Boko Haram attacks in Chad have increased since 2018, calling into question the effectiveness of national military responses to counter violent extremism. A raid by the jihadist group against the army on 22 March killed 23 soldiers and wounded four.
This was followed by a skirmish in mid-April that killed 63 Boko Haram combatants and seven Chadian soldiers. It is suspected that the attacks were orchestrated by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) faction of Boko Haram.
Active since 2009 in Nigeria, Boko Haram has expanded into all the countries bordering Lake Chad. Its attacks in Chad began in March 2015. The government responded with a series of security measures aimed at neutralising Boko Haram. The country has also conducted military operations against the group beyond its borders.
The geographical expansion of Boko Haram’s operations from Nigeria to the three other countries of the Lake Chad region – Chad, Niger and Cameroon – led to the reactivation of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in July 2015, with a mandate to combat the group. Operations by Chad’s army and the MNJTF reduced Boko Haram attacks in the country between 2016 and 2017.
In 2016, Boko Haram split into two factions – ISWAP, more active on the Chadian part of the lake and led then by Abu Musab al-Barnawi – and Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (JAS), led by Abubakar Shekau. Some ex-Boko Haram combatants returned to Chad voluntarily at this time.
Violent extremism again started rising, with at least 12 deadly Boko Haram attacks in Chad between March 2018 and April 2019. The nature of these attacks reflects an apparent change in the group’s modus operandi – from mainly suicide bombings when it was a united front in 2015, to direct assaults on villages and pastoral camps to kill and loot as many goods as possible, or raids against army positions.
Thirty-five soldiers and 40 civilians died in these attacks. Nearly 30 people including women were abducted, and over 4 000 head of cattle were stolen. Areas of the northern basin of the lake, especially around Ngouboua, were the most affected during this time.
March and April this year saw attacks in Dangdala, a small locality near Ngouboua, and Bouhama, killing 30 and wounding 21 soldiers. These incidents were preceded by the arrest of five suspected Boko Haram members by the police in N’Djamena in February, increasing concerns about a potential resurgence of kamikaze attacks in Chad’s capital.
These incidents and deaths, which followed a relatively attack-free 2017, raise concerns about the resilience of both JAS and ISWAP, and question the effectiveness of security-focused responses to the threats they pose.
Their strong comeback shows violent extremist groups’ capacity for lethal action, and their resilience. It also confirms research that points to the limitations of security responses to terrorist activities. The groups’ ability to continuously inflict serious human and material devastation, even with substantial military deployments and operations against them, demonstrates their flexibility and adaptability.
ISWAP’s penetration into N’Djamena in February also demonstrates this dynamic. The area’s terrain, especially the thousands of archipelagos and islands in Lake Chad, and Boko Haram’s familiarity with it, contribute to its resilience.
Boko Haram’s ability to obtain military equipment and weapons from army positions in the Lake Chad region following its attacks adds to their might. And the proliferation of attacks means that the group continues to attract combatants in the communities.
The split of Boko Haram into two factions at first seemed to weaken the group – but this divide and the subsequent rivalry between them have done the opposite. Since 2018, competition within and between the two factions has led to even more extreme violence on the battlefields of the Lake Chad Basin as the two groups demonstrate their strength.
Last year Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s deputy Maman Nur was reportedly executed by his own members because he was considered too moderate and inclined to talk to the Nigerian government. This marked a rise in power of the faction’s radical elements and an increase of attacks on civilians. The inter- and intra-faction rift has continued. In March 2019 Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi replaced Abu Musab al-Barnawi with Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi as head of ISWAP.
The areas most under attack in Chad are those where ISWAP is most present (around Ngouboua and Kaiga Kindjiria). Unlike the JAS faction, ISWAP has been known to focus its assaults on security forces and less on civilians. But since 2018, Chadian civilians have not been spared by the faction’s fighters.
This new dynamic suggests that military operations alone are not enough to combat Boko Haram. Regional cooperation should be strengthened, with a focus on improving governance and development to curtail Boko Haram’s resilience and ability to adapt. A comprehensive approach that includes diverse measures is needed. These measures are broadly captured in the Lake Chad Basin Commission’s stabilisation plan.
As part of this approach, the ideological aspect of the crisis must be dealt with. The ability of the group to recruit is one of the biggest reasons for its expansion, and so a deeper understanding of its recruitment patterns and operating mechanisms is crucial.
In Chad, as in the other three countries, fighters and ex-hostages who have left ISWAP can help to better understand the group’s internal dynamics. Giving voice to these individuals and their communities, and learning from their experiences, could help prevent new hires. This approach could also lay the groundwork for effective community reconciliation.
Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin
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