New at­tacks raise ques­tions over ‘de­feat’ of Boko Haram

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ALI ABARE ABUBAKAR

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.

Buhari of­fen­sive

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.”

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