Global Center for Security Studies
Boko Haram (BH) remains today a major threat for Nigeria’s, Chad’s, Niger’s and Cameroon’s stability and security. One of the most critical issues is its decentralized structure and resilience to attempts to eradicate it from the society. The group is currently led by Abubakar Shekau and has a dual-nature. It is hierarchically structured, but it also consists of cells and sub-groups able to act autonomously. The Shura Council is the top management, but most of BH’s operations are conducted autonomously – i.e. propaganda, recruitment.
Thanks to BH senior leader Mamman Nur (reported killed in September 2018), the organization has been able to establish relations with Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab over the years. The organization was born in Nigeria in 2002, but it has extended its influence beyond the country, reaching the neighboring states. Nur wanted BH to go beyond borders, but his ethnic origin – Cameroon – and the repressive approach Shekau uses to lead the group impeded him to become the leader.
Even if split into two factions – Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS) and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) in 2012, BH has increased its influence and now consists of approximately 37 thousand fighters. The lack of coordination and the autonomy of BH’s cells make difficult to organize large-scale operations, but it still remains a key element of instability in the region.
Since 2014, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria have started a multinational response with common military operations to force BH to retreat from some parts of the region. Unfortunately, insecurity and poor communications in rural areas make information gathering on BH decline difficult.
The organization is not yet completely defeated and, as reported by Claire Felter, it continues to attack soft targets, and use women and children as suicide bombers. Since 2015, Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria have deployed military forces within the framework of a multinational operation authorized by the African Union.
Despite several military operations, BH has recently reinvigorated in Chad. Since 2018, BH attacks in Chad have increased and its defeat is far away to come. In Chad, it is mostly based around Lake Chad. The area was the naturally richest of Chad, despite they are today dramatically reducing, while economic activities are mostly fishery and pastoralism. However, the increasing number of local inhabitants caused tensions and clashes, especially with migrants who see the area a good destination in the Sahel. This has created tensions between migrants and locals, while long-term tensions among locals – to get control over the resources – continue.
There are several reasons why BH in Chad has increased its attacks. First of all, the country suffers weak political institutions and security forces and this affects the implementation of countermeasures. The lack of equipment, training, proper tactics and counter-terrorism strategies make difficult to fight BH at the tactical and strategic level. These elements have facilitated BH to establish transnational criminal networks and reach Chad.
Furthermore, Chad is being deeply affected by climate change with severe social and economic consequences. Desertification is being extended dramatically in the country – 600 meters per year – and is getting closer to many villages. The local population is forced to migrate southwards near Lake Chad, threatening the precarious social and economic conditions. At the same time, Lake Chad has reduced of about 90% in the last 50 years, and as it represents the most important water resource in the country as well as the entire region, this is a cause of clashes for the few left resources. The land for agriculture reduces as much as livestock farmers go South and consequently conflict with agriculturists.
BH has been able to infiltrate in Lake Chad. Terrorist organizations operate where there is instability, poverty, the collapse of state institutions and lack of basic services. Chad is deeply affected by those elements and BH could easily infiltrate. Despite efforts of NGOs and the United Nations (U.N.) in providing urgent humanitarian aids, insecurity and violence make difficult to implement humanitarian assistance and sustainable development projects, so 4 million people need urgent food assistance.
Moreover, the country is near Libya and Mali. Libya is affected by an 8-year civil war, while Mali is hardly fighting against terrorism, non-state armed groups and criminal gangs. The transnational networks of Libyan militias, tribes, and Malian criminalized power structures have reached Chad, challenging its security and stability.
The French support to Mali – Operation Serval – and the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali help the Malian government with equipment and training and other support in the fight against terrorist groups, criminal gangs more effectively.
The Chadian government has established cooperation with neighboring countries and France, promoting joint anti-insurgency operations as part of the French army’s Operation Barkhane. This operation is aimed at fighting BH and involves Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania as well.
However, the situation remains dramatic. Libya is still the main source of destabilization in the Sahel region and this affects Chad’s capacity to control the strategic northern part of the country.
Climate change is deeply affecting Sahel and in particular Lake Chad – in the South – a key area for national food and water supply.
Until Chad will have stronger political institutions, will be able to fight endemic corruption, bad governance, restore basic services for the local population, secure the borders with Libya, Mali, Niger, critical security threats will remain and the implementation of effective counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency strategies difficult, even with international support. BH is expected to be the most important medium-long term threat to national security. The Libyan conflict is then a deep destabilizing element and the most important regional security threat, affecting northern Chad and facilitating the nexus between insurgency and instability in the Sahel. The creation and improvement of border police might help but international support is needed for training officers as well as to provide equipment.
Moreover, if BH should be defeated on the ground, there is a huge risk it grows as an asymmetric entity just like the Islamic State after its defeat in Syria and Iraq. Despite the IS is able to operate worldwide, while BH regionally, its dual-capability as an organization with top management and autonomous cells can be a problem for security forces struggling radical groups. The adoption of counter-terrorism policies to fight asymmetric threats is needed but the weakness of local institutions and corruption impede that. The support of international and regional organizations – i.e. U.N., African Union – is needed but their support is limited, even due to internal divergences and approaches towards Sahel.
When it comes to southern Chad, climate change will remain the main problem for social stability, economic prospects and security in the long-term. Local conflicts and tensions to get control over increasingly scarce natural resources are expected to continue and in this unstable context, BH can be a growing threat.