Strategic Thinking Behind Ongoing Insurgent Offensive Operations In Northeast Nigeria- An Analysis By Fulan Nasrullah Conflict Studies And Analysis Project, Lake Chad, Nigeria, Situation Analysis, Situation Report

Background

With the removal of Abubakar Shekau from leadership of Islamic State’s West African Province in 2016[2], and his subsequent exit from the organisation with his followers (who at the time were the majority of fighters by a large margin), the multifaceted Boko Haram War took an important turn.

The new ISWAP led by Habeeb the son of Muhammad Yusuf (Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad’s founder), who fights under the nom de guerre of Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi, moved its headquarters from Yobe State in Northeast Nigeria (where the dissidents had set up camp during the final six months of the debates with Abubakar Shekau), to the Lake Chad Islands, which they reasoned was a more defensible terrain than the previous location[3].

The sacked ex ISWAP leader, Abubakar Shekau regrouped his supporters and resurrected the Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad brand name which had been abandoned when they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its claimed Khalifah.

For ISWAP the short term problem was a lack of experienced fighters, and the threat of being overwhelmed by simultaneous offensive operations against it by the Abubakar Shekau group and the regional militaries, should they take advantage of the available opportunity. Also, ISWAP needed to preserve its logistics network through the desert to Islamic State networks in Libya, as it would need them to train and form field units to hold, consolidate and expand the territory under its control[4].

For the Shekau group, the short term problem was survival. Although boasting the largest number of fighters, its specialist cadre had been decimated when Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi, Mamman Nuur and their loyalists split[5]. Most of the explosives experts, intelligence operatives, logistics operatives, ‘special’ operators etc had left. Left behind was a vast pool of riflemen, with few specialists. On the tactical and operational plane this meant complex manoeuvres were going to require more effort to coordinate than in the past, as was any hope of preparing and deploying infiltration-terror teams into urban areas outside the Northeast in the forseeable future. Also the quality of IEDs and DIY weapons would drop drastically, as was the ability to restock on materials not within the immediate war zone.

This was coming on the heels of more Nigerian troops arriving in theatre to enforce what was turning into a blockade of Boko Haram controlled territory in the forests and countryside of Borno North and parts of Borno South and neighbouring Yobe State, in an attempt to gradually wear down Boko Haram resources over a period of time, degrading the ability of the insurgents to effectively defend their territory until such a time the Nigerian Army would be in a position deemed strong enough to end the conflict decisively.

At that point in time, with high tempers on both sides of the divided insurgency, there was a fear within ISWAP that Shekau would either deflect pressure from his group (which was weakened by the split and was solely bearing the heat of pressure from the Nigerian and other regional militaries), by negotiating a deal with the Nigerian authorities to provide them with intelligence to wipe out ISWAP and get Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi/Mamman Nuur(there were extant suspicions and accusations that Ansarul-Muslimeena Fee Bilaadis-Sudan’s urban operations networks and Cameroonian camps had been wiped out by Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities as part of a deal Shekau had made with them), or, he would launch an all out fratricidal war on the nascent group he was regularly denouncing as deviants.

Although spontaneous clashes would erupt between individual units along a very much undefined mix of territory with no clear front line demarcating them, all out war was prevented by ISWAP’s leadership seeking for and holding deconfliction meetings with the Shekau group[6]. While Abubakar Shekau himself was inclined to disregard attempts to deconflict the situation, his Shuraa (the decision making body, or what was left of it after the split) impressed on him the need to avoid intra-insurgent conflict for religious and operational reasons[7].

ISWAP followed up by consolidating its forces into the Lake Islands and areas on the mainland shore in Niger and Nigeria, while Shekau’s group not having much of a need for the Lake Islands consolidated its forces in the Sambisa-Gwoza-Cameroonian Far North area, which it deemed more necessary for its operational survival. Both sides maintained forces in Diffa Prefecture of Niger and Nigeria’s Yobe and Northern Borno, however gradually built up its forces to have a clear majority in Diffa, Northern Yobe, and the Abadam/Mobbar area, while Shekau’s forces remained the majority in Southern Yobe, Marte, Dikwa, Kala-Balge LGAs of Northern Borno. Units loyal to ISWAP also maintained a presence in the area around Chibok LGA, Askira-Uba LGA, and hills and forests in Northern Adamawa State, but the insurgency in these areas remain overwhelmingly Shekau loyalists.

Despite outside attempts to create discord between both groups, the deconfliction mechanisms set up after the split largely held, save isolated incidents which were quickly nipped, for the first year until the entire conflict entered a new phase in April 2017 with the launch of a Nigerian strategic offensive codenamed Deep Punch[8].

The Bolduc Plan

At the height of the 2014-2015 fighting season when most of Borno, Yobe and Northern Adamawa fell to insurgent control with Gombe State under threat, US Army Brig-Gen Donald Bolduc who at the time headed Special Operations Command-Africa (a sub-command of United States African Command), put together a military strategy designed to roll back insurgent gains, decimate and eliminate lesser factions, and then contain and blockade the then major group led by Abubakar Shekau , while the Nigerian military rebuilt/expanded its forces until it is in a position to defeat the insurgency militarily[9].

This plan called for coordination and cooperation across national boundaries by the Lake Chad countries, including synchronised offensive operations, intelligence sharing, backfilling when necessary (as was seen with Chadian forces in Cameroon and Niger from 2015-2016).

When this plan was put into action, it capitalised on gains made by Operation Fireforce, the Col Eeben Barlow-led South African private military contractor operated, training, advisory and aggressive pursuit mission, which had cleared insurgent forces from Northern Adamawa and opened the road to Gwoza, plus which also birthed the still extant Mobile Strike Force of the 72 Special Forces Battalion, Nigerian Army.

As a result of the Gen Bolduc midwifed plan, the tactical and operational initiative shifted to the Lake Chad militaries which, despite regional politics and the MNJTF not working exactly as designed, by mid 2016 had contained the territorial expansion of insurgent forces, and rolled back their advances until they had contained the insurgent threat and instituted a quasi-blockade of territories they had been unable to reclaim (Sambisa Forest Area, Gwoza Hills, Northern Borno etc), restricting the fighting largely to those areas.

However, Part II of the Bolduc Plan, which called for Nigerian forces in particular to build up capabilities in preparation for a final push, was never implemented. The containment/blockade part of the strategy slowly evolved into becoming the entire strategy itself, thus locking the conflict into a stalemate where the then Shekau led ISWAP focused on conserving its resources, while exploiting weaknesses in the government’s positioning to harass government forces and liberated territories at cheap costs, banking on the government to ultimately let up the pressure once it became too costly to keep it up given the economic costs of maintaining it coupled with insurgent pin pricks constantly harassing the military, at which point ISWAP would seize the initiative and go on the offensive again.

The end of the old ISWAP plus the split into the new ISWAP and Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad, shifted the dynamics considerably, and the inability of the regional governments to understand this shift, meant that they were ill prepared to deal with the new threat.

The direct result of the Bolduc Plan as understood locally, was that while the pressure remained on a weakened Shekau led Jama’aatu Ahlis Sunnah Lid-Da’waati Wal-Jihad, the new ISWAP had no dedicated response to it, and thus had free rein to consolidate the territory it inherited, build its capabilities, increase its numbers and plan for expansion.

And this was reflected in Operations Deep Punch I&II.

Impact Of Deep Punch I&II On ISWAP Strategic Thinking

Deep Punch I&II were envisioned as strategic offensives within the broader campaign, to degrade insurgent military capabilities, clear secondary insurgent strongholds, and prepare the terrain for a final offensive which was to end all large scale military operations and herald a transition to post conflict/mop-up activities.

Deep Punch I began on the 8th of April 2017[10], at a time when ISWAP was mid-way through consolidating its hold over territories it controlled plus building up its military strength. Initial panic by an ISWAP that did not yet consider itself prepared enough to defend against a major offensive, soon gave way to elation when they realised that the Nigerian military offensive was directed away from them and was more focused on the Shekau group’s core territories which lie farther south from that of ISWAP.

Just like the Shekau group did in its areas, ISWAP maintained peripheral forces in areas where the Shekau group had its core presence, and in the midst of that campaign, these peripheral forces would fight besides Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad against the attacking Nigerians, but otherwise ISWAP stayed out of this offensive.

To give it the space it needed to build its capabilities, ISWAP from the split avoided attacking Nigerian Army units, unless they attacked first, or unless the unit in question was a really low hanging fruit. This policy worked for the most part because the Nigerian Army was more interested in containing the Shekau group, at the time, than in diverting time and resources to try and retake Northern Borno especially areas occupied by what was considered an “unimportant” splinter group.

But unaware that it was not yet a priority target for the Nigerian military, ISWAP tried to forestall an expansion of Deep Punch I to targeting it, by seeking temporary ceasefires. As Ramadan approached 2017, ISWAP put forward an offer aimed at the Nigerian government of a month long ceasefire[11], and when it did not get a response in time, the organisation proceeded to declare a unilateral ceasefire.

In internal documents circulated within its ranks at the time, the leadership of the organisation had justified seeking a ceasefire when they were not yet under any pressure, as necessary to allow them consolidate their position and build their capabilities in preparation for expanding their operations against the enemy.

When they declared a unilateral ceasefire and questions were raised as to what purpose this would serve, new memos were circulated from the group’s leadership explaining the religious permissibility of that action, and the strategic reasoning which informed it. These memos made clear that the leadership from reports it was getting of the progress of military operations against the Shekau group (and some ISWAP units in that area) was beginning to understand that the Army had its hands full in the Sambisa area and was unlikely to treat the areas where the majority of ISWAP forces were as a priority unless the group presented itself as a threat . These memos also made clear that ISWAP leaders had begun to think that if they could grow their forces and capabilities to where the old ISWAP was before the split or even beyond and if they could then swallow up the Shekau group or somehow work separately but in tandem, the regional militaries would be unable to contain the situation and would then be forced to retreat gradually under mounting pressure.

This theory was validated[12] when Operation Deep Punch II commenced in late 2017. Nearing the end of its consolidation and build up process, ISWAP had begun the initial moves in a campaign of overtures to the mid-level and lower levels of the Shekau group, as the first part of a dual strategy of cooptation and forceful destruction of that organisation, while simultaneously preparing for taking on the expected regional offensive against it.

Thus when Deep Punch II commenced, ISWAP was in a position strong enough to mostly hold ground it already held and also carry out limited offensive operations against government controlled territory, sometimes in cooperation with the Shekau group.

For example the attack on Rann the headquarters of Kala-Balge Local Government Area of Borno State in which several humanitarian workers were abducted was a joint ISWAP/Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad operation[13]. And ISWAP alone decimated the 223 Tank Battalion stationed at Gashigar, Yobe State[14], which was operating alongside 145 Task Force Battalion and supporting units from both Nigeria and Niger, to maintain blocking positions to ambush and eliminate ISWAP forces expected to be pushed towards the Yobe River and Niger by other assault forces coming from the south[15].

However, the insurgents had launched a counter offensive on multiple points in the area as the government troops had come too close to several important camps for comfort[16]. Enjoying an supremacy in numbers within the area, and with superior knowledge of the terrain, ISWAP soon made short work of the blocking units, and blunted the offensive edge of the assault units, stopping the entire operation in its tracks.

Coupled with the demands of maintaining the quasi-blockade on areas where the core of the Shekau group’s strength was, the Nigerian military’s resources devoted to this operation proved not enough to deliver blows significant enough to weaken ISWAP substantially.

Deep Punch II ultimately fell short of the stated objectives, reinforcing the ISWAP belief that once its forces were up-to pre-split strength and if it could either coopt the Shekau group or keep the government’s (and regional) main efforts focused on the Shekau group, it would be able to gradually expand and shift the tide of the conflict in its favour[17].

Impact Of Deep Punch I&II On The Strategic Thinking Of Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad

For Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad, and its leader Abubakar Shekau, Operation Deep Punch I could not have come at a worse time, with the group still in the process of re-calibrating its military, security and logistical disposition after the split from ISWAP. The aggressive punch of Deep Punch I, spurred the group popularly referred to as Boko Haram into exerting itself heavily to try and contain the initial advances by the Nigerian troops. For the first time since the war began, Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad came the closest it had come to facing a probable threat to its existence[18].

To deflect this threat, Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Daa’wati Wal-Jihad stepped up its attempts to hit urban centres in Northeast Nigeria, especially Maiduguri which saw a rapid increase in suicide attacks targeting it.

Although the group was aware that the illiterate, provincial, unsophisticated women and children it was sending out of the bush towards Maiduguri and surrounding towns as suicide weapons would not be able to penetrate the security cordon around them, it banked its expectation on diverting as much government resources as possible from the offensives against it, to reinforce security especially around Maiduguri. As some insurgent figures put it, these suicide weapons are cheap to equip and deploy, but they have a much more expensive impact on the government’s ability to maintain the same level of pressure it could bring to bear on territories they (the insurgents) controlled, seeing as the government suffered from the same resource availability problem as the insurgents.

However cynical and cruel the insurgent strategic thinking in the face of Deep Punch I seemed, the effectiveness of this shift in contributing to the government’s inability to clear out territories controlled by Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad, is not entirely clear. Given that at the time the split with ISWAP was formalised, and Deep Punch I was launched, the group had been in the middle of shifting focus for expansion from Nigeria to Cameroon, where the remnants of decimated pre-2015 insurgent factions were in a weakened position -and where a large vacuum which they believed they could fill existed- it remained to be seen how effective using suicide bombers to harass the outskirts of Maiduguri was in the bigger picture.

Another impact of Deep Punch I on Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad’s strategic thinking, was to confirm for the group’s leadership, that the midterm future of their cause lay in Northern Cameroon[19]. For them that region offered a large and willing pool of potential recruits, plus an easier military to fight. And while the main effort would remain in Nigeria, they could expand enough in Cameroon to create double redundancies in their capabilities, and even maintain a third headquarters if ever they completely lost control of the Sambisa Forest Area. While previously Northern Cameroon had been a target of opportunity to be exploited solely for the benefit of the war in Nigeria, this shift in thinking turned that region into a main effort for the survival and expansion of the cause, slightly below Nigeria.

Operation Deep Punch II on the other hand gave the group’s core to recover from Deep Punch I, as the pressure leveled out from its main forces to its secondary forces and ISWAP’s main forces which are in Northern Borno. This ensure that by the time Operation Last Hold began targeting Northern Borno, reinforcements could be sent to support its forces in that region.

Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad: Breaking The Blockade

For Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad, the prevalent strategic thinking has evolved from exercising strategic patience- consolidating strength and building capabilities while the government expends its resources until it falls into war fatigue, thus creating the opportunities for the insurgents to exert maximum pressure which will work to collapse the government’s ability to remain in the fight in the region- to a dual strategy of expanding the Cameroon front (and through it increasing the numbers of men fighting men and supporting adherents), and also breaking the quasi-blockade imposed on the areas it controls on the Nigerian side. These two strategic objectives are by no means mutually exclusive.

This shift in thinking was forced by the split with ISWAP, which left the group devoid of nearly all the specialist resources it had, and robbed it of valuable extra funding plus invaluable training from the Global Islamic State Group, while leaving it for the first time since 2009 vulnerable to pressure from the Nigerian government side.

A consequence of the shift in thinking and the operational changes to ameliorate the effects of the Nigerian government pressure, through scavenger raids for supplies especial fuel oils, medicine and machinery or goods which can be used to maintain existing machines and equipment.

The vast majority of offensive military action carried out by this group in 2017, were supply raids, which contributed to helping them last long enough to begin to turn the tide gradually in 2018[20].

While previously this group had deemphasized non-military production and generally taken a great disinterest in commerce within and around territories it controlled, the imposition of the quasi-blockade, the split with ISWAP and Deep Punch I, forced it into expanding its commercial activities to secure more financial resources.

Among the ways Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad has expanded its financial base, has been a substantial increment in its share of the trade in livestock in the Southern Borno/Northern Adamawa axis, the Southern Adamawa/Taraba axis, and cross border between Northern Cameroon and Northeast Nigeria. It has done this through a mix of methods.

Through rustling cattle and other livestock from ranchers and herders alike, it obtains cattle, goat and sheep which it disposes of in any of the following ways:

It hands over the stolen cattle/sheep/goats to mercenary middlemen(known reputable cattle dealers who ask no questions about the origins of the animals they are selling) who take them to the cattle market in Mubi, Adamawa State, and also to N’djamena, Chad, where they are sold to buyers from all over West/Central Africa. Revenue generated from the sales are then split between the mercenary dealers and the group[21].Or its own middlemen when they are able to, take the rustled livestock into Mubi and N’djamena where they sell the animals(most commonly cattle), thus retaining full revenue for the group[22].The animals are sold to cattle dealers who already have the cash, at below market prices[23].

Another method through which Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad has increased its market in the cattle trade has been through imposing a cattle tax on farmers it allows to graze in parts of the areas it controls[24]. This tax is paid in livestock. This group also imposes a safe passage levy on herders moving their livestock through areas it has either full control, or it contests with Nigerian/Cameroonian governments, payable in cash and with livestock.

Increasing its presence in the commercial space whether through the activities touched upon in this paper, or through others not discussed here due to space constraints has been a major priority for Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad, as developing the economy in areas it controls or has influence, and also engaging in trade vigorously, cumulatively increases its constant access to liquid cash necessary to ameliorate the effects of the quasi-blockade and to rebalance its operational methods to fit changed realities.

Operation Last Hold

While the Brigadier General Donald Bolduc Plan called for preparatory offensives for the final part of the campaign to defeat the insurgency in the Lake Chad region, it also called for these preparatory and final offensive operations to be undertaken only when the Nigerian side had fully built up its strength to be able to deliver overwhelming firepower and possessed the numerical superiority to seize and hold insurgent occupied territory, and to encircle and crush the insurgent leadership without allowing them escape[].

However, while the plan was followed religiously with the roll back of the insurgents, and the blockade efforts, the preparatory offensive operations (Deep Punch I&II) and the supposed part one of the final offensive (Last Hold) were planned and carried out without the prerequisite preparations (increase in manpower, equipment, training, intelligence etc).

In the case of Last Hold, it was launched as both ISWAP and the Shekau group had launched limited offensives to harass government forces in a bid to turn up the pressure on them (ISWAP), and to eliminate potential threats to its freedom of movement between its Nigerian and Cameroonian theatres (Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad). And it drew away major resources from all over the theatre to focus msotly on Northern Borno.

This has resulted in situations like the Jilli battle on the 14th of July 2018, where ISWAP attacked and overran a brigade headquarters of the Nigerian Army[25], and the Bama ambush just the day before when forces of the Shekau group, ambushed and destroyed an advancing combined military and civil militia force[26].

Shortly after Operation Last Hold was launched, Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad suicide bombs hit a mosque in Mubi, Adamawa State on May 1st 2018[27].

ISWAP: Consolidation And Expansion

For ISWAP the period since 2016 has been one in which it had been necessary to focus on expanding the resource base of the organisation. This has been done through aggressive recruitment of fighters, continuous training and retraining of specialist personnel plus skills development (with the help of Islamic State affiliates in Libya), vigorous expansion of the financial base -through taxation of goods produced and services rendered in areas it controls, and through a growing involvement in all aspects of the fish trade and automobile smuggling- and through encouraging economic growth and trade among the civil population under its control.

However, gradually it has begun to shift into an era of gradual expansion. And its thinking on this is two-fold. One line of approach targets the Shekau group, and the other focuses on slowly but steadily clawing territory from government control[28].

In targeting the Shekau group, ISWAP seeks to coopt those elements of that organisation it can lure into boosting its numbers, and ultimately seeks to destroy those it can not coopt, while seeking to seamlessly take over the territories the other group currently controls. Thus while the past two years has seen ISWAP go out of its way to ensure that isolated incidents of clashes between individual units did not degenerate into a larger war at a time both groups were equally vulnerable to a determined government offensive, with the transition from consolidation to expansion, there’s has been a revisiting of the previous policy.

However while ISWAP is laying the intellectual and ideological groundwork for a war with Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnati Lid-Da’wati Wal-Jihad with the recent continuous release of books and articles outlining socalled transgressions of Shekau and or his group, it is also aware that it is not yet at the point where it could outrightly crush the other group. This current state of things is tacit cooperation when necessary, a cold peace with continuous dialogue, while both sides continue luring people from the other side to defect.

Possible Future Trajectories

In the near future, the buildup to the 2019 General Elections in Nigeria provide a target for the insurgent groups to try to use to further destabilise Nigeria. With insecurity and threats to the current Nigerian establishment system featuring as a major issue in determining the trajectory of politics in the country, insurgent organisations[] are well aware that a substantial increase in high profile/mass casualty attacks, targeting urban areas outside the region in addition to well publicized military setbacks on the conventional battlefield will put the administration of President Buhari on the backfoot politically, which will increase the overall destabilisation of the polity. Thus an increase in attempts to inflict heavy symbolic damage in urban areas will be in order, recent misreported arrests of ISWAP operatives preparing for terror attacks within downtown Maiduguri indicate as such.

There’s the danger that with the Nigerian Armed Forces severely overstretched given the growing amount of internal security and policing commitments needing their attention, resources being pulled out of the Northeast to put out fires in the Northwest and North Central parts of the country, may create vacuums that these insurgent groups will exploit to roll back government forces as much as they can.

Conclusion

While tactical gains have been made by the Nigerian side since 2015, the strategic picture which had remained stalemated, as however shifted slightly against Nigeria and the two neighbouring states of Niger and Cameroon. Both major insurgent organisations have adapted their strategic thinking individually to reflect changed operational realities, while modifying their plans to better pose long term threats to the existence of the three above listed states within the region.

ISWAP currently poses the greatest strategic level threat to stability across the Lake Chad region if continues to grow without a serious dedicated effort to contain, isolate it from the Global Islamic State Group’s networks, and degrade its abilities until such a time it can be fully eradicated. However focusing on ISWAP at the expense of containing and degrading the Shekau group, will create extensive vacuum space to the benefit of a local actor which is very much potent a threat even without the international networks ISWAP has. The ramifications will be very costly especially in the amount of human lives that will be lost, as we already from occurrences during the ongoing Operation Last Hold.

What is needed on the military front, is a strategic plan that contains and degrades both groups and isolates them from non-regional actors such as Al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State Group, and the resources, be it intelligence, funding, troops etc, to religiously implement such a plan.

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