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Q&A: Boko Haram in Cameroon
Q&A: Boko Haram in Cameroon
Behind the Jihadist Attack in Chad
Behind the Jihadist Attack in Chad
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.

A Chadian soldier shields his face from dust kicked up by a helicopter in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, 18 March 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun
Commentary / Africa

Behind the Jihadist Attack in Chad

Des combattants jihadistes ont tué une centaine de soldats tchadiens au Lac Tchad dans l’attaque la plus meurtrière de l’histoire récente du Tchad. Alors que l’armée a lancé une contre-offensive, il est vital d’améliorer la coopération militaire dans la région et de protéger les civils.

A Deadly Attack

The attack carried out on 23 March by a faction of Boko Haram on Lake Chad’s Bohoma Peninsula is the deadliest attributed to the organisation outside Nigerian territory in recent years. An estimated force of roughly 400 fighters reportedly arrived at daybreak aboard at least five motor boats. After seven hours of combat, the attackers defeated the Chadian garrison before retreating with captured weaponry. According to Chad’s authorities, nearly 100 soldiers lost their lives, around 50 others were injured and a few were taken prisoner. The jihadists also allegedly destroyed 24 military vehicles which they could not take with them. A credible claim of responsibility appeared the following day on the Telegram messaging app, posted by one of the two Boko Haram factions, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS).

The Bohoma attack is the group’s largest and most successful operation to date.

Boko Haram’s split occurred in 2016. At the time, due to the counter-offensive launched by Nigeria and its neighbours, Boko Haram – which in 2015 had become a branch of ISIS known as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) – split in two. One group led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur left Boko Haram’s headquarters in the Sambisa forest and reached Lake Chad. There, they successfully rallied the bulk of the jihadist fighters and obtained recognition from ISIS, thereby keeping the name ISWAP. The second group, led by Abubakar Shekau, former supreme commander of Boko Haram, retained control of the remaining combatants, and went back to using an old name, JAS.

In the Lake Chad area, a small group had chosen to maintain its allegiance to Shekau. Led by a certain Bakura “Doron” (since he hails from the Nigerian town of Baga Doron by Lake Chad), the group was formed in the part of the lake belonging to Niger, opposite Nguigmi; it survives by looting and carrying out small attacks, especially in Niger and including against ISWAP. This group has clearly grown more powerful. In 2018, it began to strike further east, conducting operations against military bases and convoys in Cameroon and Chad. The Bohoma attack is the group’s largest and most successful operation to date.

Dans la zone du Lac, un petit groupe avait choisi de maintenir son allégeance à Shekau. Dirigé par un certain Bakura « Doron » (car il est originaire de la ville nigériane de Baga Doron, au bord du Lac), il s’est établi dans la partie nigérienne du Lac, en face de Nguigmi, vivant de pillages et menant des petites attaques, surtout au Niger, y compris contre l’EIAO. Ce groupe a visiblement gagné en puissance. A partir de 2018, il a commencé à frapper plus à l’est, menant des opérations contre des bases militaires et des convois au Cameroun et au Tchad. L’attaque de Bohoma est son opération la plus importante et la plus aboutie à ce jour.

A Growing Threat in the Lake Chad Area

The fact that the groups (JAS and ISWAP) are divided does not make the task of the region’s security forces much easier. Of the two, ISWAP is certainly the most dangerous because of its links to ISIS. ISWAP also has ties in the region with the group formerly known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which operates between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso; ISIS has in fact placed ISGS under the banner of ISWAP. While this mainly consists of a communication strategy for the time being, the links between the two West African groups appear to be strengthening.

The rise of JAS in the north of Lake Chad is probably related to the fact that in recent years Nigeria’s military response has focused on the lake’s southern shores – the Nigerian side where the hub of ISWAP is located. This would have left ample space for Bakura’s group, which likely also benefited from ongoing tensions within ISWAP that led to the violent deaths of several of its senior officials in the first months of 2020. Some sources claim that certain ISWAP commanders have joined JAS; they may thus have supported Bakura in the attack on Bohoma. In other words, the interrelated nature of the groups likely allows some commanders to change their allegiance in response to internal disputes.

The Bohoma attack confirms that despite the rivalry between ISWAP and JAS, both groups are resilient, aggressive, innovative and mobile. The two jihadist factions have previously faced defeat and withdrawal; this will have forced them to rethink their strategy and adopt more professional methods. They have learned on the ground and all of them received advice and training from ISIS in 2015-2016, although only ISWAP still benefits from this since the 2016 split. They are able to change their area of operation in search of more fragile targets and appear to be well informed. Bakura’s men no doubt knew that the Bohoma garrison had been relieved shortly before the attack by a smaller contingent of less experienced troops.

An area like Lake Chad is fertile ground for jihadist groups.

The Bohoma attack also testifies to the essentially subregional nature of the jihadist groups operating around Lake Chad. Created in Nigeria, Boko Haram recruited combatants from neighbouring countries from the very beginning. An area like Lake Chad is fertile ground for jihadist groups: it is difficult to access; state presence is scant and inefficient; it is covered in vegetation and rich in agricultural resources; and it borders on four countries. The movement procured much of its initial armaments from Chad, buying up weapons circulating widely in a country that has been the scene of several civil wars since 1965. Some of the organisation’s first military leaders were also former Chadian rebels in search of new combat opportunities. Today, much like ISWAP, JAS is not constrained by national borders and has launched attacks in several states.

Scope and Limits of the Chadian Response

In the days immediately following the attack, the authorities in N’Djamena made several major decisions. They adjusted the military presence on the lake; launched Operation “Colère de Bohoma” (Wrath of Bohoma); declared the Lake Chad region a “war zone”; decreed a state of emergency in the departments of Fouli and Kaya; and ordered civilians to leave the islands and villages in the lake’s northern basin and move to its shores, further from the areas under jihadist control. In addition, the presidential decree signed on 26 March outlines a framework of measures – typical for a state of emergency in Chad – that include restricting movement and assembly, legal measures to facilitate searches, and prohibiting access to certain areas of the Lake.

“We are going to war, some will die and others will be wounded. This is the price to pay to protect ourselves and maintain our stability”, President Idriss Déby declared. By going to Lake Chad on 24 March, the day after the attack, and by taking command of the counter-offensive himself, he sought to demonstrate how seriously he viewed the event. Déby, who is officially Minister of Defence and still an army general, is presenting himself as a military leader and, by extension, a guarantor of the country’s stability; once again embodying a role he likes. Being on the ground and heading operations allows him to send a message of support to troops at a complicated time, when part of the army is experiencing doubt and when some soldiers may feel demotivated.

We are going to war, some will die and others will be wounded. This is the price to pay to protect ourselves and maintain our stability.

By reaffirming “his commitment to defeating the terrorist peril”, Déby is also trying to rally the population around his troops. From the benches of the national assembly to social networks, many Chadians have demanded a strong riposte to the attack. While the authorities spoke very little about the soldiers recently killed in Miski – in the north of the country in 2018-2019 – during largely unpopular operations against self-defence groups, the fight against Boko Haram, on the contrary, enjoys a broad popular consensus. Messages of support for the army are frequent on social media. The president is also sending a message to international partners, whose financial support is more vital than ever due to the major economic crisis looming in the wake of the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices.

The announcement of Déby’s military response was quickly followed by regional consultations and troop movements. The Nigerian General Ibrahim Manu Youssouf, commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – a regional force fighting Boko Haram with troops from Benin and the four countries bordering Lake Chad – went to the Chadian town of Baga Sola on the shores of Lake Chad on Tuesday, 24 March, for a lengthy meeting with the Chadian president. Two days later, Mahamat Abali Salah, Chadian minister delegate for Defence, visited his counterpart in Niamey to coordinate the response with Niger. Straight afterward, Déby travelled to Nguigmi, a town in Niger also on the shores of Lake Chad, to oversee the deployment of the logistics base for the new Chadian military campaign, “Wrath of Bohoma”.

Chadian troops then quickly initiated operations in the lake area. The president made several trips to Kaiga-Kindjiria, an island in the lake’s northern basin not far from the Bakura bases, for meetings with military top brass. At the same time, the first videos circulated on social networks and on Télé Tchad, the country’s main television channel, showing Chadian helicopters flying over this section of the lake, fighting and triumphs over jihadists on the islands, as well as images of corpses and prisoners from Bakura’s group. After several days of combat, Déby stated that he had pushed jihadist troops out of Chadian territory, taken back command posts on the lake from Boko Haram factions, and deployed his men into Niger and Nigeria to hunt down fighters who had fled and to “clean up” the border areas with those countries. On 3 April, the Chadian president announced that operations would continue in neighbouring countries and called on them to provide troops in order to prevent jihadists from regaining lost ground on the border areas of Niger and Nigeria. Nigerian authorities have since confirmed that they are participating in military efforts and conducting air strikes on the Tumbun Fulani camp not far from the shores of Lake Chad in Borno State.

The authorities in N’Djamena are aware of the significant risk of reprisals by jihadist groups on home ground.

While Chad’s military actions have been successful thus far, the authorities in N’Djamena are aware of the significant risk of reprisals by jihadist groups on home ground. Beyond the current operation, there also remains the issue of strengthening the military presence on Lake Chad in the medium-term. Until Bakura’s recent attack, 6,000 Chadian soldiers were deployed on the lake, of which 3,000 for the MNJTF and 3,000 for the Chadian National Army. There is only limited scope for the Chadian authorities to increase this contingent. Although the Chadian army is highly mobile, the challenges it faces are manifold and its capacities cannot be stretched further. It is currently massively deployed across the country’s borders to deal with various threats to stability, as well as in the Central Sahel to combat jihadist movements. It will also be increasingly mobilised by authorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, with a new economic crisis looming, it is increasingly unclear for how long this war effort can be financed.

Faced with these challenges, N’Djamena decided to postpone the fulfilment of the commitments made at the Pau Summit in January 2020 (devoted to the security situation and military cooperation in the Sahel) by temporarily suspending its troop deployment to the so-called “tri-border area” located between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, in order to integrate these troops into the Lake Chad counter-attack.

Beyond the limited troop numbers, army morale is not at its highest. The Chadian army has recently suffered a series of setbacks on its own territory. In February 2019, the incursion of a group of Chadian rebels, the Union des forces de la résistance (UFR), from Libya, and the request for air support from France exposed weaknesses within this army, with some officers refusing to fight their “rebel kinsmen”.   Bakura’s group also stepped up its attacks around the lake in 2019, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Chadian soldiers. Furthermore, in Miski, a gold-mining area in the north of the country, Chad’s army was defeated by self-defence groups, forcing the Chadian executive to open negotiations in late 2019. The recent attack on Bohoma is a further blow to an army which is held up as the strongest in the region and called on to hold the peace in a Sahel in crisis.

The Immediate Risks and Priorities of the Chadian Intervention

While jihadist violence has not abated in Nigeria, the attack that took place on 23 March tragically highlights the regional dimension of the threat. Far from reducing their overall potential to inflict harm, Boko Haram’s split into several rival factions in 2016 seems to have had the opposite effect, sparking a violent competition between these groups. While Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria continues to be the epicentre of violence, the jihadist groups are highly mobile and occupy border areas to evade national authorities and extend their territorial grasp. Their attacks beyond Nigeria, particularly in Chad, also send a message to governments in the region that any action taken against them will be met with reprisals. Shekau was quick to respond to Déby’s decision to counter-attack with the following words: “Do not think that because you have fought in several conventional wars you can face off against those of us who have decided to fight for the honour of religion”.

Since 2015, the Chadian army has frequently intervened in neighbouring countries to fight Boko Haram. This was recently the case of Operation Yancin Tafki conducted by the MNJTF, with Chadian troops remaining in Borno State, in north-eastern Nigeria, for almost a year. During this operation, coordination problems with the poorly prepared and unresponsive Nigerian troops hampered operations and frustrated Chadian soldiers.

While the Chadian army is currently launching a new offensive against jihadists on the lake and deployed its soldiers into Nigeria and Niger, uncertainties remain as to what role its neighbours will play. Although Chad’s Operation “Wrath of Bohoma” was not organised in the framework of the MNJTF, Déby once again met with the MNJTF commander in early April to request that the joint force take over and that neighbouring countries commit troops within the territories currently controlled by the Chadian army in these states. Chad’s authorities have openly expressed their frustration at the tardiness of their neighbours’ military involvement, and have called for improved coordination to prevent jihadists from regaining territory. As Nigeria confirms its participation in ongoing military actions, soldiers from countries in the region must differentiate between civilians and combatants in the areas where they operate; if they fail to do so, they will be helping jihadists in their recruitment efforts and harming the potential for future civilian engagement.

Jihadist groups pose a very serious danger to civilians and soldiers in the four countries bordering Lake Chad.

The struggle that began a decade ago against jihadists in the Lake Chad Basin is far from over. These agile and mobile groups, now split into rival factions, pose a very serious danger to civilians and soldiers in the four countries bordering Lake Chad. In the coming years, better cooperation between the states in the region will be essential to reduce this threat.