icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon
Behind the Jihadist Attack in Chad
Behind the Jihadist Attack in Chad
The local vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup
Our Journeys / Africa

In the Tracks of Boko Haram in Cameroon

Two years ago, the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram. Despite some progress, the group’s violent impact is still seen and felt deeply in the remote north of the country. 

In March 2016, Crisis Group Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup travelled for four weeks into an insecure area only few researchers are given access to: Cameroon’s Far North Region. He was escorted three days by the military between the front-line towns of Ldamang, Mabass, Kolofata, Amchidé and Gansé, before he went on to travel alone across the region: to Maroua, the Minawao refugee camp, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Goulfey. During the four weeks he spoke to a wide range of people, including traditional chiefs, local inhabitants and administration staff, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), vigilante groups, local NGOs, humanitarian actors, academics, the military, former Boko Haram members, former traffickers, and others, some in presence of the military but the vast majority on his own. He completed his research in April and May 2016 with additional interviews in Kerawa, Bargaram, Fotokol, Makary, Hile Alifa and Blangoua. Read Crisis Group’s in-depth report on the crisis in the area.

This is the story of his journey.

Cameroon's Far North district. CRISIS GROUP

At 8 o’clock in the morning, I hear seven vehicles stopping in front of my hotel: two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and five four-wheel-drive vehicles. Sitting inside are over forty Cameroonian soldiers, who are here to take seven journalists and me into Cameroon’s Far North district – a region that has severely suffered under Boko Haram, and still does.

I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram.

I am joining this convoy because I want to find out how Boko Haram operates in this area, and how strong it is, two years after the government started to clamp down on the insurgency. I want to see how the people living here are affected, understand if Boko Haram still recruits fighters in the Far North, and hear how large its network of sympathisers remains. And I want to understand what – apart from weapons – it takes to counter Boko Haram. I am especially curious to learn about the so-called “vigilantes”, local self-defence groups that have gained a certain fame in this Cameroonian war on terror. What can these groups really achieve?

The starting point of our trip is Maroua, a buzzing city of 400,000 inhabitants and capital of the Far North region. The region has never gained the sad notoriety of Nigeria’s Borno state, but it gradually became an important refuge for Boko Haram fighters in the 2000s. And it has suffered immensely under the insurgency over the past years, particularly since 2014 when Boko Haram entered into open confrontation with the Cameroonian government.

The Alpha escort of the BIR in Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The group’s tactics then changed quickly: smaller incursions and occasional kidnappings soon grew into larger raids on towns and villages as well as strategic attacks against the Cameroonian army. In just two years, the insurgency staged more than 500 attacks and incursions, and around fifty suicide bomb attacks in Cameroon, making it the second most targeted country after Nigeria. According to Cameroonian soldiers, they fought fourteen fierce battles in Kolofata, Amchidé, Fotokol and Bargaram in 2014 and 2015 against sometimes hundreds and even up to a thousand heavily equipped Boko Haram fighters from mainly Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.

In total, in two and a half years the insurgents have killed at least 1,300 civilians, 120 soldiers and abducted an estimated thousand people in Cameroon. They have burned down hundreds of schools and businesses and forced thousands to flee. Today, there are over 190,000 internally displaced Cameroonians in the Far North and around 65,000 refugees from neighbouring Nigeria, according to OCHA figures.

Before we leave Maroua, one of the soldiers gives me a helmet and a bullet-proof vest. This will be my outfit for the entire journey, the standard equipment for everyone travelling in this once peaceful area whose broken tracks are now sown with mines and improvised explosive devices (IED). These were laid by Boko Haram to block the government’s way into the territory. More than 50 incidents have been recorded since October 2014, with 22 of the mines killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding many more.

SABC News: "Boko Haram Has Leveled a Threat at Cameroon and its President Paul Biya"

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatens to step up violence in Cameroon. In a video posted online, Shekau threatens the people of Cameroon and its president, Paul Biya. SABC News

I climb into a mine-resistant armoured personnel carrier (APC). But our safety has a price: despite air conditioning it’s over 45 degrees Celsius inside. With sweaty faces, the journalists and I look at each other, suddenly understanding, at least slightly, the physical challenge that the soldiers patrolling the region experience each day.   

Twenty kilometres outside of Maroua the roads become bumpy. And then there are no roads at all. But the driver finds his way toward the north east and after four hours we arrive at Mabass, a village right at the Nigerian frontier. Mabass and the neighbouring towns of Tourou and Ldamang were repeatedly attacked by Boko Haram in 2014 but the insurgents never managed to fully occupy them.

We stop at a rocky plateau overlooking the vast sandy frontier area with Nigeria where the local commander, Captain Ticko Kingue, points at a lake in the distance. “You see the lake over there?” he asks. “That’s the Nigerian town of Madagali. This entire frontier area is plagued by the insurgency. Even last night there were attacks. We cannot go into Nigeria, not here, we’re not allowed to. So what we do is we prevent the insurgents from coming in”.

A soldier belonging to the Emergence 4 Unit deployed at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

It is crucial that the Nigerian and Cameroonian armies cooperate in the fight against Boko Haram. But for a long time, the two country’s historically difficult relations painfully slowed down their military coordination. Today, two years since the Cameroonian government declared war on Boko Haram, there’s still a great need for better exchange of intelligence. But at least cooperation between the two armies has improved significantly within the context of the region’s Multinational Joint Task Force – partly operational since November 2015 with the aim of crushing Boko Haram.

Here in Mabass, we are very close to the Nigerian army base near Madagali. “Sometimes they come to us, especially if we can help them with equipment”, says Captain Ticko Kingue. “And they inform us how things are going on their side”.

On the other side of the frontier, most border towns are still held by Boko Haram. “It’s been a long time since they managed to occupy new territory”, Captain Kingue says. “But they keep trying. They usually come in large groups of 200 fighters or more. We call this a ‘combat de masse’. Usually they come at night in a surprise attack. Sometimes they pretend to attack a larger village or town to divert the army’s attention while they try to seize smaller villages”. Although Boko Haram use indiscriminate violence, they also sometimes target these smaller villages to seize supplies or preach to the population, as happened on 15 December 2015 in Kerawa, where Boko Haram members rounded up the population to preach to them for hours in Kanuri, Haoussa and Arabic.

At Poste de Mabass.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with local army commander Kingue at Poste de Mabass, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Boko Haram’s firepower reached its peak between summer 2014 and spring 2015. In the face of Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerian military pressure since then, Boko Haram had to change its tactics and appears to be in decline. The jihadist group lost much of the territory it occupied and has much less military equipment than it used to. The army claims it has dismantled most Boko Haram cells in Cameroon, killed about 2,000 members in fighting and arrested more than 1,000 suspects since 2014. Today, Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated. It still goes after smaller targets, and increasingly relies on suicide bombers.

Contrasting with the army’s success stories, a recent Amnesty International report documents severe failings and human rights violations in the Far North counterinsurgency campaign. According to Amnesty International, many of the army’s arrests were arbitrary, the rights of detained suspects were “routinely denied” and they did not receive fair judicial treatment. The Amnesty report has been widely criticised and rejected by the government, the military, civil society and the majority of local media. Crisis Group research raised similar concerns as Amnesty’s, but when speaking to a wide range of people it also found a high degree of local support for army actions in the face of Boko Haram’s bewildering violence.

Boko Haram is ostensibly weaker and is not able to conduct large-scale attacks any more. But it is far from defeated.

We continue our journey into the Mayo Tsanaga district toward the only refugee camp in the Far North. The camp near the village of Minawao is run by the UNHCR and hosts almost 57,000 people. Most of them are Nigerians from the border areas. More than 190,000 Cameroonians were also displaced, mostly fleeing to other villages and towns of the Far North.

When the camp was built in 2011, living conditions were extremely poor, but that changed, thanks to combined efforts by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies and the Cameroonian government. Housing is simple but resembles how people live elsewhere in the Far North. Refugees receive three meals per day, which is more than many ordinary Cameroonians get to eat. Children of all ages can go to school. Nonetheless there is still much room for improvement. The UNHCR claims that not even 10 per cent of the funds needed to care for all refugees have been provided. Because of that, sanitary conditions in the camp are still not up to adequate standards.

A child going to school at Minawao refugee camp. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Another problem is that refugees have nearly no opportunity to work. For security reasons – especially the fear of suicide bombers – refugees are not allowed to leave the camp. The UNHCR is currently trying to come up with social activities to help the fact that many refugees feel condemned to doing nothing.

The psychological burden is hardest on those who came to the camp traumatised by the atrocities they saw or experienced during the insurgency, particularly women and girls who suffered abuses. There are only a couple of psychologists in the camp providing care for the newcomers – not enough to give permanent psychological assistance to the thousands who need it.

Most refugees tell me that they want to return to their homes as soon as the security situation allows it. But nobody can estimate when that will be. Many find it hard to believe that they will be safe again in the near future. One refugee from the Nigerian town of Pulka in Borno state says, “I may have many complaints, but nonetheless we are fine here in Minawao. I won’t go back”.

Our convoy returns to Maroua before night falls. Situated 100 kilometres away from the border, Maroua is out of Boko Haram’s reach and therefore one of the safest places in the Far North. But it too has suffered violent attacks. In July 2015, Boko Haram sent four young girls as suicide bombers to four public places in Maroua. When they blew themselves up, they killed over 37 people with them and wounded 114 others.

Youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes.

My tour with the military over, I meet with one of the survivors, 13 year old Kevin, who tells me what happened on the night of 25 July: “It was night and I was with my friends. We wanted to buy candy from a shop close to the Boucan bar. There was a queue with six or seven people ahead of us. And then suddenly, a girl who was sitting right next to the vendor blew herself up. I remember hearing the detonation of the bomb before I passed out. I only woke up later at Maroua hospital. It was there that I realised that one of my legs was completely burnt. There were lots of small splinters in my belly, chest and neck from the explosion. The government paid for the surgery and I could leave the hospital about a week later, but I wasn’t the same. They had amputated the lower part of my burnt leg and I learnt that one of my friends had died during the attack. My other friend is alive, but they amputated both his legs and his face is burnt. I had never seen the girl who had blown herself up in the neighbourhood before. After we left the hospital, neither the government nor any of the humanitarian NGOs followed up with us on what had happened. A Catholic priest passes by from time to time at our house to speak with my mother and help my parents buy medicine”.

Luckily, the horrors of the attack have not taken away Kevin’s hope for the future. When I ask him if he still goes to school he says: “Yes, I have passed the first trimester. My teachers are very happy with me. When I finish school I want to become an engineer”.

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a victim of a suicide bomb explosion. Maroua, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans de Marie Heungoup

65 per cent of Cameroon’s population of 23 million is under 30 years old. Children and youths are the most vulnerable in this war. Many are traumatised by the violence they see or experience at a young age.

At the same time, youth are seen by Boko Haram as easy prey. The insurgents can either recruit or force them into their ranks and use them for their purposes, like the four girls in Maroua.

Recruitment is helped by the fact that many young people are unemployed, poorly educated, belong to a part of the society that is not well integrated or don’t see a future for themselves for other reasons. Local authorities and traditional chiefs in Maroua as well as in Mokolo and Mora told me that Boko Haram has lost its appeal and capacity to recruit almost entirely. Very few youths are still joining the movement voluntarily. Nonetheless, forced recruitments still continue in the border areas. As Boko Haram indiscriminately killed Muslims and Christians, fundamentalist Muslims distanced themselves from the movement, stating that Boko Haram represents neither Wahhabi nor Salafi Islam. Many Imams and Muslim clerics told me that the war against Boko Haram has actually limited the spread of fundamentalist trends of Islam as hard-line preachers are now afraid to speak up in public. 

The Far North is the poorest of Cameroon’s regions, with 70 per cent of its people living on less than one dollar per day. During the past three decades, the influence of conservative Salafi Islam has increased in the region and many children grow up exposed to radical religious viewpoints. There is an urgent need for the state and public institutions to care for these youths and make sure they do not radicalise in the first place – and if they do radicalise, offer them help to leave the group and be fully re-integrated into society.

Maroua has a big prison, and the vast majority of suspected Boko Haram members arrested in Cameroon, almost 900 of them, are detained here. What is sorely missing is a de-radicalisation program, one that teaches a more tolerant Islam and re-integrates into society those who were recruited by force and are willing to abandon the movement. 

When speaking to the regional administration, I learn that there are also no public counter-radicalisation programs outside of the prison aimed at keeping young people and others away from extremist groups. The only efforts made in this direction come from civil society groups and the churches. Cameroon’s Association for Inter-Faith Dialogue (ACADIR) has set a positive example by organising conferences and meetings that have brought together religious leaders of different strands of Christianity and Islam. But these initiatives only scratch the surface of the problem. They don’t reach those who are the biggest threat to religious dialogue in the Far North: radical Islamist leaders.

If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

If the government is to turn a security-focused approach into a long-term political strategy against radicalisation, there is still much to do. If the government does not invest in development, the impoverished local population will stay vulnerable to radical groups and religious radicalisation.

Last year, when the government launched an emergency development plan with a budget of roughly $10 million per year, hardly anyone believed that this could make a big difference. Most experts estimate that the current plan covers only about one per cent of what is needed to significantly improve the situation in the country’s least developed region. With $10 million, you cannot construct a road network in the Far North, develop public services in all areas, like health and education, help business owners get back on their feet, create employment opportunities and pay for preventive programs to keep especially the youth away from radical groups.

It might be possible for Cameroon to find other funding to do the job, but a correct assessment of the needs is necessary. Only then can the government show that it has understood the scope of the problem and can hope for help from its international partners.

Members of the BIR in the Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. PHOTO/Erwan Decherysel

I leave Maroua a second time to go up to the Mayo Sava district. This time, I am picked up by soldiers of the BIR, “Bataillon d’intervention rapide” (rapid intervention force). Of the approximately 8,000 soldiers deployed in the Far North, 2,400 belong to this well-trained and equipped elite unit. They take me to a place that has become a symbol of the war: Amchidé.

We are confronted with the sight of a ghost town. Formerly inhabited by 30,000 people, Amchidé is among the hardest hit places in Cameroon and the stage of three long battles between the army and the insurgents in late 2014 and early 2015.

Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The BIR camp of Amchidé has been baptised “Le Palais” (the Palace), not just because of its palace-like shape but also because it was one of the insurgent’s key strategic targets in Cameroon. Despite a dozen of conventional attacks, including three where Boko Haram mustered 800 insurgents, the city only fell for one day, on 15 October 2014. But the military base never succumbed. 

In Amchide.

Crisis Group Cameroon Analyst Hans De Marie Heungoup in conversation with Captain Kiki, commander of the BIR military base of Amchide, Cameroon, in March 2016. (Subtitles available in French and English) CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

The entire population of Amchidé fled during the fighting and only 10 per cent have come back – to an almost dead city. There are no businesses in Amchidé anymore, since the fighting has cut all Amchidé’s supply lines.

Most of those who came back are men, and about 40 of them joined forces to form a vigilante group. These vigilante or community defence groups are nothing new. In many Cameroonian towns and villages, unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency. They are groups of normal citizens – always men – patrolling their villages to make sure everyone is safe, especially at night. 

Members of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

As the Boko Haram threat increased, the government realised how these vigilantes can help in the fight on terror. It provided equipment, such as rifles, torches and night vision gear, and worked with traditional village chiefs who handpicked the most “suitable” men of their village to be part of the vigilante group. Vigilante groups have since played an important role against Boko Haram. They identify strangers they believe could be potential suicide attackers. And sometimes they even fend off smaller Boko Haram attacks. In the past year as well as this year, the Amchidé vigilante group and similar ones in Limani, Kerawa and Tolkomari have been involved in low intensity fights with small groups of about half a dozen Boko Haram fighters. In some cases they were able to surround smaller Boko Haram cells or win a fight against attackers. In other cases, they were not successful – and suffered casualties.

A member of the vigilante group of Amchide, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

Although they are praised by the government and local authorities, the vigilante groups are not exempt from criticism. Sometimes, vigilantes have denounced local inhabitants as members of Boko Haram just to settle private accounts. In other cases, vigilantes have been suspected of providing information to Boko Haram and were therefore arrested by the army. 

In the case of Amchidé, the first vigilante group formed by the BIR had only Christian members, who harassed and extorted money from the local Muslim majority. Following complaints, the BIR dissolved Amchidé’s first vigilante group and formed a new one with Christian and Muslim members. 

Unarmed vigilante groups have existed for a long time. But they have gained a new level of importance with the insurgency.

The last stop of my four weeks’ research trip is Kousseri, an old market town in between the Chari and the Logone rivers. You only have to cross a bridge to reach the metropolis of N’Djamena, capital of neighbouring Chad.

In economic terms, Kousseri is the most important city in the Far North. It has strong links with Chad to the east and Nigeria to the west, especially the Nigerian town of Maiduguri. In the past two years, it has been flooded with Cameroonian IDPs and Chadian refugees. Its population has grown from 200,000 to 280,000. Many of them come from the city of Fotokol, 100 kilometre to the west on the Nigerian border, where Boko Haram caused most casualties suffered in the country during the main phase of the war between May 2014 and March 2015.

For a period of several months in 2014 and 2015, Boko Haram staged almost daily attacks on Fotokol. One especially heavy battle took place in Fotokol in early February 2015. For two days, about 1,000 Boko Haram insurgents were fighting against Cameroonian BIR forces and Chadian soldiers, killing 81 to 400 civilians, seventeen Chadian soldiers, seven Cameroonian soldiers and 300 attackers, according to various reports. 

One woman from Fotokol tells me that Boko Haram killed her husband. Another woman describes how Boko Haram raided the village asking: “Where are the Christians?”. Some IDPs in Kousseri tell me that they feel relatively safe now, but the violence they have seen is hard to forget, and life remains hard for them. They receive only limited support from aid organisations like the World Food Program and no support from the state. They have to find their own housing or stay with friends and relatives. Opportunities for work are scarce and the local economy has suffered from the fighting. Tens of thousands of merchants relied on cross-border trade. When the Nigerian border was closed due to insecurity, many of them were left without work. Aya, who used to own a large shop in Fotokol, lost everything. She tells me: “There is no possible turning back for me and my children. We have been chased from our village, our house was burnt; we have to make our life here in Kousseri”. 

Hans De Marie Heungoup with a displaced family from Fotokol in Kousseri, Far North, Cameroon. March 2016. CRISIS GROUP/Hans De Marie Heungoup

After four weeks in the Far North, when I return to the capital Yaoundé, the main concern resonating in my head is that people cannot imagine that security will be restored soon. The military battle against Boko Haram is ongoing and despite some successes it is far from won. At the same time, the military’s performance is tainted by accusations of human rights violations against the population, including arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances - allegations which the military mostly denies. During our discussion, the spokesman of the Defence Ministry replied to similar claims: “Cameroon’s army is republican and professional. We systematically investigate all human rights abuses cases and sanction. As you should know four soldiers in the Far North have been discharged a few months ago for committing grave acts against the honor of the army”.  

While his claim that all abuses are investigated is clearly an exaggeration, and it is not clear that all sanctions concern Human rights abuses, there has been some progress. Disciplinary measures have been taken against some officers and soldiers  in the Far North, who have been removed from operational assignments to administrative posts or dismissed. Some judicial investigations into rights abuses are underway. 

Still, efforts made are far from sufficient and the defence ministry’s focus on sanctions is too narrow. There are no financial or material compensations for victims of the families of victims that suffered human rights violations. Neither has the military officially apologised. The government should pursue a stricter and proactive sanctions policy against soldiers who committed abuses, publicise its sanctions and put in place measures that can rebuild communities’ confidence. If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency, as parts of the population may radicalise and take the side of the insurgents. At the same time, Western countries might withdraw their support for the army, as happened in Nigeria when there was a rash of human rights abuses by Nigerian army.

If human rights violations by the army continue, they will jeopardise the success of the counterinsurgency. Parts of the population may take the side of the insurgents.

As much as security efforts are crucial to curb the insurgency, Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad also need to shape new policies that can prevent the emergence of new jihadist groups. More and more, the central authorities seem to understand that. At the ministry of defence and at the ministry of external relations, I meet several senior officials who recognise that a sustainable victory is impossible without development in the Far North. But then, they all add “the priority is to defeat Boko Haram militarily first”. Otherwise, the sad example of Chinese development workers who were kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram while building roads in the Far North could be repeated, they say. 

Boko Haram is much weaker today than in 2014. Nonetheless, the government must not delay proving to its population that it cares for its needs, and that it is trying to give those who feel neglected by the state new hope for their future. 

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research. 

A Chadian soldier shields his face from dust kicked up by a helicopter in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, 18 March 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun
Commentary / Africa

Behind the Jihadist Attack in Chad

Des combattants jihadistes ont tué une centaine de soldats tchadiens au Lac Tchad dans l’attaque la plus meurtrière de l’histoire récente du Tchad. Alors que l’armée a lancé une contre-offensive, il est vital d’améliorer la coopération militaire dans la région et de protéger les civils.

A Deadly Attack

The attack carried out on 23 March by a faction of Boko Haram on Lake Chad’s Bohoma Peninsula is the deadliest attributed to the organisation outside Nigerian territory in recent years. An estimated force of roughly 400 fighters reportedly arrived at daybreak aboard at least five motor boats. After seven hours of combat, the attackers defeated the Chadian garrison before retreating with captured weaponry. According to Chad’s authorities, nearly 100 soldiers lost their lives, around 50 others were injured and a few were taken prisoner. The jihadists also allegedly destroyed 24 military vehicles which they could not take with them. A credible claim of responsibility appeared the following day on the Telegram messaging app, posted by one of the two Boko Haram factions, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS).

The Bohoma attack is the group’s largest and most successful operation to date.

Boko Haram’s split occurred in 2016. At the time, due to the counter-offensive launched by Nigeria and its neighbours, Boko Haram – which in 2015 had become a branch of ISIS known as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) – split in two. One group led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur left Boko Haram’s headquarters in the Sambisa forest and reached Lake Chad. There, they successfully rallied the bulk of the jihadist fighters and obtained recognition from ISIS, thereby keeping the name ISWAP. The second group, led by Abubakar Shekau, former supreme commander of Boko Haram, retained control of the remaining combatants, and went back to using an old name, JAS.

In the Lake Chad area, a small group had chosen to maintain its allegiance to Shekau. Led by a certain Bakura “Doron” (since he hails from the Nigerian town of Baga Doron by Lake Chad), the group was formed in the part of the lake belonging to Niger, opposite Nguigmi; it survives by looting and carrying out small attacks, especially in Niger and including against ISWAP. This group has clearly grown more powerful. In 2018, it began to strike further east, conducting operations against military bases and convoys in Cameroon and Chad. The Bohoma attack is the group’s largest and most successful operation to date.

Dans la zone du Lac, un petit groupe avait choisi de maintenir son allégeance à Shekau. Dirigé par un certain Bakura « Doron » (car il est originaire de la ville nigériane de Baga Doron, au bord du Lac), il s’est établi dans la partie nigérienne du Lac, en face de Nguigmi, vivant de pillages et menant des petites attaques, surtout au Niger, y compris contre l’EIAO. Ce groupe a visiblement gagné en puissance. A partir de 2018, il a commencé à frapper plus à l’est, menant des opérations contre des bases militaires et des convois au Cameroun et au Tchad. L’attaque de Bohoma est son opération la plus importante et la plus aboutie à ce jour.

A Growing Threat in the Lake Chad Area

The fact that the groups (JAS and ISWAP) are divided does not make the task of the region’s security forces much easier. Of the two, ISWAP is certainly the most dangerous because of its links to ISIS. ISWAP also has ties in the region with the group formerly known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which operates between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso; ISIS has in fact placed ISGS under the banner of ISWAP. While this mainly consists of a communication strategy for the time being, the links between the two West African groups appear to be strengthening.

The rise of JAS in the north of Lake Chad is probably related to the fact that in recent years Nigeria’s military response has focused on the lake’s southern shores – the Nigerian side where the hub of ISWAP is located. This would have left ample space for Bakura’s group, which likely also benefited from ongoing tensions within ISWAP that led to the violent deaths of several of its senior officials in the first months of 2020. Some sources claim that certain ISWAP commanders have joined JAS; they may thus have supported Bakura in the attack on Bohoma. In other words, the interrelated nature of the groups likely allows some commanders to change their allegiance in response to internal disputes.

The Bohoma attack confirms that despite the rivalry between ISWAP and JAS, both groups are resilient, aggressive, innovative and mobile. The two jihadist factions have previously faced defeat and withdrawal; this will have forced them to rethink their strategy and adopt more professional methods. They have learned on the ground and all of them received advice and training from ISIS in 2015-2016, although only ISWAP still benefits from this since the 2016 split. They are able to change their area of operation in search of more fragile targets and appear to be well informed. Bakura’s men no doubt knew that the Bohoma garrison had been relieved shortly before the attack by a smaller contingent of less experienced troops.

An area like Lake Chad is fertile ground for jihadist groups.

The Bohoma attack also testifies to the essentially subregional nature of the jihadist groups operating around Lake Chad. Created in Nigeria, Boko Haram recruited combatants from neighbouring countries from the very beginning. An area like Lake Chad is fertile ground for jihadist groups: it is difficult to access; state presence is scant and inefficient; it is covered in vegetation and rich in agricultural resources; and it borders on four countries. The movement procured much of its initial armaments from Chad, buying up weapons circulating widely in a country that has been the scene of several civil wars since 1965. Some of the organisation’s first military leaders were also former Chadian rebels in search of new combat opportunities. Today, much like ISWAP, JAS is not constrained by national borders and has launched attacks in several states.

Scope and Limits of the Chadian Response

In the days immediately following the attack, the authorities in N’Djamena made several major decisions. They adjusted the military presence on the lake; launched Operation “Colère de Bohoma” (Wrath of Bohoma); declared the Lake Chad region a “war zone”; decreed a state of emergency in the departments of Fouli and Kaya; and ordered civilians to leave the islands and villages in the lake’s northern basin and move to its shores, further from the areas under jihadist control. In addition, the presidential decree signed on 26 March outlines a framework of measures – typical for a state of emergency in Chad – that include restricting movement and assembly, legal measures to facilitate searches, and prohibiting access to certain areas of the Lake.

“We are going to war, some will die and others will be wounded. This is the price to pay to protect ourselves and maintain our stability”, President Idriss Déby declared. By going to Lake Chad on 24 March, the day after the attack, and by taking command of the counter-offensive himself, he sought to demonstrate how seriously he viewed the event. Déby, who is officially Minister of Defence and still an army general, is presenting himself as a military leader and, by extension, a guarantor of the country’s stability; once again embodying a role he likes. Being on the ground and heading operations allows him to send a message of support to troops at a complicated time, when part of the army is experiencing doubt and when some soldiers may feel demotivated.

We are going to war, some will die and others will be wounded. This is the price to pay to protect ourselves and maintain our stability.

By reaffirming “his commitment to defeating the terrorist peril”, Déby is also trying to rally the population around his troops. From the benches of the national assembly to social networks, many Chadians have demanded a strong riposte to the attack. While the authorities spoke very little about the soldiers recently killed in Miski – in the north of the country in 2018-2019 – during largely unpopular operations against self-defence groups, the fight against Boko Haram, on the contrary, enjoys a broad popular consensus. Messages of support for the army are frequent on social media. The president is also sending a message to international partners, whose financial support is more vital than ever due to the major economic crisis looming in the wake of the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices.

The announcement of Déby’s military response was quickly followed by regional consultations and troop movements. The Nigerian General Ibrahim Manu Youssouf, commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – a regional force fighting Boko Haram with troops from Benin and the four countries bordering Lake Chad – went to the Chadian town of Baga Sola on the shores of Lake Chad on Tuesday, 24 March, for a lengthy meeting with the Chadian president. Two days later, Mahamat Abali Salah, Chadian minister delegate for Defence, visited his counterpart in Niamey to coordinate the response with Niger. Straight afterward, Déby travelled to Nguigmi, a town in Niger also on the shores of Lake Chad, to oversee the deployment of the logistics base for the new Chadian military campaign, “Wrath of Bohoma”.

Chadian troops then quickly initiated operations in the lake area. The president made several trips to Kaiga-Kindjiria, an island in the lake’s northern basin not far from the Bakura bases, for meetings with military top brass. At the same time, the first videos circulated on social networks and on Télé Tchad, the country’s main television channel, showing Chadian helicopters flying over this section of the lake, fighting and triumphs over jihadists on the islands, as well as images of corpses and prisoners from Bakura’s group. After several days of combat, Déby stated that he had pushed jihadist troops out of Chadian territory, taken back command posts on the lake from Boko Haram factions, and deployed his men into Niger and Nigeria to hunt down fighters who had fled and to “clean up” the border areas with those countries. On 3 April, the Chadian president announced that operations would continue in neighbouring countries and called on them to provide troops in order to prevent jihadists from regaining lost ground on the border areas of Niger and Nigeria. Nigerian authorities have since confirmed that they are participating in military efforts and conducting air strikes on the Tumbun Fulani camp not far from the shores of Lake Chad in Borno State.

The authorities in N’Djamena are aware of the significant risk of reprisals by jihadist groups on home ground.

While Chad’s military actions have been successful thus far, the authorities in N’Djamena are aware of the significant risk of reprisals by jihadist groups on home ground. Beyond the current operation, there also remains the issue of strengthening the military presence on Lake Chad in the medium-term. Until Bakura’s recent attack, 6,000 Chadian soldiers were deployed on the lake, of which 3,000 for the MNJTF and 3,000 for the Chadian National Army. There is only limited scope for the Chadian authorities to increase this contingent. Although the Chadian army is highly mobile, the challenges it faces are manifold and its capacities cannot be stretched further. It is currently massively deployed across the country’s borders to deal with various threats to stability, as well as in the Central Sahel to combat jihadist movements. It will also be increasingly mobilised by authorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, with a new economic crisis looming, it is increasingly unclear for how long this war effort can be financed.

Faced with these challenges, N’Djamena decided to postpone the fulfilment of the commitments made at the Pau Summit in January 2020 (devoted to the security situation and military cooperation in the Sahel) by temporarily suspending its troop deployment to the so-called “tri-border area” located between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, in order to integrate these troops into the Lake Chad counter-attack.

Beyond the limited troop numbers, army morale is not at its highest. The Chadian army has recently suffered a series of setbacks on its own territory. In February 2019, the incursion of a group of Chadian rebels, the Union des forces de la résistance (UFR), from Libya, and the request for air support from France exposed weaknesses within this army, with some officers refusing to fight their “rebel kinsmen”.   Bakura’s group also stepped up its attacks around the lake in 2019, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Chadian soldiers. Furthermore, in Miski, a gold-mining area in the north of the country, Chad’s army was defeated by self-defence groups, forcing the Chadian executive to open negotiations in late 2019. The recent attack on Bohoma is a further blow to an army which is held up as the strongest in the region and called on to hold the peace in a Sahel in crisis.

The Immediate Risks and Priorities of the Chadian Intervention

While jihadist violence has not abated in Nigeria, the attack that took place on 23 March tragically highlights the regional dimension of the threat. Far from reducing their overall potential to inflict harm, Boko Haram’s split into several rival factions in 2016 seems to have had the opposite effect, sparking a violent competition between these groups. While Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria continues to be the epicentre of violence, the jihadist groups are highly mobile and occupy border areas to evade national authorities and extend their territorial grasp. Their attacks beyond Nigeria, particularly in Chad, also send a message to governments in the region that any action taken against them will be met with reprisals. Shekau was quick to respond to Déby’s decision to counter-attack with the following words: “Do not think that because you have fought in several conventional wars you can face off against those of us who have decided to fight for the honour of religion”.

Since 2015, the Chadian army has frequently intervened in neighbouring countries to fight Boko Haram. This was recently the case of Operation Yancin Tafki conducted by the MNJTF, with Chadian troops remaining in Borno State, in north-eastern Nigeria, for almost a year. During this operation, coordination problems with the poorly prepared and unresponsive Nigerian troops hampered operations and frustrated Chadian soldiers.

While the Chadian army is currently launching a new offensive against jihadists on the lake and deployed its soldiers into Nigeria and Niger, uncertainties remain as to what role its neighbours will play. Although Chad’s Operation “Wrath of Bohoma” was not organised in the framework of the MNJTF, Déby once again met with the MNJTF commander in early April to request that the joint force take over and that neighbouring countries commit troops within the territories currently controlled by the Chadian army in these states. Chad’s authorities have openly expressed their frustration at the tardiness of their neighbours’ military involvement, and have called for improved coordination to prevent jihadists from regaining territory. As Nigeria confirms its participation in ongoing military actions, soldiers from countries in the region must differentiate between civilians and combatants in the areas where they operate; if they fail to do so, they will be helping jihadists in their recruitment efforts and harming the potential for future civilian engagement.

Jihadist groups pose a very serious danger to civilians and soldiers in the four countries bordering Lake Chad.

The struggle that began a decade ago against jihadists in the Lake Chad Basin is far from over. These agile and mobile groups, now split into rival factions, pose a very serious danger to civilians and soldiers in the four countries bordering Lake Chad. In the coming years, better cooperation between the states in the region will be essential to reduce this threat.