By David Otto
“Lake Chad Basin States have been engaged in Porous Border Terrorism for almost a decade, a genuine One-for-All and All-for-One, multi-level counter insurgency strategy is the missing ingredient.”
The ongoing factional splits and bitter leadership challenges between Boko Haram Shekau faction and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) has left jihadist cells operating along the fringes of the Lake Chad Basin weakened, disorientated and uncoordinated. The chaotic state of affairs presents a golden opportunity for all members (Nigeria – Niger – Chad and Cameroon and to some extent, Benin Republic) of the Multi National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to put any pre-existing differences aside and rally as a coordinated military and civilian task force, plan and launch joint offensives against existing local and ISIS affiliated jihadist positions in the Lake Chad Basin. No single state can achieve this on their own however much they try.
On April 9th, 2020, a one minute seventeen seconds video was circulated on social media platforms and twitter. A Chadian army, one Colonel Azem Bermendoa Agouna read a statement in French in Baga-Sola–Chad Republic. Colonel Agouna announced that:
“This is a statement from the Chief of Army Staff. “Operation Boma Wrath” launched on the 31st of March 2020 under the supervision of the Commander in Chief (President Idris Derby) of the armed forces has come to an end. The security and defence forces with bravery and determination have chased Boko Haram terrorist from the Lac Chad Islands. Boko Haram Terrorist have been chased away from all the Lac Chad islands. This is the summary of the eight (8) days battle. On the side of our friendly forces, we counted 52 martyrs and 196 wounded. On the enemy’s side,1000 Boko Haram terrorist were neutralized (killed). Destroyed (jihadist) materials: 50 water canoes destroyed. Materials recovered (from the jihadist): Many collective and individual small arms were recovered. The security and defence forces are deeply stationed in the Islands of Niger and Nigeria while waiting to hand over to the respective army of these friendly nations.”
Background to “Operation Boma Wrath”
On March 23rd 2020, Chad experienced one of the largest single casualty from an offensive attack by Boko Haram-ISWAP jihadist factions on the Boma peninsula- Lac Province, bordering Niger and Nigeria. In that devastating attack, ninety-eight (98) Chadian soldiers including senior officers were massacred in cold blood by the jihadists, while Forty- Seven (47) soldiers escaped with life threatening injuries. The Chadian President, Idriss Deby Itno, made an emergency visit to the scene in Boma and promised his country men and women immediate retaliation against Boko Haram jihadist. A number of videos and still images were circulated on social media showing the President and Commander-in-Chief, Idriss Deby, dressed in military fatigue commanding front line forces after launching ‘Operation Boma Wrath’ on the 31st of March 2020. After eight (8) days, the Chadian Armed Force declared mission accomplished and said it had cleared the Lac Islands of all jihadist killing, 1000 of them, while a few others narrowly escaped to Niger and Nigeria borders.
Did Chad launch “Operation Boma Wrath” alone?
Strategically, “Operation Boma Wrath” was planned exclusively by Chadian Army leadership. It was a retaliatory offensive against Boko Haram ISWAP jihadist hiding and operating within the Lac Province of Chad and suspected to have been behind the massacre of Chadian soldiers and senior officers. There is no evidence that any other neighbouring state was involved in the strategic planning and execution phases of “Operation Boma Wrath.”
However, from a logistics, operations and tactical engagement angle, “Operation Boma Wrath’’ did involve the active participation and coordination of Nigerian troops under Sector 3, Niger under sector 4 and Chad under Sector 2 of the Lake Chad Basin’s Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). However, it is apparent that the MNJTF Sectors 3 and 4 provided Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assistance along the Tumbun Fulani and Madayi Axis. Incidentally, a huge cache of Boko Haram weapons is reported to have been recovered during the eight (8) days offensive along the same Madayi axis with operational coordination from MNJTF contribution Sectors’ troops.
Nigeria Air and ground forces combined with Sector 3 MNJTF with ‘Operation Yancin Tafki’ and provided tactical aerial cover to Chadian ground forces; Nigeria Air Force launched aerial strikes and bombings against moving and fleeing Boko Haram jihadist in Madayi axis and provided key amphibious logistics for engine boats to Chadian naval forces. Niger Republic in Sector 4 MNJTF, provided tactical and operational logistics, including landing fields in Diffa and aviation fuel to Chadian Air Force – there is no evidence that Cameroon took any part in these operations.
Geographically, the MNJTF Headquarters is based in N’djamena, Chad. Cameroon covers Sector 1 Mora, Chadian soldiers man Sector 2 Baga-Sola, even though for some years now, and by the admittance of President Idriss Deby in an interview granted in Boma Island, Chad had practically limited its force deployment capacity in Baga-Sola leaving the remaining unit very fragile and vulnerable to heavy Boko Haram ISWAP presence in the Lac Islands. The Lac Province in Chad consist of several difficult to access Islands. It is well known fact that, Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadist have been using the islands as safe haven, to plan and launch attacks against hard military and civilian targets in Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon.
It is acknowledged that Chadian army and security forces launched ‘Operation Boma Wrath’ with great success but the overall success of the Eight days battle was only possible with the active tactical and operational coordination and support of the MNJTF including Nigeria Sector 3, and Niger Sector 4. Accordingly, “Operation Boma Wrath” mission accomplished statement by the Chadian Army should have expressly acknowledged the operational, logistics and tactical assistance from friendly states of the MNJTF; Nigeria and Niger Republic.
Is 1000 BHT/ISWAP casualty Not Less, Not More & Not Even an Estimate?
According to Chadian army, its security and defence forces neutralized 1000 or 90% of Boko Haram fighters in the Lac Islands and a small number of jihadist – estimated by the Chadian President as 10% managed to flee across Nigérien and Nigeria’s porous borders. From a strategic communication perspective, a retaliatory offensive that results in the death of 1000 Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists has the potential to strike a huge warning and psychological damage to remaining jihadists in the region. It sends a message; that jihadist should stay clear of Chadian Armed Forces. Tactically, the human capacity of the jihadists should have been seriously diminished.
From a moral boosting perspective, a casualty of 1000 Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists is more than Ten times the number of 98 Chadian soldiers and officers killed by armed groups linked to Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists on the 23rd of March 2020, in Boma Island.
It is not uncommon that the bodies of neutralized terrorist are not retrieved unless if and when it is established that a known high-ranking commander or leader is amongst the casualties. There is no evidence that any such high-ranking Boko Haram/ISWAP leader or commander including the elusive Abubakar Shekau was killed during “Operation Boma Wrath” as being touted in the media.
The 1000 round figure seems more of an element of statecraft messaging technique targeting a variety of audiences; including Boko Haram jihadists leadership and foot soldiers; families and friends of killed Chadian soldiers, the Chadian citizens; regional partners. Thus, saying that the brave Chadian security and Armed Forces have retaliated disproportionately against Boko Haram jihadists. Accordingly, justice has been done and mission accomplished with direct command by President Idriss Deby. The Chadian Army did not provide any evidence of 1000 dead Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists or half of that number but insisted that “no Jihadist remain in their territory.” As it stands, the rationale behind the ‘1000 killed jihadist’ appears to be more significant than realistic.
Are Chadian Forces stationed in Nigeria and Niger Republic following “Operation Boma Wrath”?
Colonel Azem Bermendoa Agouna stated in Baga-Sola MNJTF Headquarters that “the Chadian security and defence forces are deeply stationed in the Islands of Niger and Nigeria waiting to hand over to friendly forces”. This claim was immediately corrected as misleading in a press release by Nigerian Army Acting Director of Army Public Relation Colonel Sagir Musa. In the statement, Colonel Musa boldy stated that no Chadian soldier was stationed in Nigerian territory. He acknowledged that as part the MNJTF, Chad (Sector 2), and Nigeria (Sector 3) carry out joint operations in the region against the BHT/ISWAP armed jihadists. It has also been acknowledged that MNJTF Sector 2 (Chad), Sector 3 (Nigeria) and Sector 4 (Niger Republic) have one battalion each stationed in Niger and Mallam Fatori ready for deployment. The Nigerian Army condemned as misleading any allegations suggesting that Chadian forces are stationed in any part of Nigerian territory waiting for a handover to the Nigeria Army. There is yet to be any counter claim or disputation by the Chadian forces.
Has Chad Defeated Boko Haram jihadist following “Operation Boma Wrath”?
The Chadian Army declared that no single Boko Haram jihadist remain on its side of the border, as “Operation Boma Wrath” was successfully accomplished. Chad did not declare outright victory against armed Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists. Clearly, a lot remains to be achieved nationally and regionally from a multi-agency civilian and military coordination perspective. In the meantime, the Chadian security and Armed Forces should maintain a strong and visible presence in the Lac Islands within its borders and enhance its Force coordination with Baga-Sola Sector 2 axis of the MNJTF, simultaneously engaging with partner states in developing the MNJTF civilian component.
A visible presence of the Chadian security and Armed Forces in the Lac Province will prevent further and future internal buildup of armed groups within and outside Chadian borders affiliated to Boko Haram/ISWAP Jihadist. A Chadian military presence will deter and prevent jihadists escaping attacks from neighbouring Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger or access the Islands to use as safe haven.
One major counter insurgency lesson for Lake Chad Basin states to take home from the US coalition experience against Al-Shabaab (Somalia), Taliban (Afghanistan), Al-Qaida (Iraq) and ISIS (Syria), is that winning one-off battles does not translate to permanent victory against jihadists. Genuine partnership and regional planning, collaboration, coordination and communication is key to lasting success. A systematic grassroots military and civilian engagement involving all key stakeholders bears better fruits, else in no time, the jihadists will regroup and return to full capacity – in the Lac Islands of Chad.
Who Are the Lac Islands Armed Jihadists?
For years prior to ‘Operation Boma Wrath’ the Lac Islands served as safe haven for armed groups linked to Boko Haram ISWAP jihadist. The Lac Island was a magnet which attracted both local Chadian armed rebel groups and Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists fleeing attacks from either the MNJTF or the security and armed forces of neighbouring Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. The marshy and difficult to access terrain provided excellent hiding spots for armed groups to hibernate, plan and launch frequent cross border raids into neighbouring states.
The raids were made easier for armed groups by very limited Chadian security and military presence in the Lac Province. In a video interview in Boma Island, Chadian President Idriss Deby explained the presence of a weaker battalion in Lac Province was due to other operational demands elsewhere, an acknowledgment that Chadian security and armed forces placed little importance on growing jihadists activities and presence in the Lac Province.
Three years ago (in 2017), Chad withdrew a 1,200-man force from its Baga-Sola sector 2 position of the MNJTF after the US included Chad in a travel ban list without prior warning. The US accused Chad of not providing information on Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadist activities in the region. The travel ban was in retaliation to the October 2017 attack by a jihadist faction linked to Boko Haram Islamic State of the Greater Sahel (ISGH) in the Nigérien village of Tongo Tongo in Tillaberi region, near the border with Mali. A number of Nigérien forces and 4 US soldiers were killed in that ambush.
In Nigeria, the Army leadership under the Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusufu Buratai launched “Operation LAFIYA DOLE” literally translated, “Peace by all means” in 2016. Several coordinated ground and aerial offensives against Boko Haram ISWAP Jihadist strongholds resulted in jihadists tactically escaping ‘en masse’ into the Lac Islands of Chad for shelter without any resistance from Chadian Security and Armed Forces. Free jihadists access to the Lac Province often resulted in a cat and mouse battlefield engagement with Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists retreating into the Lac Islands when pursued by states and regional forces. Strategically, the Lac Islands created an existential tactical and operational frustration severely impacting the effectiveness of counter insurgency for neighbouring states and the MNJTF.
The Timing of “Operation Boma Wrath”
To eliminate Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists activities and ideological base in the region, one state led, one off operations, however overwhelming, will not achieve long term success. The massacre of 98 Chadian soldiers and senior officers and wounding of many others in March 2020 should not have come as a shock to Chadian authorities. Chad “Operation Boma Wrath” response indicates more of anger and less of security concern for Chad. This reaction can only be interpreted as ‘overfed monsters’ who overstepped their limits and crossed the red line. The retaliatory killing of an alleged 1000 Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists is likely a deserved punishment for overstepping set boundaries.
As host to the MNJTF headquarters in N’Ndjamena, Sector 2, Baga Sola, a joint MNJTF planned and better coordinated operation would have yielded and could still yield better results for Chad and her neighbours against the armed jihadists. Similarly, the alleged 10% jihadists that allegedly escaped towards the borders would have been blocked and dealt with by Nigeria and Niger forces if the timing was known to all regional partners appropriately.
Perhaps there is lack of mutual trust and logistical ineffectiveness between MNJTF member states which has the real potential to impact on joint planning and operational success. If indeed, the Chadian Security and Armed forces were after retaliation for the lost soldiers in Boma Island, planning such a huge offensive without regional partners even when these partners will be needed during field operations only deepens mistrust.
The Chadian Army and Commander-in-Chief, President Idriss Deby may have singlehandedly planned “Operation Boma Wrath” as a preemptive retaliatory operation. However, any battlefield success should not ignore the logistics and tactical collaboration from Nigeria and Niger forces under sector 3 and sector 4 of the MNJTF. Armed groups linked to Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadist have consistently exploited gaps created by regional weaknesses and lack of an effective and well-resourced military and civilian MNJTF. They to use porous borders of the Lake Chad Basin and the Lac Islands as a safe haven. Boko Haram/ISWAP, the ISIS most powerful wiyalat in Africa is experiencing its worst time in its decade’s history triggered by bitter factional splits and leadership rivalry. From “Operation LAFIYA DOLE” to ‘Operation Boma Wrath’, no single state driven military or civil offensive, however well intended and well planned will succeed in crushing Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists ideology and criminal activities in the region without the genuine participation of all regional partners. The war against terrorism in the Lake Chad region is a regional affair. No one state, however vexatious, frustrated or high in battle moral will succeed against Jihadist armed groups by “playing God.”
David Otto is the Global Risk International (GRI) Director of Anti & Counter Terrorism programme design and training