An oath of allegiance from Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based militant group, to the Islamic State on Saturday reinforces Western fears that the terrorist group is growing beyond its base in Iraq and Syria. These worries have prompted American and allied commandos to rush to train African counterterrorism troops to fight extremists on the continent.
The expanding effort here on the edge of the Sahara to fight militancies like Boko Haram comes as the group has kidnapped schoolgirls, slaughtered thousands of people, and now has expanded its attacks from Nigeria into Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
“When your neighbor’s house is burning, you have to put it out, because if not, yours is next,” said Lt. Col. Brahim Mahanat, a Chadian Army officer who spoke during the Pentagon’s annual military exercise with 1,200 African troops, United States Army Special Forces and other Western commandos, which ends on Monday.
Boko Haram has, in the meantime, pushed more than 200,000 Nigerian refugees across the border into neighboring countries. And on Saturday, three explosions rocked the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, killing dozens of people in the worst attack there since suspected Islamist militants tried to seize it in January.
“Boko Haram is not just a threat to our country or to Africa,” said Brig. Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue, a senior Chadian officer who has trained in France and at Hurlburt Field, Fla., and is overseeing this year’s exercise. “They are an international threat.”
The Obama administration agrees.
New Boko Haram propaganda videos, including beheadings, mirror the releases of the Islamic State and had officials in Washington and European capitals watching to see if the two terrorist groups would draw closer together.
The announcement by the Boko Haram leadership that it had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was still being analyzed on Saturday by Western counterterrorism officials, who said the proclamation appeared to be legitimate.
Officials suggested that Boko Haram, by aligning itself more closely with the Islamic State, was seeking to elevate its standing in the jihadi world, attract foreign fighters and possibly win financing from the militants.
“By allying with ISIS, Boko Haram is seeking greater validation in the global jihadi community,” said Laith Alkhouri, a senior analyst at Flashpoint Global Partners, a security consulting firm that tracks militant websites.
But American intelligence analysts said it remained unclear what specific fighting capabilities, if any, the relationship would add to Boko Haram, or how soon.
Boko Haram seized the world’s attention last April when it kidnapped nearly 300 teenage girls in Nigeria.While some girls escaped the initial abduction, none have been found since, and many are believed to have been married off to Boko Haram fighters. Last summer, the United States committed $40 million over the next three years to help Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon develop more effective border security and long-range patrolling, and to pay for weapons, ammunition, night-vision goggles and radios.
In a reflection of heightened American and European concerns, Army Special Forces from Fort Carson, Colo., as well as other American Special Operations and military instructors from several Western countries, are training African troops here in Chad to conduct combat patrols and to foil terrorist ambushes, missions many of the troops will most likely carry out against Boko Haram. In another sign of the group’s growing menace, the State Department recalled from retirement last month a former ambassador with longstanding ties in Africa, Dan Mozena, to coordinate the American diplomatic effort against the militants.
In West Africa alone, the United States has more than 200 Special Operations troops at any given time instructing local soldiers, but not fighting themselves. Navy SEALs are training Nigerian commandos for action in the oil-rich delta. Air Force Reaper reconnaissance drones support French operations in Niger and Mali.
With the backing of Western officials, African leaders have taken the unusual step of forming an 8,700-member regional force to combat Boko Haram. The success of this new African counterterrorism force will be a test of the Obama administration’s focus on training, advising and equipping African troops to deal with their own security threats, rather than using American ground troops.No one is expecting it to be easy. The troop-contributing nations of Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Benin must overcome years of distrust, rivalries and disparate military abilities to forge an effective fighting unit, Western and African officials said.
African officers, as well as observers from the United States, France and Britain, met in Ndjamena late last month to discuss the force’s command structure and other details, but fell short of reaching a final agreement. More talks are expected in the coming weeks.
The American strategy in Africa also hinges on European partners that have historical ties to the region and forces there. France has reorganized its 3,000 troops in the Sahel — a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal east to Chad — to carry out counterterrorism operations more effectively, officials said.
As part of this regional mission, called Barkhane, or “sand dune” in French, France sent a group of 15 men last month to the city of Diffa in southeastern Niger, just across from Nigeria, to collect intelligence on Boko Haram, French military officials said.
Chad, Niger and Cameroon have already mobilized thousands of troops to push back Boko Haram, whose army of 4,000 to 6,000 fighters has overwhelmed Nigeria’s underequipped and poorly led troops. So far troops from the three African nations have been able to reclaim in cross-border attacks some of the 30 towns in northeastern Nigeria that the militants have seized over the past year.
Chad’s American-trained Special Antiterrorism Group forces, which have fought alongside French troops in Mali against Al Qaeda’s affiliate there, are among 5,000 Chadian troops deployed to fight Boko Haram in the region. Cameroon’s Israeli-trained rapid intervention brigade has also fought well against the militants, Western specialists said.
On Wednesday, President Idriss Déby of Chad said he knew the whereabouts of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, and called on him to surrender or risk being killed.
This regional response seems to have stiffened Nigeria’s spine as its troops have fought more effectively in recent weeks, chasing Boko Haram fighters out of some of the territory they controlled, Western officials said. “They got their nose bloodied,” said Col. George K. Thiebes, who commands American Special Operations troops in West Africa.
Still, senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials voiced skepticism that Nigeria and its neighbors would successfully contain the threat, at least initially.
“Boko Haram will probably continue to solidify control over its self-declared Islamic State in northeastern Nigeria and expand its terror campaign in neighboring Nigerian states, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad,” James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, said in Washington in his annual threat assessment on Feb. 26.
Nicholas Rasmussen, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a Senate panel last month, “It remains to be seen if the regional parties can in concert turn that tide.”
Creating a regional force, which the participating countries initially embraced last October and the African Union authorized in January, will mean overcoming years of distrust between Nigeria and its neighbors.
“Regional cooperation so far has been weak,” according to an internal European Union assessment obtained by Wikilao, a Rome-based security website, adding that future cooperation may be hindered by the countries’ “little tradition of working together and sharing a long history of local disputes, different languages.”
The irony is not lost on poorer French-speaking countries riding to the rescue of Nigeria, whose military’s negligence and incompetence has unleashed the militant plague on everyone in the region. “If there was will in Nigeria, Boko Haram would have never become what they are now,” said Col. Khassim Moussa, a senior officer in Chad’s Special Antiterrorism Group.
Nigerian officials privately acknowledged that their country’s military — which regularly contributes troops to United Nations peacekeeping operations — neglected the problem for too long. But Nigerian officials contend that many of Boko Haram’s heavy weapons are coming from Libya and the black market, and its neighbors have failed to manage their borders.
African officials say a model for their operation is the African force created several years ago to combat the Islamic militant Shabab group in Somalia. That force, which includes troops from Uganda, Kenya and Burundi, suffered through severe growing pains before emerging as a capable fighting unit.
Here in Mao, the main site for the military exercise, some 135 miles northeast of the Chadian capital, African soldiers teamed with American, Danish, Italian, Belgian and other Western advisers to learn new skills, including how to counter an enemy ambush.
“This will help them raise their game,” said one senior Danish instructor, who like other trainers and soldiers could not be identified under the exercise’s ground rules.
One group of Nigerian Navy commandos, including many veterans of the six-year war against Boko Haram, paused after fighting through a mock ambush in the rolling sandy hill, to reflect on the emerging alliance.
“Before, people felt it was all Nigeria’s fight,” said one Nigerian commando cradling his Israeli-made Tavor assault rifle. “Now other countries are getting involved.”
(New York Times)