African troops have recaptured a record swath of territory from the world’s fastest growing jihadist group, Boko Haram for the first time. But ironically, that means the danger from the group’s terror arm has never been higher, U.S. officials and experts warn.
In the last several weeks, Boko Haram has lost three towns—Baga, Monguno and Malum Fatori—leaving each community in all but ruins.
“This is the first time Boko Haram has really been pushed back like this. There is seemingly momentum building,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
But while the group’s military wing has suffered major losses, its ability to conduct terror attacks remains intact. In the last two days, a girl no older than 10 years old reportedly detonated herself at a busy market, killing herself and six others, according to survivors. And on Tuesday, at least 26 people were killed by two suicide bombers in attacks Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said were carried out by Boko Haram.
In other words, the territorial loss for Boko Haram portends of a fragile peace. In a briefing with reporters last month, one U.S. intelligence official warned that “yes, if they lost territory, I think they would resort to violence,” suggesting the group would seek to maintain its grip of fear on the population with bombings and the like. The officials gave the briefing on the condition of anonymity.
In the last year, Boko Haram has shifted its strategy, grabbing land as a way to instill fear in much of northeast Nigeria. Boko Haram has captured roughly 30 towns in the last year, according to the U.S. intelligence officials. In the five years beforehand, the group only had one, officials said.
Some feared that the group’s move toward territory expansion was inspired in part by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which seeks land grabs to create its version of an Islamic caliphate. Abu Bakr Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, has at times modeled himself after his ISIS counterpart, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
With each town, Boko Haram confronted a Nigerian Army unable to sustain an offensive against them, as the forces were often too ill equipped, trained and numbered on its own. The military—with approximately 90,000 personnel (including non-combatant support units) —is grossly undersized for a nation of 180 million. And, since civilian rule was restored in 1999, it has trained primarily for peacekeeping missions, not warfighting, much less counterterrorism.
“There are incapable of doing two things at the same time—both pursuing an offensive strategy to roll back Boko Haram and provide domestic security,” Pham said.
The limitations of the security forces was evident this month when Nigerian officials canceled elections out of fears it could not secure its polling places Indeed, there were more places to vote—120,000—than troops to secure them.
In the last few months, U.S. intelligence officials had repeatedly said they did not believe Boko Haram could fend off a sustained military offensive, which it confronted for the first time this year, when Niger, Chad, and Cameroon formed a regional alliance against the group. Benin also is a member of the alliance but is not operating in the restive northeastern border area.
Each force brought skills and equipment sorely lacking from the Nigerian military.
The Chadian military has decades of hardened battlefield experience. Cameroon deployed its Israeli-trained and -equipped rapid reaction force, considered one of the best military units in the region. And Niger’s forces has been a beneficiary of U.S. military assistance and Special Forces training.
When Boko Haram sought to escape Nigerian military attacks in long-known safe havens in those neighboring countries, they confronted those better-trained regional forces instead.
“They were unprepared to be hit from all sides,” Pham said.
Boko Haram forces are believed to be hiding in the northern Nigerian mountains in response. And in the short term, Boko Haram’s losses could benefit the president in upcoming general elections, scheduled for March 28.
But how long that regional alliance will remain is unclear. Jonathan himself has warned such a regional force was likely be temporary.
Either way, the group retains enough land to regroup and attack. And however surprising the losses are for Boko Haram, the group has not yet lost enough momentum to be on the defensive. In fact, the new coordinated regional response may not only encourage Boko Haram to step up its terrorist attacks, but to make good on its threat to expand them to a wider area, including neighboring countries, Pham said.
“Even with this rollback and loss of these towns, Boko Haram is ahead of where it was a year ago,” he said.