a recession, as well as the normal issues of corruption and inefficiency. The Army is still overstretched and under resourced.
Cameroun is facing a simmering civil unrest in Anglophone Cameroun and has a Presidential election next year. The armed forces are still overstretched.
Chad is politically stable, with President Deby having secured himself another 5 year term in 2016 and is comfortable under the protection of French Op Barkhane troops.
President Issoufou of Niger Republic won 92% of the vote in the 2016 election and announced this year he would not seek another term in office, (2021 is still a long time away for him to change his mind) other than the spill over insurgencies and the general poverty, Niger Republic is relatively stable.
Of the external allies, it is unlikely either of the winner of the French election will interfere with anti jihadi operations in the Sahel.
The US operations are sufficiently low profile to avoid being caught up in US domestic bickering and former US President Obama’s opaque and vast expansion of US military operations in Africa would be fairly difficult to unravel. They also fit in with the current US Presidents, narrative of fighting ‘radical Islamic terrorism’.
The UK whilst going through Brexit will be anxious to retain this foothold in Africa for its forces not only to demonstrate its capabilities and commitments but also to forestall being overshadowed by its erstwhile EU rivals France and Germany who both have significant combat forces in West Africa.
Boko Harams ostensible long term objective is the creation of a Caliphate in their own image in the Lake Chad Basin area. In the medium term in order to achieve this, they need to defeat Nigerian and allied forces and remove existing government and traditional structures.
Post 2014/ 15 they no longer have the strength to confront Nigerian and allied forces on equal terms, thus must use asymmetric warfare in the short term to prolong the conflict, making it as costly as possible for friendly forces whilst building up their strength and burnishing their ideological credentials for the future conflict.
If viewed in this context, we can try to understand the enemies’ intent for the rainy season based on their actions.
JAS’s use of PBIEDs to conduct deep strikes on Maiduguri can best be compared to the World War 2 British Bomber campaign and German blitz. Whilst both had an overt military rationale of depopulating cities, destroying transport and industry, in fact the bomber campaign was the only way for Britain to strike at Nazi Germany after a series of land defeats. The Germans explicitly characterised their campaign as revenge for the British bomber raids expending huge resources attacking cities in competition with purely military targets in order to break the will of the British populace. Whilst neither succeeded psychologically, militarily the Germans had to devote huge resources to defending their capital and the Ruhr depriving the battlefronts of fighters, artillery and manpower.
JAS’s PBIED campaign has not had the same effect; despite its sustained tempo it hasn’t overwhelmed the network of vigilante and paramilitary checkpoints and patrols around Maiduguri nor will much new equipment be needed to be diverted or brought in as the most effective counter IED tool so far has been the human eye and local knowledge, (although dogs now appear to be popular).
But from a strategic viewpoint their ability to resuscitate their IED networks and launch an IED campaign against Maiduguri indicates that JAS structures are sufficiently robust to regenerate after being displaced and absorbing losses. In other words, whilst they might be displaced they are not near destroyed or defeated.
Whilst this might seem a gloomy assessment the corollary is that this campaign is much less effective than previous ones, devices have not increased in sophistication, instead they are less lethal and reliable possibly indicating that more skilled makers have been killed, displaced or captured and/ or components are harder to source. A higher number of attackers surrender or abandon their devices potentially indicating that their ability to indoctrinate or intimidate captives is weakening.
Just as interesting is the complete lack of innovation in their tactics. Beyond attempting to attack in the hours of darkness, there have been no attempts to utilise the multiple PBIEDs to attack in waves or staggers or use one as a lure or deception or another as a secondary. This could again be attributed to the reduced psychological preparation of the attackers who tend to stick together, thus killing each other with their detonation and survivors also tend to flee rather than press home their attack. The attackers have not been able to penetrate deep into Maiduguri focussing on the southern suburbs of Maiduguri particularly Muna Garage either due a personal vendetta, the IDP camp or simply its proximity to IED making facilities mean that most PBIEDs have to pass through the area and thus are detected at local checkpoints or else they seek to detonate as soon as possible. Directed against military patrols or convoys these PBIEDs could wreak havoc yet they are used strategically not operationally.
ISWAP on the contrary has used spoiling attacks to achieve localised operational objectives of diverting, disrupting and distracting friendly forces, resupplying from captured arms and equipment and inflicting defeats and casualties. Whilst these have not been able to prevent friendly forces from imposing their will, it has helped shape the battle space in that friendly forces must devote more resources to force protection as well as divert forces to either hunt enemy concentrations or pursue attackers.
The relatively low number of enemy casualties and weapons captured suggests the enemy prioritizes withdrawing to conserve their strength rather than determined resistance in the face of superior friendly forces. It could also indicate that patrols general engage screening forces armed with obsolete weapons allowing main forces to withdraw.
ISWAP’s medium to long term agenda can be discerned from their interactions with the civilian population whom they rob, tax and abduct with impunity but in a structured manner, guaranteeing their lives as long as they remain obey ISWAPs rules. This is an intelligent tactic as it encourages locals to remain in their villages, producing food (which they can steal and tax), going to markets (which they can rob and tax) and remain in the operational area making it more difficult for friendly forces to target them due to the presence of civilians. In contrasts with JASs’ scorched earth tactics terrorises villagers, leaves them with nothing to sustain themselves and displaces them and reportedly uses arbitrary and draconian punishments.
It should not be thought however that ISWAP is less brutal than JAS, as reports of the murder of a herdsman from Baga area who fled rather than pay tax with his family abducted and flock stolen after his death indicates. However their use of violence appears to be selective and rule bound.
Both factions co-opt legitimate trade and use middlemen to buy fuel and other supplies at the same time there are hints that the huge increase in criminality around Kaduna/ Abuja/ Kogi area, with kidnap for ransom, armed robbery and cattle rustling could be either directly supporting Boko Haram or else former Boko Haram fighters plying their trade elsewhere. Cattle rustling and armed banditry in Adamaoua Region, Cameroun also appears to be on the increase. Whilst there is no evidence of Boko Haram links, there have been numerous arrests in the Kogi area by the DSS of alleged Boko Haram operatives.
The abduction of females and children would be curious for a defeated, starving and fleeing foe as they would need to divert resources to feeding and guarding them. However a force preparing for an offensive might need additional people to act as camp slaves, spies, bearers and PBIEDs as well as sex slaves for their fighters to boost morale.
Enemy propaganda has been the strongest indicator of potential tends for the rainy season campaign, videos have been in French, Hausa, Fulani and Kanuri languages, with messaging not only covering the standard topics of berating Nigeria but specifically Cameroun and Camerounian forces.
Boko Haram has traditionally used Cameroun for strategic depth, abstaining from attacks until Camerounian forces began to attack them in 2014. They have exploited the gaps in Camerounian forces as well as the lack of coordination with Nigeria to their advantage however, several joint operations such as Op Alpha, Op Thunder 1 & 2, Op Rawan Kada etc by Nigerian and Camerounian units have not only inflicted tactical defeats on Boko Haram forces but undermined their aura of cross border impunity as evinced by Shekaus almost instantaneous and irritable response to the claim of Camerounian forces to have killed 60 of his men and liberated 5,000 hostages.
This focus on Cameroun could be indicate they are struggling with the joint operations and/ or a warning to Cameroun that they will be the new focus of operations. They could be hoping that Biya facing challenges in Anglophone Cameroun in the run up to the 2018 elections might opt for a quiet life with an informal truce in Extreme Nord Region, allowing Boko Haram the safe areas they need to rebuild and resupply their forces.
From these factors, it can be assessed that contrary to the Nigerian Governments narrative of Boko Haram being defeated and fleeing or there being violent tensions between the ISWAP and JAS, in fact both factions appear to be able to operate in each other’s territory with relative freedom.
JAS having been defeated in the Sambisa Area, appears to have withdrawn in fairly good order to Kala Balge and Cameroun. Despite losses in hostages, fighters, vehicles, food, fuel and weapons they responded almost immediately with a strategic propaganda campaign, an IED campaign against Maiduguri and have reinfiltrated back into Jere, Mafa and Konduga LGA, the areas immediately surrounding Maiduguri such as with a speed that indicates these were planned and prepared for actions.
Whilst Maiduguri has always been an obsession for Shekau, vital ground to them are the Mandara Mountains and the strategic depth afforded by Cameroun up to and beyond Waza Forest Reserve.
Thus it is likely that key battles in the rainy season will seek to isolate friendly forces and deny them freedom of movement in and around Gwoza, Bama and Kale Balge LGAs in Nigeria and Logone et Chari, Mayo Sava and Mayo Tsanaga Department in Cameroun, so as to maintain or regain control of the approaches to the Mandara Mountains.
It is likely that IEDs attacks on Maiduguri as well as towns and cities in Cameroun will continue in order to maintain pressure on military and civil authorities, as well as raids and ambushes in Jere, Konduga, Damboa and Askira Uba LGAs as Boko Haram forces settle back into Sambisa Forest.
To the north however Boko Haram ISWAP could be subject to different pressures. External factors such as the impending defeat of Daesh in the Middle East and Libya, the amalgamation of Ansar Dine, Katiba Macina, al Mourabitoun and AQIM into Jama’ah Nusrah al-Islam wal Muslimin- Group for the support of Islam and Muslims– (JNIM) under Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly in the Sahel. These Al Qaeda affiliated groups felt pressured by the actions of Daesh affiliated groups in Libya, the Sahel and northern Nigeria.
The Al Qaeda groups are under pressure from Algerian, French and French allied forces whilst Daesh in Iraq, Syria and Somalia are struggling, with only Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) holding on which like ISWAP operates in a tri border area the Liptako -Gourma bordering Mali/ Burkina Faso/ Niger Republic.
Boko Harams links to the wider Sahelian jihad were mainly through MUJAO, the remnants of which became Al Murabitoun. The Leader of ISGS Adnan Abou Walid al Sahraoui is also ex MUJAO.
These external factors are important as ISWAP not only needs to defend itself from Nigerian and allied forces but maintain its contacts with the wider Daesh collective, as well as avoid conflict with JNIM, particularly over the trans Sahelian people, narcotics and contraband smuggling routes.
Cut off from supply routes by al Qaeda and friendly operations in and around Lake Chad, ISWAP must live off what remains of the population, and maintain good relationships with local civilians in order to maintain the civilian ‘fish’ in which they swim as per Maoist doctrine.
Curiously of the two Boko Haram factions, it is Daesh affiliated ISWAP that adheres most closely to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri’ General Guidelines on Jihad, such as not creating problems for civilians, attacking Muslims, mosques and avoiding attacks on Christians unless provoked. JAS on the other hand adheres much more closely to Daeshs view that anyone not in total agreement with them is an infidel and worthy of death or enslavement.
It is likely that with the return of the rainy season Boko Haram ISWAP will seek to regain control of the Niger/ Nigeria border particularly the crossing points of the Komadougou River and its approaches as well as the Lake Chad islands and force friendly forces to withdraw by attempting to isolate their bases with IEDs and ambushes along lines of communications and then massing forces and destroying them one by one until the cost of retaking, rebuilding and sustaining those bases becomes too great. This will give ISWAP control of a portion of the smuggling routes and an avenue to tax fish, cattle and other agricultural produce.
In summary it is unlikely that either Boko Haram faction would attempt a general offensive. The most likely course of action is to try and secure their rear areas in order to create a strategic depth and an operational stalemate with which they can prepare for the next round of fighting. If all goes according to plan it is likely this could be 2018/19 in which Cameroun and then Nigeria go to the polls, Europe will be dealing with Brexit and the US with its mid term elections.
Although both factions are still combat effective they are weakened and subject to internal and external pressures, whilst friendly forces now field much better trained and led troops, have better equipment and are better coordinated especially between Nigeria, Niger Republic and Cameroun, however it is likely that Nigerian troops particularly at the borders and around Sambisa Forest are in for another year of hard, miserable patrols, IEDs and frustrating fighting with a brutal and slippery foe.