Militancy has been on the increase in northern Burkina Faso since late 2016. Over a dozen attacks have been attributed to or claimed by a new militant group, Ansaroul Islam, and operational in the Soum province which borders Mali and Niger. The group is led by Boureïma Dicko, a Peulh (Fulani) imam from the northern town of Djibo. The group has repeatedly targeted security force personnel, as well as municipal assets. Burkina Faso has long suffered the insecurity linked to events in neighbouring Mali; armed groups conduct occasional cross-border attacks, targeting Burkinabe troops and security outposts in the northern provinces of Oudalan, Soum and Loroum. The north is economically important due to the number of active mining operations, primarily for gold. As elsewhere in West Africa, economic and political neglect in the north appears to have crystallised opposition along ethnic and religious lines. Dicko calls for a Peulh emirate in the north, echoing the separatist – Fulani ideology of the Macina Liberation Front, a Mali-based militant group which has since joined a powerful regional militant coalition known as the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, which counts al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib among it’s ranks. Meanwhile, Ansaroul Islam have reportedly made overtures to the Islamic State (IS). Authorities have since launched military operations targeting the Ansaroul Islam group, including Operation Panga in March. This was followed by an offensive involving Operation Barkhane in late April against militant camps in the Fhero forest located along Burkina Faso’s Soum province and Mali’s Mopti region. These military operations have resulted a decline in attacks, allowing schools and other state institutions to reopen in recent weeks; however, intelligence failures due to poor civilian-military relations, along with the porous border with unstable Mali which allows easy movement by armed groups, means the security environment may be undermined with little to no warning. Retaliatory attacks on official targets in Soum are also possible. Meanwhile, the G5 Sahel countries-Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso in February announced increased security cooperation through a joint force to combat terrorism and drug-trafficking in the Sahel. Initiatives include joint training and intelligence sharing, and the formation of rapid intervention forces.
Nigerian local media reported that dozens of people died in a Boko Haram Shekau-faction led assault on the town of Magumeri, which lies roughly 50km north west of Maiduguri, on 15 and 16 March. The attack was an interesting one as it was surrounded by a fair bit of controversy according to statements by the Nigerian military who suggested that the townsfolk of Magumeri had an “understanding” with the militants. According to a statement signed by Brigadier-General Sani K. Usman:
“It should also be noted that the village was never attacked throughout the period of the insurgency for some inexplicable reasons. The terrorists and their collaborators hibernating in the area were never exposed. There seems to be an unholy alliance between the terrorists and the villagers.”
The militants arrived in Magumeri after dark on 15 March in vehicles and motorcycles. Carrying Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, the militants intended to level the entire village and its inhabitants, according to the Nigerian military. They succeeded somewhat; the militants burnt homes and the local police station, attacked a Nigerian army position in the town, killed dozens of people, many of whom were attempting to flee, and looted food supplies.
“They broke into shops and homes and took away every food item they came across,” said local resident Kulo Sheriff, and that “Boko Haram are starving in the bush, they live on very little food,” said Babakura Kolo.
That the townspeople had actionable intelligence that the military reportedly chose to ignore (by not bolstering defences) gives weight to allegations that collusion was ongoing. The episode is typical of rural insurgencies; militia are often dependent upon clandestine networks that run through familial and local connections for supplies and military intelligence. The attack may well have been the result of intelligence passed by Magumeri townsmen to the authorities. In any event, local intelligence gathering efforts will be crucial if authorities are to locate Boko Haram positions. Perhaps successful Nigerian military offensives will embolden locals to provide intelligence in the hopes that the militant group will finally be defeated; however, the record of rural insurgencies suggests that villages only surrender information and support local authorities if they assess that they would be defended against militant reprisal attacks.
The Sambisa Forest
‘Camp Zairo’, a key Boko Haram operations base located deep within the Sambisa Forest, Borno State, was finally captured by the Nigerian army, according to President Muhammadu Buhari on 24 December. Located some 65 km SW of Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, Camp Zairo was crucial to Boko Haram operations in north east Nigeria. This region, particularly Borno state, experienced the highest levels of militant conflict in 2016, including a fresh wave of suicide bombings targeting civilian and security assets in late 2016. Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, at least 2.5 million people have been displaced, and over 30,000 killed. Today, some 5.8 million people are in dire need of humanitarian aid, a crisis linked to both drought conditions, and the ruthless insurgency.
In 2015, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), which was followed in August 2016 by IS demoting Shekau and promoting Abu Musab al-Barnawi as leader, or wali of the group, which was renamed Islamic State West Africa province (al-Wilāyat al-Islāmiyya Gharb Afrīqiyyah). Shekau rejected the change and the militant group split into two main factions, although fighting between them has been limited. The Barnawi faction operates along the border with Niger, near Lake Chad, while the Shekau faction, apparently called Jamaat Ahl al-Sunna li Dawa wal-Jihad, remains operational within swathes of rural areas in Borno State, in the Lake Chad Basin, and in the Far North Region of Cameroon.
The capture of Camp Zairo by the Nigerian Army are likely to impact the regional security environment according to statements by Buhari, who warned that militants may increase their operational presence in neighbouring states. Many of these, particularly Adamawa, Gombe, and Yobe states, have been badly affected by Boko Haram violence since the insurgency escalated in 2013. Nigerian media reported the arrest of a Boko Haram commander in Lagos on 26 December, who had recently fled the Sambisa forest area.
Interestingly, Deutsche Welle reported in January that Boko Haram militants may be “regrouping in Taraba and Bauchi states… taking advantage of a long-running conflict between mainly Muslim nomadic cattle herders and sedentary Christian farmers.” This is a worrying development in that a campaign of small arms attacks against sensitive locations, such as houses of worship, could lead to a destabilisation of the ethnically fragile “Middle Belt”. Boko Haram may see value in fostering polarisation, allowing it to position itself as a protector of Muslims in any resultant ethnoreligious backlash. In this regard, the cities of Jos and Kaduna would be at particular risk, due to their geopolitical split between Muslim and Christian zones, with precedent suggesting that future conflict is more likely than not. This scenario echoes the Barnawi factions calls for attacks against Christian targets partly to distinguish the group’s modus operandi from the brutality of the Shekau faction, which has disproportionately targeted Muslims in its campaign of violence in the north east.
The key issue now will be how the Nigerian army conducts follow-up operations. While the army is reportedly pursuing Boko Haram militants, it is unlikely that successful tactics employed by the 72 Mobile Strike Group in 2015, for example, will be replicated. The Nigerian army, plagued by a poor command structure, equipment shortages, and aware of the ferocity of Boko Haram, are likely to proceed cautiously, aware of successful and bloody BH counterattacks in the past, and will thus fail to exploit current weakness of the group, including factionalism and infighting amid losses, assumed loss of morale, and disruptions to resources and supply networks.
Boko Haram will likely maintain a flexible and decentralised operations structure throughout the northeast, including in the Lake Chad Basin. Militant operations are likely to remain concentrated in Borno State; however, due to famine conditions in the state, it appears possible that the Shekau faction may be forced, like everyone else, into moving greater distances for supplies amid the famine, or in the militant’s case- to carry out raids.