Boko Haram presents new chal­lenge to U.S.

Back­ing new Nige­rian pres­i­dent mil­i­tar­ily could com­pli­cate fight

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KEVIN SI­EFF kevin.si­eff@wash­post.com

nairobi — In the week since Muham­madu Buhari was in­au­gu­rated as pres­i­dent of Nige­ria, vow­ing to elim­i­nate Boko Haram, the ex­trem­ist group has re­sponded with a se­ries of deadly bomb­ings that have killed dozens of peo­ple across the coun­try’s north­east.

Those at­tacks have un­der­scored the enor­mous task ahead for Buhari, a for­mer mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor who was seen by many as the right man to rid the coun­try of ter­ror­ism. They have also high­lighted the chal­lenge for the United States, which is ea­ger to de­feat Boko Haram but leery of of­fer­ing Nige­ria a large in­crease in mil­i­tary as­sis­tance be­fore its se­cu­rity forces — known for se­ri­ous hu­man rights abuses— are restruc­tured.

The next chap­ter of the fight against Boko Haram could be the most dif­fi­cult.

“I think we might be see­ing the end of the large bat­tle­field phase of this, but if Boko Haram goes back to hit-and-run tac­tics, it could be even harder for Nige­rian mil­i­tary forces,” said a se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about bi­lat­eral re­la­tions.

The Nige­rian mil­i­tary has said for months that Boko Haram has been forced out of key cities and vil­lages in op­er­a­tions that seemed to lay the ground­work for the group’s elim­i­na­tion af­ter Buhari took power. In­stead, the past week has been the blood­i­est in re­cent months.

Mil­i­tants con­ducted at­tacks near Maiduguri In­ter­na­tional Air­port last week, killing eight, and in a mosque, killing about 25. Then, on Tues­day, a man blew him­self up in a slaugh­ter­house in the same city, killing about 40. Maiduguri, a ma­jor city inthe north­east, was among the places where Nige­rian se­cu­rity forces said they had van­quished Boko Haram. Over the past few months, there had been rel­a­tively few at­tacks, and the city’s mar­kets and streets were packed. In the most re­cent attack, on Thurs­day night, mil­i­tants bombed a mar­ket in the north­east­ern city of Yola, killing at least 31 and wound­ing dozens, ac­cord­ing to Nige­rian of­fi­cials.

The surge in at­tacks comes as the mil­i­tary has found it­self un­der greater scru­tiny for hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. A re­port re­leased Wed­nes­day by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional al­leged that the mil­i­tary had caused the deaths of about 8,000 civil­ians since 2009. Some were ex­e­cuted, the re­port said, but the ma­jor­ity died in mil­i­tary cus­tody.

“For­mer de­tainees and se­nior mil­i­tary sources de­scribed how de­tainees were reg­u­larly tor­tured to death — hung on poles over fires, tossed into deep pits or in­ter­ro­gated us­ing elec­tric ba­tons,” said the re­port. It named five mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who it said should be in­ves­ti­gated by Buhari’s gov­ern­ment.

Now, the United States is try­ing to nav­i­gate ways to sup­port Nige­ria’s new leader, who bills him­self as a re­former, with­out vi­o­lat­ing U.S. leg­is­la­tion that pre­vents the coun­try from giv­ing aid to hu­man rights abusers. The au­thors of the Amnesty In­ter­na­tional re­port sug­gested that for­eign fund­ing to the mil­i­tary should con­tinue, but that a more ro­bust ef­fort should be made to pun­ish those re­spon­si­ble for hu­man­rights vi­o­la­tions.

“For a long time, many states sup­ported the mil­i­tary and po­lice with hu­man rights train­ing, but that hasn’t led to the re­sults we would hope for,” said Daniel Eyre, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s Nige­ria re­searcher. “Un­til you hold them accountable, you can train them all you like, but they will con­tinue com­mit­ting those vi­o­la­tions.”

So far, U.S. of­fi­cials say they are con­fi­dent that they can in­crease mil­i­tary as­sis­tance while si­mul­ta­ne­ously en­cour­ag­ing the Nige­rian mil­i­tary to im­prove its record. The so-called Leahy amend­ment pro­hibits the ap­proval of U.S. as­sis­tance to for­eign mil­i­tary units that vi­o­late hu­man rights.

“The way you help strug­gling mil­i­tary to get bet­ter is to roll up your sleeves and help, but it doesn’t mean you turn a blind eye to the bad stuff,” said the se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial.

For his part, Buhari, who re­ceived train­ing in the 1980s at the U.S. Army War Col­lege in Penn­syl­va­nia, ap­pears ea­ger for more U.S. mil­i­tary as­sis­tance.

“He’s look­ing for us to con­tinue that and to ex­pand our as­sis­tance,” said the se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial. “We’re will­ing to look at new forms of train­ing, equip­ment and th­ese kinds of things,” in­clud­ing the ex­pan­sion of in­tel­li­gence shar­ing.

The U.S. of­fi­cial de­scribed Amer­i­can in­ter­ac­tions with Buhari at this point as “broad, high­level dis­cus­sions.”

The United States gave $6.3 mil­lion to the Nige­rian mil­i­tary and po­lice in2014, de­spite ten­sions with for­mer pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which of­ten ap­peared to shrug off claims of hu­man­rights abuses.

Mean­while, in­sur­gents ap­pear to be in­tent on prov­ing their ca­pac­ity to launch deadly at­tacks. In a 10-minute video re­leased Tues­day, the group re­jected the mil­i­tary’s claims of suc­cess.

“Most of our ter­ri­tory is still un­der our con­trol,” said an uniden­ti­fied man fea­tured in the video, who was car­ry­ing an AK-47 and stand­ing in front of two SUVs.

Also in the video, mil­i­tants show the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards of sol­diers they claim to have killed and the wreck­age of a jet they say they brought down.

But the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, is no­tably miss­ing from the video, rais­ing ques­tions about whether he was in­jured or killed in Nige­ria’s mil­i­tary of­fen­sive in the north­east.

Even if Shekau is dead, an­a­lysts have long warned that Boko Haram could re­tain its ca­pac­ity to con­duct pe­ri­odic at­tacks for months or years af­ter in­sur­gents have lost ground in their tra­di­tional strongholds. Most of the fighters ap­pear to have fled to the Samb is a For­est, avast and mostly un­in­hab­ited stretch of land where they ap­pear to be able to move freely.

“Here in Sam­bisa you can travel morethan four to five hours un­der the black flag of Is­lam,” said the man in the Boko Haram video re­leased Tues­day.

Af­ter his victory in a his­toric elec­tion— the first time an in­cum­bent had ever lost a pres­i­den­tial con­test in Nige­ria — many Nige­ri­ans have huge hopes for Buhari, who last ruled the coun­try for less than two years, from 1983 to 1985. In his first week in of­fice, he has al­ready con­demned Boko Haram and crit­i­cized his pre­de­ces­sor, Jonathan, for al­low­ing the ex­trem­ists to take root. In his in­au­gu­ra­tion speech last week, he ex­plained the group’s as­cent as a prod­uct of “of­fi­cial bungling, neg­li­gence, com­pla­cency or col­lu­sion,” call­ing Boko Haram “god­less” and “mind­less.”

He has not ar­tic­u­lated a clear strat­egy to de­feat the in­sur­gency, but one of his first di­rec­tives as pres­i­dent was to move the mil­i­tary head­quar­ters out of the cap­i­tal and to Borno State, con­sid­ered Boko Haram’s strong­hold in Nige­ria.

It’s un­clear how ef­fec­tive that will be. Some ex­perts say that de­feat­ing Boko Haram isn’t sim­ply about mil­i­tary strat­egy but ad­dress­ing how the group emerged in the first place.

“The Buhari ad­min­is­tra­tion is go­ing to have to think about the cen­ter of the fight not just in geo­graphic terms,” said Carl Le­Van, a Nige­ria ex­pert at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity. “What is re­ally the heart of the battle? Is it re­tak­ing Gwoza and other Boko Haram strongholds and hold­ing them? Or is it tack­ling the broader mes­sage about the role of Is­lam in a mul­ti­cul­tural Nige­ria?”

JOSSY OLA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A girl walks past a house dam­aged by rocket-pro­pelled grenades Is­lamist ex­trem­ists launched in­Maiduguri, Nige­ria, last week.

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

A ven­dor sells wrist watches with por­traits of Nige­rian Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari, who has vowed to elim­i­nate BokoHaram.

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