icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Q&A: Boko Haram in Cameroon
Q&A: Boko Haram in Cameroon
Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines
Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines
Interview / Africa

Q&A: Boko Haram in Cameroon

Originally published in Sustainable Security

In May 2014, Cameroon declared war on Boko Haram at the Paris Summit. Since then, Boko Haram has intensified its activities in the Far North Region of the country, making Cameroon the second most targeted country, in terms of attacks, by the sect. Hans De Marie Heungoup, Cameroon analyst at the International Crisis Group, provides insights on the rise of Boko Haram in Cameroon, the stakes for the country and efforts made by the Government to overcome the jihadist organisation.

How would you describe the rise of Boko Haram in Cameroon?

The penetration of Boko Haram in Cameroon took place gradually and in several phases. At each phase, the group has been able to change its modus operandi and adapt to the response of Cameroonian defence forces. While the first frontal attack of Boko Haram against Cameroon dates back to March 2014, the presence of members of the sect in the Far North was signaled as far back as 2009. In fact, in July 2009, after clashes between Boko Haram militants and security forces at Maiduguri in which more than 800 members of the sect were killed, including the founder Mohamed Yusuf, several members of Boko Haram found refuge in and/or transited through the Far North of Cameroon. But up until then, Cameroon had shown only little interest in the Islamist group.

Boko Haram’s interest in Cameroon grew between 2011 and 2013. This is an interesting phase because it is during this period that Boko Haram started spreading its religious ideology, mainly in the Logone and Chari and Mayo Sava divisions of the Far North, recruiting Cameroonians as fighters and using this part of the territory as a rear base or safe haven. Specifically, from 2011, in addition to seeking refuge on Cameroonian territory after attacks in Nigeria, members of Boko Haram regularly bought foodstuffs on different markets in the Far North. They also infiltrated former networks involved in trafficking, smuggling of motorbikes, adulterated fuel (zoua-zoua) and Tramol (drug) in the far north. It was also between 2011 and 2013 that they established most of their networks of arms caches on Cameroonian territory, with Kousseri serving as their logistics base. At the same time, like Chad, the Far North of Cameroon served as transit points for weapons bought by Boko Haram from Libya and Sudan. Fotokol in Cameroon has been one of the entry points of these arms into Nigeria.

While until 2012 the presence of Boko Haram in the Far North was rather passive and unknown to the public, despite a few targeted killings and abductions of Cameroonians in the Mayo Sava and Logone and Chari divisions, the practice of kidnapping of foreigners, adopted from February 2013, marks a shift by Boko Haram to a more active approach on Cameroonian soil. Between 2013 and 2014, the jihadist group abducted 22 foreigners (French, Chinese, Canadians and Italians) in Cameroon and released them each time after the payment of ransoms the total amount of which was at least $11 million and the release of about forty of its members detained in Cameroon. In 2014, Boko Haram moved from the active approach to a frontal approach with attacks on police stations and military bases. Thus, from March 2014 to March 2016, Boko Haram carried out more than 400 attacks and incursions in Cameroon, as well as about fifty suicide bombings that left 92 members of security forces dead, injured more than 120 others and  killed more than 1350 civilians.

Over the last two years, Boko Haram has been able to alternate between low-intensity attacks requiring only about ten fighters on motorbikes and conventional attacks that can mobilise more than 1000 fighters, as well as armored vehicles and mortars. Up to now, the abduction of the Vice-Prime Minister’s wife in July 2014, the thirty or so conventional attacks on Fotokol, Amchide and Kolofata in 2014 and 2015, as well as a series of suicide attacks that hit Maroua in July and August 2015 are the most spectacular actions carried out by Boko Haram in Cameroon.

After this peak period, Boko Haram, whose firepower was at its best between July 2014 and March 2015 when it also controlled more than 30 000 square kilometers of territory in northeast Nigeria, gradually declined from January 2015 following renewed engagement of the Nigerian army ahead of the presidential election, and then the coming to power of Muhammadu Buhari who overhauled the apparatus to fight Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Furthermore, the engagement of Chadian and Cameroonian troops, who inflicted huge losses and setbacks on Boko Haram, significantly weakened the group to the extent that, for the past nine months, it has not been able to carry out any conventional attacks in Cameroon and has lost most of the territories that it was holding in Nigeria (Cameroonian troops declare that they have killed more than 1500 members of Boko Haram in fights and arrested more than 900 suspected members. The Islamist group has also suffered huge logistical losses). Conscious of the new power balance, the jihadist organisation has resorted to purely asymmetric warfare, giving preference to suicide bombings and low-intensity attacks. From July 2015 to March 2016, Boko Haram carried out more than 50 suicide attacks in Cameroon, killing more than 230 people and wounding 500 others. This war has had an adverse effect on the economy of the Far North of Cameroon which was already the poorest and the region with the lowest school enrolment rate in the country before the war. It also led to an influx of 65 000 Nigerian refugees to Cameroon and caused the internal displacement of more than 93 000 people.

Why did Boko Haram start attacking Cameroon?

Boko Haram started launching a frontal attack on Cameroon because the Government strengthened the security apparatus in the Far North and dismantled about ten arms caches of the sect, as well as corridors for the transit of weapons. In fact, Cameroonian authorities were in an increasingly untenable situation at the beginning of 2014. Despite the head-in-the-sand policy adopted at the beginning which consisted of turning a blind eye on the presence of Boko Haram members in the Far North in the hope that they would not take on Cameroon, the sect continued to abduct foreigners and Cameroonians. Moreover, the Nigerian Government and press accused Cameroon of serving as a rear base and support for Boko Haram. Faced with such pressures and following the abduction of ten Chinese nationals at Waza, the only rational option for Cameroon was to declare war on the sect. Of course, once war was declared in May 2014, Boko Haram, in turn, increased its attacks in Cameroon to the extent that the country became the second major target of the Islamist group.

How effective are the Cameroonian government’s counterinsurgency efforts?

To combat Boko Haram, Cameroon has deployed two military operations, namely Operation EMERGENCE 4 made up of units of the regular army and Operation ALPHA comprising of units of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), the elite corps of the Cameroonian army. In addition to these operations, we have the multinational joint task force whose first military sector is based in Mora and comprises of 2450 Cameroonian troops. On the whole, about 7000 men have been deployed by Cameroonian defence forces in both operations they and the regional joint task force have efficiently warded off conventional attacks by Boko Haram. However, Cameroonian troops find it more difficult to thwart suicide bombings.

Moreover, the weakness of Cameroon’s response against Boko Haram is the absence of a policy and measures to combat radicalization and a program for de-radicalization. Similarly, given that this region is the poorest and has the lowest school enrolment rate in the country, and that these factors have facilitated recruitment and indoctrination by Boko Haram, the Government’s response on the socioeconomic development level in the Far North is still fragmented, poor and ill-adapted to the stakes.

How do you analyse the state of the regional cooperation against Boko Haram?

To address the threat posed by Boko Haram, the states in the region (Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Benin) under the aegis of the Lake Chad Basin Commission set up a multinational joint task force. The regional task force has been slow to put in place, but after several delays, the multinational task force was set up and only finally went operational later in 2015. However, the multinational force is witnessing financial and logistical difficulties that are affecting its full operationalisation and few donors have so far delivered on their pledges. As such, only the first sector of the force is operational as of now.

The other specificity of the regional response is that it has assumed more of a bilateral rather than multilateral orientation: like the military cooperation between Chad and Nigeria or Nigeria and Cameroon that, despite the bottlenecks recorded at the beginning, has improved significantly over recent months to the extent that the right of hot pursuit is now a reality. However, the major shortcoming of this regional response is that it focuses on military aspects. No serious brainstorming is done on development issues and the fight against radicalization at the regional level. In the same light, no reflection has been initiated on the ways to end this crisis now that Boko Haram is weakened.

What do you see as the future of Boko Haram in the region and what will this mean for counterinsurgency efforts?

The most likely scenario, in my view, is that Boko Haram will become a sort of criminal network with several small independent leaders. This network will comprise of fake religious leaders, real traffickers and criminals and remain in the area for several years until the states of the region resolve to adopt an African Marshall plan to boost trans-regional development: that will require investestment in social sectors such as schools, health centers; and development of high intensity labor force projects in the region to sustain fishing and agriculture around Lake Chad, to support the local industrial sector and build roads between and within provinces of the area. All these should be accompanied by a de-radicalization and counter radicalization project at the transregional level.

Police cordon off the site where twin bombs exploded two days ago, in Jolo town, Sulu island on August 26, 2020. AFP/ Nickee Butlangan
Commentary / Asia

Resilient Militancy in the Southern Philippines

Two August bomb explosions in the southern Philippines’ Sulu archipelago highlighted how militant networks may be splintered but are deeply entrenched. To keep the long Bangsamoro transition to peace on track, the government should strengthen outreach to local elites and improve cooperation between security services.

This article originally appeared in The Strategist, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute under the title: Violence in southern Philippines highlights resilience of militant networks.

On 24 August, two explosions in Jolo, a city in Sulu province in the southern Philippines, killed 15 and injured 74—a chilling case of déjà vu in a region that has suffered repeated attacks in recent years. The incident set alarm bells ringing in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) about the resurgence of violence. The explosions also reheated familiar media tropes of Islamic State’s perseverance amid the coronavirus pandemic and seemingly ceaseless lawlessness. But it’s important to move beyond this narrative to grasp the structural foundations of the turmoil Sulu finds itself in.

While some details remain murky, initial information put forward by authorities suggests that the perpetrators may be linked to Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a key figure in the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)—a loose collection of small networks in the Sulu archipelago. Sawadjaan’s group was most likely behind the Jolo cathedral bombing in early 2019 and has a history of harbouring foreign fighters. Sawadjaan himself, whom Philippine security forces might have killed  in an operation some weeks back, was allegedly proclaimed as the new emir of IS’s East Asia province in 2019.

The incident set alarm bells ringing in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) about the resurgence of violence.

His group, increasingly backed by another ASG commander, Radullan Sahiron, has also been the most lethal challenge to government forces in Sulu in recent years. Small kinship-based cells rooted in local communities make up the ASG. Some are primarily operating as kidnap-for-ransom outfits, others as militant groups opposing Manila’s authority and military presence in the majority-Muslim area. A few fulfil both roles.

At the BARMM’s fringe, Sulu has been a traditional bastion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the first ethno-nationalist resistance movement in Muslim Mindanao, founded by Nur Misuari in 1972.

Over the decades, the MNLF splintered several times and entered politics at the provincial and municipal levels. It is currently divided into two factions: Misuari’s wing and forces loyal to Yusoph Jikiri, a rival leader. Both are political–military organisations with hundreds of men still under arms. A majority of local elites who dominate various Sulu towns are ex-MNLF commanders who have been co-opted by the state from the late 1970s onwards, and who themselves control private armies.

Because the ASG was established by disgruntled MNLF commanders, its resilience until now has been fostered by blood ties with MNLF personalities and politicians. This intricate web allows room for cooperation while facing a common enemy, such as the military, and while pursuing economic benefits, such as revenue generated by kidnappings.

Sulu mayors publicly denounce the ASG, but they often lack incentives to counteract its presence because of kinship ties or don’t have the capabilities to do so because of weak governance. This in turn gives ASG commanders such as Sawadjaan ample opportunity to draw on a base of young and deprived individuals for new recruits. The governance vacuum also allows the ASG to promote its ideology unimpeded, even if it’s directed at an external audience.

At the outer edges of the Sulu archipelago, violence has declined in recent years. But the largest island in the chain, Jolo, has remained the centre of gravity for continued conflict.

Since late 2018, Sulu has hosted an infantry division of the Philippine army with over 10 battalions that bear responsibility for a population of around half a million. Yet, despite the heavy military presence, the ASG, after several presidential announcements of operations and deadlines to eliminate it, hasn’t been defeated and continues operating from the mountainous town of Patikul and environs. Moreover, bad blood between the military and police has recently contributed to a schism within the local security apparatus, lowering trust in the national government.

In recent peace processes in the southern Philippines, Sulu was more of a bystander than a key participant. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an MNLF splinter that emerged as the main guerrilla force in Bangsamoro after the MNLF entered politics, signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014. That process culminated in the creation of the BARMM in 2019.

The MILF has been leading the Bangsamoro Transition Authority since March 2019 but has only a miniscule presence in Sulu and limited soft power to shape governance. Sulu’s governor, Abdusakur Tan, the province’s kingpin who controls most local elites, initially opposed the province joining the BARMM but has since adapted to the new situation.

Still, a year and a half into the transition, the cooperation could be smoother. Historic competition for political dominance of Muslim Mindanao between Maguindanaons (those hailing from Maguindanao province who lead MILF and dominate the Bangsamoro Transition Authority) and Tausug (who hold sway in Sulu and command the MNLF) still lingers.

Moreover, various political dynasties that control Sulu’s municipalities are deeply entrenched, and it will take time for the transition authority to navigate the tensions between instituting necessary governance reforms and accommodating Tan’s leadership.

The Philippine army initially proposed imposing martial law in response to the bombings, but locals in Jolo—traditionally wary of the military—were sceptical about that option and army chiefs withdrew the proposal. Governor Tan also rejected martial law, yet he didn’t offer concrete proposals of his own for how to prevent further violence.

A comprehensive approach to tackling the complex nature of militancy in Sulu would require patching up strained police–military relations

Sulu is facing one of two likely scenarios in the aftermath of the bombing: a more intensified campaign by government forces against militants, or a business-as-usual, short-term security response without strategic vision. Either response, however, will need to supplement possible military or police action with measures outside the security toolbox, such as working with local governments and creating economic opportunities.

A comprehensive approach to tackling the complex nature of militancy in Sulu would require patching up strained police–military relations as well as complementary efforts in intelligence sharing between the two services. The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia should also foster stronger cooperation to tackle cross-border flows of militants that feed into the ASG’s networks and to prevent its maritime renaissance.

Security institutions would need to distinguish between the objective of merely dismantling insurgent cells and the broader goal of curbing the power of clan-based networks that fuel the resilience of the ASG. Stronger political engagement by Manila with both MNLF factions could help enlist their support in that task. In addition, leaders in Sulu and the BARMM should increase their cooperation.

Sulu could also learn from the experience in neighbouring Basilan, where provincial elites and government security forces changed the status quo over the years by building a broad coalition against the ASG network. For now, it is unclear whether the fresh violence in Jolo will drive change in a similar direction.