The United States’ latest report on the state of the anti-terror war in Nigeria bears a strikingly true reflection of the current situation in the country, though the focus was on last year. It is a story of the resurgence of a deadly group that was once driven to the fringes, but is now bouncing back with a vengeance, especially in its well-known tactics of unconventional warfare.
Despite Nigeria’s claims of technically defeating Boko Haram, the terror group that has been waging Islamist insurgency against the government since 2009, the US Department of State report said the group’s killings, bombings and attacks on civilian and military targets have not relented. This worrying situation is reaffirmed by another report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which in May expressed concerns about the alarming rate of deployment of Improvised Explosive Devices by the extremist group in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, and its environs.
Among other things, the US report accused the Nigerian authorities of failure to rescue all the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls and inability to hold down territories recaptured from Boko Haram, which once controlled territories in the three most affected states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. The territories were big enough for Boko Haram to declare a Caliphate, with Gwoza as the capital.
The reports could not have come at a better time, with Boko Haram reportedly back to the infamous Sambisa Forest, its operational headquarters before it was ousted last year. Although the military have tried to say that it is not their responsibility to hold down territories after terrorists have been flushed out, it makes little or no difference; when no structures are erected by the government to fortify the liberated areas, they become prone to more attacks.
Boko Haram has continued to make its presence felt in Nigeria and the neighbouring countries in a devastating manner through the effective use of suicide bombing and ambush. Figures from government agencies involved in the counterinsurgency operations indicate that the terror group deployed more than 145 girls in suicide bombing missions between January and July this year. The figure does not include the number of male bombers who are usually deployed in attacks on mosques. Quite bizarrely, some of the female suicide bombers had babies strapped to their backs.
With no fewer than 27 people reportedly killed and 82 others injured in a market attack two weeks ago in Konduga, near Maiduguri, attacks are becoming even more intensified. An Aljazeera report claims that about 143 people have been killed by bombing since June. Analysis by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point and Yale University, US, shows that 434 suicide attacks have been traced to Boko Haram since 2011. Of the 338 bombers whose gender could be identified, 244 were women.
Aside from suicide bombing, which is liberally employed when they have their backs to the wall, Boko Haram members have been laying siege to military convoys and killing soldiers and officers. In a recent pathetic case, the extremist group outgunned a unit of the Army and killed nine soldiers and a newly-promoted officer, M. Medawa, days to being decorated with the rank of a captain. Another very shocking and no doubt daring incident was the ambush on the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation oil prospecting team that resulted in multiple deaths and the kidnap of 10 NNPC officials, and lecturers from the University of Maiduguri, who were part of the team. Reports indicate that between 50 and 80 people, including soldiers and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force, died in the July 25 ambush.
It is sad that while the Islamists have been able to vary their tactics and bounce back even when they are thought to have been degraded, the Nigerian authorities appear to be content with just chasing after them whenever they commit their atrocities. Why can’t the military be proactive enough to preempt the terrorists and checkmate them before they strike? Why should Boko Haram appear to have infiltrated the military and the latter have not been able to penetrate the group? What kind of intelligence are the military working with? Adaptability is the secret of success in an asymmetrical war.
This is not a war that should be fought for ever. The Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, has given a 40-day ultimatum for the capture of the Boko Haram chief, Ibrahim Shekau. Right from the beginning, the capture of Shekau and his top commanders should have been a priority. And if intelligence has been deployed effectively, there is no reason why he should not have been either captured or taken out by now.
Following the American model, taking out of terror leaders has been an integral part of their campaign. This made it possible to eliminate such al-Qaeda, Taliban and Islamic State leaders as Osama bin Laden in Pakistan; Anwar al-Alwaki in Yemen; Faruq Qatani in Afghanistan; Abu Muhammad Adnani in Syria; Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Afghanistan and Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John. It was possible to eliminate them because of intelligence efforts facilitated by the locals.
Nigeria must adopt a holistic strategy to fight terror. The Nigerian military have to collaborate more with the neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroon in operations and intelligence sharing. Security apparatus should be more professionally deployed to be able to drive deeply underground in dismantling terrorist cells. Above all, the intelligence community should be able to win the confidence of the international community to be able to share intelligence and provide the technology needed to degrade terrorism.
At another level, religious authorities should shut out radical proponents of political Islam and its destructive plague. As Morocco has successfully done, the Nigerian State must also protect its citizens from invasive, extreme forms of Islam. As it is in all wars, captured terrorists should be swiftly brought to justice.