Is counter-terrorism history repeating itself in Lake Chad Basin?

2020-04-15

On 23 March, Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (JAS) attacked an army position in Boma, a Chadian peninsula on the Lake Chad Basin. Ninety-eight Chadian soldiers were killed – the most ever in an attack. Around 40 were wounded and military equipment was captured. Chad’s retaliation was as unprecedented as the JAS attack. The Wrath of Boma military campaign spans three countries – Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

The Boma attack confirms that JAS remains as formidable a foe to the Lake Chad Basin countries as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). More than eight hours of fighting on a swampy semi-island with heavy casualties for Chad demonstrates JAS’s combat capacity, which included significant amphibious equipment, diligent planning and meticulous intelligence work.

It also shows that the JAS and ISWAP operational sectors often intersect and overlap. The sub-faction of JAS led by Ibrahim Bakura, operating around the northern part of the lake, has since 2019 allowed JAS leader Abubakar Shekau to extend his area of operation beyond Southern Borno in Nigeria, into Niger and Chad.

Lake Chad Basin countries
Lake Chad Basin countries
(click on the map for the full size image)

On the same day as the Boma attack, a Nigerian army unit was ambushed by ISWAP in the Konduga area in Borno State, resulting in around 100 casualties. A Nigerien military reconnaissance outpost in Chetima Wangou, Diffa Region, was attacked two weeks earlier, resulting in eight deaths.

Attacks for resupply and hostage-taking for ransom have persisted across the Lake Chad Basin, but assaults on military positions have intensified across the region since March 2020. These events are part of a trend since the last quarter of 2018 that show the resilience of Boko Haram factions, particularly ISWAP.

Recent attacks on civilians and humanitarian actors in the region have raised concerns about JAS’s enduring capacity to execute large-scale assaults. Since Boko Haram splintered in August 2016 and its strategic camp in the Sambisa Forest was dismantled in December that year, JAS was thought to have been diminished, disorganised and confined to Southern Borno.

Persistent attacks have also raised questions about the effectiveness of the Lake Chad Basin states’ responses to eradicate Boko Haram. The ability of governments in the region to enhance their legitimacy and deliver much-needed services to their communities has also come under scrutiny.

Assaults on military positions have intensified across the Lake Chad Basin region since March 2020

In March this year, before engaging in Lake Chad’s swamps and islands, Chad obtained agreement from Niger and Nigeria for its troops to deploy on their territory. Niger and Nigeria also agreed to block their respective territorial lake shores to prevent JAS fighters from fleeing. This large-scale military response has Shekau’s troops on the run, as is clear in his audio message from 11 April urging his troops to stand firm.

The intensity of Chadian combat operations could open a new chapter in counter-terrorism efforts in the Lake Chad Basin. But there are fears of history repeating itself. Military operations after the deployment of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in 2015 rolled back Boko Haram’s territorial gains considerably. But a failure to hold these spaces and win the hearts and minds of the communities meant the groups were never totally eradicated.

A state of emergency has been declared in the departments of Kaya and Fouli in Lac Province, Chad. People living in these border areas – which were declared a war zone from 27 March to 16 April – have been asked to move further inland to avoid being mistaken for Boko Haram combatants.

Lac has a total of 169 000 internally displaced people, 13 000 refugees and 47 000 Chadian returnees resulting from Boko Haram-related emergencies. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs adds about 20 000 to the above number of internally displaced people since the end of March.

Humanitarian consequences will worsen given that COVID-19 responses restrict inter-city movements

The humanitarian consequences will considerably worsen given that COVID-19 responses are restricting inter-city movements. These vulnerable communities are already the double victims of Boko Haram abuses and states’ security-based responses. There is currently no clear strategy to provide shelter or food for these new internally displaced people, exposing them to further health risks and deepening their vulnerabilities.

Beyond the strategic aim of degrading Boko Haram, operational priorities should also focus on helping vulnerable communities. On 4 April, Chad’s President Idriss Déby discussed the MNJTF’s control of the Lake Chad islands with force commander Major General Ibrahim Manu Yusuf. Yusuf has prioritised reconquering these islands by integrating the police and civil society. While this is happening, the Lake Chad Basin states must ensure the flow of humanitarian aid to help manage additional displacements.

The complex mix of actors trapped in Boko Haram’s operational areas must also be considered. Ongoing Institute for Security Studies research shows that large-scale military operations often trigger the return of voluntary and involuntary associates of Boko Haram in all four of the Lake Chad Basin countries. It’s important to differentiate between ex-combatants, abductees and detainees of Boko Haram in order to propose responses suited to each category.

The collaboration between Chad, Niger and Nigeria on the Wrath of Boma military operation should be extended to diplomatic, developmental and peacebuilding efforts. Cameroon should also be part of this partnership.

Beyond destroying Boko Haram, operational priorities should include helping vulnerable communities

Lake Chad Basin countries should use this opportunity to strengthen and sustain the regional cooperation required to both outlast Boko Haram and launch effective peacebuilding in the area. The MNJTF can enhance this coordination and ensure that liberated areas are held by civil defence forces that are able to protect citizens.

The countries of the Lake Chad Basin have missed some important opportunities to eradicate violent extremism and stabilise the area. Better communication and a coordinated response, both in the military and development fields, will help bring down Boko Haram.

Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researcher, Lake Chad Basin Programme, ISS Dakar

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