Nigeria: Heroes And Villains

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June 15, 2017: Three years of Boko Haram violence were mostly in northeastern Borno State. The scale of the destruction was enormous. Since 2009 Boko Haram violence got worse year by year and over 20,000 died. But the property destruction was even more extensive as people could flee but structures could not. Some 30 percent of the housing (over 150,000 dwellings) was destroyed and the federal government has pledged cash, equipment and building materials to help with the rebuilding that was to begin during 2017. Boko Haram violence peaked from 2014-2016 and has been declining. Yet not a lot of the promised help is reaching the areas where it is needed. An even larger portion of schools were destroyed and these are not being rebuilt very quickly either. The pervasive corruption in the north was one of the primary reasons Boko Haram was formed and got radicalized. Local politicians tend to react violently to groups that threaten their wealth (corrupt practices like stealing any government funds they have access to). Local corruption is as bad as ever but nationwide there has been some progress exposing the extent that oil income has been stolen and real efforts are being made to halt that and recover some of the lost billions. It has not been easy. But that effort is apparently one reason why the economy is recovering from the sharp, and apparently permanent, fall in oil prices.

Competition Keeps The Hate Alive

One thing keeping Boko Haram going is rivalry. There are now two major factions and no longer any central control at all. The two faction leaders spend most of their time staying out of view while trying to rebuild and organize terror attacks designed to attract the most media coverage. Thus since March Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has released only two videos and both were mainly to boast that he was still alive and operating in the northeast. Security forces have claimed Shekau was dead at least five times since 2011 but so far have 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 independently. The intelligence agencies believe the two factions are pursuing different goals because one faction is international while the original one was strictly about Nigeria. This is a common patter with Islamic terrorists groups in Africa.

The Boko Haram split began in August 2016 when ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) announced that it was replacing Shekau, who was accused of mismanagement, with 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 this year (27 in the first three months of 2017 compared to nine in 2016). 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 chief Boko Haram spokesman in January 2015. Although Barnawi has developed a following in Boko Haram Shekau refused to accept the ISIL decision.

Boko Haram is now split into competing factions which is nothing new as there have always been some factions, but not to this extent. At this point many Boko Haram loyalists regret the 2015 decision to become part of ISIL, which was believed to be an effort to avoid a split in Boko Haram as more radical members declared themselves followers of ISIL or even tried to go to Syria to join ISIL. Few African Islamic terrorists have done that, largely because of the cost and difficulty travelling from Africa to areas where ISIL is (or was) dominant. But in many parts of the world older Islamic terror organizations are fracturing because their more enthusiastic members prefer the ISIL style of ultra-violence. By the time Boko Haram joined ISIL was already on the defensive in the Middle East and by mid-2017 ISIL was facing the loss of its primary sanctuary in Syria and Iraq.

Barnawi is in his 20s and similar to his father, Mohammed Yusuf, who was well educated, an Islamic conservative and murdered by police in 2009 just before he turned 40. That murder was one of the reasons Boko Haram turned to widespread and ruthless violence rather than just depending on agitation and education. Barnawi said he was going to serve fellow Moslems, especially those loyal (or at least tolerant) of ISIL. This has worked to a certain extent as in some parts of Borno State ISIL tells villagers they will not be attacked if they do not actively work against ISIL. In many rural areas the locals are fine with that. But Boko Haram men have to eat and the new less violent approach does not always work when the locals are going hungry and Boko Haram has to steal from these hungry civilians or starve. Barnawi has made good on his pledge to concentrate on killing non-Moslems, especially Nigerian Christians and his faction is believed responsible for several recent attacks on Christians in the northeast. It is still unclear who is winning the power struggle within Boko Haram but both factions appear to be operational and avoiding fights with each other.

Shekau is getting most of the security forces attention at the moment because of his publicity seeking and continued reliance on lots of violence against everyone. Since March the army has been sending troops to areas throughout the northeast to revisit former Boko Haram base areas to see if there were signs that Shekau men were in the vicinity. There are still large areas of Kano and Borno State that are deserted, with the civilians reluctant to return until order is restored.

Vigilantes To The Rescue

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. The pro-government militias and local defense forces in the northeast are seen by the Islamic terrorists as their most formidable foe. By late 2014 Boko Haram was regularly attacking towns or villages which had a lot of these volunteers. That led more civilians joining these groups. Officially called the Civilian JTF (Joint Task Force or CJTF). There are about 30,000 CJTF volunteers and most are now armed. 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 now it is Boko Haram that is on the defensive. 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 early 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 the end of 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 the result 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.

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.

June 12, 2017: In the northeast (Borno State) a group of Boko Haram ambushed an army patrol but were repulsed by the soldiers and CJTF militiamen. The civilians familiar with the area made it possible to track the fleeing Islamic terrorists to their camp where they killed several more Islamic terrorists and freed nine children that had been kidnapped and were being trained to fight for Boko Haram. One of the dead Islamic terrorists turned out to be a known and much wanted local Boko Haram leader.

In the south (Edo State) local tribal leaders reported that Fulani herders in the area were acting suspiciously and that led to the army arresting 24 of the Fulani for being members of Boko Haram and trying to establish a base in the south. For centuries the Fulani have been feuding with farmers over land use and in the last few years some of the younger Fulani have turned to groups like al Qaeda and ISIL.

June 11, 2017: In the northeast (Borno State) two different groups of Boko Haram raided two villages in the southern area of the state killing five civilians and wounding at least ten. Six women were kidnapped and the Islamic terrorists grabbed all the food and other portable loot they could find before burning down most of the two villages. Meanwhile in the north, near the Sambisa Forest another Boko Haram group ambushed a CJTF patrol killing five of the armed civilians. Some of the attackers were recognized as members of a Boko Haram group that local CJTF had recently clashed with and killed six of them.

June 7, 2017: In the northeast (Borno state) three Boko Haram suicide bombers attacked in the state capital Maiduguri while on the outskirts another Boko Haram group opened fire with heavy machine-guns. These attacks left 14 dead and was the largest Boko Haram attack on the city since 2015. Nevertheless life went on in the city, including the arrival of the vice president for a scheduled visit. This attack was claimed by the traditional faction (non-ISIL and led by Abubakar Shekau) of Boko Haram.

May 21, 2017: In the northeast (Borno state) troops and CJTF investigating reports of Boko Haram taking over three remote villages near the Cameroon border found the Islamic terrorists were there and after one brief clash the Boko Haram men fled to Cameroon, carrying their casualties with them. They found that about a thousand civilians were being held captive in the three villages. Boko Haram left a lot of equipment behind and Cameroon forces on the other side of the border were alerted about what had happened.

 


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