Aid agencies have reported that a series of suicide bombings in Lake Chad in recent months, which have all been blamed on Boko Haram insurgents, has hindered healthcare and aid delivery, effectively leaving tens of thousands of displaced people living in fear of further violence.
In early December, four female suicide bombers attacked the island of Koulfoua, killing at least fifteen people and injuring a further 130 in what is just the latest in a wave of bombings that prompted the Chadian government last month to declare a state of emergency in the Lake Chad region.
While Chad has been instrumental in forcing Boko Haram to cede territory earlier this year, ongoing operations in northeastern Nigeria have effectively forced Boko Haram militants to seek shelter elsewhere. Reports have indicated that while some have used the porous borders to slip into Cameroon, Chad and Niger in a bid to remain safe, experts believe that most militants are hiding on islands located on Lake Chad. The swampy maze of islands in the border areas between Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria has now become a main target for the militant Islamist group.
According to medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), more than 50,000 people have been forced to leave their homes due to the violence and threat of further attacks, which has hampered the provision of supplies and healthcare to those in need. According to Federica Alberti, MSF head of mission in Chad, “living conditions were already poor and there was a lack of healthcare before the attack, which have left people living in fear,” further adding that “it is challenging to respond in the region because we know more attacks will happen, but do not know when and where, and we can’t go everywhere due to security constraints.” The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has also disclosed that new restrictions aimed at stopping attacks, such as bans on motorised canoes, enforced after the state of emergency was extended until March, have also hindered access for aid agencies.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has also disclosed that the violence in the region has disrupted livelihoods including fishing and farming, and has hit cross-border trade and markets, adding that this has left one in ten of those uprooted without enough to eat. According to Mary-Ellen McGroarty, WFP country director for Chad, “we are dealing with a harsh climate and environment in a region which has limited infrastructure and development…it is a humanitarian crisis on top of a development crisis.”
While Lake Chad countries, backed by Benin, have vowed to defeat Bok Haram by using members of an 8,700-strong regional task force, security sources have disclosed that there are growing sings that national armies are instead acting alone.
United States experts have recently warned that two extremists movements in Africa, which have affiliated themselves with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, could become a major threat on the continent if they come together and boost cooperation.
While for now, Islamist rebels who are operating in Libya and have proclaimed allegiance to IS, along with Boko Haram in Nigeria, have traded little more than praise over the Internet, along with probably some fighters and weapons. However experts are now warning that this could change and may develop into a regional threat. According to a former CIA analyst, “they could decide that instead of fighting to achieve their immediate local objective they decided to shift their focus and go after Western interests,” adding, “for instance, Boko Haram attacking the French soldiers of Barkhane, or the Americans in Cameroon.” The former refers to a French anti-terror operation that is currently taking place in the Sahel region of central Africa. While the former analyst noted that such cooperation could take place, he added that both groups are likely not yet there.
Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to IS earlier this year, and renaming itself Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), appears for now to be more of a rebranding move, which came as the group was forced out of territory, which it had previously held in northeastern Nigeria. Experts however are warning that it could also be a transition into a larger global jihadist agenda. Movements that are geographically isolated can benefit from adopting the initials, symbols and rhetoric of the most feared Islamist extremist organization in the world. Over this past year, IS has been able to hold large swathes of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, despite an ongoing coalition bombing campaign. Furthermore, it has also carried out deadly attacks in the region, including blowing up a Russian airliner over Egypt, and has inspired attacks on Civilians from Paris to London to California.
This move to a larger global jihadist agenda is already being seen within boko Haram, specifically in the attacks that it has carried out over the past few months, and in the way that it has begun to market itself. Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to IS and its renaming could enable the terrorist group to recruit foreign fighters. It is highly likely that Boko Haram has gained some advise on military tactics, as experts have noticed that despite ongoing military operations in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s attacks have become increasingly coordinated. In turn, the latest Boko Haram videos released by the group are of a more professional quality then older videos. They also carry the insignia of IS. Sources have disclosed that while the numbers remains small, there are indications that the flow of fighters towards Africa has already begun. Last month, two young French people were arrested in Tunisia as they were trying to reach zones controlled by IS in neighbouring Libya. Furthermore, experts have reported that in the April edition of its magazine, Dabiqu, IS called on volunteers to consider joining Boko Haram “if you can’t join the caliphate.”
In Libya, experts have noted that groups that have professed loyalty to IS have expanding rapidly, with some increasing their numbers from 200 to 2,000 members over the past year. Their growing power, fuelled by the post-Kadhafi political and security chaos that currently exists across Libya, has resulted in great concern for European officials. One expert has noted that if ties between Boko Haram and IS evolve further, this could develop into Boko Haram militants being trained in Libya, if IS gains further ground in the country.
While Nigeria’s government vowed earlier this year to end Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency by this month, the fast approaching deadline looks likely to be missed with hit-and-run attacks continuing as the militant group in recent weeks has increased its tempo of attacks in the Lake Chad region despite a regional response, which so far has shown little sign of effect.
In August, newly elected President Muhammadu Buhari gave his military commanders until December to build on apparent gains in recapturing territory, which was seized by the insurgents in 2014. However despite further claims successes since then there has been no let-up in deadly suicide and bomb attacks. Regional analysts are now reporting that it will be nearly impossible for the government and military to meet the deadline as “Boko Haram is still in control of Borno North senatorial district,” adding that “there are still attacks occurring in Chibok, Buratia, Gwoza (in Borno state) and Buni Yadi (in Yobe), as well as in the Gulak region of northern Adamawa.” Despite the ongoing attacks, the Nigerian army has maintained that it has control of the situation, however the weekend announcement of the arrest of about a dozen suspects, which army officials disclosed were part of Bok Haram “sleeper cells” in the capital Abuja, has increased concerns that the ongoing military operations are pushing Boko Haram insurgents further out of northeastern Nigeria and into not only neighbouring states, including Niger, Cameroon and Chad, but further south, to areas that have been less affected by the insurgency. Furthermore, military officials have also disclosed that they have again begun operations against Boko Haram bases “deep inside” the Sambisa Forest in Borno, despite indications that fighters have now moved to islands on Lake Chad.
While President Buhari, a retired army general and former military ruler, has consistently vowed to approach the ongoing conflict differently from his predecessors, many were surprised that he had imposed such a deadline. The previous administration under former President Goodluck Jonathan had made repeated pledges of a swift end to the conflict. However all of these pledges came and went, which affected the government’s and military’s credibility. While President Buhari promised to restructure the county’s military, which was hit by complaints that money and weapons were not reaching frontline troops despite massive government defense spending, there have been minimal signs of an immediate overhaul. So far the major changes have been the redeployment of the high command to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, and a claimed upsurge in the morale of troops.
Since announcing the deadline in August, President Buhari has been more cautious. In September, he warned that guerrilla-style tactics would persist, while on Monday, he told army top brass that the deadline “should serve as a guide.” The ongoing conflict in northeastern Nigeria, and its spread to neighbouring countries, has proven the underlining need for a multilateral response and greater coordination rather than unilateral action. The Nigerian military has been focusing on defeating Boko Haram as a conventional fighting force. However little has been done in order to tackle the root causes of the insurgency. Furthermore, a coordinated, regional approach to ending the insurgency still looks far off despite an increasing wave of suicide and bomb attacks outside Nigeria. A new 8,700-strong multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF), comprising of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin, was supposed to have been deployed in Late July however the African Union (AU)-backed force has yet to start operations, with no reason given for the lengthening delay and questions over whether the countries have the resources to commit.
According to a Chadian security source, a triple suicide bombing on an island in Lake Chad on Saturday killed at least 27 people and left more than eighty wounded in what is another apparent strike carried out by Boko Haram fighters despite an ongoing regional offensive to stop the insurgency.
The source has reported that “three suicide bombers blew themselves up in three different places at the weekly market on Loulou Fou, an Island in Lake Chad,” adding that the explosions had killed 30 people, including the three attackers, and injured more than eighty others. On 9 November, N’Djamena declared a state of emergency in the flashpoint region of Lake Chad, which also straddles Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger and which has been frequently targeted by Nigerian-based Boko Haram fighters, who this year declared allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. The decree effectively granted the governor of the remote region the authority to ban the circulation of people and vehicles as well as to search homes and to seize arms. In a statement, the European Union (EU) disclosed that Saturday’s attacks were “a threat to the stability of the country and the region.” The bloc further indicated that it stood ready to “use all available means to help in the fighting against terrorism” in the region. WeDespite the state of emergency in the region, attacks have continued and have proven Boko Haram’s continued desire to carry out deadly attacks despite loosing territory in northeastern Nigeria. In recent months, Boko Haram fighters have stepped up their attacks and suicide bombings on Chadian villages in the lake region that lie close to the frontier with Nigeria. The deadliest attack on the Chadian side of the lake occurred on 10 October. According to officials in N’Djamena, it was another triple suicide that resulted in the deaths of 41 people at Baga Sola. Since the beginning of this year, the Chadian army has been on the frontline of a regional military operation against Boko Haram, whose attacks have spread from northeastern Nigeria to the country’s three Lake Chad neighbors. The joint operation of the four Lake Chad countries, plus Benin, has involved 8,700 soldiers, police and civilians.
The 20 November 2015 attack on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako killed nineteen people and highlighted Mali’s ongoing security concerns. In the wake of the attack, three terrorist groups known to operate regionally claimed responsibility. Amongst them is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Many experts have indicated that the attack was partly aimed at asserting the global terror network’s relevance as it continues to face an unprecedented challenge from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group for leadership of the global jihadi movement. It came exactly a week after IS carried out several attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people in what is the bloodies attack on France in decades. That attack, which is also the deadliest to take place on the European continent in the last ten years, also marked the first time that suicide bombers were used to carry in Europe, it has also prompted the questioning of security across the European Union and the ongoing migration crisis. What is evident however is that in recent years, al-Qaeda has to a certain degree been eclipsed by the IS group and its self-styled caliphate. As IS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, and garners further allegiance from terrorist groups operating in other regions of the world, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, al-Qaeda is attempting to remind the world that the movement founded by Osama bin Laden continues to pose a serious threat.
IS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a local affiliate that battled American troops and carried out deadly attacks which targeted the country’s Shi’ite majority. However from the beginning there were tensions between the local group, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. In a 2005 letter, which was obtained and publicized by US intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, objected to al-Zarqawi’s brutality towards Shi’ite civilians, stating that it would turn Muslims against the group. While Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, he is seen by man as being the founder of IS, which continues to use brutal tactics.
In 2013, IS leader Abu Bakh al-Baghdadi renamed the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and proclaimed his authority in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, rejected the move and swore allegiance to al-Zawahri, who ordered al-Baghdadi to confine his operations to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi however refused and by 2014, al-Nusra Front and IS were battling each other across northern Syria. This split was felt across the world, with al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Northern Africa remaining loyal to al-Zawahri while others choosing to pledge their allegiance to IS.
While both al-Qaeda and IS want to end Western influence in the Middle east, and want to unite Muslims under a transnational caliphate that is governed by a strict version of Islamic law, both groups are bitterly divided over tactics. Bin Laden believed that attacking the “far enemy” of the US would weaken its support for the “near enemy” of Arab autocracies and rally Muslims to overthrow them. Under al-Zawahri, local al-Qaeda affiliates have sought to exploit post-Arab Spring chaos by allying with other insurgents and tribes and by cultivating local support in places such as Syria and Yemen, where they provide social services. For bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in Pakistan in 2011, as well as his successor al-Zawahri, the establishment of a caliphate was a vaguely defined end goal.
IS however began seizing and holding territory in Syria and Iraq and later forming affiliates across the Middle East, and into Africa. In the summer of 2014, IS declared a caliphate, and deemed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital. Al-Baghdadi has since claimed to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, however an overwhelming majority have rejected his ideas and brutal tactics.