The ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) faction of Boko Haram has been demanding that the government free some of their leaders as well as pay a large cash ransom to prevent the murder of two Red Cross employees and a female student. The three captives include the two Red Cross staff (a nurse and midwife) and a 15 year old female student who is Christian (so her death will not offend many Moslems). The Boko Haram ISIL faction is also known as ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) and has publicized the situation of these three individuals thus putting a lot of pressure on the government to “do something” within the next day or so if they want to prevent another murder. The government does not like being played like this and so far as refused to negotiate. One reason for that is the current factionalism and instability within Boko Haram.
The growing internal problems with the ISIL faction of Boko Haram claimed another victim in September when a mid-level leader (Ali Gaga, a Fulani) was executed for planning to defect with subordinates and civilian hostages). This follows the August execution of one the more moderate (willing to negotiate) leaders, Mamman Nur, who was deposed and killed by more aggressive subordinates who also suspected Nur of getting large payments from the government and not sharing them. Nur was a key leader in the Barnawi/ISIL/ISWAP faction of Boko Haram, which considers itself the future of Boko Haram. As such this ISIL affiliate not only attracts the more fanatic Boko Haram diehards but also many of the most paranoid ones. Mamman Nur was known as an effective leader and unlikely to be capable of accepting a secret ransom and keeping that quiet. The death of Nur triggered a number of large scale attacks by the ISWAP and these operations got a lot of Boko Haram men killed or wounded.
Boko Haram persists in the northeast in large part because one of the two rival factions has adopted more effective tactics, at least until recently. The Barnawi (or “Albarnawi”) faction follows the current ISIL doctrine of concentrating attacks on security forces and government officials (preferably the corrupt ones). That makes it easier to extort (raise taxes) cash and other goods from the local population. The Barnawi faction has several thousand active gunmen and operates mainly in the far north of Borno state near Lake Chad and the borders of Niger and Chad. The smaller Shekau faction has about half as many armed men and operates further south near the Borno State capital of Maiduguri and the Sambisa Forest.
Money matters and one reason the Barnawi faction has been more successful is their emphasis on raising cash, especially via large ransoms for hostages, especially foreign hostages or any captives they can generate a lot of media attention for. There was never a specific demand made in public but the government paid for high value captives, like the May 2017 agreement that got 82 of the Chibok captives (from 2014) released in exchange for the freedom of eight Boko Haram leaders being held and awaiting prosecution for mass murder, terrorism and so on. Many Nigerians believed these men should have at least stood trial before being traded for hostages. As expected some of the freed Boko Haram leaders promptly went back to Islamic terrorism. With the cash ISWAP did not have to depend on raiding villages for supplies. By paying for supplies the local civilians were more likely to support, or at least tolerate, ISWAP and that made it more difficult for the security forces to find and destroy ISWAP bases.
At the same time Boko Haram had very visibly divided into factions and that meant many current and potential Boko Haram members were having second thoughts about Boko Haram and Islamic terrorism in general. Back in March 2017 Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video to boast that he was still alive and operating in the northeast. At that point security forces had claimed Shekau was dead at least five times since 2011 but so far had always been wrong. In late 2016 there was hope that a recent split in Boko Haram might lead to Shekau getting killed by other Islamic terrorists but that hasn’t happened either and the two main factions appear to have achieved some kind of truce with each other and continue to operate.
The Boko Haram split began in August 2016 when ISIL announced that it was replacing Shekau, who was accused of mismanagement. His successor was Abu Musab al Barnawi. ISIL believed Shekau devoted too much effort to killing fellow Moslems (especially civilians) rather than the real enemies of ISIL (local security forces and non-Moslems in general). ISIL leadership was also unhappy with the Boko Haram use of children and women as suicide bombers. That has become an issue in Nigeria because the use of children as suicide bombers has tripled during 2017. While the new Boko Haram leader has concentrated attacks on the security forces and non-Moslems he has also used children, especially females, as suicide bombers. Barnawi is a son of Mohammed Yusuf, one of the ISIL founders. Barnawi was appointed the main Boko Haram spokesman in January 2015. Although Barnawi has developed a following in Boko Haram Shekau refused to accept the ISIL decision. The Barnawi faction has also been more successful at online recruiting (via encrypted messaging systems like Telegram and frequently shifting presence on social media sites like Facebook. Barnawi was also more willing to delegate important tasks to subordinates, like Nur, who was his second in command. That worked until it didn’t and now many of the Barnawi factions appear to have gone rogue. Ali Gaga is one of several subordinate ISWAP commanders suspected of disloyalty
The national government has occasionally carried on unofficial talks with the Barnawi faction. These hostage negotiations apparently evolved into discussions about a peace deal, but that got nowhere. As a movement and organization Boko Haram is also going nowhere. This is typical of Islamic terrorist groups, which have been turning up regularly as long as Islam has been around. Islamic scripture encourages this sort of thing as well as banning every leaving Islam was you convert or are born into it. Most Moslems want nothing to do with Islamic terrorism or strict interpretations of Islamic scripture. That’s because, among other things, groups like Boko Haram drive a lot of Moslems away from Islam. If definitely drives them away from their local mosque, because of the Islamic terrorist tendency to bomb mosques that do not support Islamic terrorism.
In many parts of the northeast (mainly Borno state) ravaged by Boko Haram violence local civilian militias have been the key element keeping the Islamic terrorists from winning or, at this point, rebuilding. With Boko Haram on the run (or on the defensive) the militias have become less essential and now the government has to deal with the feared (and expected) evolution of some of the militias into criminal gangs. The pro-government militias and local defense forces in the northeast have long been seen by the Islamic terrorists as their most formidable foe. By late 2014 Boko Haram was regularly attacking towns or villages that had a lot of these volunteers. That led more civilians joining these groups.
Officially called the Civilian JTF (Joint Task Force or CJTF) strength peaked at about 30,000 volunteers in 2017 and with the decline in Boko Haram activity in the last year about 30 percent of the force has been disbanded (or at least no longer recognized and supported by the government). About two percent of those who joined CJTF have been killed and many more have been wounded or injured while on duty. In effect, about ten percent of the CJTF men have been injured. But the soldiers respect them, the local civilians depend on and support them while Boko Haram has come to fear them.
Volunteers initially received little material support from the government. But in early 2013 Boko Haram began to notice that in Borno and Yobe states thousands of Moslem and Christian young men were enthusiastically joining the CJTF to provide security from Boko Haram violence and provide information to the security forces about who Boko Haram members were and where they were living. That trend continues and now the CJTF and self-defense groups in general have become the greatest threat to Boko Haram in rural areas as well as the cities. The CJTF frequently patrol remote areas and operate a growing network of trusted informants who can quickly phone in details on local Boko Haram activity.
By the end of 2013 Boko Haram had openly declared war on CJTF and threatened to kill any of them they could find. That state of war continues but for several years Boko Haram has been on the defensive and less of a threat to CJTF members and their families. The CJTF often operates with heavily armed police or soldiers nearby (ready to move in arrest Boko Haram suspects the vigilantes identify or help fight back if Boko Haram attack). By 2014 the army was regularly using the volunteers to replace troops at checkpoints. This policy enabled more checkpoints to be set up and more through searches of vehicles to be conducted. This made it more difficult for Boko Haram to move around, plan and carry out attacks or to resupply the few men they still had in the cities. Boko Haram responded by attacking checkpoints more frequently and that led to many volunteers getting weapons, officially or otherwise (sometimes with the help of soldiers or police). The checkpoints have become a major problem for Boko Haram and now the growing use of CJTF patrols and informants are even more of a problem. By 2017 CJTF spent a lot of their time on checkpoint duty, mainly because they know the locals and are better at spotting Islamic terrorists, especially suicide bombers.
As early as 2014 some CJTF groups were launching attacks on Boko Haram, and usually winning because they knew the area and people better and often were able to launch a surprise attack at night. A major factor in this was that in the more remote areas, like near the Sambisa Forest, the CJTF groups contained a lot of local hunters. These men are professional hunters who thrive in rural areas where there is a lot more game than people. CJTF first demonstrated to the army the skills of local hunters who tracked game for a living. The army noted that the success of CJTF attack units was largely because of local hunters. Soon the army began to hire some of the hunters who were exceptional trackers as well as offering bounties if they could track down certain Boko Haram men or groups. At first Boko Haram fought back and attacked trackers or their families. That backfired because the CJTF have better information about their home areas which made it difficult for Boko Haram to make revenge attacks. The attacks are made anyway and fail so often that most Boko Haram are advised by their leaders to stay away from CJTF, especially those groups with professional hunters. There were still parts of the Sambisa Forest were Boko Haram could establish bases and avoid the CJTF but these were areas where there was less game and less of everything. That meant fewer Islamic terrorists and their captives could survive there and had to leave their sanctuaries more frequently to raid villages for supplies. That’s when the Boko Haram were most vulnerable and many of their losses were to desertion (because of hunger and frustration) rather than combat casualties.
The military doesn’t like to publicize how important the CJTF, and civilian support in general, was to the defeat of Boko Haram but the truth gets out anyway and the civilian volunteers are getting more credit for their contribution. This is particularly true now as CJTF has become essential in spotting families of Boko Haram men who try to pass themselves off as refugees from Boko Haram. The situation is so dire for the remaining Boko Haram that they are sending their families (usually just wives and children) away because of food shortages and the increasing frequency of air or ground attacks. This media attention also revealed that the military had recruited over a hundred of the most effective CJTF informants into a special unit where these men work full time for the military as plain clothes agents who are sent to any area where Boko Haram is believed to be active (or trying to be) and collect information. In some areas of Borno State the CJTF was not all that useful and that was in the many towns and villages were everyone, or nearly everyone, fled the Boko Haram violence. Many of these refugees have yet to return and parts of northeast and eastern Borno State are depopulated battlefields for the remaining Boko Haram and the army.
The Center Is Burning
The farmer versus herder violence in central Nigeria (Plateau state) continues. In the last few months Fulani herders have been particularly aggressive about bringing their livestock into farming areas so their cattle can fatten up on crops. The armed Fulani often get away with it and when soldiers or police do show up and seize the cattle the Fulani are forced to pay compensation to the farmers to get their cattle back. Some of these Fulani go after local farmer leaders. These are often Christian clerics, as most of the farmers are Christian. The violence has left several dozen dead in a week and considerable damage to crops. To make matters worse the troops are often reluctant to go after the Fulani, who are heavily armed and willing to fight the soldiers. During September and October farmer and herder militias continued to attack each other’s settlements.
The Economy Matters
Local economists and business leaders as well as foreign lenders (like the IMF) are warning the government, which has been pushing needed reforms, to keep it up because Africa as a whole is not doing well because of the rampant corruption and bad governments. Nigeria is the best of the worst among major African economies and has the best chance of breaking the destructive cycle of corruption and little economic development. The upcoming elections are basically the reformers versus the many corrupt politicians who want to hold on to what they have stolen and be free to plunder some more.
October 12, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) troops defeated a Boko Haram attack on the base at Arge (near Lake Chad). Six soldiers were wounded during the brief firefight and the Boko Haram attackers fled taking their dead and wounded with them. The attack was organized by ISWAP in an effort to intimidate the Chadian military. That was a desperate move because the Chadian troops have proved to be the most effective in the region when it comes to fighting Islamic terrorists (ISIL, Boko Haram or whatever).
October 10, 2018: In the northeast, across the border in Chad, local soldiers clashed with Boko Haram who had attacked an army base, failed and were then pursued by other Chadian soldiers and largely destroyed. While Chad lost eight soldiers dead at least 48 dead Boko Haram men were counted and more may have died among the one who fled and were wounded.
October 8, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) troops defeated an attack by the ISIL faction. Seven soldiers died but ten times as many attackers died as well. The garrison at Metele (near Lake Chad) received reinforcements and turned the Boko Haram attack into a major defeat.
October 5, 2018: In the northeast (Borno State) an army/CJTF patrol encountered at least a dozen Boko Haram gunmen. After a brief firefight five of the Islamic terrorists were dead while the rest escaped even though several were wounded. Troops seized four AK-47s, ammo and loot the Islamic terrorists had recently taken from villages.
September 27, 2018: The ISIL faction of Boko Haram has killed another of their leaders for disloyalty. Ali Gaga was accuses of seeking to defect with some of his subordinates and 300 civilians his group was holding captive. Gaga is the second Boko Haram leader to be killed for disloyalty in the last two months.