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Shiite Huthi rebels drive a truck past a flag of Ansar al-Sharia in Almnash, Rada, which was once the main Yemeni stronghold of this local arm of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. 22 November 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
Report 174 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen’s al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base

Thriving on conflict, sectarianism, and local opportunism, al-Qaeda’s affiliates are stronger than ever in Yemen. To shrink their growing base will require better governance in vulnerable areas, not treating all Sunni Islamists as one enemy, and above all ending Yemen’s civil war.

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Executive Summary

The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda (AQ) is stronger than it has ever been. As the country’s civil war has escalated and become regionalised, its local franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is thriving in an environment of state collapse, growing sectarianism, shifting alliances, security vacuums and a burgeoning war economy. Reversing this trend requires ending the conflict that set it in motion. This means securing an overarching political settlement that has buy-in from the country’s diverse constituencies, including Sunni Islamists. As this will take time, steps must be taken now to contain AQAP’s growth: improving governance in vulnerable areas, disaggregating Sunni Islamist groups and using military tools judiciously and in coordination with local authorities. These efforts will be imperilled if states interested in fighting AQAP and Yemen’s nascent Islamic State (IS) branch, such as the U.S., take military actions that ignore the local context and result in high civilian casualties, like the Trump administration’s 29 January 2017 raid on AQAP affiliates in al-Bayda, or fail to restrain partners who tolerate or even encourage AQAP/IS activities.

Prior to Yemen’s 2011 popular uprising against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, AQAP was a small yet lethal branch of AQ, focused primarily on Western targets. With at most several hundred members, it had limited local appeal and was both sustained and constrained by complex and sometimes contradictory relationships with the governing authorities and tribes. A primary security concern for the West and especially the U.S., AQAP was a sideshow for most Yemenis, at times tolerated by the government and routinely used by local elites for financial and/or political advantage. It was far less threatening to state stability than growing regime infighting, southern separatist sentiment or Huthi militancy in northern areas.

AQAP and, later and to a much lesser extent, a new outcrop of IS, emerged arguably as the biggest winners of the failed political transition and civil war that followed. AQAP adapted to the rapidly shifting political terrain, morphing into an insurgent movement capable of controlling territory and challenging state authority. Its main success derives from its demonstrated pragmatism: working within local norms, forging alliances with Sunni allies, assimilating into militias and embedding itself in a political economy of smuggling and trade that spans the various fighting factions, including the Huthi/former President Saleh alliance. It has at times controlled territory in the country’s south and appears ever more embedded in the fabric of opposition to the Huthi/Saleh alliance, dominant in the north, that is fighting the internationally recognised, Saudi-backed interim government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

IS, with its more brutal tactics, has been less successful in gaining recruits or capturing territory, but war has opened space for it to operate in places that have experienced sectarian-tinged violence, such as the southern port city of Aden. There, the group has turned its sights on the Hadi government and local security personnel through assassinations and bombings that have, indirectly, benefited the Huthi/Saleh front by weakening its common enemies and repeatedly underscoring the lack of security in Aden, the government’s temporary capital.

Virtually all local and foreign fighting parties in Yemen claim to be enemies of AQAP and IS, yet all have contributed to their rise. The Huthis, who as Zaydi/Shiites are AQAP’s primary ideological enemies, strengthened their foes through their February 2015 military push into predominantly Shafai (Sunni) areas, allowing AQAP to present itself as part of a wider “Sunni” front against Huthi/Saleh expansion. The Huthi/Saleh bloc’s willingness to conflate the Sunni Islamist party Islah and southern separatists with AQ and IS does not help. Their opponents, especially a gamut of Salafi fighting groups that the war has pushed to the foreground, as well as their Gulf backers, have poured fuel on the fire, at times crudely labelling Huthis as Iranian proxies who are part of a “Shiite agenda” in the region.

The logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, coupled with a long legacy of politicians using jihadists in power struggles against foes, has allowed AQAP to forge tacit alliances with a range of anti-Huthi/Saleh forces. The Saudi-backed coalition’s almost single-minded focus on defeating the Huthi/Saleh bloc has been a boon to AQAP, which has controlled territory unimpeded for stretches of time, in the process indirectly gaining weapons from the coalition and mining new funding streams by raiding banks and controlling ports. The United Arab Emirates dislodged AQAP from its Mukalla stronghold in April 2016, but such successes are fragile and could easily be reversed in the absence of more effective and inclusive governance.

The evolution of AQAP into an insurgent force with the ambition and capacity to govern territory, showing pragmatism and sensitivity to local concerns, does not negate the international risk posed by the group. AQ’s long-game strategy, combined with the immediate benefits from Yemen’s war, means that it, along with its local affiliates, will likely outlast the swift global rise of IS and its Yemeni subsidiary, which has pursued a more aggressive approach. The continuation of an increasingly fractured conflict greatly enhances AQAP’s unprecedented ability to expand local support and amass financial and military resources. Countering its gains poses a complex long-term challenge and will require an urgent yet measured response, focused on bringing the civil war to a negotiated end.

Recommendations

To reverse AQAP/IS gains

To all Yemeni and regional belligerents:

  1. End the war by agreeing to a ceasefire followed by negotiations toward a political settlement that contains: 
    1. buy-in from a full range of Yemeni stakeholders, including Sunni Islamists (the Islah party and Salafi groups willing to participate in politics) and groups with a regional base, such as Hiraak in the south;
    2. recognition of the need for regional autonomy, particularly for the south, and creation of a mechanism to determine the future state structure; and
    3. interim security arrangements in various war-torn localities under the state umbrella but with local buy-in.
       
  2. Avoid sectarian language and end media campaigns and mosque sermons that label adversaries in sectarian terms. 

To donor governments assisting Yemenis in combatting AQAP/IS:

  1. Engage in regular assessments of local and regional partners who may at times tolerate or even encourage AQAP/IS activities for political or economic gain, and press them to change course, threatening to suspend counter-terrorism cooperation if they do not.
     
  2. Decouple development from counter-terrorism assistance to reduce the incentives for the (current or future) Yemeni government to benefit financially from AQAP/IS’s presence.
     
  3. Enhance security measures at ports and border crossings with an increased maritime security focus on AQAP/IS sea supply routes along vulnerable coastlines.
     
  4. Encourage and support Track-II and local civil society efforts to heal inter-confessional divides, building on Yemen’s history of tolerance.
     
  5. Where there are opportunities to open lines of communication with AQAP leaders independent of tribal or political elites, those should be explored and if possible used to help de-escalate violence.

To states and groups operating in areas previously under or vulnerable to violent jihadist control, especially, but not limited to, the Hadi government, government-linked militias and the United Arab Emirates:

  1. Prioritise basic security, justice – particularly quick and transparent dispute resolution – and service provision.
     
  2. Disaggregate rather than conflate various Sunni Islamist groups by:
     
    1. including Islah in local governance and security initiatives; and
    2. communicating and negotiating with supporters of Ansar al-Sharia (AQAP’s local insurgency arm), who may not adhere to AQAP’s global ideology, and work to separate them from AQAP by addressing their legitimate locally- grounded grievances.
       
  3. Use military and policing tools judiciously and in compliance with local laws and norms by:
     
    1. avoiding heavy-handed military campaigns in cities and, when possible, working with local leaders to negotiate violent jihadists’ exit from urban areas, as happened in Mukalla; and
    2. using local forces against AQAP/IS when possible, but without creating legally unaccountable militia structures outside the state’s umbrella; bringing local militias, including popular committees, the Security Belt forces and the Elite forces in Hadramout, fully under government authority and under a legal system that ensures transparency and protects human rights.

To the Huthi/Saleh bloc:

  1. Disaggregate rather than conflate various Sunni Islamist groups, and work with those willing to engage in peace talks and operate within the political process.
     
  2. Refrain from military advances into predominately Shafai/Sunni areas that can only further inflame growing sectarian tensions and provide fodder to AQAP/IS propaganda.

Brussels, 2 February 2017

I. Introduction

This report examines the nexus of regional and local factors fuelling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Islamic State (IS)’s gains in Yemen. It builds on Crisis Group’s comparative study of the evolving global jihadist landscape, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, by exploring the case of Yemen as a subset of this milieu.[fn]This report will follow the use of the term “jihadist” as explained in Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016: “The root of the word ‘jihad’ in Arabic refers to striving in the service of God. Many Muslims find its use in the context of political violence imprecise and offensive. It reduces a complex religious concept, which over centuries has taken many, often peaceful forms, to war-making. In the view of the vast majority of Muslims, today’s ‘jihadists’ pervert Islam’s tenets. It is hard, however, to escape the term. First, the groups this report addresses mostly self-identify as ‘jihadist’…. Secondly, while jihad has long been an element of virtually all schools of Islam, a nascent ‘jihadist’ ideology has emerged that is more than a reflection of this history …. Though big differences exist between ‘jihadist’ groups, they share some ideological tenets: fighting to return society to a purer form of Islam; violence against rulers whose policies they deem in conflict with Islamic imperatives (as jihadists understand them); and belief in a duty to use violence when Muslim rulers abandon those imperatives. Our use of ‘jihadist’ is not meant to add legitimacy to this interpretation or detract from efforts to promote alternative interpretations”. As in the Exploiting Disorder report, this report examines only a subset of jihadist groups, namely Sunni jihadists, in this case, AQAP and IS in Yemen.Hide Footnote In many ways, AQAP’s and IS’s rapid growth in Yemen follow regional trends. The collapse of Yemen’s Arab Spring transition and the chaos that followed have catalysed their expansion, providing them with new political opportunities, money, weapons and recruits. As in Syria, Iraq and Libya, growing enmity between regional states, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran, has fuelled sectarian tensions and led them to prioritise traditional rivals over violent jihadists, in some cases leveraging the latter as proxies.

Yet, the challenge that AQAP and IS present in Yemen is embedded in the country’s unique history and local political dynamics that both sustain and limit them. A record of regime co-optation of and collaboration with jihadist groups means that AQAP in particular is already intertwined with political actors and integrated into the economy. This creates obstacles in suppressing the group in that these actors may have incentives to use it to advance their own political and economic interests. Yet as AQAP is a Yemeni organisation with legitimate local demands – justice provision, services, jobs – efforts could be made to co-opt it and weaken its transnationally focused leadership by addressing these local grievances. Devising effective policy options for countering AQAP – or IS – cannot be based on a cookie-cutter approach but requires attention to both regional factors and local idiosyncrasies, lest the problem be aggravated, not overcome.

II. Al-Qaeda in Yemen

Yemen has long grabbed headlines as a hotbed for al-Qaeda (AQ) activity, and indeed it holds a special place in jihadist eschatology.[fn]According to a hadith (saying of the Prophet Mohammed), during the end of days, “Out of Aden-Abyan will come 12,000, giving victory to the [religion of] Allah and His Messenger. They are the best between me and them”. Musnad Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal hadith collection, vol. 3, no. 379.Hide Footnote Its common caricature is as the Middle East’s “wild west”, where gun-toting tribesmen, rugged mountains, weak governance and a deeply religious, rural population offer a breeding ground for outlaw groups. This stereotype not only risks oversimplification but can result in incorrect assumptions about AQ (that tribal areas necessarily provide safe haven, government actors are automatically the group’s foes or AQ cannot thrive equally in urban areas) and problematic, even counterproductive, policy prescriptions.[fn]“A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen”, Combating Terrorism Centre, September 2011.Hide Footnote

Western analysis tends to explore AQ’s relationship with local tribes but less often examines the group as a tool for Yemen’s political elite to resort to subterfuge for financial and military gain.[fn]Gregory D. Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (New York and London, 2012), and Sarah Philips, “The Norm of State-Monopolised Violence from a Yemeni Perspective”, in Charlotte Epstein (ed.), Against International Relations Norms (forthcoming, 2017), are notable exceptions.Hide Footnote Yemenis, by contrast, view domestic political dynamics as fundamental to understanding and countering AQ and similar jihadist groups.[fn]Yemenis generally identify three factors in facilitating Sunni radicalisation and AQAP expansion. The spread of ideas from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 1960s and 1970s, and from Saudi Arabia through support for religious schools in the 1980s and the return of Yemeni migrant workers in the early 1990s, allegedly formed an ideological foundation for groups such as AQAP. The second factor is poverty. Most important for many interlocutors is state orchestration of jihadist groups for political and financial gain. Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni politicians, journalists and analysts, September 2010-August 2016.Hide Footnote

The history of AQ and related movements in Yemen is tied to both domestic politics and shifting trends in global jihadism. In the early 1990s, fighters from the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, known as Afghan Arabs, returned – as part of the first wave of global jihadist violence after the end of the Cold War – just as north Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic) unified with the socialist south (the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, PDRY) to form the Republic of Yemen.[fn]“Afghan Arab” is used to describe the non-Afghan Muslims from Arab, and some non-Arab, nations who travelled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. Those who subsequently travelled to Yemen included non-Yemenis as well as returning nationals.Hide Footnote While most Arab states were turning against Islamists, Sanaa continued to align with them.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°8, Yemen: Coping with Terrorism and Violence in a Fragile State, 8 January 2003.Hide Footnote Islah, a Sunni Islamist party created in 1990 and encompassing the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, provided a political outlet for many returnees as it formed a governing coalition with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) following elections in 1993. More militant Afghan veterans – such as Tariq al-Fadhli – joined with southerners to form the Islamic Jihad Movement (IJM). On 29 December 1992, IJM leader Jamal al-Nahdi attempted to kill U.S. marines in Aden, the first AQ-linked attack targeting the U.S.[fn]IJM was the first formal Islamist group in Yemen with ties (financial and personal, not organisational) to Osama bin Laden and AQ in Afghanistan, known as “al-Qaeda Central”. Bin Laden later took credit for the failed bombing. Al-Nahdi was arrested but escaped from prison.Hide Footnote

During this time, jihadists and the Saleh regime were aligned against the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Prior to the 1994 north-south civil war, Afghan Arabs allegedly killed YSP cadres with the help of northern-linked security services.[fn]The killings – at least 150 between 1990 and 1994, according to the YSP – were a key instigator of the war. Brian Whitaker, The Birth of Modern Yemen (e-book, 2009); and Noel Brehony, Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia (London, 2011).Hide Footnote In the war, Saleh and his senior military commander, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (who married al-Fadhli's sister and today is Yemen’s vice-president aligned with the Saudi-led coalition confronting the Huthi/Saleh alliance), used the Afghan Arabs as a proxy. Following a quick and decisive northern victory, some IJM members were given positions in the GPC and security services.[fn]During the 1994 war, al-Fadhli was made a colonel in the Yemen army. After the civil war, al-Nahdi joined the GPC’s governing organisation, the permanent committee, and Saleh appointed al-Fadhli to the upper house of parliament. Gregory D. Johnsen, The Last Refuge, p. 51.Hide Footnote  

In the mid-1990s, a second wave of global jihadist violence saw AQ focus on attacking what it called the “far enemy”. In Yemen, AQAP’s precursors started doing the same. IJM remnants and others who refused co-optation by the state gathered under Yemeni Afghan veteran Zain al-Abidin Abubakr al-Mihdar to create the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army (AAIA), the first jihadist group with a transnational agenda. It pledged support to Osama bin Laden and engaged in international messaging.[fn]The AAIA, probably created between 1994 and 1997, was known under various names inspired by a hadith, including the Army of Aden-Abyan and the Islamic Army of Aden. In a message to Agence France-Presse (AFP) in August 1998, it replicated bin Laden’s declaration calling for “total war” on U.S. interests in Yemen. AQAP propaganda referred to the AAIA in 2010.Hide Footnote

Although AAIA’s influence dwindled in the late 1990s, jihadist attacks on Western interests increased. On 12 October 2000, an explosives-laden skiff rammed into the USS Cole, a U.S. warship docked off Aden port, killing seventeen marines. AAIA claimed responsibility, but the mastermind behind the attack was Abd-al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a Saudi AQ member who was bin Laden’s head of operations in the Gulf. The attack propelled Yemen into the spotlight as a critical state in the U.S. fight against AQ. Under U.S. pressure, Yemeni authorities rounded up scores of suspects – but not al-Nashiri.[fn]Four months later, Saudi officials reportedly spotted al-Nashiri in Sanaa with the deputy director of the PSO. “Yemen, an uneasy ally, proves adept at playing off old rivals”, The New York Times, 19 December 2002. Ahmed Abdullah al-Hasani, head of the navy at the time of the Cole attack, said its perpetrators were “well known by the regime and some are still officers in the national army”. “Britons’ killers ‘linked to Yemeni army chief’”, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2005.Hide Footnote Following the 9/11 attack in the U.S. and to avoid political isolation, Saleh moved decisively against AQ, largely defeating it by the end of 2003.

That year, the U.S. invasion of Iraq inspired a new generation of fighters (a third wave of global jihadism) that revived and altered AQ’s Yemeni branch. In February 2006, 23 AQ members escaped Sanaa PSO prison. Among them were Nassar al-Wuhayshi and Qasim al-Raymi, both of whom later became AQAP founding members.[fn]Several prison officials, including warden Salah al-Muradi, were arrested on suspicion of facilitating the escape. “Yemen: Al-Qa'ida escape”, U.S. embassy Sanaa cable, April 2006, as published by WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06SANAA973_a.html. The timing raised questions, as Yemen had just lost $300 million of aid from the U.S. and the World Bank.Hide Footnote The event once again focused U.S. attention on the country as a front-line state against AQ. In 2007, funding from the U.S. Defense Department to Yemen increased to $26 million from $4.3 million the previous year.[fn]U.S. funding soared to $67 million in 2009 following two attacks on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in 2008, and to $155.3 million in 2010, which U.S. officials said was largely due to AQAP’s attempted bombing of the U.S.-bound passenger jet on Christmas Day, 2009. “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations”, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 1 November 2012. “Report to Congressional Committees”, U.S. Government Accountability Office, February 2012. This pattern of increased funding in response to attacks demonstrated the financial and military gains the state could make from AQ’s activities.Hide Footnote Yet, between 2007 and 2009, Sanaa and Washington were distracted by, respectively, the conflict with the Huthis and the war in Iraq, allowing a new generation of AQ leaders under al-Wuhayshi to rebuild the organisation from scratch.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, Gregory Johnsen, 10 January 2017. Al-Wuhayshi became the emir, or leader, of AQ in the land of Yemen (AQLY) in June 2007. On 13 March 2008, AQLY renamed itself AQ in the Southern Arabian Peninsula (AQSAP). AQLY/AQSAP carried out attacks against Western interests, including oil facilities in Hadramout and Marib in 2006, the U.S. embassy in 2008 and South Korean tourists in Marib in 2009.Hide Footnote In January 2009, they formed AQAP from the merger of AQ’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. AQAP launched high-profile attacks against Western interests and the Yemeni security and intelligence forces, especially in the south.[fn]Prior to 2009, there were two AQ groups: AQSAP (the renamed AQLY) and a splinter group, the Yemen Soldiers Brigade, quickly wiped out by Saleh in 2008. Following attacks in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2006, a crackdown pushed many Saudi members into Yemen, resulting in the franchises’ coalescence. The group’s founders included non-Yemenis and individuals with close ties to AQ Central’s leadership. Al-Wuhayshi’s leadership – as former secretary to Osama bin Laden and a native Yemeni – combined the valuable attributes of someone with both local ties and a strong connection to AQ’s leadership and its transnational aims.Hide Footnote

By 2011, AQAP was seen in the U.S. as AQ’s most lethal branch, but its influence in Yemen was still circumscribed.[fn]The U.S. put its membership at “several hundred” in 2010 and at “a few thousand” in 2011. “Briefing by Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, assistant to the president for counterterrorism and homeland security, Brennan, and Press Secretary Gibbs”, White House Office of the Press Secretary, 7 January 2010. “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” in “Country Reports on Terrorism 2011”, U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 31 July 2012.Hide Footnote Saleh walked a fine line: balancing the U.S. drone campaign against AQ’s leadership and the local population’s resentment toward perceived violations of national sovereignty and the causalities from these strikes.[fn]Notably, a missile attack on al-Maajala in Abyan governorate on 17 December 2009 killed 41 civilians. The Yemeni government claimed responsibility, but photographs of remnants of U.S.-made bombs disputed this. In 2010, Saleh reportedly told General David Petraeus, then U.S. Central Command chief: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours”. “General Petraeus’ meeting with Saleh on security assistance, AQAP strikes”, U.S. embassy Sanaa cable, January 2010, as published by WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/10SANAA4_a.html.Hide Footnote AQAP was a relatively small component of the domestic balance of power, used by the state to win financial and military support from the U.S. While a top priority for the West, AQAP was far less important for the state and most Yemenis than the growing strength of the Huthis (a revivalist movement in the north based on Zaydism, a version of Shiite Islam), separatist sentiment in the south and an increasingly brittle regime in Sanaa.

III. The Fourth Wave

A. Fertile Ground for Jihadism

Yemen’s fourth wave of jihadist violence is its most potent because of the underlying currents propelling it, including state collapse and sectarianism.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit.Hide Footnote While IS’s ideological innovations and territorial gains dominate the fourth wave in other parts of the Middle East, in Yemen, AQAP has taken the lead, evolving and adapting in the rapidly shifting post-2011 environment. Its expansion has roughly occurred in two phases: the first in the wake of the 2011 popular uprising against Saleh and the second in the context of a failed political transition and the subsequent war.

1. Uprising

During the uprising, AQAP evolved from a primarily internationally focused jihadist organisation to one with a significant local insurgency component, seeking to strike deeper roots into Yemeni society and establish territorial control. In 2011, it created a parallel group, Ansar al-Sharia (AAS, “Supporters of Islamic Law”), to widen its domestic appeal and separate its local component from its international brand, which many Yemenis view as a regime instrument, infamous for its attacks against the West and likely to trigger a military backlash, especially from the U.S., against communities that support it.[fn]Sheikh Abu Zubayr Adel bin Abdullah al-Abab, a senior AQAP religious official, explained: “The name Ansar al-Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals, and that we are on the path of Allah”. Recorded 18 April 2011, posted on YouTube 25 April 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js_fbKJN23s.Hide Footnote The move also attempted to address the organisation’s long-running “double-bind” of balancing global objectives – targeting the West and expelling unbelievers from the Arabian Peninsula – with its need to address local grievances, such as corruption and lack of effective justice.[fn]Vahid Brown presents this double-bind as the interplay between two inter-related tensions: the global/local dichotomy, which illustrates the friction between the global range of AQ’s stated plan and the local concerns of those it seeks to win over; and the global/classical dichotomy, in relation to AQ’s concept of violent jihad as the only course of action, an extremist interpretation contested by more authoritative and influential clerical proponents of a classical definition of legitimate jihad. Vahid Brown, “Al‐Qa’ida Central and Local Affiliates”, in Assaf Moghadam and Brian Fishman (eds.), “Self-Inflicted Wounds Debates and Divisions within al-Qa’ida and its Periphery”, Combating Terrorism Center, 2010, pp. 69-100.Hide Footnote In practice, AAS acts as a local insurgent arm and domestic diffusion brand, while AQAP continues to call for strikes against the West, particularly by encouraging “lone-wolf” attacks.[fn]AQAP is hierarchical, structured around a senior leadership whose members are dispersed over committees and councils (such as the media, security and military committees and the Shura council, which advises AQAP’s emir and reports back to al-Qaeda Central). This structure, along with creating a consultative mechanism, allows it to better absorb the impact of assassinations. From 2013 until his death in June 2015, AQAP emir al-Wuhayshi played an additional role as AQ Central’s “general manager” and second-in-command under Ayman al-Zawahiri. The military committee functions as the insurgency’s command structure. Mid-level leaders are province (wilaya) commanders, known as emirs, along with district and city commanders under provincial command. AQAP propaganda regularly refers to these commanders, who are not limited in movement and operations as their title might suggest, as AAS. Jalal Baleedi, killed in February 2016, was both a mid-level AQAP commander and a senior AAS leader. AQAP and AAS have separate media wings for propaganda releases, but these outlets often collaborate. At entry level, AAS recruits are not required to pledge allegiance (bay’a) to AQAP, but senior commanders are. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Yemeni analysts and journalists, AQAP members, Yemen, 2011-2016. For the purpose of this report, AQAP and AAS are used interchangeably except when AAS has expressly profiled itself separately. AQAP’s calls for “lone-wolf” attacks underline its continued desire to carry out international operations but may also indicate frustration at its lack of international prowess in recent years. According to a U.S. government official, “AQAP’s ability to balance both local and global objectives has been the key to its sustained relevance and a persistent threat to U.S. interests. AQAP has prioritised a ‘Yemen-first’ approach as the societal instability is far too advantageous for them …. That said, there has been an increase in AQAP’s calls for lone operatives to target the west in its social media, Telegram Channels, and newer traditional media such as Inspire Guides”. Crisis Group email interview, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Under the AAS banner, AQAP captured several towns, including the capital of the southern province of Abyan in May 2011, and governed these areas for more than a year.[fn]This went against Osama bin Laden’s advice in a letter to AQAP leader al-Wuhayshi. Bin Laden also expressed concerns about getting bogged down in the focus on the “internal enemy”, in this case the Yemeni government, rather than on the “far enemy”. SOCOM-2012-0000016, in “Letters from Abbottabad”, Combating Terrorism Center, 3 May 2012.Hide Footnote In keeping with AQ’s global strategy, it has increasingly pursued a gradualist approach, beginning with establishing acceptance among the local population, with the aim of gaining its active support and having civilians join in defending AQAP-controlled territory. This local backing and territorial control – with the aim of creating multiple emirates that should ultimately lead to the creation of a caliphate – would subsequently offer potential for AQAP to launch attacks outside Yemen.[fn]Ayman al-Zawahiri, “General Guidelines for Jihad,” As-Sahab Media, 14 September 2013. This is AQ’s blueprint for a more restrained strategy with an emphasis on localism. AQ groups in Syria, most notably Jabhat al-Nusra, have pursued such tactics. And like its Yemeni counterpart, in July 2016 al-Nusra disassociated itself from the AQ brand and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°155, Rigged Cars and Barrel Bombs: Aleppo and the State of the Syrian War, 9 September 2014.Hide Footnote

Initially, AQAP suffered a setback under Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Yemen’s transitional president, who took power from Saleh as part of a political deal known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative in February 2012. In May 2012, a combination of Yemeni security services and local militias, known as Popular Committees, ousted AQAP from Abyan, ending its first experiment with governance.[fn]Although fighting on the same side as government troops, the “Popular Committees” were mostly southern secessionists and openly opposed Hadi. By 2014, Huthis used the same name for their militias.Hide Footnote Reeling from its defeat, it switched back to asymmetrical attacks, which became more sophisticated and larger in scale than before 2011.[fn]These attacks included: a 21 May 2012 suicide bombing in Sanaa that killed more than 100 soldiers; a 30 September 2013 storming of the military’s Zone-2 headquarters in Mukalla, which AQAP militants held for two days; and a similar attack on the defence ministry in Sanaa on 5 December 2013 that left more than 50 dead and included an assault on al-Urdi hospital inside the compound that killed seventeen patients and staff, for which AQAP later apologised.Hide Footnote The interim president also gave the U.S. carte blanche to pursue its drone campaign against jihadists. Yet, military moves against AQAP proved woefully inadequate in the face of expanding political opportunities.

2. Derailed transition

By 2014, Yemen’s political transition was buckling under the weight of corruption and political infighting. The national dialogue conference, a transition cornerstone aimed at constitutional reform, failed to resolve pivotal issues, including the future state structure. In this environment, the biggest winners were the Huthis, a Shiite movement and militia that had previously fought six rounds of conflict with the Saleh regime (2004-2010). They presented themselves as political outsiders opposed to the GCC initiative, which had divided power between established political parties.

Over the course of the transition, the Huthis upended the military power balance in the north by defeating Sunni Islamist and tribal opponents, including an alliance of Salafi fighters, Islah members, Ali Mohsen-aligned military forces and the powerful al-Ahmar clan (no relation to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar) from the Hashid tribal confederation, in a series of battles in 2013 and 2014.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014.Hide Footnote They also forged an alliance with their former enemies, Saleh and his GPC supporters, who felt marginalised by the GCC-led transition and sought revenge against the Mohsen/Ahmar/Islah alliance that had joined the 2011 popular uprising.

With support from the GPC, the Huthi militia captured Sanaa in September 2014. By February 2015, a dispute over the constitution prompted them to oust the Hadi government. One month later, alarmed by the Huthis’ military advances, which they attributed to Iranian meddling, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), backed by the U.S., UK and France, launched a military intervention and imposed a naval and air blockade to reinstate the Hadi government.[fn]For an overview of the Huthi coup, the group’s expansion southward and the Saudi-led military intervention, see Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°45, Yemen at War, 27 March 2015.Hide Footnote

As Yemen plunged into war, AQAP and IS flourished. AQAP declared war against the Huthis in early 2011, but then rarely acted on its strong rhetoric, carrying out only a handful of attacks.[fn]The most notable AQAP attack against the Huthis was the car bombing of a Huthi festival on 24 November 2010 that killed 23 people. AQAP claimed responsibility, stating it had killed the Huthis’ spiritual leader, Badr-al-Din al-Huthi. They also claimed a follow-up attack on 26 November targeting a convoy on its way to al-Huthi’s funeral. AQAP’s Sada al-Malahem magazine, 15 February 2011.Hide Footnote This changed in 2014, as Huthi forces broke out of their Saada stronghold. By mid-December 2014, AQAP had claimed responsibility for 149 attacks against the Huthis in fourteen governorates in less than 90 days.[fn]Oren Adaki, “AQAP claims 149 attacks in Yemen since late September”, The Long War Journal (www.longwarjournal.org), 19 December 2014.Hide Footnote  Al-Bayda, a crossroads governorate between north and south that borders eight provinces, was a focus of these assaults, as the Huthis moved into the area in October under the pretext of fighting Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), a term the Huthis have used loosely to characterise a wide range of their opponents.

At the same time, IS, an AQAP competitor, took advantage of increasing sectarianism and violence. It made its Yemen debut on 20 March 2015 in four coordinated suicide attacks against mosques frequented by Huthis in Sanaa, a day after fighting broke out between Saleh loyalists and Hadi-aligned fighters in Aden. The IS bombings provided justification for the Huthi push into Aden as a necessary fight against the growing security void, which the Huthis viewed as intentionally created by their political rival, President Hadi, and filled by AQ and other violent jihadists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi supporters, August and September 2015.Hide Footnote

Only a week after the Saudi-led coalition began attacking Huthi-Saleh forces from the air, AQAP moved once again to capture territory, this time in the eastern governorate of Hadramout. Unchallenged by local military units, it easily took control of the provincial capital, Mukalla, and large swathes of the province’s coastline.[fn]AQAP denied it had seized Mukalla, saying instead it had been a “Sunni tribal takeover” by the “Sons of Hadramout”. However, local residents and the international community regarded Mukalla as an AQ-controlled city from April 2015 to April 2016. This report refers to AQAP as having seized the city, which it then controlled through local administrative bodies, some of which included non-AQAP members. The name AAS is not referred to in this context, as it was used by neither residents nor the militants to describe themselves during this period.Hide Footnote There, it exhibited improved governance skills by applying lessons learned from its previous experience in Abyan. AQAP held Mukalla for over a year, as the coalition was fighting Huthi/Saleh forces elsewhere.

After nearly two years of war, AQAP/AAS is now deeply enmeshed in the on-going battle against the Huthi/Saleh bloc on a number of fronts, including al-Bayda, Shebwa, Marib, Jawf and Taiz governorates. Its numbers, while difficult to assess, have swelled, reaching approximately 4,000 by 2015 according to U.S. State Department estimates.[fn]Compared to 1,000 in 2014. “Country Reports on Terrorism 2015”, U.S. State Department, 2 June 2016.Hide Footnote Equally importantly, its staying power has grown through a vast war chest. It also has acquired a wide range of new weaponry, including heavy weapons from Yemeni military camps or acquired indirectly from the Saudi-led coalition, which has been supplying arms to a range of anti-Huthi fighters.[fn]AQAP has reportedly plundered thirteen army units across Yemen since March 2015. “Midterm update of the Panel of Experts on Yemen established pursuant to Security Council resolution 2140 (2014)”, unpublished report, August 2016. Eyewitnesses reported seeing tanks seized by AQAP from Mukalla’s two military bases being transported toward northern Hadramout, destination unknown. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote While AQAP was forced to withdraw from Mukalla in the face of a UAE-led, U.S.-assisted military campaign in April 2016, the group is far from defeated and has instead relocated to adjoining governorates or blended into the local population. It continues to exercise on-again, off-again control of areas in Abyan and neighbouring Shebwa.

IS has not seized territory, and its following remains small.[fn]In May 2016, a U.S. State Department official estimated IS numbers in Yemen at around 150. Crisis Group interview, Washington, May 2016. A suicide bomber from Aden said in a phone call with friends shortly before his June 2016 death in Mukalla that IS’s Yemen membership was as low as 70. Crisis Group consultant phone interview in former capacity, friend of the suicide bomber, 27 June 2016.Hide Footnote Yet, it has found fertile ground in cities such as Aden, which suffered sectarian-tinged violence in the aftermath of the Huthi takeover and subsequent removal. IS has taken credit for a number of high-profile attacks against both Huthi forces and the Hadi government and its allies in the south.[fn]Including for two suicide bombings against Yemeni security personnel in Aden that killed 57 on 10 December 2016 and over 50 on 18 December 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Drivers of AQAP and IS Expansion

1. Opportunity in chaos

An important factor in AQAP’s steady gains has been its ability to capitalise on the near-collapse of weak state institutions, particularly the security services. In the past, the Yemeni state at times lent tacit support to violent jihadist groups for political or financial gain. Yet, prior to 2011, there were limits to AQAP’s activities. The group never, for example, held or governed territory. This changed in 2011 when state security services split, one side remaining loyal to Saleh and the other, led by Ali Mohsen, joining protests against him. This fracturing accelerated during the 2015 war. Now, members of the security services are either fighting with the Huthi/Saleh front or the Saudi-led coalition or staying at home. In this environment, not only is there no unified effort to put AQAP on a leash, but the group can step into local political and security vacuums.

Each time AAS has captured significant territory, there has been little or no resistance from the security services, regardless of the latter’s political alignment. This was the case, for example, on 29 May 2011 when militants took over Zinjibar, Abyan, and later five more towns across Abyan and Shebwa provinces. Some observers suggest that Saleh’s allies were preoccupied with the battle for Sanaa as the uprising unfolded and the army split. Local residents in Abyan, who witnessed AQAP’s territorial gains, said security forces abandoned their positions and handed over municipal buildings to barely a handful of militants.[fn]Zinjibar residents said that fewer than a dozen men took control of the town with minimal, if any, effort to repel them. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, Jaar and Zinjibar, 30 and 31 May 2011, 22 and 23 May 2012 and 13 and 14 June 2012.Hide Footnote Saleh’s opponents viewed the Abyan events as a ruse by the besieged president to persuade his international allies to support him and to draw attention from events in Taiz, where, on the same day, his forces had razed an anti-government protest camp, killing and injuring more than 270 demonstrators.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Yemeni political analyst, Sanaa, June 2011; Yemeni politician who defected from Saleh’s GPC party, Sanaa, 12 June 2011. Defected general Ali Mohsen said Saleh had “handed over Abyan to terrorist gunmen”. Quotes in al-Hayat, June 2011. For details of the Taiz crackdown see, “No Safe Places: Yemen’s Crackdown on Protests in Taizz”, Human Rights Watch, 6 February 2012.Hide Footnote Whatever the reasons for the swift takeover of southern cities, security services failed to act and thus AQAP became the major beneficiary.

In Mukalla, too, state security forces were either unwilling or unable to oppose an AQAP takeover in April 2015. Local residents reported that they failed to put up a fight when the group entered the town and even prevented tribal fighters from stopping it.[fn]Army commanders fled the Zone-2 military headquarters in Mukalla to join the 27th mechanised brigade at al-Riyan airbase, north east of the city. When local tribal fighters attempted to enter the city to fight AQAP, they were blocked by the military, who preferred negotiating their safe withdrawal; clashes ensued between soldiers and tribal fighters. At the time of the takeover, soldiers’ and commanders’ loyalties were murky. The military commanders of Zone-2 and the 27th mechanised brigade were Hadi appointees. Yet, many of the troops in the area are affiliated with Saleh or Ali Mohsen. AQAP allowed the soldiers to leave as long as they deposited all but their personal weapons; it provided transport and cash handouts to them; and it encouraged them to continue to collect their government salaries in Mahra, a neighbouring province, and northern Hadramout, but made them pledge not to fight AQAP or AAS in the future. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, soldier and army officer present on the 27th mechanised brigade base in April 2015 and evacuated by AQAP, Hadramout, 15 March 2016; Mukalla resident party to the negotiations between AQAP and the army, 14 March 2016; Sheikh Amr bin Habrish, head of the Hadramout Tribal Confederacy, PetroMasila, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Equally important, once in control of cities, AQAP/AAS has presented itself as a viable and indeed better alternative to the state by providing more reliable services and dispute adjudication. In Abyan between May 2011 and 2012, AAS provided services such as water and electricity, as well as education and an efficient justice system based on Sharia (Islamic law), and went as far as compensating families which had lost their homes to U.S. drone and airstrikes. AAS’s popularity was clearly based on its comparatively efficient governance more than on its ideology.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, imam of Jaar central mosque, local lawyer from Jaar, teenage girls and their mothers, male Jaar residents, Jaar, Abyan, May 2012.Hide Footnote

After being evicted from Abyan, the group applied lessons from its experience there to Mukalla. It further softened its approach by socialising with residents and refraining from draconian rules.[fn]AQAP executed spies, but permitted women to be outside their homes after dark. AQAP leader al-Wuhayshi wrote to the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after the group’s withdrawal from Abyan in 2012 to give advice on how to govern. This included tips on the implementation of Islamic punishments. He wrote: “Try to avoid enforcing Islamic punishments as much as possible, unless you are forced to do so”. “The al-Qaida Papers”, Associated Press, February 2013.Hide Footnote As part of this effort, it put in place a local ruling council – the Hadramout National Council (HNC) – rather than instituting direct rule.[fn]The fifteen members of the HNC also included local dignitaries (some of whom had served on the pre-existing local Council of Sunni Scholars) and prominent non-AQAP Hadramis. According to a resident, “The council [HNC] is widely viewed as a front to legitimise AQAP’s hold on power, but locals see it as an acceptable way to deal with the outside world”. Crisis Group interview, April 2015; consultant interview in former capacity, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote AQAP appointed local members as religious police. It also launched infrastructure projects, provided social services, such as food distribution for families in need and medical supplies and equipment for hospitals, and staged community events and street festivals.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP officials, residents, Mukalla, March 2016. AAS’s propaganda channel, al-Atheer, released pictures and videos of its community work. These efforts extended to areas under its control in Abyan and Shebwa.Hide Footnote The infamous rayat al-sudaa’, AQ’s black banner, was hard to find in the city, and by order of AQAP’s then-leader, al-Wuhayshi, it was not displayed during the militants’ takeover.[fn]AQAP’s then-spokesman spent considerable time trying to persuade international media that it was not AQAP or AAS seizing the city, but a Sunni tribal takeover led by the so-called “Sons of Hadramout”. This may have been an attempt to avoid drawing U.S. airstrikes, which later killed the spokesman and other senior AQAP leaders in Mukalla. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, AQAP spokesman Muhannad Ghalleb, April 2015.Hide Footnote

Residents in AQAP-controlled areas, while not supporting the group’s ideology, have regularly praised its prioritisation of security, basic services and a mechanism to resolve grievances, such as long-running land disputes.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, civilians living in AQAP-controlled territory, Abyan and Hadramout, 2011-2016.Hide Footnote According to a Mukalla resident in 2015:

We view the [Hadramout National] Council positively, because it has managed to continue to pay government salaries …. It has kept public services at a much better level than what is available in the rest of the county …. The AQAP judicial system is fair and swift and therefore preferred over the government’s corrupt system. Many prominent cases that had lingered for years were resolved in a single day.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, Mukalla resident, April 2015.Hide Footnote

AQAP also avoided a bloody fight to hold territory once it became clear that Saudi-led forces, especially the UAE, were determined in May 2016 to drive the group out. Its experience in Abyan in 2011-2012 had taught it that defending territory in a conventional conflict against foreign-backed forces was costly and risked alienating local populations it had spent months winning over. AQAP reportedly arranged its exit from Mukalla in coordination with coalition-allied forces prior to the UAE/Yemeni government assault.[fn]Members of the Saudi-led coalition and supporters of the Hadi government argued there was no agreement with AQAP to allow its fighters to leave the city. Instead, they said, AQAP fled, possibly with local help in the face of the impending UAE/Yemeni military onslaught. Crisis Group interviews, August, September 2016. However, AQAP officials said they received ample advance warning of the coming offensive and the fact that it would be preceded by airstrikes, and began sending their fighters out a month in advance. A former HNC member said AQAP coordinated its withdrawal with the coalition in Riyadh to allow a westward retreat. The eventual push by coalition-supported troops beginning on the night of 23/24 April 2016 was preceded by several days of airstrikes targeting empty AQAP military camps and facilities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP officials, former HNC member, Mukalla, March 2016; AQAP official, April 2016; and phone interviews, residents of Mukalla, witnesses in coastal Shebwa, April 2016.Hide Footnote

2. Huthi expansion, sectarianism and new alliances

Arguably, AQAP has most benefited from a combination of Huthi military expansion and growing sectarianism, as these have opened new opportunities for forging local alliances. Huthi inroads in predominantly Shafai/Sunni areas south and east of Sanaa sparked a series of opportunistic alliances with a range of anti-Huthi forces, who called themselves “resistance fighters”.[fn]When anti-Huthi forces pushed south in 2015, local guerrilla forces became known as the “Southern Resistance” in the fight for Aden and southern governorates. In Taiz, these fighters identify as “the Resistance”. Although all fighting on the Yemeni government’s side, these paramilitary forces are not by default pro-Hadi government. In the south, the name specifically denotes the armed separatist movement Hiraak. The southern resistance consists of local residents taking up arms to defend their homes, as well as former soldiers of the PDRY.Hide Footnote This happened on key battle fronts such as Taiz, Marib and al-Bayda, all provinces of the former north Yemen. It also happened in territories of former south Yemen, including Aden, before Huthi/Saleh forces were pushed out in July and August 2015.

The majority of anti-Huthi/Saleh fighters do not share AQAP’s ideology but reject northern/Zaydi domination. In the south, fighters are predominantly separatists, often leftist in orientation. Their tacit alliance with AQAP broke down as soon as Huthi/Saleh forces had been driven out of Aden. Indeed, both AQAP and IS started attacking their erstwhile tactical friends. In response, southern security forces, with the help of the UAE, have launched a number of military operations against them.

More importantly, growing sectarian sentiment has provided political/social space for groups such as AQAP and IS to recruit and establish more durable footholds in local communities. Yemenis are quick to point out that Zaydism and Shafaism (a Sunni school of jurisprudence) are relatively tolerant, have converged over time to the extent that Zaydis and Shafais pray in each other’s mosques, and do not have a history of violent relations. In the past, even AQAP acted pragmatically in light of these social constraints by avoiding direct confrontation with the larger Zaydi community and instead focusing its critique on Twelver Shiites, predominant in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.[fn]Barak Barfi, “AQAP’s Soft Power Strategy in Yemen”, CTC Sentinel, November 2012.Hide Footnote Yet, Yemen’s legacy of tolerance is becoming a casualty of the civil war, and AQAP is taking advantage.

The Huthis and their opponents share responsibility for the growth in sectarian sentiment. The Huthis often conflate Islah, Salafi groups, southern separatists and others with AQAP and IS, referring to all of them as takfiris, al-Qaeda or Daesh.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Huthi representatives, June, August and September 2015; consultant observations in former capacity, Aden, Taiz, Sanaa and Saada, May-November 2015.Hide Footnote They justify their original push south from Sanaa by the need to fill the security void and associated threat posed by Daesh/AQ, which they said were gaining strength and allied with Hadi.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Huthi representative, Sanaa, May 2015. Crisis Group phone interviews, Huthi supporters, May-June 2015.Hide Footnote However, at that time, IS did not exist in Aden. It was the war, triggered by the Huthis’ capture of Sanaa, and subsequent chaos that gave rise to the group. In other governorates, such as al-Bayda, the Huthis’ military progress had a similar catalysing effect on sectarianism.[fn]A researcher from al-Bayda noted that, prior to the Huthi advance into the governorate, any differences between local mosques concerned political affiliation: GPC versus Islah. As conflict spread, however, mosques began to segregate along Shafai versus Zaydi lines. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Abdulsalam al-Rubaidi, Sanaa, 11 November 2014.Hide Footnote

The layering of Saudi-Iranian competition in the Gulf onto Yemen’s civil war has further amplified the sectarian dimension, with the Saudis accusing the Huthis of being Iranian proxies, a charge echoed by Hadi supporters.

In addition, the alliance with Saleh and his networks, which are strongest in the Zaydi highlands, has reinforced a common perception among their opponents that the war has a north/Zaydi versus south/Shafai dimension.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Salafi politician, Aden, February 2015; Yemeni businessman, Sanaa, March 2015; phone interviews, adviser to Hadi government, October 2015; Yemeni activist from Ibb, November 2015.Hide Footnote Sectarian language is common among anti-Huthi fighters. They accuse the Huthis of harbouring an agenda that either includes the promotion of Zaydis, and particularly Hashemites (a subset of Zaydis claiming to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed), or converting to Twelves Shiism. Some even refer to them as rawafedh (“rejectionists”) and murtadeen (apostates), terms laden with anti-Shiite connotations.[fn]The term rawafedh is used by some Salafis and Wahhabis to denote Shiites for their rejection of what Sunnis consider the legitimate line of succession from the Prophet – the issue that gave rise to the Sunni-Shiite split. In this line of thinking, Shiites are then also murtadeen, apostates from the true belief.Hide Footnote The layering of Saudi-Iranian competition in the Gulf onto Yemen’s civil war has further amplified the sectarian dimension, with the Saudis accusing the Huthis of being Iranian proxies, a charge echoed by Hadi supporters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Yemeni government officials and GCC diplomats, May and June 2015; “Arab states send complaint letter against Iran to the UN”, al-Arabiya English, 13 November 2016. For a review of growing sectarianism see Farea al-Muslimi, “How Sunni-Shia Sectarianism is Poisoning Yemen”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 29 December 2015.Hide Footnote

AQAP has purposefully blurred the lines between its followers and the wider Sunni and anti-Huthi population. In August 2014, AAS leader Jalal Baleedi led an unusually brutal attack in Hadramout against unarmed soldiers he accused of being Huthis, and then warned of a sectarian war if the Huthis were to take Sanaa.[fn]Baleedi led a team of fighters in the beheading of four and shooting execution of ten off-duty soldiers in Sayoun, Hadramout, in August 2014, claiming they were Huthis. In response to journalist Iona Craig’s question, AQAP ideologue Nasser bin Ali al-Ansi later denounced such beheadings in a video release billed by the group as their “first international press conference”, Al-Malahem Media, 8 December 2014. Baleedi’s association with IS is a point of confusion in Yemen. In Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., Crisis Group reported that Baleedi had pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi based on reports from a Yemeni consultant and Yemeni media sources. However, when he died in February 2016, it became apparent he had remained loyal to AQAP. AQAP released an audio eulogy from its leader, Qasim al-Raymi, who had replaced al-Wuhayshi, and subsequently it produced a lengthy propaganda video of a “Special Forces Battalion” training centre named in Baleedi’s honour.Hide Footnote When that happened, AQAP promptly called all Sunnis to arms.[fn]AQAP chastised Sunni leaders’ support for the “rafidi” Huthi takeover and made a call to arms for Sunnis. “Statement Regarding the Crimes of the Huthi Faction Against the Sunnis”, with the strapline “A Call to Sunnis, AQAP official statement disseminated by AAS social media channels, 23 September 2014.Hide Footnote

As the conflict has unfolded, AQAP has used the pretext of a “Sunni” defence against the “Shiite” Huthis to blend with local tribes and Salafi sympathisers. A senior AQAP official compared the Huthis’ “Shiite” control of Yemen after they captured Sanaa with a Shiite-dominated Iraq after the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein; contended that AAS was the only remaining Sunni defence in southern governorates against Huthi expansion after the Hadi government fled into exile and the military collapsed; and that one of AQAP’s main roles was to provide military experience and expertise to local tribesmen, saying: “We are as one with the [Sunni] tribes like never before. We are not al-Qaeda now. Together we are the Sunni army”.[fn]The senior AQAP official repeatedly reiterated AAS’s position as gathering “Sunni tribesmen” against what he called Yemen’s takeover by Shiites. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews, AQAP senior official, September 2014 and April 2015.Hide Footnote

The group’s strategy of blurring lines between core membership and sympathisers has also allowed it to extend its reach broadly into local communities. The creation of AAS in particular lowered the bar for would-be recruits by enabling them not to bind themselves to AQAP and its ideology through a formal pledge of allegiance (bay’a).[fn]In AQAP’s case, bay’a is a pledge of allegiance that formally binds an individual to the organisation, itself tied by bay’a to AQ Central. The concept of bay’a goes back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed, who expected bay’a from his followers. By comparison, a mere pledge of support does not imply a binding relationship.Hide Footnote AQAP has similarly used the “Sons of” designation for affiliate groups, as in its takeover of Mukalla. There, it presented the Sons of Hadramout as a local Sunni collective brought together to fight the common Huthi enemy. A senior AQAP official quipped that it was Western obsession with labelling that had motivated the group to use the “Sons of” tag: “You [Westerners] call us all sorts of names and the names may change. But to us, we are all Muslims, we are all brothers”.[fn]According to AQAP, the Sons of Abyan and Sons of Hadramout (in addition to other geographically-linked “Sons of” groups) are not full AQAP/AAS members but “might become so in the future”. They receive basic military training and religious teaching with a specific mandate of fighting the Huthis. They have not pledged allegiance to AQAP. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP official, Yemen, April 2015, April 2016. Other analysts have put the difference down to little more than semantics. “The Hadramawt: AQAP and the Battle for Yemen’s Wealthiest Governorate”, The Jamestown Foundation, 10 July 2015. The exact relationship between AQAP and the “Sons of” movements is unclear. The opaqueness of the “Sons of” groups allows greater opportunity for AQAP to act as a sleeper movement, particularly after its withdrawal from territory, to be activated at an opportune moment.Hide Footnote

3. AQ as priority number two for regional actors

In prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and IS to a second-tier priority. Its stated primary rationale has been to roll back Huthi gains and reinstate the Hadi government, which requested the military intervention. Saudi motivations to enter the war were based on their perception that the Huthis, as alleged Iranian proxies, posed an existential threat, and on internal political dynamics in which a successful intervention in Yemen would boost the prospects of its main architect, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.[fn]A reason cited less often is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE saw a need to manage a Sunni uprising against the Huthi/Saleh alliance. Crisis Group interviews, Saudi official, Yemeni businessman with Saudi ties, June 2015. According to a UAE official, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were forced to act to prevent a Syrian-style civil war, a scenario in which Sunnis, lacking protection or backing, would turn to groups such as AQAP or IS for support. Crisis Group interview, May 2015.Hide Footnote

This prioritisation, much to the U.S.’s frustration and embarrassment, has facilitated AQAP’s efforts to blend in with the anti-Huthi opposition, which has given it access to weapons and new sources of income. During AQAP’s occupation of Mukalla, it robbed state banks, looted weapons caches and embedded itself in the local economy. AAS has regularly fought alongside Saudi-led coalition forces in their effort to dislodge Huthi/Saleh forces from Aden and other parts of the south, including Taiz, indirectly obtaining weapons from them.[fn]Crisis Group consultant observations in former capacity, Aden, May-August 2015, Lahj, July, August 2015, Taiz, September 2015; consultant interview in former capacity, Adeni doctor taken by UAE troops to treat AAS fighters in a military camp, Aden, July 2015. AAS’s media wing has also released several videos over the course of the conflict purportedly showing AAS members taking part in fighting against the Huthis during the battle for Aden and Abyan in 2015, as well as Taiz in 2015-2016 and al-Bayda in 2016. Wilayat Aden, September 2015: https://justpaste.it/ADEN; Wilayat Abyan, June 2015: https://justpaste.it/ltlz; Wilayat Taiz, January 2016: http://tinyurl.com/jn62seb.Hide Footnote

It is only in southern territories from which Huthi/Saleh forces have been removed that the UAE, in particular, has begun to confront AQAP and IS, working with a variety of southern groups. In Aden, they have worked with some success with the security chief and governor to drive AQAP and IS from the city.[fn]Both AQAP and IS were prepared for the eventual reversal, taking full advantage of the Saudi-led coalition’s fight against the Huthi/Saleh bloc to stockpile money and weapons. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, AQAP members, Mukalla, March 2016; AQAP supporters, Aden, August 2015. Both groups gathered heavy weapons left behind by retreating Huthi/Saleh forces. In preparation for expected later confrontations with UAE troops and allied forces, IS was also able to acquire UAE-supplied armoured vehicles for suicide bombings against coalition forces. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, two field commanders of anti-Huthi resistance forces and colonel commanding the Decisive Salman Brigade, Aden, July and August 2015.Hide Footnote The UAE and local allies, supported by a small group of U.S. military advisers, also retook Mukalla in April 2016 without serious fighting and have a continued troop presence there.[fn]Official Saudi-led coalition statements indicated that 800 AQAP militants were killed in the “battle for Mukalla”. AQAP said that twelve of their fighters were killed at a checkpoint on the edge of AQAP-controlled territory (some 100km outside Mukalla), but that no lives were lost in the withdrawal from the city. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, April 2016. A commander of Hadrami soldiers taking part in the offensive said they killed around twenty AQAP militants at the checkpoint marking the northern entry to their territory and no fighting took place inside the city. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, April 2016.Hide Footnote Similar efforts to evict AQAP/ASS from Abyan and Shebwa have been less successful; AQAP and AAS fighters have repeatedly re-emerged in areas they had vacated or, in some cases, never fully left.

Saudi-led coalition statements that fighting the group is a top priority and announcements of military victories against AQAP in the south are belied by events.[fn]In May 2016, during UN-sponsored peace talks between Yemeni parties in Kuwait, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said that the coalition’s priority had shifted from the Huthis to AQ. “Saudi FM: Fighting al-Qaeda is now a priority in Yemen”, al-Arabiya English, 14 May 2016.Hide Footnote In northern Yemen, where the battle against Huthi/Saleh forces continues, the coalition has engaged in tacit alliances with AQAP fighters, or at least turned a blind eye to them, as long as they have assisted in attacking the common enemy. Indeed, three Hadi associates have appeared on a U.S. Treasury list of “global terrorists” for allegedly providing financial support to, and acting on behalf of, AQAP.[fn]These include: Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, one of Hadi’s delegates to UN peace talks in Geneva in June 2015, Nayif Salih Salim al-Qaysi, governor of al-Bayda, and Hassan Ali Ali Abkar, a militia commander and member of the Consultative Council from Jawf. “Treasury Designates Al-Qaida, Al-Nusrah Front, AQAP, And Isil Fundraisers And Facilitators”, U.S. Department of the Treasury, 19 May 2016; and U.S. Department of the Treasury, Resource Center, Counter Terrorism designations, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote The focus on the Huthis in some ways makes short-term sense for Saudi Arabia, where the threat of Iranian encirclement resonates widely domestically, as opposed to the threat from Sunni extremists, which is a more complicated sell, given local pockets of sympathy and support. Yet, AQAP also seeks to topple the Saudi monarchy, which it views as corrupt and tied to the West, a threat that grows as the organisation gains ground in Yemen.

In the south, where the UAE has shifted its priorities to fighting AQAP/IS, its efforts are complicated by the latter’s ability to find temporary safe havens when needed. Moreover, lack of a unified southern leadership or plan to address security and governance challenges in chronically neglected and impoverished governorates like Abyan and Shebwa continues to provide a receptive environment for violent jihadist groups. According to a resident of Jaar:

A successful strategy for combating al-Qaeda should focus on governance and service provision. Ideologically, AQAP and IS don’t have much in the south. In Jaar, however, many young people have joined Ansar Sharia because they are poor, have little education and see no future for themselves. Ansar provides these young people with an income and a purpose.[fn]Crisis Group interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote

As long as the war, infighting among southern elites and chronic governance challenges continue, the much publicised military initiatives against AQAP and IS will probably not amount to more than temporary victories.

4. The war economy

AQAP’s progress is also in no small part the result of its financial gains. During the evolving conflict, the group has expanded its war chest by raiding banks and controlling seaports and smuggling routes. Its most successful feat was its looting of the Mukalla bank in April-May 2015, which netted approximately 24 billion Yemeni riyals ($111 million).[fn]A U.S. strike sometime between May and August 2015 reportedly destroyed 9 billion Yemeni riyals ($41 million). Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, former security official, Mukalla, March 2016. In addition to central bank funds, local bankers estimate that AQAP acquired about 6 billion Yemeni riyals (approximately $24 million) and more than 20 million Saudi riyals (approximately $5.3 million) from commercial banks on 2 April 2015. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Mukalla, April 2016.Hide Footnote It also imposed import levies at the Mukalla and Ash-Shihr seaports, collecting a fee for every litre of fuel and every cargo container offloaded.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Mukalla resident, phone interview, April 2015; north Yemen tribal sheikh, Hadrami politician, September 2016.Hide Footnote Ironically, much of the imported fuel found its way to northern markets, which were largely cut off from the outside world by the Saudi-led coalition embargo, through a chain of local intermediaries who purchased fuel in Hadramout for resale to Huthi/Saleh forces.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Mukalla resident, August 2016.Hide Footnote

A UAE official described Mukalla as “al-Qaeda’s lungs”, and indeed the loss of the port was a significant blow to its funding stream.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, December 2016.Hide Footnote Yet, the effects of controlling Mukalla for over a year will not fade quickly. AQAP’s accumulated revenues enhance its ability to purchase military hardware and attract recruits. It already offered its fighters in 2011 a salary higher than that of government soldiers, and its new financial resources can exercise an even more significant pull on impoverished young men.[fn]AQAP/AAS paid a $200 monthly salary to fighters compared to $140-150 for a regular Yemeni soldier. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interview in former capacity, AQAP member, March 2016. Four male residents in AQAP/AAS-controlled territory said that it enticed many local recruits primarily with the financial reward, not through religious or ideological persuasion. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Abyan, May 2012.Hide Footnote

C. IS versus AQAP

Beginning in November 2014, a nascent IS branch put itself on the Yemen conflict map through spectacular attacks against a variety of protagonists, including both the Huthis and the Hadi government. Like AQAP, IS has benefited from state collapse, Huthi expansionism, regional states’ preoccupation with Iran and a burgeoning war economy. More than AQAP, however, IS is also a product of growing sectarianism and extreme levels of violence, which have radicalised young men and made them susceptible to its recruitment. Most importantly, its appearance in Yemen is tied to its successes in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, its influence in Yemen has been circumscribed by AQAP’s long history, military prowess and local support.

On 13 November 2014, shortly after the September Huthi takeover of Sanaa, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced IS in Yemen.[fn]Seven local branches announced themselves shortly afterwards, operating in ten governorates: Saada, Sanaa, al-Jawf, al-Bayda, Taiz, Ibb, Lahj, Aden, Shebwa and Hadramout. A handful of young men posted pictures on social media purportedly declaring an unverified eighth local branch in Mahra governorate in September 2016.Hide Footnote Initially, IS’s meteoric rise in Syria and Iraq produced a similar momentum in Yemen. Numerous AQAP members defected to it, including senior ideologues such as Sheikh Mamoun Hatem and the prominent religious cleric Abdul-Majid al-Hitari.[fn]Hatem was an early vocal IS supporter on social media. His defection was confirmed by AQAP’s spokesman, who said that although Hatem was “no longer one of us [AQAP], he is still our brother”. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, October 2014. Hatem returned to AQAP in 2015 and was killed in an apparent U.S. drone strike in Mukalla on 11 May.Hide Footnote This trend was helped by a number of U.S. assassinations of AQAP ideologues, including Harith al-Nadhari, Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, and Nasser al-Ansi, between January and April 2015, and their leader al-Wuhayshi in June 2015.[fn]These senior ideologues were crucial to providing theological arguments against joining IS. While al-Wuhayshi was not a theologian, he was a very popular, astute and much-respected figurehead of the group. After his death, an undetermined number of AQAP members were said to have defected to IS. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews in former capacity, Shebwa tribal leaders, July, August 2015. The senior ideologues were also veteran AQ members with experience garnered in Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Philippines. This old guard appears to still hold significance to AQAP. They were featured posthumously in an AQAP propaganda video in December 2015.Hide Footnote

IS also took advantage of the 2015 battle for Aden. Four months of heavy fighting that left thousands dead fuelled the radicalisation of young men and accelerated the group’s rise. It was quick to deploy its own “journalists” among the youth to spread its ideology through videos and propaganda songs.[fn]Some local youth in Aden and Little Aden (an area to the west of Aden city) referred to IS recruiters as “propagandists” who distributed videos by smart phones and promoted IS social media, and who told the youth in the streets about IS and its work. Others used the word “journalist” to describe these activities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, August 2015.Hide Footnote This tactic proved fruitful, as a significant portion of IS’s young suicide bombers targeting UAE and UAE-supported forces in Mukalla in April 2016 hailed from Aden. These recruits continued to carry out high-profile attacks, including a suicide bombing against a government military recruitment centre in the port city on 29 August 2016 that killed over 60.

AQAP responded to IS’s rise by trying to contain the group. Initially, it downplayed the threat by refusing to respond to journalists’ questions about IS’s very existence.[fn]According to a senior AQAP official, referring to IS: “AQAP is not responsible for Ansar al-Dawla [Defenders of the State] actions. But they are our brothers and we would help them”. The same official (later killed in a U.S. drone strike) refused, on orders from al-Wuhayshi, to comment on IS’s first attack in March 2015 against mosques in Sanaa. Crisis Group consultant multimedia interviews in former capacity, November 2014, March 2015.Hide Footnote Later, AQAP leaders publicly criticised IS, denouncing its attacks on mosques, which they contrasted with their own reputed sensitivity to local norms. They also engaged in a broader media campaign, ridiculing IS and al-Baghdadi, its self-proclaimed caliph.[fn]AQAP denounced “Baghdadi’s group” as being “based on nothing but a lie … sin, and a blend of ignorance, deviation and desire”. AQAP video release, 1 November 2015.Hide Footnote While they have been quick to praise attacks by persons claiming to act on IS’s behalf in the West, there is no evidence that the two groups have collaborated in any way, including by sharing intelligence.[fn]On 23 June 2016, AQAP’s al-Malahem media arm published the first “Inspire Guide” analysing an IS-linked operation on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on 12 June 2016. A second edition on 21 July 2016 praised the IS-linked attack in Nice, France, a week earlier.Hide Footnote

Their [Islamic State] brutal tactics, including mass killings and mosque bombings, and their relatively autocratic style, are at odds with societal and tribal norms.

IS’s Yemen leadership, unlike AQAP’s, consists mainly of non-Yemenis and its members appear to have been with IS in Syria and Iraq; they brought to Yemen the same strategy of embedded networks of informants and local propagandists that contributed to the group’s successes there.[fn]IS uses these networks to increase its sympathisers and determine whom they can trust and whom to eliminate when taking territory. They rise up when the group moves in from the outside to jointly take control of a place. Paranoia among southerners that Huthi/Saleh forces were using this type of infiltration to retake Aden (after they were evicted in July-August 2015) prompted southern military forces to expel many northerners.Hide Footnote Despite, or possibly because of, their leaders’ international credentials, they have struggled to establish a broad base of support in Yemen. Their brutal tactics, including mass killings and mosque bombings, and their relatively autocratic style, are at odds with societal and tribal norms.

In December 2015, IS faced an internal mutiny when fifteen senior figures and 55 fighters accused their leader, the governor (wali) of Yemen province, of violating Sharia. They listed a number of infringements, including the wrongful dismissal of soldiers, failure to provide basic supplies during a battle in Hadramout, committing “injustices against the weak” and refusal to adhere to a Sharia ruling against an IS regional commander. A contemptuous written response from IS’s central leadership in Syria/Iraq demanded obedience.[fn]The defectors included three members of the group’s Sharia committee: Sheikh Abu al-Shayma al-Muhajir, Sheikh Abu Muslim al-Mansour and Sheikh Abu Hajar al-Adani, in addition to the “province’s” military commander, Abu Aassim al-Bika, and the security chief. In their letter titled “A Statement of Defection from the Wali of Yemen” and published online on 15 December 2015, they reaffirmed their allegiance to IS leader in Syria, while announcing their defection from their wali. On 19 December 2015, Abu Ubayda al-Hakim, a member of the Shura Council of the Caliphate in Syria/Iraq, responded to the complaint by supporting Yemen’s wali and stated that by disobeying their local leader the group had renounced their pledge to al-Baghdadi.Hide Footnote Rejecting the letter, all 70 members left the group. On 24 December, an additional 31, including three senior figures, released a statement joining the rebellion and renouncing the IS leader in Yemen.[fn]Three senior figures – Sheikh Salman al-Lahiji and Rawaha al-Adeni from the Security Committee, along with a member of the Preaching Committee, Abu Hafs al-Somali – led the mass defection that included a local security official and 27 members from Abyan, Aden, Shebwa and Hadramout. They stated that they remained loyal to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but IS in Syria rejected this. “Dissent in the Islamic State’s Yemen Affiliates: Documents, Translation & Analysis”, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, 29 February 2016, http://www.aymennjawad.org/2016/02/dissent-in-the-islamic-state-yemen-affiliates.Hide Footnote

IS continues to carry out suicide bombings in the government-controlled cities of Aden and Mukalla and also engages in assassinations of local security and intelligence personnel that have a significant impact. After the UAE-led forces retook Aden from the Huthi/Saleh bloc in July 2015, these killings increased, the majority claimed by IS’s media channels. This and repeated IS suicide bombings of military recruitment centres and mass gatherings of soldiers collecting salaries have led many southerners to view IS as part of a historical pattern in which northern political elites use violent jihadists as a tool in asymmetric warfare against the south.[fn]The northern political elite is viewed by many southerners as comprising factions on both sides of the post-2011 divided regime. This includes individuals such as current Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Islah party figures and, in the view of some, even President Hadi. Crisis Group consultant observations in former capacity; and interviews, Hiraak activists, Aden and Mukalla, August 2015-December 2016.Hide Footnote

AQAP’s strategy of gradualism, relative respect for local norms and integration with local Sunni populations has been far more successful. Its longstanding presence and well-established networks across the country have given it a clear upper hand.

D. Salafi Militias

While AQAP and IS dominate headlines, a range of Salafi militias are an increasingly important part of Yemen’s Sunni militant milieu.[fn]Labelling individuals and Yemen’s rapidly expanding number of armed groups is fraught with problems. Fault lines between groups are increasingly unclear and many have no visible structure. Individuals and fighting factions often assume tribal, political and religious identities simultaneously. Attempts at simplification are often misleading while making any future reintegration of armed groups problematic. The label Salafi is similarly vulnerable to these errors and underlines the need for disaggregation. “Salafism” is used here in its broadest sense: a Sunni movement that seeks to revive “original” Islam by drawing on the so-called pious ancestors (salaf al-salih). Increasing fragmentation throughout the civil war has resulted in open conflict between Salafi strands.Hide Footnote Yemen has long housed a variety of Salafi groups.[fn]The Salafi spectrum there has historically comprised three main strands: quietist, jihadist and activist (harakiya). Quietist, scholastic or missionary Salafis are apolitical, reject parliamentary politics and, in theory, give allegiance to existing authority. Salafi-jihadists advocate violence against religious and political enemies. And activist Salafis are more inclined to challenging authorities through the political process. Crisis Group consultant phone interview, Laurent Bonnefoy, July 2016. See Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity (London, 2011). See fn 1 for Crisis Group’s definition of “jihadist”.Hide Footnote Prior to the war, most were non-political and non-violent. Some, like the al-Rashad party, embraced politics and were closely associated with Islah. As the Huthis expanded southward, however, many took up arms against them. The earliest indications of this were in 2013, when the Huthis fought Salafis from the Dar al-Hadith religious institute in Dammaj, Saada.[fn]Muqbil al-Waddii, a Saudi-educated Saada cleric and convert from Zaydism, established Dar al-Hadith institute in the heart of Zaydi territory in the late 1970s with funding from Saudi Arabia. Salafi proselytising there, itself arguably a product of socio-economic grievances against advantages given to Zaydi elites, particularly Hashemites (descendants of the Prophet), is a core grievance that sparked Zaydi revivalism in the 1980s and later gave impetus to the Huthi movement. Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009.Hide Footnote Although the Huthis emerged victorious in January 2014, fighters from Dammaj and another religious institute in Kitaf, Saada, regrouped and are now fighting the Huthis on a number of fronts.

Opportunistic alliances forged by the Saudi-led coalition have propelled Salafis to prominence. In Aden, they act with UAE support as state-sponsored, irregular security forces. As the battle for that city reached its peak in July 2015, the UAE worked with Hashem al-Syed, a former Dar al-Hadith student, to lead Salafi fighters there. After Huthi forces were pushed out, another little-known Salafi, Bassam Mehdhar, became the UAE’s main beneficiary. In 2015, the al-Mehdhar Brigade, based in Sheikh Othman and Mansoura districts, acted as a local security force. In October 2016, the group joined other Saudi-supported Yemeni forces in crossing the Saudi-Yemeni border in an attempt to push into Saada, the Huthi stronghold.[fn]This new battlefront is a very personal fight for many Salafis, who are seeking revenge for being forced out of the Dar al-Hadith institute.Hide Footnote

Another group, the Security Belt forces, a UAE-supported militia established by presidential decree in May 2016 to help secure Aden and led by Nabil Mashwashi, a former South Yemen army commander, appears to have a significant Salafi component. Prominent Salafis, such as Hani Bin Baraik, a minister of state and figurehead of the group, tend to be anti-Islah which, just as their UAE backers, they suspect of collusion with AQAP.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, coalition member, Adeni journalist, Dubai, September 2016. Many Salafis in the south are anti-Islah also because they see the party as northerners opposed to the south’s secession.Hide Footnote

In Taiz, the lines between Salafi and AQAP/AAS fighters are blurred.[fn]A former AQAP member said: “Taiz has been a special case in the Yemen war because AQAP has been able to successfully embed itself in the opposition to the Huthis there from the beginning, but those fighting are not AQAP core members”. Crisis Group interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote As in Aden, Salafis are at the forefront of Saudi-led coalition-sponsored efforts to repel Huthi advances. Among the city’s myriad factions, one of the more notorious groups, acting with UAE-supplied weapons and armoured vehicles, is led by another former Dammaj student, Adel Abdu Farea, also known as Abu al-Abbas. His followers have included the Humat al-Qi’dah (Protectors of the Faith), a group responsible for the destruction of a seventeenth-century tomb in July 2016 and the burning of books belonging to Yemeni Christians. Al-Abbas’s men have clashed with another group led by a Salafi sheikh, Sadeq Mahyoub, which is loyal to the Saudi-sponsored tribal sheikh Hamoud al-Mekhlafi. Saudi Arabia also sponsors the al-Hassam (Decisiveness) Brigade, which was founded by Adnan Ruzayyk al-Qumayshi, who left Dammaj in 2014, and is now led by Salafi figure Ammar Jundobi.[fn]Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, local residents, political activists, journalist from Taiz and Aden, August 2016.Hide Footnote

Allegations abound regarding possible AQAP/IS links to a number of Salafi groups, but the exact connection is unclear.[fn]Yemeni observers have linked the al-Hassam brigade to AQAP. Crisis Group interviews, Taiz politician, August 2016; prominent Sheikh from the Hashid tribal confederation, September 2016. Others claim links between AQAP or IS and Abu Abbas, with similar observations about connections with other individuals and factions. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Taizi activists, journalist, September 2016.Hide Footnote Since December 2016, Salafi and other resistance militias have nominally been integrated into the Yemeni army while remaining separate in reality.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ammar al-Jundobi, Decisiveness Bridge field commander, Taiz, January 2017.Hide Footnote

Yemen’s Salafi movement is undergoing a rapid transformation, shaped by the war and new sources of patronage. It is unclear how relationships between AQAP and various Salafi groups will develop and what, if any, political ambitions the latter have beyond defeating the Huthis. Their growth into a pivotal player in the civil war elevates the need for their representation in any political resolution, especially if they are to play a role as an alternative, among religious conservatives, to AQAP or IS. Thus far, the growth of Salafi militias appears to be feeding into AQAP’s narrative of a Sunni defence against the Huthi takeover, while contributing to AQAP’s aim of blurring the lines between AAS, its local insurgency arm, and Salafi groups in areas where they have been fighting alongside each other.

The UAE complicates this picture: it supports Salafi groups and, according to numerous Yemeni sources, has tried to either suppress or marginalise Islah because of that party’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which it bans domestically.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, GPC supporter, December 2016; Taizi politicians, November 2016; Adeni journalist, September, December 2016. Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, October 2016.Hide Footnote Islah, like Islamist groups actively engaged in politics across the Arab world, can play an essential role as firewall against radicalisation in Yemen. While the UAE officially supports its inclusion in any political settlement, its intolerance of Islah in practice risks pushing young men who might have chosen politics into the arms of the very violent jihadist groups the UAE wants to quash.

IV. Reversing the Gains

Yemen’s war has created vast new opportunities for AQAP, a relatively minor player before 2011, and has given rise to the Yemeni wing of IS. While U.S. drone attacks and other military action have dealt repeated blows, AQAP is thriving in the context of state collapse, sectarianism, shifting opportunistic alliances and a war economy, with fresh recruits and more sources of weapons and income than ever before.

At a regional level, the undertow of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry drives sectarianism and incites radicalisation on both sides of the war. Without de-escalation between them, it risks becoming an extension of a wider competition between, on one side, Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – with Russia also playing a role – and the predominantly Sunni powers of the Saudi-led coalition, backed by Western states, including Israel. Dialling back this regional enmity is a vital priority.

Within Yemen, achieving a sustainable ceasefire and nationwide political settlement should be the priority. To reverse the growth of AQAP and IS will require a political settlement that is truly inclusive, provides a mechanism for addressing demands for local autonomy and outlines interim security arrangements that are accepted by local communities while operating under the umbrella of the state.

Including a range of Sunni Islamists, particularly Islah and Salafi groups prepared to engage in politics, in power-sharing arrangements would give them a stake in national politics and a viable political outlet as opposed to marginalising them and potentially pushing some toward violent jihadism. Many Yemenis have turned to violence because they view a Huthi/Saleh-dominated state as a threat to their survival. Overcoming zero-sum perspectives requires, as a first step, a compromise in which each side can be part of the government and security apparatus.

Addressing demands for regional autonomy would also be crucial to rolling back AQAP. The group has astutely carved out space in political battles between opposing regional sentiments by forging de facto alliances with other Sunni groups against Huthi/Saleh forces and embedding themselves in the war economy. For their part, Huthi/Saleh forces have used AQAP and IS as a convenient excuse to advance into predominantly Sunni territory, thereby exacerbating the problem.

Southerners in particular routinely downplay the AQAP/IS influence in southern areas, viewing them as tools in the hands of powerful northerners, particularly Saleh and Mohsen.[fn]At times, this perception has served as a powerful motive for locals to assist in evicting AQAP from their areas, and the UAE-backed offensive in southern Hadramout in April 2016 utilised it. This local view of AQAP greatly contributed to the success of efforts by intelligence agencies in routing members who went into hiding after the April offensive. Hadramout residents, through information they provided to security forces, contributed to the capture of several leading figures, including AQAP’s emir of Ash-Shihr in May 2016 and a senior ideologue in Hadramout in October 2016, and the discovery of weapons caches. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Hiraak activists, Mukalla, March 2016.Hide Footnote Assassinations of southern intelligence and security officials, both before the Saudi-led intervention and after the Huthi/Saleh forces’ removal from southern governorates five months later, have heightened their suspicions of them as an extension of a historical pattern of instrumentalising Islamists for political score-settling.

At the same time, AQAP and IS have exploited opportunities in the south when the Huthis were the proximate enemy. Even after the latter’s defeat there, some parts of the southern resistance fought with AAS against Hadi’s forces, which many viewed as corrupt.[fn]From February to March 2016, AAS and renegade fighters from the southern resistance fought together against Hadi forces in the Mansoura district where AAS had a base. Three of them, who were listed by the Hadi government as wanted AQ members, acknowledged they were fighting alongside AAS but denied being members. They cited corruption and cronyism as primary grievances against the government. The jihadists were eventually pushed out, with some leaving through negotiations. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, Aden, March 2016.Hide Footnote These dynamics, which allowed AQAP/AAS to capitalise on local animosity toward the central government, are likely to continue as long as demands for regional autonomy remain unaddressed.

Clear interim security arrangements are a critical part of any effective settlement. This issue has been a sticking point in UN-led negotiations. The Hadi government and its GCC backers insist on close implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 (2015), which calls on Huthi/Saleh forces to withdraw from areas they captured and to disarm. The Huthi/Saleh bloc, however, argues for the establishment of a new government first, of which they would form an integral part, and then the withdrawal and disarmament of all militias, not just their own.

After 22 months of war, the Huthi/Saleh bloc emphasises that there is no functioning state led by the Hadi government to hand authority to. Even in areas “liberated” from Huthi/Saleh control, authority is diffuse, often resting with local militias. As such, abrupt withdrawals of Huthi/Saleh forces from areas they control could open a security void for AQAP and IS to exploit. Yet, their continued presence in contested areas and dominance in the north, to the exclusion of other constituencies, exacerbates communal tensions that radical groups could also take advantage of.

In the short term, Yemen needs clear interim security arrangements that are tailored to local political realities. Areas like Taiz will be most difficult to tackle, as warring forces are positioned in close quarters on the battlefield and can each claim acceptance from certain parts of the local community. Bringing together locally accepted combatants under the umbrella of local authorities acting on behalf the state would be ideal, at least until the overarching issues of military-security reform and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration can be addressed nationally.

Reaching an inclusive overall settlement to end the war offers the best chance to undercut AQAP’s prospects, but such a settlement may not be feasible. Even if the UN is able to broker a deal, it is unlikely to result in a quick end to this multifaceted conflict with regional dimensions. Yemenis and their external backers should, therefore, look for measures, such as those that follow, that could still go some way toward curbing AQAP/IS expansion.

Addressing state orchestration of jihadist groups. AQAP and IS are part of a domestic/regional power struggle marked by shifting alliances in which they tend to be no one’s primary enemy. Following the 2011 political unrest and the Huthis’ 2014-2015 military advance southward in alliance with Saleh’s forces, the jihadists’ traditional channels of influence and co-optation became divided, leaving AQAP activities theoretically open to exploitation by various regime and ex-regime forces in the ensuing civil war. Because of this, Western governments and regional states should continuously re-evaluate the motivations of Yemeni actors and their external backers to counter AQAP/IS. While it is often difficult in Yemen to discern who may or may not be using AQAP/IS to their advantage, states involved in the conflict should be willing to regularly assess their partners and put pressure on them to change course if they are found to be tolerating or encouraging the growth of AQAP/IS to achieve tactical objectives.

In addition to routine evaluation of allies’ actions, it is important in principle to decouple development assistance from counter-terrorism aid to the Hadi government and any other government that may emerge from a political settlement, thereby limiting the extent to which they can benefit financially from AQAP/IS’s presence. Failure to acknowledge and address this state-jihadist interaction would likely further alienate the population, which often views AQAP, or more recently IS, at least partially as political leaders’ tools, from policymakers.

Improving governance in areas previously under, or vulnerable to, militant control. A key aspect of AQAP’s ability to gain initial acceptance has been its proven pragmatism: instituting effective governance and addressing a long-neglected population’s pressing concerns. It has prioritised providing security, basic services and a judicial system able to resolve grievances, such as long-running land disputes, showing itself as a viable, better alternative to the state.

For a post-conflict government to successfully counter AQAP, it would have to provide better governance, with local ownership over decisions, in areas previously under AQAP control and/or that are vulnerable to them. As a priority, this includes quick and non-corrupt dispute resolution, security provision rather than predatory score-settling and basic services such as electricity and water.

Aden stands out in many ways as an example of what not to do. When Huthi/Saleh fighters were evicted in July 2015, the exuberance of military victory was not followed by a similar enthusiasm for instituting governance. More than a year later, local authorities reestablished the city’s central prison and opened unofficial detention facilities, but failed to put in place a functioning court system. Even as some residents are supportive of the governor’s and security director’s efforts to restore order, many complain of corruption by government officials and of continued insecurity, a function of a security service divided along intra-southern lines of competition.[fn]Security services under the Aden governor and security chief function as a state within a state. Tensions are high between them and forces aligned with Hadi and his interior minister, Hussein al-Arab. The Security Belt forces technically fall under the interior minister, though the degree to which he controls them is questionable. All factions are competing for Emirati patronage and support. Overlaying the competition is a historical division from the 1986 civil war in which a group from the current governorates of Dalia and Lahi won over their adversaries, mainly from Abyan and Shebwa. Hadi and al-Arab are associated with the latter, while the Aden governor and his security chief are associated with the former. Crisis Group consultant interviews, more than a half a dozen Aden residents, the Aden governor and Aden security chief, Aden, January 2017.Hide Footnote

The experience in Abyan is a cautionary tale of how working through local militias without a clear plan for incorporating them into the state security forces or deploying them to help stabilise areas retaken from jihadists can backfire. Local militias known as popular committees were central to the U.S.-supported pushback against AQAP/AAS in Abyan and Shabwa in 2012. Their use yielded the short-term gain of driving AQAP out, but as the only force in charge of security they contributed to local tensions, entrenched exclusionary patronage networks and were vulnerable to infiltration by violent jihadists, who used them as a cover to establish networks for future resurgence. As a Zinjibar farmer put it, “I would not trust the Popular Committees even to watch over my goats”.[fn]The farmer said he knew Popular Committee members who had been AAS members. Crisis Group consultant interview in former capacity, Aden, June 2012. There were exceptions, notably in northern Abyan areas such as Lawder, where local militias were well-liked and more representative of local communities. Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, local residents, Lawder, May 2012. For more information, see Iona Craig, “End of Emirate?”, IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, September 2012.Hide Footnote

After several cycles of evicting AQAP/AAS from towns in Abyan, only to see them return, residents still complain of the government’s lack of attention to services and governance. According to a resident of Jaar, the UAE and its local partners, most of which seek southern separation, had some success in pushing AQAP into the neighbouring governorate of al-Bayda in 2016, but there are still far too few government-provided services and an unmet desire for governance.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Jaar resident, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Mukalla appears to show improvement. In April 2016, locally recruited ground forces and UAE troops, with U.S. support, retook territory through what appeared to be a largely negotiated withdrawal of AQAP forces that spared the population a bloody battle. Some Hadramis say that the population is now working with the UAE and local security forces to identify and apprehend remaining AQAP supporters in the city and that services, such as water and electricity, are working well.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hadrami politicians, Abu Dhabi, October 2016; phone interviews, Mukalla resident, November, December 2016.Hide Footnote Still, the success was almost immediately followed by accusations of corruption, cronyism, arbitrary detention and torture by the new authorities and security forces. Non-secessionist residents and those politically aligned to Islah continue to complain of unlawful arrests, torture and disappearances at the hands of the new Elite security forces (a group similar to the Security Belt in Aden that is composed of local fighters trained by the UAE) and UAE troops.[fn]Crisis Group consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, May, June and October 2016. See also ‘“We lived in days of hell”: Civilian Perspectives on Conflict in Yemen’, Center for Civilians in Conflict, January 2017, p. 31.Hide Footnote

Disaggregating rather than conflating Sunni Islamist groups. AQAP is an internally diverse organisation with varying layers of support among the local population and shifting alliances. Its efforts to blend in with the larger Sunni community and to ease affiliation requirements (especially the loyalty oath) expand its influence even as they leave it vulnerable to efforts to peel off supporters motivated less by its global agenda than by local political or economic grievances.

Protagonists on both sides of the war have at times been quick to label a wide range of Sunni Islamists – from Islah to various Salafi and other fighting groups – as AQAP, instead of acknowledging clear differences between them. As a southern fighter from the “February 16” militia (one of many southern insurgent groups), listed by Aden’s security directorate as a wanted AQAP member, stated:

We are not al-Qaeda but joined with them to fight [Security Director] Shalal because we have no choice. We fought and died for our city for six months and they offered us nothing in return. They gave positions to their friends and families, stole money meant for us and treated us like garbage to be thrown away or burnt.[fn]Crisis Group consultant interviews in former capacity, “February 16” fighters, Mansura, Aden, March 2016.Hide Footnote

In addition, there is far too little effort to disaggregate AAS rank and file from AQAP core members. As a politician from Abyan noted:

Ansar al-Sharia was born of al-Qaeda but is different. Most Ansar followers in Abyan are local. Many are young men who are very poor with no prospects. You can strike agreements with them and pull them away from al-Qaeda. After al-Qaeda was removed from Abyan, Ansar supporters stayed behind. It is important to give them [political and economic] opportunities.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, September 2016.Hide Footnote

Understanding who can be negotiated with and convinced to peacefully participate in political and social life is tricky and a shifting target that requires buy-in and expertise from local communities. But in Yemen’s fractured political environment, it is a critical component of limiting AQAP’s growing reach.

Using military tools judiciously. At times military force is a necessary component of confronting AQAP/IS, but it should be used judiciously, in coordination with local actors and in a way that respects local laws and norms, lest it produce a political and social backlash to AQAP/IS’s advantage. Military campaigns, whether carried out by Huthi/Saleh forces or the government, that have targeted real or alleged AQAP/IS operatives with conventional force have often devastated local infrastructure and communities, while arguably setting back the cause of curtailing AQAP/IS influence. A tactic that has proved more effective is the threat of force combined with local negotiations with militants to encourage core AQAP supporters to leave areas, particularly cities, thereby sparing population centres widespread destruction and taking the fight against combatants unwilling to negotiate to less-populated areas. For the most part, this happened in Mukalla, and with considerable success.

The type of force used against AQAP/IS is also important. In Yemen, foreign troops, particularly Western ones, and even fighters from a different region of the country, risk antagonising local populations that view them as invaders. Even when local fighters are used, they can become part of the problem if they are operating outside of a clear legal framework. Many local residents saw as predatory some Popular Committees in Abyan, Security Belt forces in Aden and Elite forces in Hadramout.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, Aden resident, November 2016; consultant phone interviews in former capacity, Islah-aligned, pro-unity Mukalla residents, October 2016.Hide Footnote

Drones, too, should be used judiciously and in coordination with Yemeni authorities so as not to violate sovereignty. While the Hadi government and the civil war have given the U.S. virtual carte blanche to pursue its drone campaign, tactical success in killing key operatives and ideologues has not stopped the organisation’s rapid growth. Their use raises the additional risk of replacements becoming increasingly hard-line. For example, al-Wuhayshi’s successor, al-Raymi, is widely regarded as far more ruthless than his predecessor.

While drone strikes’ impact is difficult to assess, many Yemenis suggest that they are counterproductive, breeding anti-U.S. and anti-Yemeni government sentiment when civilians are killed, which can radicalise victims’ families. This is especially the case with U.S. “signature” strikes that are based on patterns of behaviour, without knowing the identity of the targeted individual.

What went wrong in the deadly raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen?

Richard Atwood, Director of Crisis Group's New York Office, speaks with Hari Sreenivasan about the 29 January U.S. raid on al-Qaeda in Yemen. PBS NewsHour

The first military actions by the Trump administration in Yemen bode poorly for the prospect of smartly and effectively countering AQAP. A 29 January 2017 U.S. Special Forces raid in al-Bayda governorate, a critical battleground between pro- and anti-Huthi forces, killed a U.S. commando and several prominent tribesmen associated with AQAP, but also according to local sources many civilians, including at least ten women and children.[fn]“Yemeni civilians killed in first US raid under Trump”, Al Jazeera English, 31 January 2017.Hide Footnote The use of U.S. soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics – many killed were local tribesmen motivated by the internal Yemeni power struggle as much as or more than AQAP’s international agenda – plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-U.S. sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits.[fn]

V. Conclusion

AQAP and IS are unique in being the only two of many warring parties in Yemen which are at least ostensibly enemies of the conflict’s two main antagonists: Hadi-aligned forces and the Huthi/Saleh bloc. They are also in the incongruous position of being the conflict’s greatest beneficiaries, thriving in the context of state collapse, growing sectarian polarisation, fluid alliances and an expanding war economy. They are part of a regional trend of religiously-justified violence that is making conflict resolution evermore elusive. Yemen’s regionalised civil war shows little sign of abating. Instead, this multifaceted struggle looks set to deepen confessional divides – not previously a focal point of conflict – to the benefit of AQAP and IS and detriment of the country, its people and global security.  

Brussels, 2 February 2017

Appendix A: Map of Yemen

Map of Yemen International Crisis Group/Based on UN map no. 3847, Rev. 3, January 2004.
Nigerien army forces patrol in pickup trucks near Malam Fatori on April 3, 2015, after the town in north-eastern Nigeria was retaken from Boko Haram by troops from Chad and Niger. PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP
Report 291 / Africa

What Role for the Multinational Joint Task Force in Fighting Boko Haram?

With the Multinational Joint Task Force, the Lake Chad basin states are combining efforts to defeat jihadist elements that endanger them all. It has won some victories but militants have recovered. To keep progressing, and secure more funds, the four armies should deepen their cooperation. 

What’s new? Lake Chad basin countries – Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – have made welcome efforts to coordinate against Boko Haram militants through a Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). But their inconsistent commitment to the force, funding problems and disjointed planning have hindered its effectiveness. Jihadists often regroup when troops withdraw.

Why does it matter? A good strategy for tackling the various Boko Haram factions around Lake Chad depends not only on military operations but also on the four countries’ ability to improve conditions for and gain trust among local populations. That said, a more effective joint force can contribute to such an approach.

What should be done? Lake Chad states resist fully integrating their forces into the MNJTF, but they can still boost its capacity by better sharing plans and intelligence, committing troops for longer operations and improving troops’ human rights compliance. They should work with the African Union and European Union to resolve funding issues.

Executive Summary

The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) is an effort by the Lake Chad basin states – Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – to pool resources against jihadists that threaten all four countries. The joint force has carried out periodic operations, often involving troops from one country fighting in the country next door. Offensives have won victories and helped instil an esprit de corps among participating troops. But nimble militant factions have regrouped fast, and the MNJTF’s effectiveness has suffered from confusion over priorities, the four states’ reluctance to cede command to the force itself, and funding and procurement delays. A successful response to militancy in Lake Chad will depend not only on the joint force but also on whether states can improve conditions for and inspire more trust among residents of affected areas. But an improved MNJTF could help such a strategy. Lake Chad states should boost its planning and communications capacity, intelligence sharing, human rights compliance and civil-military coordination. They should then reach consensus with donors on financing.

The Lake Chad countries, plus Benin, created the MNJTF in its current form in late 2014 and early 2015. Together they committed just over 8,000 troops to the joint force. The African Union authorised the force on 3 March 2015 and envisaged that a sub-regional body, the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), would assume civilian oversight. The MNJTF established a critically important multilateral framework to combat Boko Haram insurgents, more and more of whom were launching attacks across borders.

The joint force has brought some dividends. Working together has enabled forces from different countries to learn from each other, promoted the idea of cross-border cooperation and improved tactical coordination. Joint operations, mainly involving Chadian troops deploying into the other countries, helped stem Boko Haram’s spread in 2015 and 2016 and squeezed the group, resulting in its split into at least three factions. Short MNJTF offensives in 2017 and 2018, along with a more sustained operation in 2019, also reversed militant gains, freed civilians captured by them or trapped in areas Boko Haram controlled and facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid.

MNJTF’s effectiveness has suffered from confusion over priorities, the four states’ reluctance to cede command to the force itself, and funding and procurement delays.

Yet advances against Boko Haram and its offshoots have mostly been short-lived. Jihadist factions have consistently weathered offensives. Their resilience owes partly to their ability to escape to other areas and partly to the inability of the states themselves, particularly Nigeria, to follow military operations with efforts to rebuild and improve conditions for residents of recaptured areas. That earlier operations were not sustained likely did not help, though jihadists have bounced back from even the longer campaign in 2019 – a March 2020 militant assault on a base on Lake Chad was one of the conflict’s bloodiest yet, killing some 90 Chadian troops. A subsequent Chadian operation to secure the lake was conducted mainly outside the MNJTF’s auspices and militants appear likely to regroup again.

The MNJTF also suffers structural limitations. Its chain of command is weak, even by the standards of multilateral forces, because it comprises units of national forces fighting mainly in their own countries. Many MNJTF troops rotate in and out of the force as national commanders see fit. The under-resourced civilian oversight body, the LCBC, has struggled to exert authority over the force or curb abuses by soldiers who remain accountable to national hierarchies. The AU authorises the force but also has little oversight over it, though the body has tried to forge common practice on treatment of captured militants and their associates. Funding and procurement delays – the EU funds the force through the AU, but European money was long held up in Addis Ababa – have delayed critical gear and fed recrimination among the actors involved. True, the MNJTF’s shortfalls only partly explain why militancy persists around Lake Chad. Efforts against jihadists depend mostly on policies of the states themselves, of which joint operations are only one component. Still, the force’s flaws limit its effectiveness.

Some shortcomings reflect national sensitivities. Abuja tends to see the MNJTF as a face-saving way to portray operations by other countries’ forces, mainly Chad, on Nigerian soil as international cooperation. But it still aims to preserve primacy in counter-insurgency efforts and regards fuller integration among the forces warily. Cameroon, Chad and Niger see the MNJTF as light-touch coordination for their offensives, and some of their officials also oppose deeper integration. Indeed, national military hierarchies’ resistance to greater cooperation is a reality that any efforts to reform the force will have to factor in. Chad’s December 2019 withdrawal of over 1,000 troops fighting with the MNJTF in Nigeria, without fully informing other capitals, dealt the force a further blow. President Idriss Déby voices increasing frustration that Chadian troops do the bulk of the fighting with what he portrays as scant support from neighbours. All four countries’ forces are stretched thin, dealing with multiple security challenges in addition to militancy around Lake Chad.

To make the joint force a more effective part of efforts to tackle the region’s jihadist insurgencies, Lake Chad countries should:

  • Build up its planning, coordination and intelligence sharing. Governments and military leaders should lean toward sharing more information with the joint force and give senior officials greater leeway to determine what can be shared and what should be withheld for security reasons. They should commit troops for more sustained periods and clarify when national forces are acting under MNJTF command.
  • In conjunction with the AU, step up human rights training and monitoring of abuses in order to improve MNJTF units’ compliance with international humanitarian law and emerging AU standards on conduct and discipline. The MNJTF should pay particular attention to the treatment of captured or surrendered Boko Haram fighters, ensuring that units hand them over rapidly to civilian authorities. Doing so will help Lake Chad states improve ties with locals who may otherwise see troops mistreating their youth.
  • Enable the MNJTF to better support the AU’s 2018 Regional Stabilisation Strategy, which aims to improve services and create new livelihoods in conflict-affected areas. This would entail boosting the joint force’s and the LCBC’s capacity to cooperate with civilian actors responsible for the strategy. To ensure improved oversight, especially on human rights, Lake Chad states should gradually shift the force’s AU-funded civilian components, which now report to the military commander, into the LCBC.

The AU and donors, principally the EU, should support the above steps. They should push for making such improvements without creating a weighty bureaucracy. Also urgent is that donors, the AU and Lake Chad states reach a lasting consensus over financial support.

The regional jihadist threat shows no sign of abating and the situation in Nigeria’s north east is, if anything, deteriorating. An effective response will entail not only military action, but also civilian efforts to deliver public services, improve conditions for residents in hard-hit areas, regain – or simply establish for the first time – popular trust in public authority, offer militants paths to demobilise safely and even potentially engage some in talks. Yet military operations are critical to creating space for all these activities and a reinforced MNJTF, standing as a symbol of regional cooperation, can support such an approach.

Nairobi/Brussels, 7 July 2020

I. Introduction

Cooperation among Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, the four Lake Chad states blighted by Boko Haram’s insurgency, is a critical part of tackling the jihadist threat. Battling militant factions, rebuilding trust in public authority among local communities and restoring a degree of state control in affected areas depend mainly on the national policies of governments involved. Yet in itself, national policy is insufficient to counter jihadists operating across borders. Cooperation among the Lake Chad states is important for civilian-led issues, such as dealing with former Boko Haram militants or creating alternatives to militancy around Lake Chad. It is also vital to improving military operations. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), in place in its current form since 2014 to help the four Lake Chad armies, plus that of Benin, coordinate counter-insurgency efforts, offers, in principle, just such a regional response to a regional threat. Those states have conducted a series of military operations, often involving troops from one country crossing into another, under the MNJTF’s banner.

This report examines the MNJTF’s achievements and shortfalls and asks what value the force adds and what improvements can be brought to bear. To account for diverging views on the force and its future held by participating states, the African Union and donors, the report is based on interviews conducted from November 2018 to May 2020 with diplomats, government officials, military officers from the region who have served in MNJTF units, military officials from donor countries, humanitarian workers active in the Lake Chad area and other informed observers.[fn]An interlocutor in Yaoundé used the well-worn analogy of three blind men coming across an elephant to describe different perspectives on the MNJTF. One man approaches the animal’s tail and concludes that it must be a rope. The second touches its flank and declares that it is a wall. The third grabs its ears and believes them to be a large fan. Crisis Group interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote Interviews took place in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, where the force is based, as well as in Abuja, Yaoundé, Addis Ababa, London and Brussels. The report also draws on ten years of Crisis Group reporting on Islamist militancy, and the national and international responses to it, in the Lake Chad basin.

II. The MNJTF’s Origins and Early Operations

A. A Regional Threat

The jihadist insurgency commonly referred to as Boko Haram, now fractured into at least three competing groups, emerged and evolved primarily in Nigeria. Originally a militant group exploiting discontent with secular government and political corruption, it grew partly due to Nigeria’s security forces’ alternately absent and heavy-handed responses. Efforts to contain and push back Boko Haram have overall been weak.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Reports N°168, Northern Nigeria: Background to Conflict, 20 December 2010; Crisis Group Africa Report N°216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014; and Alexander Thurston, Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement (Princeton, 2018).Hide Footnote

Boko Haram always had some reach into neighbouring countries, facilitated by a vibrant cross-border economy, criminal networks, arms smuggling routes and religious ties to Islamic schools in Nigeria’s Maiduguri – the Lake Chad basin’s largest conurbation. In 2013 and 2014, the group used toeholds in Cameroon, Chad and Niger to expand operations in those countries, where it recruited, rearmed, pillaged, kidnapped, carried out revenge attacks and, overall, promoted its idea of a West African “caliphate”. It exploited cross-border family relations, as well as ethnic, commercial and religious links, to offer its young recruits economic opportunities, usually backing them up later with religious indoctrination. The group profited, at least initially, from the distrust with which communities in border areas regard state authorities.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Reports N°241, Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram, 16 November 2016; 245, Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency, 27 February 2017; and 246, Fighting Boko Haram in Chad: Beyond Military Measures, 8 March 2017.Hide Footnote It also exploited intercommunal tensions in those areas.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Critically, its cross-border presence enabled the group to survive in periods when it was under pressure from the Nigerian army and on the back foot.

Efforts to contain and push back Boko Haram have overall been weak.

Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED) conflict monitoring source, together with Crisis Group’s own field research, confirms Boko Haram’s regional expansion from 2015, even while Nigeria mostly remained the epicentre of violence. The number of attacks rose steeply, both in net terms and as a percentage of all incidents in the region, in Cameroon, and to a lesser extent in Niger and Chad, between 2015 and 2017.[fn]Ibid. The proportion of attacks in Nigeria’s three neighbours relative to the combined number in the four countries jumped from 22 per cent in 2014 to 42 per cent in 2015, and then again to 79 per cent in 2016, before dropping to 61 per cent in 2017. See the ACLED databases of conflict events in the Lake Chad area.Hide Footnote That said, attacks in Nigeria’s neighbours remained largely small-scale, involving raiding and skirmishing. Nigeria itself suffered many more fatalities.[fn]ACLED data shows that Nigeria suffered 77 per cent of deaths from Boko Haram violence in 2014, 69 per cent in 2015 and 46 per cent of a steeply declining total in 2016, as counter-insurgency operations pressured the jihadist movement in the country.Hide Footnote

Although Boko Haram remained concentrated in Nigeria, at its peak in 2014 and 2015 the group operated in all four Lake Chad countries. Militants assaulted army units in border regions of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, briefly holding small patches of territory and taking hostages.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  They carried out bombings in those countries, including in N’Djamena in 2015. The group’s expansion was uneven: Cameroon and Niger were worst affected, Chad less so. But in none of Nigeria’s three Lake Chad neighbours was Boko Haram able to penetrate very far beyond border regions.

B. Stop-start Bilateral Initiatives

As Nigeria struggled throughout 2013 to contain the burgeoning insurgency, its neighbours responded slowly and unevenly.[fn]The Nigerian government deployed additional forces, declared a state of emergency in May 2013, and created a plethora of local armed vigilante groups (the Civilian Joint Task Forces), which engaged in vicious tit-for-tat fighting with Boko Haram. Shorn of Western support due to human rights abuses, Abuja also turned to Moscow, and to private military companies, in an attempt to win what was now a major war in the country’s north east. While security forces pushed Boko Haram out of major towns in 2014, their human rights abuses are widely blamed for making the group more determined to fight and helping it recruit. See Crisis Group Report, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, op. cit.; and Thurston, Boko Haram, op. cit., ch. 4.Hide Footnote At first, leaders in Cameroon, Chad and Niger reacted with caution and denial, for the most part seeing the group as a primarily Nigerian problem and refusing to acknowledge that it had gained a foothold at home. Gradually, however, their concerns about the insurgency mounted, with Chadian President Idriss Déby, worried that the violence was asphyxiating his country’s economy, the most vocal.[fn]“Le risque djihadiste libyen menace le Tchad, assure Idriss Déby”, France 24, 8 June 2013.Hide Footnote  Starting in 2014, the three countries gradually deployed more troops to affected areas, mobilised vigilante groups and, in Chad and Cameroon, passed draconian counter-terrorism legislation.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, Cameroon: Confronting Boko Haram; Fighting Boko Haram in Chad: Beyond Military Measures; and Niger and Boko Haram: Beyond Counter-insurgency, all op. cit. See also Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, Boko Haram, Les Enjeux Régionaux de L’insurrection (Paris, 2015).
Hide Footnote
Their greater involvement drew Boko Haram’s ire. Militant attacks, which Boko Haram leaders described as a response to those states’ decisions to join counter-insurgency operations, escalated in 2014 and 2015.[fn]Mustapha Muhammad, “Nigeria’s Boko Haram leader menaces Cameroon’s Biya in video”, Bloomberg, 7 January 2015.Hide Footnote  The jihadist strikes, in turn, prompted the governments to further step up their efforts.

Initial military cooperation consisted of ad hoc and little publicised cross-border troop movements on the basis of rapidly concluded bilateral arrangements. In 2013 and 2014, for example, Cameroonian and Nigerien troops crossed into Nigeria in pursuit of militants, while Cameroon shelled Boko Haram positions in Nigeria. These interventions received scant publicity, partly due to Nigerian sensitivities and partly because they were often arranged by local commanders in touch with counterparts operating nearby across the border.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national officer who served in MNJTF, Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote

Significant mistrust among all four countries continually obstructed their ability to work together.

Still, regional cooperation in this key period was patchy at best. For every successful cross-border operation, there were many requests from field commanders that superiors rejected and many manoeuvres that were poorly coordinated.[fn]Ibid. See also “Africa’s Role in Nation Building: An Examination of African-led Peace Operations”, Rand Corporation and ACCORD, 2019.Hide Footnote  Most notable was a failed attempt to mediate a hostage release from Boko Haram, led by Chad and Nigeria in 2013, which ended in acrimony between the two countries, as each blamed the other for the failure.[fn]See Thurston, Boko Haram, op. cit., ch. 5.Hide Footnote  Significant mistrust among all four countries, relating in part to the different perceptions of the threat and disagreements over how to handle it, continually obstructed their ability to work together. Historic antagonisms did not help. Nigeria’s border disputes with all three neighbours on Lake Chad, along with a quarrel with Cameroon on the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula to the south, meant that Abuja was instinctively less inclined to cooperate.[fn]See Isaac Olawale Albert, “Rethinking the Functionality of the Multinational Joint Task Force in Managing the Boko Haram Crisis in the Lake Chad Basin”, Africa Development, vol. 42, no. 3 (2017), p. 119.Hide Footnote  In addition, Nigerian mistrust of external intervention on its soil runs deep, informed by foreign support for Biafran rebels in the late 1960s.

While these factors did not preclude the governments from working together (and, indeed, Abuja recognises that Yaoundé supported Nigeria during the Biafra war), they created an undercurrent of distrust and initially curtailed deeper cooperation, especially among the countries’ armies.

C. Increasing Regional Cooperation

When the four countries entered formal arrangements governing cooperation, they did so under acute pressure to respond to a growing jihadist menace and, especially in Nigeria’s case, partly because of evolving domestic political calculations. The MNJTF, which emerged in its current form in 2014-2015, was the product of a delicate political consensus among those governments, all of whom had different perspectives on the nature of the threat and what the force should do to counter it.

Over the course of 2014, gradual attempts at cooperation, pushed along by political developments in Nigeria, breathed new life into the MNJTF. The four Lake Chad states had in fact created a joint force much earlier, in the 1990s, to fight criminality. It had then lain dormant for years before being resuscitated in 2012 to fight Boko Haram. It was only in 2014, however, that regional governments showed any real commitment to the force and reinforced its base at Baga, on the Nigerian shores of the lake, with more troops from each country. The four countries’ defence and intelligence chiefs met in Yaoundé in March 2014, and their heads of state attended a key meeting in Paris on regional security two months later, in both instances to hammer out the details of a new-look regional force. Nigeria’s then president, Goodluck Jonathan, started showing greater readiness to seek his counterparts’ help in setting up the joint force as Nigeria’s 2015 election loomed. He hoped to show progress in the fight with Boko Haram ahead of the campaign.

Lake Chad states also started looking for international support for regional cooperation against Boko Haram. Events on the ground at the start of 2015, especially Boko Haram militants’ capture in January of the MNJTF’s embryonic base in Baga, led them to redouble those efforts. Amid steeply rising violence, the loss of the base appeared to deal regional forces a devastating blow. Cameroon’s President Paul Biya made a rare public appeal for help from neighbours and international partners.[fn]Moki Edwin Kindzeka, “Cameroon president calls for greater help to fight Boko Haram”, VOA, 8 January 2015.Hide Footnote Increased bilateral support from the U.S., the UK and France to all three of Nigeria’s affected neighbours followed shortly thereafter.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western military officers, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote  

Over the course of 2014, gradual attempts at cooperation, pushed along by political developments in Nigeria, breathed new life into the MNJTF.

Regional cooperation accelerated over that period. Chad sent a large contingent to Cameroon to help secure its north-western border in early 2015. Those forces deployed for six months, often conducting offensives deep into Nigeria through Cameroon and Niger in a pincer move against militants in Borno state.[fn]“Lutte contre Boko Haram: le Tchad a envoyé des troupes au Cameroun”, RFI, 16 January 2015.Hide Footnote Nigerien forces also took part. According to Western officials close to the file, Nigeria paid Chad directly to cover the cost of its intervention.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western military officers close to the file for several years, Cameroonian officer, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote  Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who had defeated Jonathan in the May 2015 vote, initially prioritised cooperation with his neighbours, reflected in early visits to Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger from June to August 2015. His efforts to boost morale and effectiveness among his own troops won support among otherwise sceptical officials in Yaoundé, N’Djamena and Niamey.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°120, Boko Haram: On the Back Foot?, 4 May 2016.Hide Footnote

D. The MNJTF’s Set-up

The new-look MNJTF was taking shape parallel to military operations. Ministers of Lake Chad basin countries plus Benin – which agreed to join the force to further cooperation with neighbours but in fact has rarely if ever participated in operations on the ground – met in Niamey on 20 January 2015 and agreed to shift the MNJTF headquarters to N’Djamena. They also pledged to draw up a full Concept of Operations, or CONOPS, a document providing details of political oversight, command structures, objectives, tasks and mission support, which the states, with AU support, finalised in March.[fn]“Draft Strategic Concept of Operations for the MNJTF of the Lake Chad Basin Commission against the Boko Haram Terrorist Group 2015”, African Union, unpublished.Hide Footnote Working-level meetings on the CONOPS informed discussions between the four Lake Chad states and the AU, which authorised the force for an initial twelve months at their request at its 29 January 2015 summit. The AU’s Peace and Security Committee subsequently signed off in more detail in March that year. The CONOPS identified the force’s key aim as “eliminating the presence and influence of Boko Haram in the region”.[fn]Ibid. The document cited this aim as the “strategic end state” for the force.Hide Footnote

The AU’s authorisation set out the joint force’s responsibilities. It outlined three key goals: first, to create a safe and secure environment in its area of operation; secondly, to support (at that time non-existent) “stabilisation” programs and enable the return of those displaced by fighting; and thirdly, to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Further tasks included preventing insurgents from obtaining weapons or logistical tools, freeing abductees, encouraging defections, improving civil-military cooperation, supporting justice and respect for human rights, information operations and intelligence sharing.[fn]See “Report of the Chairperson of the Commission on the implementation of communiqué PSC/AHG/Comm.2 (CDLXXXIV) on the Boko Haram terrorist group and on other related international efforts “, AU Peace and Security Council, 3 March 2015.Hide Footnote The AU authorised the new force at a level of 11,000 troops.[fn]At first, Lake Chad basin states intended to include a police component in the force, which would have been part of the AU authorisation. But they subsequently dropped this plan, reportedly in light of deficiencies in national police services. Crisis Group interviews, Western military officers, military officer from Lake Chad state, various locations, September and November 2019.Hide Footnote The AU commissioner for peace and security, Smail Chergui, opened the N’Djamena headquarters in May 2015 and the force became officially operational in June.

A number of early decisions would resonate throughout the joint force’s operations. First, the AU “authorised” the force but did not “mandate” it, meaning that participating states retained control over the mission. In other words, the AU provided a vital legal framework, and allowed for greater donor funding, but did not obtain the oversight or management it has over, for example, the AU mission in Somalia (which it does mandate). Indeed, over the first two or three years of joint operations, the AU’s role was limited to discussions on the CONOPS, providing MNJTF civilian staff and officers some training on the protection of civilians and monitoring human rights compliance through a small AU civilian team at the MNJTF N’Djamena headquarters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, national military officers, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, September 2019; Addis Ababa, November 2019. Some analysts see the MNJTF as part of the AU’s peace and security architecture, de facto, by virtue of being authorised by the AU Peace and Security Council. See Matthew Brubacher, Erin Kimball Damman and Christopher Day, “The AU Task Forces: An African Response to Transnational Armed Groups”, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 55, no. 2 (2017), p. 275. AU officials mainly share the view that the force is, or should incrementally become, part of the AU’s continental security set-up. Other analysts see it and other “ad hoc” arrangements as distinct from the AU’s peace and security architecture. See Paul D. Williams, “Can Ad Hoc Security Coalitions in Africa Bring Stability”, Global Observatory, January 2019. This distinction affects the role the AU plays. The link with the AU also has implications for financing, as donors, including the EU, which seeks to boost the AU’s role, tend to favour forces that have AU authorisation or mandate. As a consequence, they have provided funds to the MNJTF, which they would not have done if it did not have AU authorisation.Hide Footnote

Secondly, the CONOPS defined an operational area for the MNJTF that covers Lake Chad and extends some way along the border between Nigeria and Niger. This arrangement left out large expanses affected by the insurgency, notably parts of the Nigeria-Cameroon border zone and still larger swathes of Nigeria’s Borno state.[fn]See the map in Appendix A. Benin, the fifth state contributing to the MNJTF, is not a member of the LCBC. Benin’s some 700 troops have largely been occupied with securing the force headquarters in N’Djamena and have played little part in field operations.Hide Footnote It divided the area of operations into four sectors, each in one of the four countries, and each with its own headquarters. It also gave MNJTF units a standing right to hot pursuit 20km over borders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, MNJTF officers and Western military officers, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, 2019.Hide Footnote

Thirdly, the Lake Chad states shelved their initial plans for a more integrated force. The four governments had considered putting in place cross-border sectors. Instead, they opted for sectors entirely within single countries, aiming to avoid legal and political complications that may have arisen from permanent cross-border deployments and to reassure Nigeria that such deployments into its territory would be limited.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western military officer with direct knowledge of 2015 period, Yaoundé, September 2019; journalist and close observer of Lake Chad region, Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote The four countries’ contingents thus operate almost exclusively on home soil, except during large-scale joint operations. The initial CONOPS provided for the force commander position to rotate among participating states, but this idea was later rejected, and Nigeria given the authority to appoint the force commander, in order to ensure Abuja’s full buy-in.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Lastly, the AU designated the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) as the mission’s political component. The four Lake Chad countries set up the LCBC in the 1960s, initially to deal with environmental issues and later to coordinate the efforts to stop cross-border criminality. But it remained dormant or weakly resourced. Participating countries put it forward in 2015 as a political lead for the MNJTF due to the need to have a civilian point of contact for the AU and for donors, who were reluctant to deal exclusively with a military set-up. This move also served to assuage Nigerian concerns about mission control, as the LCBC head has always been a Nigerian national nominated by Abuja. Some AU officials saw the LCBC as a route through which they might reinforce the civilian component of the response to violence in the Lake Chad area.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU, EU and national officials, N’Djamena, Addis Ababa and Brussels, 2019.Hide Footnote In reality, however, the four states had long neglected the LCBC and given it neither the resources nor the clout to play this role.

E. Early Funding Decisions

Decisions on funding would also have longer-term implications. At first, Lake Chad countries wanted donors to fund them and the LCBC directly. They approached the EU, which was already a major funder of African peace support operations. The EU refused to fund the force directly, obliging the states to seek the AU’s blessing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU diplomats, Addis Ababa, 2018-2019.Hide Footnote  Those countries then agreed that the AU would be the conduit for EU financial support. In reality, however, due to issues with the AU’s procedures for dispersing funds (explored in Section IV.D below), European money channelled through Addis Ababa would not reach the MNJTF until two years later, in early 2017.

Despite the lack of UN money and slow arrival of EU funds, some individual donors offered financial and technical support in 2016, reflecting their desire to keep the MNJTF afloat.

Meanwhile, hopes of UN money floundered. The UN Security Council “welcomed” the force in July 2015. It has since held periodic briefings on Boko Haram but gone no further in authorising or funding the MNJTF. Lake Chad countries have been unable to get UN-assessed contributions, which they and some AU officials hoped for. Nor have they been able to receive funds through a UN trust fund, an idea that the AU Peace and Security Council floated in 2015.[fn]On the expectation of UN funding, Crisis Group interview, international military officer in region, November 2018. See “Report of the Chairperson”, AU Peace and Security Council, op. cit. See also Brubacher et al., “The AU Task Forces”, op. cit.Hide Footnote As EU funds took time to come through, Nigeria had to pay for the force in its first two years.[fn]On Nigeria providing seed funding, Crisis Group interviews, international military official with direct insight and Cameroonian officer, Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote

Despite the lack of UN money and slow arrival of EU funds, some individual donors offered financial and technical support in 2016, reflecting their desire to keep the MNJTF afloat. The UK provided early funding directly to the MNJTF of £5 million. France, the U.S. and the UK have deployed officers to an intelligence liaison committee in N’Djamena to act as a conduit for intelligence sharing and advice. They also provide bilateral aid to participating states’ militaries, which has strengthened some units subsequently deployed to the MNJTF.

F. First Operations

In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the MNJTF launched short operations, which saw Chadian and, to a lesser extent, Cameroonian and Nigerien troops enter Nigeria and help push back jihadists. Chadian troops were key to these operations as they went further into Nigerian territory and stayed longer than their Cameroonian or Nigerien counterparts. But even they often struggled to consolidate gains they had made due to weaknesses in the Nigerian response and to a highly adaptable enemy. The operations, Gama Aiki (Finish the Job, in Hausa) in 2016, Gama Aiki II in 2017 and Amni Faka (Peace at All Costs) in 2018, each lasted around three months. At least some of the cost was reportedly covered by Nigerian payments made directly to the Chadian government.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU official, Western military officer, various locations, 2019.Hide Footnote The operations were supplemented by cross-border troop movements that had either the MNJTF’s direct signoff or indirect blessing.

Despite limitations, the three operations, which added several thousand troops to larger national responses from Nigeria and Cameroon, helped weaken Boko Haram, reducing its ability to hold territory or to attack towns and large military installations. Officers involved in the operations described to Crisis Group some of the gains made in dislodging insurgents from their strongholds, freeing prisoners and securing border areas, although they simultaneously pointed out that many achievements were short-lived.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officers who previously served in MNJTF, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, 2019.Hide Footnote  The operations also served to embed the principle of cross-border cooperation, which participating officers saw as a significant contribution to their counter-insurgency efforts.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

III. Renewed Challenges

The emergence of Boko Haram offshoots and splinter groups over the past two years adds fresh complexity to counter-insurgency efforts. At least three militant groups are now active in the Lake Chad basin, at times cooperating, at times competing and occasionally fighting one another directly.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local political leader (chef de canton), N’Djamena, August 2019.Hide Footnote Reports suggest that militant factions are seeking to gain footholds in north-western Nigeria and possibly farther west in Niger, approaching the areas of operation of Sahel jihadist groups, with whom at least one Boko Haram spin-off is reportedly seeking alliances.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°288, violViolence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem, 18 May 2020, Section IV.Hide Footnote A sustained assault by militants on an army post on a peninsula on the lake, in which some 90 Chadian soldiers were reportedly killed, illustrates the challenges still facing Lake Chad states. It prompted President Déby to launch a major new operation.

A. New Militant Factions and Chadian Operations

In 2018 and 2019, a new branch of Boko Haram, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), gained strength. From its inception in 2016, it adopted a more accommodating approach than its progenitor, aimed at winning support among civilians, and it has subsequently consolidated its presence among communities in Borno state, particularly on Lake Chad’s islands and shores.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°273, Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, 16 May 2019.Hide Footnote It has also staged sophisticated attacks on military targets, killing soldiers and pillaging armaments. It poses a significant new challenge.

ISWAP is not the only threat. In 2017, another Boko Haram splinter group, referred to as the Bakura faction, emerged, this time along the Niger-Nigeria border. Additionally, military officials and other close observers report that in mid- and late 2019, the original Boko Haram faction, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’await Wal-Jihad (JAS), under Abubakar Shekau’s leadership, intensified attacks in the Nigeria-Cameroon border area, operating from its base in Nigeria’s Mandara mountains. Evidence points to these latter two groups being linked, with the Bakura faction reportedly pledging allegiance to Shekau.[fn]Ibid. Crisis Group interviews, Western military officer, N’Djamena; journalist, Yaoundé, September 2019. Crisis Group electronic communication, Western military officer, December 2019.Hide Footnote

In December 2018, ISWAP overran Baga town in Nigeria and a nearby military camp that hosted the MNJTF Sector 3 headquarters, forcing the joint force to move this base to another town in Borno state. The Nigerian military later recaptured Baga, but the group has attacked other lake areas of Chad and Cameroon.[fn]Sadiq Abubakar, “Army declares Baga communities safe, urges inhabitants to return home”, National Accord, 29 February 2020. Not all attacks can be clearly attributed to ISWAP, but many can. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian actors, national and international military officers, Yaoundé and N’Djamena, August-September 2019. ISWAP often used sophisticated improvised explosive devices, which sap troop morale. Crisis Group interview, national military officer who previously served in the MNJTF, Yaoundé, September 2019.
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The on-again, off-again nature of military offensives, including by the MNJTF – which, as described, carried out only one three-month operation in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018 – may have created space for ISWAP. More sustained operations that would have secured areas recaptured and created space for civilian-led efforts to work with communities and improve services might have helped prevent the insurgents from regrouping, provided, of course, that those reconstruction efforts actually took place.[fn]Many close observers hold this view. Crisis Group interviews and email exchanges, Western military officers, Lake Chad national military officers, various locations, September and November 2019; journalist, Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote

Lake Chad states reacted by deepening cooperation in early 2019. Chadian troops reinforced their positions on the Chadian side of the lake and a contingent, eventually numbering over 1,000 troops, entered Nigeria in February. This force comprised the major component of a 2019 MNJTF operation called Yancin Tafki (Lasting Freedom, in Hausa). Lake Chad states extended that operation to the end of 2019 in an attempt to address the flaws of the previous shorter offensives.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western military officer, N’Djamena, February 2020.
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Yancin Tafki reportedly put ISWAP under considerable pressure. Although Chadian troops took many casualties, their participation boosted Nigerian forces’ morale and helped secure Sector 3 of the MNJTF’s operational area, which covers part of Borno state.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian agency official, N’Djamena, August 2019; MNJTF officer, August 2019; international military officers, various locations, September-October 2019. Crisis Group electronic communication, international military officer, December 2019.
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In early January 2020, however, Chad announced the withdrawal of its forces from Borno, ending the Yancin Tafki operation. Chadian authorities reportedly did not discuss the withdrawal beforehand with their MNJTF partners, or at least senior MNJTF officials were unaware of it.[fn]Crisis Group electronic correspondence, senior African officer close to events, January 2020.Hide Footnote According to one Chadian official, N’Djamena was motivated in part by the need to redeploy the units to the Chadian side of the lake, where many had previously been stationed and which has also suffered a spike in attacks, and in part by the mission’s ongoing costs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chadian official, N’Djamena, February 2020.Hide Footnote Reportedly, N’Djamena was also unhappy with the weak support its forces received from the Nigerian army.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote ISWAP reacted by immediately attacking the Nigerian base at Monguno where some Chadian forces had been based. Militants failed to take the base, but the attack demonstrated their tactical awareness and ability to exploit the MNJTF’s weaknesses.

B. The Bohoma Attack and Chadian Counteroffensive of 2020

A bloody militant attack on a Chadian army post at Bohoma, a peninsula on the Chadian side of the lake, on 23 March 2020, offered a stark demonstration of the continued menace posed by Boko Haram factions. Several hundred insurgents approached the base by boat and attacked for eight hours, killing over 90 Chadian soldiers, according to the Chadian authorities who released the figure the next day.[fn]See “Tchad : 92 soldats tués et 47 blessés au Lac, Deby donne le premier bilan”, Alwihda, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote The attackers suffered losses, too, though it is unclear how many. They reportedly captured armaments before withdrawing. Abubakar Shekau’s JAS faction claimed the attack. It appears likely that the Bakura faction, which is present on the lake, actually carried it out, allowing JAS to claim it due to links between these two groups.[fn]See “Behind the Jihadist Attack in Chad”, Crisis Group Commentary, 6 April 2020; and “Tchad : situation très tendue au Lac après des combats contre Boko Haram”, Alwihda, 23 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Chad reacted by quickly launching a major new operation, called Wrath of Bohoma. Its offensive aimed primarily to clear jihadists from the lake area, mainly on Chadian and Nigerien territory. President Déby described the 23 March attack as the greatest loss of military life he had witnessed in a single incident. His language concerning “breaking Boko Haram” almost certainly reflected his sense that the attack required a strong response and that striking back fast was important to provide deterrence and safeguard the Chadian army’s honour.[fn]See “Tchad : 92 soldats tués et 47 blessés au Lac, Déby donne le premier bilan”, op. cit.; and “Déby : ‘Je suis décidé à briser Boko Haram en lui infligeant une raclée jamais égalée’”, Alwihda, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote Déby directed operations himself from a forward base on the lake for over two weeks. Chadian authorities later claimed that the operation, which lasted around one month, killed about 1,000 militants, though that figure is likely unreliable, while 52 Chadian soldiers lost their lives, although Crisis Group sources indicate greater losses.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military participant in operations, N’Djamena, May 2020. Given that some Chadian government announcements concerning this operation are likely unreliable, it remains very hard to gauge the true loss of life among insurgents. The Wrath of Bohoma operation was a purely Chadian offensive agreed upon with the government of Niger, though it was supported by a smaller MNJTF-coordinated operation involving Nigerien troops.

A bloody militant attack on a Chadian army post at Bohoma on 23 March 2020 offered a stark demonstration of the continued menace posed by Boko Haram factions.

During the operation, on 9 April, Déby, in a seemingly unplanned outburst, criticised what he called other Lake Chad countries’ inaction against jihadists, which he argued left Chad doing the bulk of the work in both the lake area and the Sahel. He also declared that “from today, no Chadian soldier will participate in a military operation outside Chad”.[fn]“Tchad : Face aux djihadistes, les coups de colère, de com’ et de bluff du président Idriss Déby”, Le Monde, 16 April 2020.Hide Footnote After several days of confusion, the government clarified that Chad would continue to participate in the MNJTF and other international operations, notably the UN mission in Mali.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Despite the Chadian president’s rhetoric and intense fighting in some areas around the lake in April, the Wrath of Bohoma operation’s actual impact may be quite limited. In May, one international military assessment concluded that militants were likely already returning to cleared areas, especially on the Nigerian side of the lake.[fn]Crisis Group electronic communication, May 2020. See also “Le succès de l’offensive éclair du Tchad contre les djihadistes sera-t-il durable?”, Le Monde, 13 April 2020.Hide Footnote

Indeed, a rapid operation by one country against militants in the lake area is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the security situation, even considered purely from a military perspective. First, militant groups are adaptable and can move away from areas where they face pressure. Already in 2019, groups were seeking to move from the MNJTF’s area of operation along the Nigeria-Cameroon and Nigeria-Niger borders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalist, Yaoundé, September 2019; humanitarian agency official, international military officer, N’Djamena, September 2019. Crisis Group electronic communication, international military official, December 2019.Hide Footnote Secondly, Chad’s withdrawal, re-engagement and then second pullout suggests a pattern of ad hoc planning and insufficient agreement among the countries, as well as overstretched security forces, which stymie a more effective response. Thirdly, forceful military engagement on its own is unlikely to make much sustained difference without far better coordinated planning and intelligence sharing, which would, for example, provide a better sense of jihadists’ movements or, at the very least, help prevent injury and death by friendly fire. Such incidents have occurred several times in operations around the lake, and stopping them is a role that the MNJTF should, in principle, be playing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international military officers, multiple locations, 2019
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More broadly, Déby’s threat to withdraw his forces demonstrates the fragility of the consensus underpinning the MNJTF. Most observers saw his threat in part as an attempt to pressure donors and possibly Nigeria to pay more for Chadian deployments.[fn]“Tchad : Face aux djihadistes, les coups de colère, de com’ et de bluff du président Idriss Déby”, op. cit.Hide Footnote But it also illustrates the limits of Chad’s readiness to lead MNJTF offensives without what it sees as strong support from the other three countries, and an overreliance on Chad’s army, which is a weakness of the force.

IV. Assessing the MNJTF

The fact that the MNJTF is only part of a wider response to Boko Haram makes it hard to evaluate. Any success against the various militant factions around Lake Chad depends to a large degree on the policies of each of the states themselves, of which joint operations are only one component. The MNJTF’s record appears mixed. The joint force has scored some victories against militants. It has at times reversed their gains and freed civilians captured by them or trapped in areas they controlled. Moreover, working together has allowed forces to learn about and from each other, and boosted the principle of cross-border operations and cooperation. Gains have, however, tended to prove short-lived. Due partly to Boko Haram’s ability to adapt, partly to the operations’ intermittent nature and partly to the lack of subsequent security arrangements and stabilisation initiatives, jihadist factions have been able to regroup.

Disagreements among officials of the four countries over whether Boko Haram is a regional or a primarily Nigerian phenomenon have not helped. Many senior military officers and seasoned observers in Chad, Niger and Cameroon see their countries as suffering collateral damage from a problem that largely stems, in their view, from Nigerian incompetence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior officer, Niamey, October 2015; Western military officials, Abuja, December 2018; journalist, senior officers from Lake Chad basin states and Western military officials, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote In contrast, some of their Nigerian counterparts point to the toehold that Boko Haram has gained in neighbouring countries as an indication of complicity among security forces, customs agents and other officials.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, military officers, Abuja, December 2018; international military official with experience working in Abuja, September 2019.Hide Footnote These contrasting perceptions, occasionally expressed in finger pointing, undercut the region’s solidarity and the capability of its response.

The MNJTF’s shortcomings reflect the four countries' somewhat erratic commitment, and to some degree that of donors, to fighting Boko Haram.

The diverse threat that militants pose in the four countries also hinders coherent regional action. Though the four countries are fighting a common enemy, in reality each has pursued a different set of goals, which are themselves subject to change. The Nigerian authorities have at times been battling a full-blown insurgency that controls large tracts of the country’s north east. In contrast, Cameroon has mostly dealt with a cross-border menace, even if that has at times involved repelling well-planned and equipped attacks on its border garrisons. For its part, Chad has focused on periodic skirmishes on the lake and protecting supply routes through Cameroon. Niger has also undertaken mostly containment operations along its border and, occasionally, larger counter-insurgency operations at home or in Nigeria. The divergent objectives complicate the multilateral response as officers from each country seek different things – from limited containment operations in someone else’s territory to sustained counter-insurgency in their own.

The MNJTF’s shortcomings also reflect the four countries' somewhat erratic commitment, and to some degree that of donors, to fighting Boko Haram. After the 2016 and 2017 operations, attention to counter-insurgency efforts waned for the better part of two years.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western official close to the file since 2016, Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote  ISWAP’s resurgence in late 2018 prompted another more concerted response, with the prolonged 2019 campaign hailed by close observers and MNJTF officers as a departure from previous shorter operations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western military officers, N’Djamena, September 2019; MNJTF officer, August 2019.Hide Footnote But it is far from clear whether that operation did in fact represent a turn toward more systematic cooperation, embedded in information sharing and joint planning. Indeed, the largely unilateral Chadian offensive in 2020 and Déby’s impatience with his counterparts illustrate the persistent difficulties states have faced in working together.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

A. The MNJTF’s Added Value

The MNJTF has allowed for greater tactical cooperation on the ground. At times, this cooperation occurred outside MNJTF zones and was not authorised through MNJTF headquarters but nevertheless drew on the spirit of cooperation brought about by the regional force.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chadian and Cameroonian army officers, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, 2019. One study found that cross-border actions by Cameroonian forces outside the MNJTF zone were given political cover by including MNJTF troops. See RAND Corporation, “Africa’s Role in Nation Building”, op. cit., p. 191.Hide Footnote  Officers from Lake Chad countries who have operated in or alongside MNJTF units see the force as a symbol of regional cooperation and express pride at working with colleagues from other countries.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chadian and Cameroonian army officers, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, 2019.Hide Footnote Exactly how cooperation plays out on the ground varies. In rare cases, different countries’ officials have integrated their command chains for MNJTF operations for short periods. At other times, units of different nationalities have coordinated to encircle militants.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national officer deployed to operations in neighbouring countries in 2016-2017, N’Djamena, September 2019.Hide Footnote  Most national and international officials and officers involved with the MNJTF recognise that it provides political cover to troops, especially Chadian forces, who are operating in neighbouring countries. The joint force’s imprimatur allows them to pursue Boko Haram across borders and share information with neighbours.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, national army officers, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, 2019; international military observers, various locations, September and October 2019.Hide Footnote

The force commander is widely seen as key to any positive impact the MNJTF can have. True, the position does not enjoy command and control over all the forces involved; one close observer argued that in reality his role was something more like “coordination and choreography”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western military officer, September 2019.Hide Footnote  He is also overburdened by a top-heavy decision-making process within the MNJTF that leaves him responsible for day-to-day management as well as strategic issues and liaison with Lake Chad governments. At the same time, contributing countries, including Nigeria, give him little room for manoeuvre and reportedly share little planning detail with him.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  Yet the five successive military heads, all of whom have been Nigerian generals, have encouraged coordination and joint planning through regular meetings with the four sector commanders.

MNJTF has provided an institutional vessel for donor money to flow into counter-insurgency operations, as well as a vehicle through which donors and the AU can press Lake Chad governments and armies to curb human rights abuses.

The MNJTF has also helped facilitate training and funding, notwithstanding disputes over the latter. It has provided an institutional vessel for donor money to flow into counter-insurgency operations, as well as a vehicle through which donors and the AU can press Lake Chad governments and armies to curb human rights abuses. Donors have paid for equipment and training beyond what they would have been ready to offer on a purely bilateral basis.

The AU itself sees opportunities in the joint force beyond fighting Boko Haram. AU officials view the MNJTF as a chance to disseminate the continental body’s principles on how AU-authorised forces should function and the behaviour of troops involved, including, critically, their compliance with international humanitarian law.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, Addis Ababa, December 2018 and November 2019.Hide Footnote  The AU hopes that national units fighting under the MNJTF’s banner will bring home better practice to their respective armies as they rotate in and out of the joint force.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  Some officials hope that the AU’s involvement in the MNJTF will mean that its peace and security architecture comes to incorporate other ad hoc missions, hence expanding and improving African responses to threats like jihadist insurgencies, which traditional peacekeeping operations have struggled to contain (thus far the AU plays almost no role in the other main ad hoc force on the continent, the G5 Sahel).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and officials, N’Djamena, November 2018; Addis Ababa, December 2018 and November 2019; MNJTF officer, Nairobi, November 2019.Hide Footnote  Some in the AU and in the force itself also see the MNJTF as part of “learning by doing” in African-led deployments.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Humanitarian actors have also found opportunities in the joint force. They have used the MNJTF as a conduit for discussions with military officers on how to deal with captured militants or other Boko Haram members and how to protect civilians, in the hope that commanders and officials at the MNJTF headquarters will relay concerns to national units.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian actors, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote  Whether commanders have actually passed along these concerns remains unclear, however, given the force’s complex hierarchy. Humanitarian actors have also trained MNJTF officers.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

B. MNJTF Countries’ Limited Bandwidth

The MNJTF is an expression of the willingness of the states involved to cooperate, yet their commitment to the joint force has ebbed and flowed.

Nigeria’s commitment has proven particularly variable. The country faces a dizzying range of threats, from Boko Haram itself to herder-farmer violence largely in its middle belt, mounting banditry in the north west and a still unstable Niger Delta.[fn]See Crisis Group Reports, Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem, and Stopping Nigeria’s Spiralling Farmer-Herder Violence, both op. cit.Hide Footnote In 2016 and 2017, Abuja’s attention to Boko Haram dwindled. Many top officials may have taken their eye off the ball, as President Buhari declared at the end of 2015 that militants were on the verge of defeat.[fn]President Buhari made a statement along those lines that December. “Nigeria Boko Haram: militants ‘technically defeated’ – Buhari”, BBC, 24 December 2015.Hide Footnote Many military units were redeployed for law enforcement around the country. Among the criticisms diplomats, journalists and other observers in Nigeria level at the government over its response to Boko Haram is Abuja’s neglect of the north east and the army’s weak commitment to counter-insurgency operations there.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and international military officers, Abuja, December 2018. See also “Generals on the run”, Africa Confidential, 20 February 2020.Hide Footnote Even the longer MNJTF operations over 2019 and 2020 do not necessarily show that Abuja is taking the threat more seriously. Those operations were largely spearheaded by Chad, and the most recent offensive aimed to clear militants from the lake area along Chad’s border rather than entering deeper into Borno state.

The attention of other Lake Chad basin capitals has also waxed and waned. Like Nigeria, they face challenges beyond Boko Haram that have sapped attention and resources. Chad has had to tackle mounting insecurity in its north and east.[fn]Richard Moncrieff and Thibaud Lesueur, “Rebel Incursion Exposes Chad’s Weaknesses”, Crisis Group Commentary, 13 February 2019; Crisis Group Africa Report N°284, Avoiding the Resurgence of Intercommunal Violence in Eastern Chad, December 2019.Hide Footnote Since 2017, Cameroon has redeployed some units from the Far North region, where they were combating Boko Haram, to confront Anglophone separatists in its North West and South West provinces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, national and foreign officers, Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote Niger is dealing with tensions on its border with Mali, and a militant threat that goes beyond Boko Haram. Attacks by jihadists in December 2019 and January 2020 killed dozens of troops.[fn]“Niger: Attaque meurtrière de jihadistes contre un camp de l’armée à Chinagoder”, RFI, 9 January 2020.
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In this light, it is striking that the MNJTF not only exists nearly five years later, but is frequently operational, including its sustained efforts in 2019. The force’s activity compares favourably with some other African-led military operations, such as the G5 Sahel, which has struggled since its creation to deploy on the ground amid disagreements over funding and command chains.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°149, The Risk of Jihadist Contagion in West Africa, 20 December 2019.Hide Footnote It is all the more remarkable given that the MNJTF has, overall, received little international funding. That operations have continued likely owes partly to the Nigerian government’s and senior military officers’ discomfort with having to call several times on Chadian forces to fight Boko Haram on Nigerian soil. The MNJTF allows them to frame such operations as multilateral cooperation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Western military officers, 2018-2019.Hide Footnote Equally, while politicians’ commitment has wavered, senior officials and officers in capitals, in national units in the field, and among those deployed into the MNJTF, remain committed to joint action against Boko Haram.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, national officers and officials, N’Djamena, Yaoundé and Nairobi, 2019.
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They are also convinced that the MNJTF provides vital opportunities for sharing experience and learning.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

C. Operational Constraints

The MNJTF’s capacity at headquarters and in the field has increased only modestly over the past five years. Trust among national forces, on which the MNJTF ultimately relies, remains weak. The mutual unease is hardly surprising given that the MJNTF’s component units hail from different military cultures, adhere to different doctrines, use incompatible equipment (particularly communications gear) and speak different languages (English and French).

Disputes over funding have often held up the delivery of kit necessary for operations.

There are challenges with both equipment and personnel. Disputes over funding have often held up the delivery of kit necessary for operations – especially boats, needed for operations on the lake, and night vision equipment. When such equipment does arrive, MNJTF units have sometimes not planned for its use, due to poor foresight and internal communications.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western military officer, regional military officer, various dates and locations, 2019.Hide Footnote Although participating states have committed to the MNJTF only a small portion of the total number of troops fighting Boko Haram, they have frequently failed to deploy them into MNJTF units in their respective sectors for sustained periods (with the excepti0n of Cameroon, which appears to have committed forces for longer).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western military officer, N’Djamena; national officers, Yaoundé; journalist and close observer of the Far North, Yaoundé, September 2019.Hide Footnote As a result, the MNJTF’s troop numbers have fluctuated. When forces recapture territory from Boko Haram, they have been unable to consolidate gains through holding operations. Militants have often won back lost ground.[fn]A senior MNJTF officer noted that the force suffered from poor supply and that units were sometimes isolated. Crisis Group interview, N’Djamena, August 2019.Hide Footnote

National governments and military commands have rarely shared operational plans with the MNJTF, hindering both joint planning and civilian protection. Despite the existence of a regional intelligence fusion unit, funded by the UK, the U.S. and France, and staffed by Western and regional officers, intelligence sharing between MNJTF components is reportedly poor. Apparently for this reason, in early 2019 the force commander requested AU support in persuading Lake Chad states to provide the MNJTF with its own intelligence-gathering capacity (the AU denied the request).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, national officers and international military officers, various locations, 2018 and 2019.Hide Footnote Even beyond intelligence sharing, cooperation within the MNJTF remains sporadic and personality-driven. The formal command structure is reportedly confined in large part to developing joint operations that themselves are not part of an integrated strategy.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior international military officer, 2019.Hide Footnote  Participating armies do not always do what they have agreed to in joint plans.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The MNJTF has only had a marginal impact on the capacity and behaviour of troops, whether those integrated into the joint force or those working alongside it. Since the beginning of operations against Boko Haram, security forces’ abuses have angered communities and, in some cases, fuelled support for militancy.[fn]According to one well-informed source who monitors abuses in the lake area, men in uniform have committed around 40 per cent of reported abuses in the zone where Boko Haram operates. It is impossible to say how many of these men might have been operating under the MNJTF’s aegis. Crisis Group interview, humanitarian sector official, N’Djamena, November 2018. See also Crisis Group Report, Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province, op. cit. A UN Development Programme study cites abuses by security forces as a significant factor in pushing young people into violent groups. “Journey to Extremism in Africa”, UN Development Programme, 2017.Hide Footnote The N’Djamena-based AU Support Programme, the force’s main civilian component, has a human rights compliance office. But it reports not to the civilian head of the Lake Chad Basin Commission but to the force commander himself. As a result, its effectiveness is limited – senior officers seemingly are closed to its reporting and recommendations, which they fear will be critical.[fn]Such, at least, is the perception of officials close to the file. Crisis Group interviews, international military officers, AU official, various locations, 2019.Hide Footnote

More broadly, the office has been unable to properly carry out its mandate of improving human rights compliance, including monitoring treatment of captured Boko Haram fighters. The reasons are many: its staffing levels are too low and resources too few to go into the field; development of a civil-military liaison office has been slow; it has encountered resistance from the four countries’ military hierarchies; and army units have sown confusion by moving in and out of the MNJTF in an unprepared manner and based on orders from national headquarters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international military officers, national officers, AU official, N’Djamena and Yaoundé, 2019.Hide Footnote In 2019, the MNJTF, supported by the AU, reportedly made some progress in coordinating policy toward Boko Haram fighters in detention, including plans for common procedures for reception centres and a shared database of those captured or surrendered.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, Nairobi and Addis Ababa, November 2019.Hide Footnote Whether these steps forward signal a greater role for the MNJTF in ensuring human rights compliance – as some AU officials hope – remains unclear.[fn]“Regional Strategy for the Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin”, AU and Lake Chad Basin Commission, August 2018.Hide Footnote

D. Financing and Procurement Problems

When Lake Chad states revived the MNJTF in 2015, it confronted an immediate funding problem, with promised commitments bogged down in complicated bureaucracy that slowed procurement. Lake Chad countries have sought donor money to improve the joint force’s headquarters, planning capacity, training and equipment. The EU prepared a funding package in 2015, but refused to offer funds to pay troop per diems as it does for the AU force in Somalia, and some officials from Western states have admitted that their countries offered little support in the force’s first two years.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western officials, 2019.
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 Financing has been a constant source of tension throughout the MNJTF’s five years. Shortfalls and delays have led participating states to pin blame for the MNJTF’s failures – and indeed those of efforts against other jihadists in West Africa – on what they see as the West’s broken promises of financial support.[fn]See Mathieu Olivier, “À Paris, Déby, Issoufou et IBK s’agacent des ‘promesses’ non tenues des Occidentaux”, Jeune Afrique, 12 November 2019.
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In 2015, the EU promised to provide funds, but only through the AU. The continental body is the designated recipient of the EU’s Africa Peace Facility funds, and the EU already had procedures in place for disbursing money to the AU that it wished to test and improve.[fn]Crisis Group interview, EU officials, Addis Ababa and Brussels, various dates, 2018 and 2019.Hide Footnote  In August 2016, Brussels and Addis Ababa signed an agreement to support the MNJTF through a €55 million “additional support package”.[fn]“Additional” in that the money supplements support given by EU member states directly to the MNJTF or to national armies of contributing countries.Hide Footnote This deal allowed the EU to incorporate funds for the MNJTF into its broader support for the AU. The EU money also complemented funds already given bilaterally by European governments to the MNJTF’s participating countries.[fn]Crisis Group interview, EU diplomat, Addis Ababa, November 2019. Brubacher et al., “The AU Task Forces”, op. cit., p. 283.Hide Footnote

Shortfalls and delays have led participating states to pin blame for the MNJTF’s failures on what they see as the West’s broken promises of financial support.

But the EU only started to disburse its funds in 2017, due to weaknesses in the AU’s procurement processes.[fn]Something the AU admits. Crisis Group interview, AU official, November 2019.
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After several unsuccessful attempts to circumvent those processes through outsourcing procurement to third-party contractors, the EU supported a major overhaul of AU systems, which allowed funds to flow through the AU to the MNJTF and procurement contractors.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU officials, Brussels, November 2018 and April 2019; Crisis Group interview, AU official, Nairobi, November 2019.Hide Footnote

The delay did lasting damage. It left member states, mostly Nigeria, to cover the initial 2016 financing for the multinational force’s headquarters, and left troops in the field undersupplied. It undoubtedly goes some way toward explaining the force’s weaknesses and also fed tension and recriminations, which continue today, among donors, the AU and participating countries.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, national and international officials, Yaoundé, N’Djamena, Abuja, Brussels and Addis Ababa, November-December 2018 and September 2019.Hide Footnote

Even today, some EU funds remain unspent. Though European money started reaching the MNTJF in 2017, the EU has had to twice extend its deadline for spending the funds due to delays in agreeing requirements. As of late 2019, the AU had spent or agreed on spending for a little over half of the EU’s €55 million. The money has been critical, paying for medical services for the force, including a hospital in N’Djamena, communications equipment, vehicles, and infrastructure for N’Djamena and the four sectoral headquarters. But it is unlikely that much of the remainder will be disbursed before the program draws to a close at the end of 2020, again due to disagreements over what to spend it on. Both infrastructure for the sector headquarters and vehicles were subject to long disputes among the EU, the AU and participating countries on requirements.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior EU official, Brussels, November 2018; senior EU and AU officials, November 2019. Crisis Group correspondence, EU official, November 2019. Some elements of headquarters infrastructure are still at a tender stage.
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Even with EU funding flowing, disputes between the AU and Lake Chad states have hampered the procurement of essential gear. In 2018 and 2019, the AU, EU and Lake Chad governments agreed on equipment for 1) Command, Control and Communication Information Services (a system linking sector headquarters, the force’s offices in N’Djamena and AU officials in Addis, referred to as C3IS); 2) aerial intelligence equipment to be attached to airplanes; and 3) air mobility, including critical medevac capacity. But in April 2019, the Lake Chad Basin Commission requested that the AU suspend the C3IS contract, voicing concerns of the four Lake Chad governments that a direct link between the MNJTF headquarters and officials in Addis would cut them out of important communications. The dispute was eventually resolved in early 2020 by creating safeguards that satisfied the participating states. The aerial reconnaissance system was settled in early 2020 following disagreements in 2019 over procurement, but has not been delivered due to COVID-19 and is now likely to be shelved.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior AU, EU and European officials, Addis Ababa and by correspondence, November 2019; EU official, June 2020.Hide Footnote

The discord has undermined the force’s effectiveness.

It appears that in some cases MNJTF countries have asked to use their own national procurement systems and objected to the AU being the conduit for EU funds.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior AU, EU and European officials, Addis Ababa and by correspondence, November 2019. The discord exacerbates tensions between member states and the AU over staffing of the AU Support Programme. Crisis Group interviews and correspondence, AU and EU officials, November 2019. Crisis Group requested further comment on these issues in December 2019, and again in early 2020, from representatives of member states who had been interviewed earlier in 2019. There was no reply.Hide Footnote EU and AU officials pushed back, including in the MNJTF Joint Steering Committee that meets in Addis Ababa. They believe that using national procurement structures would weaken the force and dilute its value as a regional initiative. They also fear that governments would likely use resources to boost national armies, thus failing to strengthen the MNJTF headquarters. They continue to insist that AU financing be channelled separately to donors’ bilateral support to national armies, using different procurement processes.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The discord has undermined the force’s effectiveness. It has fuelled a sense that the joint operations are under-resourced, which filters down to the field, where most troops receive only a small nationally paid stipend, far less than what they would receive in a UN mission (the point of comparison for many), and which has not always been paid on time.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officers who previously served in MNJTF units, Yaoundé, September 2019; N’Djamena, February 2020.Hide Footnote

These recent tensions also soured relations with international partners. In the past, donors and AU officials have been wary of demanding that the MNJTF conduct more operations or supporting roles than it can sustain, partly because they see the force as “learning by doing”, and partly because they doubt it can be much more effective than national responses, which remain deficient, particularly in Nigeria. They also worry that funds or equipment for the MNJTF may later bolster national armies in geographic areas where donors have no oversight.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior EU official, Brussels, November 2018; EU and AU officials, Addis Ababa, November 2019.Hide Footnote  The procurement spat goes further. It jeopardises the EU’s support, at a time when it and the AU are about to start discussing the future of that support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU officials at the centre of discussions, Addis Ababa and by correspondence, various dates, 2019 and 2020.
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In addition, the EU’s Africa Peace Facility, from which MNJTF funds are drawn, is likely to be replaced in 2021 by a range of other financial instruments, in particular the new European Peace Facility, raising further uncertainty over funding.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU officials, Addis Ababa and by correspondence, November 2019; February and June 2020. See also Matthias Deneckere, “The Uncharted Path towards a European Peace Facility”, European Centre for Development Policy Management, March 2019.Hide Footnote Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute, the sense that all parties seek to blame others for the MNJTF’s weaknesses is pervasive. It is urgent that they work out a consensual way forward.

V. Improving the MNJTF

Lake Chad basin states, lacking public support and offering weak service delivery, have struggled to counter jihadist groups operating in their peripheries. Militants have exploited states’ weaknesses, denouncing corruption and neglect, intimidating populations to whom security forces offer little protection, and offering inducements or rudimentary services such as dispute resolution. Counter-insurgency efforts must involve not only military operations but also a political strategy that aims to win support among people in areas affected. At the same time, military operations are important: to create space for civilian officials and aid organisations to help people caught up in the conflict, start to rebuild public services and offer militants ways to demobilise. Also critical is to curb security forces’ abuses that further alienate locals.

The transnational nature of militancy in the region and the importance of securing border areas mean that cooperation among Lake Chad states through the MNJTF and the LCBC is crucial.

The MNJTF cannot solve these myriad problems on its own and will only ever be an addition to national efforts. Yet the transnational nature of militancy in the region and the importance of securing border areas mean that cooperation among Lake Chad states through the MNJTF and the LCBC is crucial. Thus far, it has been held back by uneven political commitment, disputes over funding and differences among those states, and between them and the AU and EU, over the force’s priorities. Given those realities, progress toward a more effective force will be incremental. As the main donor, the EU has a strong preference for working through the AU, and the force’s framework – driven by participating states but with international support channelled through Addis – is unlikely to change.

Despite the constraints, the MNJTF has made progress, both in its operations and in establishing the principle of cooperation among participating states. To build on these achievements, governments should restate their commitment to the force over the long term, aim to improve its performance and match new resources to agreed priorities. They and international partners should aim for the MNJTF to achieve a high standard in terms of cooperation, planning, mission support and respect for international humanitarian law, such that it becomes a sought-after posting for troops and officers. The MNJTF, in turn, would need to provide opportunities for leadership, and national governments would need to recognise the value of such experience in officers returning to national ranks.

In seeking to improve the MNJTF, partners must not seek to build a large bureaucracy. Several informed interlocutors pointed to the danger of fostering what one called a “per diem” culture, or of simply multiplying administrative units with little impact on the ground in the lake area.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and EU officials, Western military officer, Yaoundé, Brussels and Addis Ababa, 2018-2019.Hide Footnote Equally, donors and AU officials, who rightly have strong ambitions for the force, should avoid creating a centre of authority in the force headquarters that would not have capitals’ full support, again a risk highlighted by interlocutors closely involved in supporting the MNJTF. A light touch and learning by doing have been essential to the force’s relative success so far.[fn]Ibid. A senior AU official underlined that the MNJTF is a “unique and dynamic process” within which all parties are trying to align different and changing perspectives.Hide Footnote

A. Better Information Sharing and Planning

The priority for national governments and international partners should be to help the MNJTF do the basics well, starting with communications and planning. As Boko Haram factions operate in border areas and embed within the population, better intelligence sharing and analysis is not just a necessity, but the joint force’s raison d’être. Participating states can take a number of steps to boost the MNJTF’s ability to fight Boko Haram and support reconstruction efforts that do not require significant new resources.

First, they should give senior officials in both the MNJTF and national structures greater leeway to determine what intelligence the joint force requires. They should allow the MNJTF’s N’Djamena headquarters to receive such intelligence and analysis from units operating in the field and from national capitals. Key is to allow officials to establish what is directly relevant to the MNJTF’s cross-border mission and its operational planning, while accepting that governments will withhold much intelligence, partly out of fear of it leaking and jeopardising their own operations.[fn]According to one officer close to MNJTF operations, in the past, intelligence shared inside MNJTF operations has leaked to Boko Haram. Crisis Group interview, location withheld, 2019.Hide Footnote

Participating states can take a number of steps to boost the MNJTF’s ability to fight Boko Haram and support reconstruction efforts that do not require significant new re-sources.

Secondly, national governments need to bolster staff involved in sharing and analysing intelligence at each of the four sectoral headquarters and in N’Djamena. They should also bring in tailored training in analysis, both tactical to improve operations and political to inform wider strategy. Further language training would help internal communications and enhance shared analysis.

Thirdly, national governments should allow their militaries to share operational planning more routinely and in more detail with staff at MNJTF headquarters. At present, they reportedly share no planning beyond preparations for imminent operations, which means that the MNJTF struggles to plan deployments effectively.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, national and international military officers, various locations, 2018-2019.Hide Footnote Again, governments and military commands cannot feasibly share all planning, but they should be prepared to offer the MNJTF more details than they do at present.

B. Human Rights Compliance

Security forces have committed abuses in the Lake Chad basin against locals whom they believe support or associate with Boko Haram.[fn]Joan Tilouine and Josiane Kouagheu, “Au Cameroun, la mort au bout de la piste”, Le Monde, 18 February 2020.Hide Footnote Such abuses may boost support for insurgents and hinder intelligence gathering and reconstruction activities. It is critical that the MNJTF comply with both the AU’s human rights standards and those defined in the AU’s 2018 Regional Stabilisation Strategy for the area.

MNJTF officers, national militaries and the AU should focus on preventing the mistreatment of civilians. Participating governments and the AU should expand training on such compliance in the MNJTF headquarters and national sectors. They also need to develop and put in place procedures for monitoring the behaviour of troops and other MNJTF officials, as well as sanctions against offenders, which are almost non-existent at present. The AU and some NGOs have established some training and dissemination through the AU Support Programme. By setting a good example, the MNJTF should have a positive impact on national armies through the units and officers who move in and out of the force.[fn]See “African Union Policy for Conduct and Discipline in Peace Support Operations”, AU, undated; and “Regional Strategy for the Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin”, op. cit., p. 23.Hide Footnote

Standards should of course apply to forces’ conduct with civilians, but they are especially relevant for the treatment of surrendered or captured Boko Haram fighters, former members or people suspected of involvement. Governments need to both ensure that their armed forces hand suspects over to civilian authorities and boost the capacity of those authorities to give such people due process. They also need to establish and disseminate best practice in this regard and coordinate concerning the treatment of nationals who surrender or are captured outside their country of origin. This coordination has reportedly gathered pace in 2019, including via the MNJTF and the LCBC, with AU support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, Addis Ababa, November 2019.Hide Footnote

C. Civil-military Coordination

In 2018, the AU and the LCBC drew up a wide-ranging Regional Stabilisation Strategy for the lake area.[fn]“Regional Strategy for the Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of the Boko Haram-affected Areas of the Lake Chad Basin”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Its primary intent, according to its lead author, was to shift counter-insurgency efforts in the lake area away from exclusively military campaigns toward civilian-led activities aimed at tackling underlying problems.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, Addis Ababa, November 2018 and November 2019.Hide Footnote It emphasises in particular the improved delivery of public services and other livelihood support or development activities. For the plan to have lasting impact, authorities would need to engage with local populations on how to rebuild conflict-affected areas, counter widespread distrust of the state that militants often exploit and potentially even talk to insurgents themselves, though the stabilisation plan does not envisage that. None of this will be possible, however, unless regional security forces can work efficiently together, push back insurgents, secure at least some areas and support civilian work.

The AU needs to accelerate its recruitment for a new senior civil-military liaison officer to work in the LCBC, and dedicate more resources to work on civilian-led activities in liaison with the MNJTF military structures.

While progress rolling out the Regional Stabilisation Strategy has been slow, the MNJTF will have to find the right way to support it when it does take shape. The strategy primarily envisages a role for the MNJTF in helping secure areas for civilian work and support law enforcement efforts. In rare cases, MNJTF units might carry out nominally civilian work, such as building or rebuilding schools or clinics, as they occasionally do now. More commonly, they will support the civilians responsible, securing areas for reconstruction activities, sharing analysis of local situations and intervening to protect those involved if militants pose a threat. Such efforts will require close liaison between MNJTF units and force headquarters on one hand, and civilian officials and humanitarian actors on the other, where the latter request it. The AU needs to accelerate its recruitment for a new senior civil-military liaison officer to work in the LCBC, and dedicate more resources to work on civilian-led activities in liaison with the MNJTF military structures.

There are challenges related to civilian officials’ chain of command. At present, the MNJTF’s AU-supported civilian component, including its human rights office, is housed within the force. It reports only to the force commander, rather than to the LCBC executive, even though the latter is nominally the “mission head”, or to the AU, which authorises the force. AU and LCBC officials deny that the LCBC’s lack of control over the MNJTF’s main civilian offices undercuts its oversight of the force (though that seems unlikely).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU Support Programme, LCBC and AU officials, September and November 2019.Hide Footnote They also express concern that shifting oversight to the LCBC would overburden what is already a stretched commission.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Yet the MNJTF’s military command is prone to ignore or suppress inconvenient information concerning troop behaviour.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international military officers, AU official, N’Djamena, 2019.Hide Footnote There are compelling arguments, supported by some officials in Addis Ababa and on the ground, for taking the civilian components out of the military chain of command.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, N’Djamena and Addis Ababa, September and November 2019.Hide Footnote The AU and donors could use their intended boost to the LCBC’s capacity to incrementally transfer civilian support functions to the body as it acquires more capability.

D. Reaching Consensus on the International Support Framework

Tensions among Lake Chad states, the AU and the EU have undermined the MNJTF’s effectiveness. The 2019 dispute between the AU and Lake Chad states over the disbursement of EU funds is only the latest in a series of differences and misunderstandings that have beset the force’s international support structures. These reflect what one AU official describes as a wider problem of conflicting expectations and vested interests around the continental body’s role in supporting the ad hoc forces it authorises.[fn]Crisis Group interview, AU official, Nairobi, November 2019.Hide Footnote  In particular, Lake Chad countries want financial support but expect to manage the resources, which the AU does not accept.

It is critical that all parties act quickly on their apparent resolution of the 2019 dispute. They should speed up the delivery of intelligence capacity and air support to ensure that they can evacuate injured troops; the latter is important to making the force a more attractive posting. Lake Chad states should accept and work with the AU’s international procurement procedures to expedite delivery of equipment. They also should work upstream to check that equipment fits the joint force’s requirements and is immediately usable, which has not always been the case in the past.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, national officer, Western military officer, Yaoundé and N’Djamena, 2019.Hide Footnote

If Lake Chad states and their international partners envisage the MNJTF building up its presence over five to ten years, they should aim to reach consensus about who will pay for the force and how. They will have to hash out precise details themselves. But the broad principle should be that Lake Chad states accept that the EU and AU will not fold their support for the MNJTF into bilateral European or other assistance to national armies or procured through national structures. In return, donors should commit to consistent and predictable support, potentially augmenting funds if the MNJTF states set out a credible vision for the force’s future. Both sides need to be realistic about what is possible, especially regarding procurement.

Foreign partners have good reasons to continue supporting the joint force, even beyond the imperative of reversing the humanitarian disaster around Lake Chad. While for now jihadists in the region do not pose an immediate threat outside it, their future evolution is unpredictable and the MNJTF provides a cost-effective way of containing the menace. It also could give the AU and donors a chance to develop their thinking about how best to support ad hoc security coalitions in the future.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU and AU officials, Addis Ababa and Brussels, various dates.Hide Footnote

VI. Conclusion

Regional cooperation is vital to battling Boko Haram and its offshoots, which have proven adaptable, persistent and able to thrive in remote border areas around Lake Chad. Over the past five years, the MNJTF has helped pressure militants, stemming Boko Haram’s expansion and leading it to fracture on more than one occasion. The joint force has brought other dividends: through it or inspired by it, troops, officers, officials and politicians have made considerable strides toward multilateral cooperation despite divergent perspectives and interests. But participating states’ reluctance to fully commit to the force, due partly to national sensitivities, partly to differing priorities because of the diverse threat that each country faces and partly to funding disputes, have left the force structurally and operationally weak.

By being more open to sharing plans and intelligence, improving human rights compliance and civilian-military cooperation, and working with the AU and EU on sustainable funding arrangements, Lake Chad governments can improve MNJTF's effectiveness.

Moreover, military action in itself is not enough. While operations are important, their impact will be limited unless the Lake Chad states – and Nigeria in particular, given that militants operate across a larger area there than in any of its neighbours – can establish their authority, improve their delivery of services and inspire at least some trust from communities in recaptured areas, all while offering militants paths to demobilise safely and even potentially engaging some of them in talks.

A reinforced MNJTF can contribute to such a strategy. Lake Chad governments are, not surprisingly, reluctant to create a fully integrated force. But by being more open to sharing plans and intelligence, improving human rights compliance and civilian-military cooperation, and working with the AU and EU on sustainable funding arrangements, they can improve its effectiveness. It will not be easy for the joint force to secure and hold territory to create space for reconstruction, stabilisation work and peacemaking in border areas, but the right reforms would improve its prospects of doing so.

Nairobi/Brussels, 7 July 2020

Appendix A: Boko Haram Factions, Areas of Sustained Presence and Influence

Appendix B: The Multinational Joint Task Force Sector Areas