New attacks raise questions over ‘defeat’ of Boko Haram
MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA | Abba Kaka has good reason to doubt the government’s claims to success in the battle against one of the world’s deadliest terror groups.
Mr. Kaka narrowly escaped death last week after Boko Haram insurgents raided his village of Duwabayi in the country’s remote northern Borno State. Mr. Kaka, who runs a general store, jumped over his back fence to escape the attackers as they seized food and other supplies.
Duwabayi is one of several Borno State communities where the Islamic State-affiliated militants have stepped up attacks recently after months of relative peace following the Nigerian government’s crackdown on the fighters. Authorities later said that around nine people were killed in the raid.
“As I’m talking to you now, I don’t know the whereabouts of my wife and four children,” Mr. Kaka said, adding that
he has yet to return home. “I had to run for my life, leaving my family behind. It’s a terrible thing to do.”
Just two weeks ago, the Nigerian army’s chief of staff, Lt. General Tukur Burutai, insisted “the terrorists have been defeated” and said the army was conducting “mop-up operations aimed at ensuring that we clear the rest of them.” It was the latest proclamation from the government of President Mohammadu Buhari that Boko Haram was on the verge of being wiped out after a concerted, multinational military push.
But the general’s story flies in the face of accounts from other Nigerian authorities, who say the terrorists haven’t been defeated but simply have gone underground to wait out the pressure.
Recent events in Borno State suggest Boko Haram is resuming the battle. The jihadis have attacked and burned down several villages, detonated bombs in marketplaces and continue to run rampant over much of the countryside. Several people, including two military officers and a handful of soldiers, have perished in the attacks, according to military officials and villagers.
“Do not be overwhelmed by people like Donald Trump and the global coalition fighting our brethren in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and everywhere,” said Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau on an hourlong message posted recently on YouTube. “We remain steadfast [in] our faith, and we will not stop. To us, the war has just begun.”
The Vigilante Group of Nigeria, an irregular security force working together with government soldiers to secure communities in Borno State, claimed that Boko Haram fighters killed 13 people in Dasa, a village only 2 miles away from Munguno, a local government headquarters, shortly before they attacked Duwabayi.
“The gunmen who stormed the villages in large numbers ensured that they burned down every building in the two villages,” said Abbas Gava, who leads the vigilante group.
Boko Haram militants have assimilated into local communities in the wake of the crackdown following Mr. Buhari’s election last year, said Timothy Mshelia of the Search for Common Ground, a humanitarian organization seeking the protection of holy sites in violence-prone communities.
A former military general who ruled Nigeria briefly in the mid-1980s, Mr. Buhari ran as a civilian and reformer in the 2015 race, vowing to take a hard line against the militants, unlike predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, who was accused of letting Boko Haram have free rein in the territories it controlled.
Mr. Buhari and his generals have claimed steady progress since then, and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry on an August visit congratulated the government for its successes. Nigerian security officials say that Boko Haram has lost some 95 percent of the territory it controlled at the height of its reign of terror.
But recent operations by Boko Haram suggest reports of its demise were premature.
“There is little to indicate the group is nearing its end or even that it is severely weakened,” William Assanvo, an expert on Nigeria and militancy at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told the British newspaper The Guardian last month.
Militants coalesce periodically, attack their neighbors and then disperse to new villages to collect intelligence, added Mr. Mshelia.
“You certainly find pockets of resistance, particularly from insurgents that have sneaked into communities in the course of the fight,” he said. “Until all such insurgents have been subdued, wiped [out] or intercepted, you cannot possibly say you have wiped out the insurgency.”
The attacks may be the result of a lull in military activities after government negotiators secured the release of some of the 200 schoolgirls who had been abducted by the insurgents in the northeastern Nigerian village of Chibok in 2014, said Mr. Mshelia. Those kidnappings first thrust Boko Haram into the international spotlight. In October the militants released 21 of the girls.
“There was a little relaxation,” said Mr. Mshelia, adding that the rainy season recently ended in the region too. “Pockets of insurgents found their way back into the communities.”
But Mr. Mshelia still argues that the Buhari government’s campaign had put significant pressure on Boko Haram. After holding sway over much of northeastern Nigeria, the jihadis now control only sections of the remote Sambisa forest on the border region between Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad.
“I consider them as the last breath of a dying person,” Mr. Mshelia said. “The insurgency at the epicenter of the Sambisa forest has been caged.”
The Nigerian navy has also been rooting them out in the swamps that line the Lake Chad shoreline too, he added.
Last month, after the death of Lt. Col. Muhammad Abu Ali, who had become a national hero for his efforts against the radical Islamic fighters, Mr. Buhari said Nigeria’s resolve in the battle against the militants remained unflagging.
Col. Abu Ali died in a gunfight. But Mr. Buhari has said that Boko Haram bombings illustrated how the fighters were on the ropes.
“Evil will not triumph over good,” the president wrote on Twitter in his most recent comments on Boko Haram. “Unable to hold territory, the severely degraded terrorist group now occasionally resorts to cowardly attacks on soft targets. This attack has further strengthened our resolve to completely neutralize Boko Haram.”
Gen. Burutai over the weekend even suggested the final campaign to wipe out Boko Haram for good was nearing its climax.
“I wish to reiterate that December is a month of decision,” the army chief of staff said in a Dec. 4 message to the troops. “Either we succeed in clearing the remnants of Boko Haram terrorists or we continue to live in the perpetual circle of their atrocities in the northeast.”
But another survivor of a Boko Haram attack, Theresa Paul, a housewife and mother of six, said she wasn’t convinced of the militants’ waning power.
She and her family could not return to her village of Thlaimaklama near Chibok. It’s a pile of ashes, she said.
“We lost everything we have toiled for in life,” Ms. Paul said, adding she doubted her family would rebuild at the site. “Besides, the place is no longer safe for me and my family.”
DOWN BUT NOT OUT: Despite some defeats, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed on YouTube, “We remain steadfast. … To us, the war has just begun.”