Citizens of Western nations—the United States and in Europe, in particular—should understand that their troops might soon also be fighting a ground war in West Africa. The reasons are simple.
While the international community has seen ISIS—or more appropriately, Islamic State—make enormous strides in conquering swathes of territory east of Suez, few have bothered to follow what this fundamentalist Jihadist movement may be achieving in West Africa.
In conjunction with its Nigerian affiliate Boko Haram, the terror group has surreptitiously created an entirely new country in the northern Islamic heartland of Nigeria. At 25,000 square miles, about the same size as Maryland in the U.S., it even has its own capital, called Gwoza1.
There is a self-appointed Emir, Abubakar Shekau, who rules with brutal efficiency, a man who in other society would almost certainly be regarded as a maniac. A tall Kanuri tribesman who hails from a mountainous region that fringes on the Cameroons, Shekau has a reputation of being well schooled in the esoterics of Salafist Islam that had its roots in post-independent revolutionary Algeria.
As a group of militant Jihadists, Boko Haram emerged more than a decade ago when followers of Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic young preacher, advocated a strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran and believed that the creation of Nigeria by British colonialists had imposed a western and un-Islamic way of life on Muslims.
Yusuf offered his followers a radical way of life that opposed conventional politics, elections included. The wearing of Western clothes is banned. Killed by the Nigerian Army in 2009, Shekau quickly stepped into the breach and subsequently claimed in a YouTube video that it was his ambition to bring all of Nigeria under his control, establish a caliphate (which he has now done, with himself at the head) and dutifully follow the example of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)2.
I have been told by a source in London that I trust that there is evidence, unconfirmed as yet, that Boko Haram and ISIL have entered into a formal agreement that involves training Boko Haram cadres. Additional evidence suggests that Afghanistan’s Taliban is also to host Boko Haram recruits for military instruction.
Meanwhile, almost unopposed, this Nigerian terror group has achieved mastery over a dozen local government areas in a region that fringes on the Cameroon, the Niger Republic, and Chad and in the process killed about 10,000 people, mostly civilian Muslims who did not conform to Boko Haram’s interpretation of Islamic scriptures. In a sense, it is a repeat of the Algerian revolution with the Nigerians following the shocking examples the Salafist-orientated Armed Islamic Group (al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyah al-Mulsallah) that made a public spectacle of slaughtering unborn children in their mothers’ wombs.
Boko Haram currently holds sway over almost two million souls living in scores of towns and villages within its domain. The group regularly metes out brutal jihadist justice in the name of shariah with the almost inhuman fervor for which Islamic State has become associated in those parts of Iraq and Syria under its control. These sentences include stoning women to death for infidelity (which quite often rests solely on hearsay, settling old scores, or a man wishing to be rid of his disruptive wife), as well as the cutting off of hands for theft.
Additionally educational facilities for females have been abolished, all of which slots in tidily with the terror movement’s dictum. Loosely translated, Boko Haram—in an abrogation of the Fulani language—suggests that Western education is evil.
Strikingly, the movement’s activities now extend well beyond Nigeria’s frontiers. Recent months have seen this guerrilla force expand its activities into several neighboring countries including those mentioned above: sadly, the vaunted Nigerian army and air force appear unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
Case in point: prior to an attack on the fishing town of Baga in northeast Nigeria in early January (where an estimated 2,000 people were slaughtered by Boko Haram terrorists), Human Rights Watch confirmed that it had actually informed the Abuja Government that the attack was imminent. The warning was ignored3.
Another onslaught followed in late January 2015, on the Nigerian army garrison town of Monguno, a couple of hours’ drive from the regional capital of Maiduguri. Boko Haram made short shrift of overrunning the base and at the time of writing, the fate of 1,400 government troops is unclear. So too is what happened to the Nigerian army equipment—tanks, APCs, artillery, rocket launchers, grenades, and claymores, as well as several thousand AKs—lodged at the base.
A government spokesman told Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper a day later that the army could have actually defeated the insurgents, “but there was not enough ammunition.”4.
The claim symbolizes just about everything that is wrong with Nigeria’s military-led counter-terrorism approach, wrote David Alison for the Daily Maverick, part of Britain’s Guardian Africa Network5.
It also raises questions about the ability of the Nigerians to defend themselves against an insurrection that appears to be getting out of hand, especially since more than half of the country’s military comes from the north (and is Islamic). Though military spokespeople remain non-committal on the subject, whispers emanating from marketplaces all over the country—invariably the most accurate source of information in a country under heavy censorship—strongly suggest that there have been significant army defections to the fighting ranks of Boko Haram.
What is most disturbing in the minds of average Nigerians is that Boko Haram appears to have created an unstoppable, comparatively-powerful military force. As with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, its fighters are often fearless, believing they are laying down their lives for the greater good of Allah and all mankind, which their radical imams tell them ensures a direct route to paradise.
The truth is that Nigerian troops—even those trained for several years by United States military instructors working under the auspices of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) —are enormously fearful of contact with these fanatics. More often than not, when the word goes out that Boko Haram is on its way, entire units flee just as the U.S.- trained Iraqi army did when confronted by ISIS.
Yet, Boko Haram has shown itself to be vulnerable to well-ordered and determined resistance. The disciplined Chad's army recently demonstrated that by driving Boko Haram militants out of Malumfatori, a town in northeast Nigeria6.
Several other African regions are also coming under the influence of ISIS, including Algeria, Mali, and Libya, as well parts of the Sudan and northern Chad (where it borders on Libya).
Algeria has remained a focus of dissident Islamic activity for many years (and Mali more recently) where guerrilla involvement is mostly drawn from the Algerian and local Saharan communities (such as the Tuaregs and the Berabiche tribal clans of Mali, as well as Moroccans from city suburbs of that North African country). The outfit also has links with both Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al-Shabaab.
The group’s official name is Organization of al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (Qaedat al-Jihad ﬁ Bilad al-Maghrib al-Islami), often shortened to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Prior to January 2007, it was known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat and the French acronym GSPC (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat)7.
In a series of personal communications, the French military attaché in London was of the opinion that AQIM had launched a 400-year war, and though fighting is sporadic, he reckoned that regions adjoining the Sahara Desert made conditions for containing this resolute group of rebels much more difficult than the original South East Asian war fought by a previous generation of Americans. He also stressed that “this was not a [series of wars] only against Muslims but rather, against people having various interests in challenging the established order.”
He claimed that the Mali insurgency remains a classical guerrilla insurgency, but also warned, “It is taking much more than basic counter-insurgency efforts to contain it.” For a start, he reckoned, the region in which AQIM operates covers several countries and is as big as Western Europe.
“The enemy is elusive, clever and remarkably well-trained, considering that these are tribal people who have made an art of slipping in and out of mountain hideaways with the kind of ease that comes with experience. Worse, they are almost always one step ahead of our security forces.”
It doesn’t matter that the French military effort—quietly aided by several other countries, the United States and Britain included—is efficient, mobile, and has lots of armor, as well as helicopter gunships, AQIM’s biggest ally is the desert. Those vast, desolate stretches of sand and rock that go on forever are his home, his “backyard,” as it were. “And it has always been that way, since the beginning of time,” declared the French colonel.
The machinations of these groups are not always militarily orientated. Recruitment and jihadist proselytization forms a significant part, as does brutally-efficient intimidation, which, in plain language boils down to “join our ranks or you’re dead!”
British journalist Alex West disclosed in what I believe was clearly an intelligence “leak” that at least one Islamic fundamentalist group had dabbled in biological warfare, as had al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, in trying to construct “dirty bombs.” On January 19, 2009, there had been an outbreak of bubonic plague at an AQIM training camp in the Tizi Ouzou province and at least forty Jihadists died from the disease. Surviving AQIM members reportedly fled to other parts of Algeria hoping to escape infection8.
Eli Lake, in an article in The Washington Times, made the claim a day later—based on a senior U.S. intelligence official source—that the incident was not related to bubonic plague. It was an accident involving either a biological or chemical agent, he reported9.
Following the March 2012 military coup in Bamako, the Mali capital, al-Qaeda quickly moved into the gap, calling itself AQIM Coalition Forces. These units included home-grown Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (known by its French acronym Mujao).
French forces boldly opposed the onslaught. Although the Mali engagement was intended to be limited to a few thousand troops and aircraft—mainly helicopter gunships and ground-support jets, as well as transport planes, France’s military strength in this West African territory peaked at more than 5,000 troops and airmen by mid-2013.
It took the French about three weeks to drive the rebels from almost all the northern cities, including Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. As French forces moved farther north, there was evidence of foreign jihadists fighting with the Taureg rebels, including Saudis, Libyans, and Egyptians, as well as squads of children who had been trained and were armed with AKs. It was also a feature of this conflict that the insurgents very rarely took prisoners.
By now, much of the war was being fought almost 1,000 miles north of Bamako in a region that is sometimes known as the Adagh des Ifoghas, or Mountains of the Ifoghas tribe. It is a region that has been at the core of just about every Tuareg rebellion since the country gained its independence from France in 1960.
The main town in the area is Kidal, formerly a Foreign Legion fort and the most important forward staging point for counter-insurgency operations. As one recent visitor told the BBC, the mountains immediately to the north are also a perfect place for a guerrilla army: “The annual rains fill up the gueltas, or ponds, with drinking water for nomadic animal herds and insurgents and there are numerous caves that offer shelter from sand storms and helicopter gunships.
“The Algerian border is close and porous enough to keep supplies of food, diesel and ammunition flowing in - as long as corrupt local officials can be bribed or forced to turn a blind eye.”10
More important, it is also from this region that AQIM—in an effort to divert attention from its war efforts in Mali—launched an attack on an Algerian gas installation at Tigantourine in January 2013. The fact that the target was more than 1,000 miles from where AQIM was fighting in Mali signifies both the mobility and extent of influence of this jihadist group. The insurgents, led by “Red Beard” Moktar Belmoktar (he dyed his beard with henna) made their mark, murdering 39 foreigners and taking 800 hostages.
In the broader context, the Algerian terror attack played a significant role in causing France to review its accepted “military non-participation status” in West Africa. A month later the French army and air force went into Mali in strength.
What quickly became clear was that although the Mali army had undergone years of military training at the hands of American instructors, its forces succumbed to rebel advances just as quickly as the Iraqis did. Government forces were ill-disciplined and at the first sign of a concerted onslaught by the rebels, they broke ranks.
According to TomDispatch.com, an outspoken critic of Washington’s military efforts abroad (and a project of The Nation Institute), Americans working under the auspices of AFRICOM have been involved in no less than 49 of 54 African countries in efforts to rebuild these nations into stable partners with robust, capable militaries. The idea stemmed from creating regional bulwarks that would be favorable to United States’ strategic interests in Africa. Yet, says TomDispatch, “over the last years, the results have often confounded the planning - with American operations serving as a catalyst for blowback…”11
Since then—as a direct result of what happened in Mali—France has reestablished a strong military presence in West Africa to counter insurgencies in its former colonies. Headquartered in the Chad capital of N’Djamena, and including specialist detachments in other Francophone African cities, this “Battle-ready” reaction force is able to counter insurrection at almost any level.
Islamist terrorists have gained significant ground in recent years. American-trained local forces have often performed poorly standing up to them. Unless all forces strive to raise their capabilities and standards and the most competent military forces in the world take decisive direct action, this problem will grow exponentially worse. An (apparently absent) strategy must be created. Competent leadership must be renewed. Western armies are going to have to embrace comfort with demonstrating a level of aggressiveness rarely permitted in recent years.
|1||Blair, David, “Beware the Rise of Africa’s Own Devil State,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 24, 2015.|
|2||Blair, David, “Boko Haram Is Now as Islamic Mini-State with its Own Territory,” Daily Telegraph, London, January 10, 2015.|
|3||British Broadcasting Corporation, “Boko Haram Crisis: Nigeria Army Warned about Baga Attack,” London, January 27, 2025.|
|4||Akinbajo, Idris, “Inside Details of Boko Haram’s 3-Pronged Attack on Maiduguri, Konduga, Monguno,” Premium Times, http://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/175592-inside-details-of-boko-harams-3-pronged-attack-on-maiduguri-konduga-monguno.html.|
|5||Alison, David, “Why Maiduguri City is Key to Boko Haram’s Future,” The Guardian, London, January 28, 2015.|
|6||“Boko Haram Crisis: Chad ‘Captures Nigerian Town from Militants,” BBC Report, London January 29, 2015.|
|7||Cristiani, Dario, Riccardo Fabiani, “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Implications for Algeria’s Regional and International Relations,” IAI Working Papers, April 2011. See also “Algeria”. CIA, Retrieved January 17, 2015.|
|8||West, Alex, “Deadliest Weapon So Far...The Plague,” The Sun, January 19, 2009.|
|9||Lake, Eli, “Al-Qaeda Bungles Arms Experiment,” The Washington Times, January 19, 2009.|
|10||“The Remote Mountains of Northern Mali—Perfect for Guerrillas,” BBC News Africa, February 4, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-21326831.|
|11||Turse, Nick, “Tomgram: Nick Turse, American Proxy Wars in Africa,” TomDispatch.com, March 13, 2014, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175818/tomgram%3A_nick_turse,_american_proxy_wars_in_africa.|