On 7th June 2017, gunmen from Boko Haram’s Jama’a Al as Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l Jihad (Boko Haram JAS) faction launched a raid on Maiduguri, Borno State concurrently launching one of their more successful suicide attacks on another part of the capital.
This was the first large scale attack on Maiduguri in almost 18 months and was followed 2 days later by a video featuring Abubakar Shekau and footage from the attack.
We will look at this raid, what it tells us about Boko Haram’s current operations and the state of the counter insurgency operation
The enemy moved from the Sambisa Forest (presumably) to the area around Molai, concentrating on the outskirts of Ali Dawari Village, Jere LGA, 4km south west of Maiduguri. Locals and vigilantes reportedly warned the security forces which were apparently unheeded.
Ali Dawari had been attacked several times by Boko Haram during the insurgency and served as a transit point for Person Based IEDs (PBIEDs) attempting to enter the city as well as other attacks. In response a defensive ditch had apparently been dug around the village but it is not clear if it is contiguous.
The Attack-Phase 1- Ali Dawari:
Attacking Ali Dawari around 3.00pm, the enemy utilised at least 2 x pick up trucks carrying up to 10 dismounts and up to 2 pick up trucks / technicals mounted with what appeared to be 14.5mm AAA guns as fire support and at least 2 x motorcycles.
The Boko Haram video showed dismounts filling in the defensive berm (once again proving the old adage that an obstacle not covered by fire is not a proper obstacle) and the technicals manoeuvring and firing as they approached the village, eventually pushing in surrounded by a mass of dismounts, with limited return fire. A solitary motorcycle, shadows the technical as they attack (possibly a command element?).
The video then show’s what looks like a rudimentary and poorly built fighting position, which Boko Haram has captured, there are no bodies or blood spatters indicating that friendly forces most likely took no casualties and withdrew when they lost the firefight.
Enemy fire discipline and weapon handling is universally poor, with little or no concentrated or aimed fire seen.
Having overrun the village, local residents fled on foot to Maiduguri while it appears Boko Haram looted as much as they could from the military outpost, from the clothing it would appear to be at least platoon strength.
The Attack-Phase 2- Jiddari Polo:
Around 5.55pm the enemy pushed up towards the centre of the city, advancing towards Jiddarri Polo, a Maiduguri district, friendly forces finally responded with elements of the Police Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) and 7 Division counter attacking with air support. Upon their defeat, the enemy appears to have withdrawn in reasonably good order.
The Attack-Phase 3- Lake Chad Basin Development Authority:
Whilst the fighting was going on in the south west of the city, the enemy launched a suicide bombing attack to the east in the vicinity of Goni Kachallari Village, Jere LGA in and around the Lake Chad Basin Development Authority (CBDA) Offices along the Maiduguri-Dikwa Road.
Up to 4 PBIEDs (reports vary between 4 males or 3 males and 1 female) infiltrated the area.
The first detonated outside a mosque opposite the College of Agriculture as evening prayers ended killing themselves and 6 others and wounding 18 around 8.45pm, another attempted to attack a mosque within the CBDA Quarters but was sighted by a vigilante who intercepted him as he detonated killing himself and 3 others, another apparently infiltrated the Lake Chad Research institute premises looking for a target and ended up detonating in a private house killing himself and 1 occupant. The fourth detonated at a coffee vendors stand near a mosque killing themselves and one other.
Withdrawal: it is unclear which direction the enemy withdrew through but it is likely to have been the same way they entered in order to utilise their improvised bridges over the defensive ditches and breaches in the earth embankments. The next day a suspected male PBIED was shot and detonated in Jiddari Polo killing only himself. One other was captured alive.
Aftermath: Whilst friendly casualty figures have not been released, heavy military casualties are unlikely as Boko Haram would not have been shy about showing corpses or signs of blood spatter.
Total civilian and PBIED casualties were given as 18 with 24 wounded of which 3 reportedly died. Enemy casualties are unknown.
On the 10th, Boko Haram released a 23 minute video featuring footage purported to be of the attack and captured items such as ammunition, ID cards, Code of Conduct booklets, mobile phones, boots, clothing and other random paraphernalia.
It concluded with a speech by Abubakar Shekau standing in front of an Igirigi APC and 2 x Otokar, Cobra type vehicles backed by armed fighters, in a forested environment, in which he claimed responsibility for the attack and gave (by his standards) a fairly coherent rant.
One can infer certain things about the insurgency from the video of this raid.
With the caveat that the author is not a trained image analyst, the video appears to show the same 2 pairs of vehicles over and over again, I could identify at most 4 distinct pick up trucks, with a car appearing randomly in shot and only 2 motorcycles. This could indicate that Boko Haram JAS does not have that many operational vehicles left, or else did not wish to risk losing all of them in this operation.
Shekau was seen posing with an Igirigi APC and 2 x Otokar Cobras, prestige weapon systems which would have featured in the video if they had been part of the attack. Their absence could either be due to the fact that Shekau is not physically collocated with the actual fighting group (something he alluded to) or as mentioned above Boko Haram JAS wished to avoid losing all its vehicles in a risky attack.
The raid could have featured more vehicles that were not shown either because they were not near the cameraman or because Boko Harm wants to hide their numbers but as the vide seemed to explicitly aim to demonstrate strength and resilience this is improbable.
Propaganda and Influence
The rapidity with which the video was produced and released could indicate that this raid had a propaganda as well as military and resupply objective.
The target audiences can be guessed by the use of Arabic, Hausa and Fulani in the video, as well as images of Arab jihadis such as al Zarqawi and the comparatively reasonable performance and speech by Shekau. The purpose could possibly be to demonstrate to potential backers that Boko Haram JAS is still a going concern.
Leadership structure: the fighter displaying the weapons was filmed from neck down, not showing his face. Although he spoke at length he was not identified. Shekau on the other hand had a full shot with vehicles and well equipped fighters. This demonstrates that Shekau wishes to project the image of command and strength.
Whilst he is happy to give the actual fighters publicity he is keen to ensure he is the identifiable ‘brand’ of Boko Haram JAS. This contrast with Daesh or Boko Haram ISWAP who regularly feature other commanders.
It could be that Boko Harams JAS practice of prominently featuring Shekau is a function of his personality but it also gives his junior commanders a form of immunity as the focus of the military is on killing Shekau. Boko Haram ISWAPs practice however demonstrates resilience, in that as no commander is given excessive primacy, they can easily regenerate if one is killed
2017 Ramadan Offensive
It has become an unfortunate tradition for Islamist fundamentalist terror groups to increase attacks during Ramadan, of which Boko Haram is no exception.
Whilst Boko Harams offensives do not necessarily strictly comply with strict phasing’s, it is convenient to break them down thus
- Preparation of the Battlespace
- Shaping the Battlespace
- Isolating the Battlespace
- The Attack
- The Defence
Preparation of the Battlespace: following on from the Army’s successful dry season operations such as Op Rescue Finale, the enemy was forced to withdraw from the Sambisa Forest and areas surrounding Maiduguri to the Rann Forest in Kala Balge LGA. Whilst this was an inconvenience the enemy did not lose significant manpower in this action and appears to have withdrawn in good order.
They appear to have replenished their food stocks through predatory raids on local villages as well as abducting boys and girls from isolated Camerounian and Nigeran villages. It is unclear how they sourced arms, fuel and ammunition, but one can assume some of these items were bought commercially from middlemen and others through stolen in raids and ambushes.
Shaping the Battlespace: with apparently limited resources the enemy regenerated its IED networks and deployed waves of PBIEDs mainly against Maiduguri and Mayo Sava Department.
The ad hoc nature of the IED campaign can be determined from the comparatively low lethality of the devices, some of which fail to function, the relative ease with which attackers are detected as well as reduced indoctrination, leading some attackers to surrender or throw away their devices.
The vast majority detonated on the outskirts of Maiduguri on the southern and eastern approaches and whilst they have had limited direct military utility, they served the strategic purpose of diverting attention (particularly of vigilantes), whilst Boko Haram JAS reinfiltrated the Sambisa Forest.
As the rainy season advanced the enemy built up their strength in Konduga LGA and Jere LGA dominating the hinterland through their presence and predatory terror raids on civilians, thus conditioning locals to avoid the bush.
Isolating the Battlespace: Boko Harams ability to isolate the battlespace is much reduced, but by taking advantage of the rainy season which reduces security force mobility (a form of environmental isolation) and dominating the hinterland with terror attacks, ambushes and raids on villages, in essence isolating most of rural parts of the southern and eastern axis of Maiduguri, confining movement to main roads in armed convoys and restricting civilian activities to the towns garrisoned by the military, thereby giving themselves relative freedom of movement and denying it to vigilantes and civilians as well as some friendly forces .
The Attack: the raid on Maiduguri represents a major action on this axis, however it is likely that there will be more. Although Maiduguri is the headliner, attacks on Bama, Gwoza, Biu or any other towns around Sambisa or south of Maiduguri would present reasonable targets. The attacks are likely to be limited to raids as opposed to general offensives in which massed Boko Haram fighters attack towns and villages.
The Defence: it is likely that the Nigerian security forces will launch a limited operation in response to this attack, it is likely that Boko Haram will contest this with IEDs and ambushes and then withdraw deeper into the Sambisa Forest or if it is a sustained offensive once again displace to Kala Balge LGA.
The enemy raid was a tactical and operational success for Boko Haram JAS stemming directly from the failure of friendly forces to fix and destroy the enemy in the Sambisa and Rann Forests.
Whilst fighting in these vast forested areas are exceptionally difficult military tasks, it is clear that the enemy is comfortable with the seasonal pattern of friendly forces clearing and holding during the dry season, while enemy forces, withdraw, move and then reinfiltrate during the rainy season.
Despite their poor personal military skills the enemy is still clearly a competent foe, having successfully breached several obstacles, infiltrated a heavily militarised area in broad daylight, overrun friendly positions and then withdrawn with their captured loot. They have shown themselves to be adept at concentrating their forces and moving them around without response even when detected.
Operationally Boko Harm JAS has demonstrated that still has the ability to resource, lead and coordinate attacks such as these and that they are in no way defeated in the Sambisa Forest area.
Friendly forces on the other hand display several tactical errors. Although the video does not give a full perspective, the defensive position shown was of the same generally poor construction and siting that the author has witnessed throughout Nigeria in general and the North East in particular. There was no evidence of indirect fire from friendly forces or any other form of defensive structures other than the berm, which did not appear to be regularly patrolled or covered by fire.
Operationally, friendly forces screen of vigilantes who patrol the outlying villages and forests seems to have worked well passing information about the build up as it was going on, however the information was not acted on.
A major raid such as this during Ramadan would have been intricately planned with resources husbanded, routes reconnoitred and manpower assembled, indicating it was a strategic effort for Boko Haram. It was most likely brought forward to coincide with the Acting Presidents visit for maximum impact and in the hope the visit would be cancelled.
Compared to previous Boko Haram Ramadan offensives which spanned multiple states and countries from Borno to Plateau State, as well as Niger Republic and Cameroun, with IED, PBIED and VBIED attacks as well as offensives featuring massed vehicles, capturing towns and LGAs, few of which were even mentioned in Boko Haram propaganda, a rapidly trumpeted raid into a Maiduguri suburb indicates that Boko Haram JAS is a much weakened force.
While its use of PBIEDs demonstrates its resilience and ability to regenerate its IED logistics chains most attacks have been unsuccessful. The CBDA compound was one of the more successful and that required a full scale raid on another part of town for the bombers to penetrate deeply enough. Even then further casualties were averted by vigilantes and other active security measures.
It is likely that there will be more attacks in the Ramadan period, however unlike previous years it would appear that they would have the more limited objectives of gathering stores, maintaining an offensive spirit and producing propaganda.
The video’s tenor with a much more restrained Shekau and featuring foreign jihadis is clearly a pitch to the wider jihadi-sphere, seeking patronage either from Middle Eastern sponsors or alliance with al Qaeda affiliates or even Daesh, which is facing imminent defeat and might be keen to forgive and forget and expand its footprint by adopting as many ‘franchises’ as possible around the globe.
Whilst Boko Haram JAS might not be as strong as it used to be it remains a potent threat, with the tactical and operational skills to conduct deep penetration raids such as this and successfully withdraw.
However the apparent lack of resources visible in their video and low quality IEDs indicate a significant weakness in the group, such as in skilled bomb makers, funds and combat supplies, hence the non to subtle pitch to any interested foreign sponsor.
Whilst this successful raid might appear to be an operational defeat for the Nigerian military it could be argued that it is actually demonstrates that strategically slowly but surely Boko Haram JAS is weakening and being defeated.