Battle of the FOBS- Boko Haram ISWAPs 2018 Rainy Season Offensive (2)

In the previous instalment the author concluded that Boko Haram ISWAP has been conducting a successful campaign of spoiling attacks to prevent friendly forces from dominating Northern Borno and Yobe States with FOBs in order to forestall a friendly dry season offensive.

Based on a reading of events it is assumed that Boko Haram ISWAP has the ability to move large convoys of up to or over 10 vehicles and motorcycles distances of 150-250km, however they do not have the ability to defend their gains or sustain operations longer than a 12-24 hour period.

To ensure success the enemy uses a large force of mounted and dismounted fighters to outnumber and outgun friendly forces. The enemy’s current and future ops are sustained with materiel stolen from captured FOBs.

We can now consider the operational and tactical dimensions of the campaign.

Operational:

The campaign thus far can be divided into 4 stages

FOB at Zari

Shaping/ Enabling Operations:  one can make a reasoned deduction that to prepare for this offensive Boko Haram ISWAP needed funds, arms, ammunition and fighters and to train new fighters.

Whilst the objectives of the raid on Rann are not known, one reason could have been to give fighters combat experience and capture arms and equipment. The abductions appear to be opportunistic. The raid on Dapchi appears to have been a kidnap for ransom and PR operation.

The attacks in Diffa and BlaBrin when seen in the context of the ongoing trials of Boko Haram suspects in Niger Republic could be considered pre-emptive attacks to intimidate Nigerien forces against interference with Boko Haram ISWAP operations, fixing them into a defensive posture and securing Boko Haram ISWAPs flanks.

Battle Preparation: another reasoned deduction would be that during the period of March to June 2018, Boko Haram ISWAP was buying and stockpiling weapons and ammunition, recruiting and training fighters and commanders, mercenary specialists such as mortar/ rocket makers/ operators, IED and VBIED makers, experienced commanders and guides who can navigate their way through the marshy terrain from Lake Chad to Bama or Jakana.  One would also assume that that reconnaissance operations were taking place against targets, harbour locations were being selected and plans finalised.

The Attack:the enemy has attacked broadly along the Damasak-Kukuwau-Baga axis. Initial attacks  on Gajiram were separated by a month from the attack on Jilli, after which they came in 5-7 days interval until 03 August, when attacks came almost every 3 days.

Guzamala LGA saw the largest number of attacks concentrated mainly in July- August 2018. The nature of the attacks indicate that Boko Haram ISWAP seeks to reduce the Nigerian military presence in Northern Borno and Yobe by attrition of men and materiel, capture weapons and equipment and generate propaganda in order to demoralise friendly forces and the local population.

Next stage: the rainy season has several months to run thus it is logical to assume the enemy will continue their attacks to prevent friendly forces from being established prior to the dry season. With the onset of the dry season it is likely that the enemy will utilise the more accessible terrain and newly acquired vehicles and ammunition to defeat the expected friendly offensive. If the offensive can be defeated early through spoiling attacks or reduced from a clear and hold type of operation to a raid and withdraw, then the enemy retains control of the vital Lake Chad/ Niger Republic border area.

Tactical

The enemy’s tactics, techniques and procedures can be guessed from their actions and propaganda videos with some assumptions.

For the purpose of this piece I have broken the enemy’s attacks into 10 phases. I will look at these phases in terms of the enemy’s actions, what the phase means and friendly forces actions (or lack of);

1)       Research and Reconnaissance:

Enemy: it must be assumed that the enemy conducts hostile reconnaissance of friendly positions, noting routines, entry points, vulnerable points, weapon systems, defences, obstacles, positions of accommodation, armouries, communications, support weapons etc. This reconnaissance will most likely be done by civilian sympathisers or information extracted from civilians who work on or have access to the base or its environs. It should also be assumed that the enemy will reconnoitre the route from their base areas to their concentration areas.

Terrain analysis ( copyright-globalsecurity.org)

What does it mean: there will always be a period that the enemy is conducting reconnaissance. By various methods this period can be swung to the defenders advantage or at least used to provide early warning of an attack.

Friendly forces actions:  The first and most important element of defence (or any operation) is a map appreciation. A map (and/or satellite photos) of the given area is used to understand the local area, identifying natural obstacles, roads, bridges, rivers, areas of cover like gullies, forests, farms, villages, hills, avenues of approach etc. This helps a defender prioritise their defences and task patrols when the unit deploys. Aggressive foot and vehicle patrols around the base are the best way to defeat hostile reconnaissance although it is difficult but not impossible to detect. Other measures include strict control of civilians entering bases and constant surveillance of them, a good understanding of the normal pattern of life in the local area; when farmers, traders, students, workers go out or come back, how many they are, routes used, market days etc. These factors will not defeat hostile reconnaissance in its entirety but they will make it harder for the enemy and easier to detect anomalies.

2)       Orders and planning:

Enemy: enemy propaganda videos always show a sequence of orders, how detailed these are is unclear, however it is clear the enemy takes the time to formulate plans and brief them to key subordinates.

Boko Haram ISWAP Orders Group

What does it mean:  it demonstrates that the enemy relies on a planned sequence of events in order to conduct attacks and understands the importance of disseminating this plan to its subordinates.  This indicates that through training and experience (or both) the enemy possesses the requisite planning skills and capability to manage the tactics and logistics of these operations and has a defined command hierarchy

Friendly forces actions: understanding the enemies OODA (Observation-Orientation_ Decision-Action) loop will allow friendly forces to break in to it. As above the enemy must gather information, use that information to plan and then disseminate that plan and act on it. Interfering with any of these stages, disrupts the enemies effectiveness.

3)       Concentration:

Enemy: it is assumed that for their security,  fighters, weapons, ammunition and vehicles are kept separately in different camps. It is thus assumed that each element will move to and concentrate at a particular point, at a given time prior to an attack. This theory is borne out by testimony from villagers of ‘Boko Haram boys’ being seen in the bush several days prior to an attack. This concentration area can be anything from 5-20km from the target

What does it mean:  the enemy must reconnoitre these areas and identify places where they can harbour up. The characteristics of harbour areas are the same for insurgents and conventional forces, cover from view, space for vehicles, entry and exit points etc.

Friendly forces actions:  through a map appreciation supported by ISR and recce patrols friendly forces can identify potential harbour areas in a 5-20km radius of FOBs and maintain overwatch again with patrols or ISR, sensitise locals to communicate immediately they see any unusual activity and most importantly develop Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to respond to any positively identified enemy presence with artillery, air strikes or hasty attacks. The enemy is extremely vulnerable at this stage to defeat and destruction as they are concentrated in a relatively confined space, not deployed for combat and have a long distance to withdraw. This is one of the key phases in which to identify and neutralise the enemy

4)       The Approach:

Enemy: the enemy generally approaches with vehicles in column with motorcycles on the flanks and circling around the column, at times masquerading as Nigerian forces, in the event they cannot sustain the subterfuge they are generally careful not to molest civilians and warn them to leave.

What does it mean: the enemy must leave its harbour to attack friendly forces, to do this safely they must use a combination of speed, stealth, camouflage and deception.  The enemy at this point is once more vulnerable to detection and interdiction.

Friendly forces actions: Friendly forces should be postured to respond to any such approach. Early warning can be given by local villagers, standing patrols, observation points, ISR assets etc. Points should be identified where artillery and indirect fire can be used to neutralise the enemy such as ford or bridges over streams, gaps in walls or berms, road junctions etc.

5)       The Attack:

Enemy: The enemy attacks follow a broad pattern of dismounted fighters advancing towards the target engaging the friendly forces whilst crew served weapons mounted on pick ups trucks remain a tactical bound behind the dismounts suppressing friendly positions. Depending on what is available the enemy appears to attempt to bombard the target with mortars, homemade rockets, recoilless rifles or armoured VBIEDs. The dismounts draw fire and waste friendly ammunition, whilst vehicles manoeuvre around the target and suppress friendly strongpoints.

Bombardment with homemade rockets

What does it mean: the enemies attack uses fire support and manoeuvre to close with friendly positions. This requires some form of command and coordination. It also means whilst undertaking these actions they are essentially are fixed outside the FOB and thus vulnerable to fire, interdiction and counter attack

The Attack

Friendly forces actions: the enemy needs to keep their vehicles in range of the FOB as well as their dismounted fighters meaning that they can be effectively targeted by friendly fire. Thus a well laid out position with interlocking and overlapping arcs of fire for its direct fire weapons such as machine guns, AAA guns, etc can effectively neutralise advancing dismounted fighters. Enemy vehicle mounted and other fire support can be neutralised with direct fire weapons, if fired more accurately and/or in interlocking arcs or with indirect fire weapons such as mortars, artillery or tripod mounted machine guns. All of these are aided by certain practical steps, such as (again) a map appreciation, which will identify areas of natural cover such as rivers, dry river beds, gullies, buildings etc that the enemy can hide behind. Clearing the area around the base of grass and trees up to the effective range of personal weapons at least removes enemy cover from view. Snipers or sharpshooters are very effective in neutralising key personnel such as commanders, drivers, motorcycle resupply drivers or crew served weapon operators.

The deployment of dismounted fighters and soft skin vehicles can also be negated by the use of command detonated directional anti personnel mines such as the claymore or MON 50. These devices could be easily improvised (i.e. like the Civil War era Ogbunigwe), tactically placed and hidden around the position, particularly on vulnerable points like crossings, or in dead ground like gullies, they would be devastating for any attacker.

Air power is much loved by the Nigerian forces but this system has many flaws. Single seater fast jets like the Alphajet are not the most effective platform against small fast moving targets like vehicles, motorcycles or people, attack helicopters are the best and most effective platforms. All aircraft work best when they can be guided onto positively identified targets by observers either on the ground or failing that in the air via ISR platforms.

6)       Break In:

Enemy: using fire and manoeuvre the enemy tends to close with the target, in order to breach its perimeter. At this point even if friendly air support is available it is generally unable to interdict, once the enemy has breached the perimeter, it generally overruns the position as friendly forces withdraw

Enemy fighter on perimeter berm

What does it mean: An obstacle hinders movement, once the enemy reaches the perimeter, they must halt even if only momentarily to get through it. Vehicles close to the berm will have their fields of fire restricted and even vehicles far off will be restricted by the risk of hitting own troops.

Friendly forces actions: the enemy getting close enough to breach, is generally a bad thing, however in a well planned defence, this also presents an opportunity to inflict casualties on the enemy with anti personnel, command detonated mines, booby traps etc. It is also an opportunity to call down final protective fire from machine guns, mortars and artillery around the perimeter of the FOB destroying any enemy in the open

7)        Fight Through:

Enemy: once the enemy has breached the perimeter they generally advance through the friendly position, clearing structures and killing and capturing stragglers

Enemy fighting through friendly tents

What does it mean: at this point the crisis of the battle has been reached.

Friendly forces actions: at this point options are limited however this still presents an opportunity to inflict casualties on the enemy and deny them the base. By building further defences and obstacles inside the perimeter fence, once the enemy breaches the perimeter, they will be forced to continue fighting in order to regain control. Having a reinforced bunker that defenders can withdraw to would also be useful. Bearing in mind that at this point the enemy would have fought over a distance for several hours, will have suffered casualties and be most likely low on ammunition, a well laid out base will channel attackers into killing zones preventing them from advancing further. In the event that friendly forces cannot hold the attackers off then an orderly fighting withdrawal will preserve the unit for a counter attack. Currently friendly forces seem to disperse from the enemy in a disorganised manner allowing the enemy to pick them off individually

8)       Acquire:

Enemy: once the position is clear the enemy loots weapons, equipment, food stuffs, vehicles and any other materiel it can remove. This process generally takes place at night and the enemy generally burns anything it can’t take

What does it mean: this is a key phase in the enemies operation. The enemy is also extremely vulnerable at this point as they will be dealing with casualties and more importantly fixed in the base and more or less unable to defend it if attacked

Captured weapons in captured vehicle

Friendly forces actions: this phase is a prime opportunity to either mitigate defeat or convert it to victory. In the first place SOPs should be developed to ensure any vehicle, weapon or critical piece of equipment is immobilised to prevent the enemy from using them, this can include removing firing pins or breech blocks from weapons, or else bending the barrels or putting stones or scraps in them, removing distribution caps, batteries or cylinders from vehicles or other methods of immobilisation. Food, can be spoilt mixing it with fuel or sand etc. Armouries if they cannot be emptied should be booby trapped to deter anyone attempting to breach it.

When time is short abandoned vehicles or equipment should be burnt. As a penultimate SOP a sustained artillery bombardment at the request of the FOB commanders when the enemy has definitely occupied the position can be planned for. Follow up with intermittent bombardments at irregular intervals while the position is in enemy hands will also deter the enemy from staying too long. A final SOP should call for a rapid counter attack either by the unit that has just withdrawn or from the closest friendly unit. As this fight will take place at night, it would behove troops to train extensively in night fighting and for officers and men of different FOBs to familiarise themselves with neighbouring FOBs and the approaches to them.

9)       Extract/ Withdrawal:

Enemy: the enemy generally extracts from the friendly position under the cover of darkness, with their personnel, vehicles, casualties and loot. It is unclear if they move back to their safe areas straight away or take time to reconsolidate. The author assumes that the enemy moves to a new concentration area as they would need to refuel and conduct any emergency repairs on vehicles, reapply camouflage, treat casualties, rest or replace drivers etc. before embarking on the return journey. However this is a guess. The author assumes that the enemy conducts their withdrawal from a second concentration area, by breaking into smaller columns and moving back via different routes. This not only masks their signature from the air, it also confuses human sources who would report multiple enemy columns back to friendly forces making it difficult for them to decide which one is genuine or they should respond to. It also means if one column is interdicted others will get through. However this is a guess

What does it mean: as above, the characteristics of a harbour area mean that an educated guess can allow friendly forces to identify suspected enemy positions, investigate and if positively identified neutralise with artillery, air or ground attacks.

Friendly forces actions:Once the enemy begins to withdraw, they will be harder to detect but a determined effort to track them can result in at least one column destroyed. Even if an enemy force breaks into 4 or 5 groups intercepting at least one still inflicts 25% or 20% casualties on them. The South African/ Rhodesian Fireforce model is ideal for these type of seek, pursue, destroy missions.

10)   Exploit:

Enemy fighters and captured weapons

Enemy: upon returning to base the enemy exploits its successes, by filming its attacks and producing and distributing propaganda videos as well as utilising captured weapons, vehicles and materiel.

What does it mean: the enemy ensures that it films key parts of its assault messaging its audiences that its fighters are tough, skilled and fearless, these films are well made, with the view of encouraging sympathisers, sponsors and allies and demoralising friendly forces and the civilian population. Captured equipment is a key part of the enemies supply chain

Friendly forces actions: enemy propaganda can be easily countered with well produced content from friendly forces. Whilst media operations have improved the reliance on still pictures and press releases concedes the media space to the enemy. It is curious that insurgent groups can produce better quality media content than a nation state. Utilising UAV footage, equipping frontline soldiers with action cameras etc can produce sufficient content with which to produce high quality media products. The enemies need to capture friendly weapons in order to sustain themselves can be exploited, by leaving ‘bait’ equipment to be captured, such as booby trapped vehicles or vehicles with GPS trackers. Contaminated food or deliberately sabotaged ammunition can also be abandoned for the enemy. After a few incidents of spontaneously exploding arms dumps, or air strikes on recently returned fighters, the enemy will be in a quandary as to whether to continue looting or not.

Conclusion:

It is the opinion of the author that the enemy is conducting a well planned and resourced campaign that will continue until the end of the rainy season. It is also the opinion of the author that as long as the enemy is attacking at will they have the initiative.

The enemies tactics, techniques and procedures however present friendly forces with numerous opportunities to defeat this campaign with a more aggressive and well planned counter offensive by:

  • Improving SOPs for FOB and area defence
  • Improved training for commanders and soldiers, particularly in terms of defence, artillery observation, night fighting, patrolling etc
  • Revising SOPs to ensure that rapid counter attacks are launched immediately an enemy attack is reported in order to cut off the enemies retreat, recapture a fallen position, attack the enemy while they are attacking the FOB or pursue them to their concentration areas
  • Revising training and SOPs to ensure commanders and soldiers are well trained and practice in fighting withdrawals and counter attacks, ensuring they are able to preserve life and equipment and deny any equipment they cannot take with them.
  • Reprioritising friendly objectives from just repelling or defeating enemy attacks to destroying any enemy force, by cutting off their retreat, fixing them with fire and manoeuvre, destroying them with concentrated fire from ground, air or artillery and then relentlessly pursuing all survivors.

These however are only one side of the equation, a successful defensive plan simply deters or defeats enemy attacks. The old adage that attack is the best form of defence remains true today, as the enemy is ably demonstrating.

Victory does not come from God, it comes from well planned operations by well trained, well led, properly equipped and disciplined men.

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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, Military planning, Nigeria Defence, Nigeria Strategy, Terrorism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Battle of the FOBS- Boko Haram ISWAPs 2018 Rainy Season Offensive (2)

  1. Sycamore says:

    Our troop locations …are they secure?

  2. Pingback: Year of the Debacle’: How Nigeria Lost its way in the war against Boko Haram - Global Sentinel

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