Op-Ed: Sub-Saharan Africa’s two deadliest military groups

By F Charnas & B Ohayon 3 August 2015

Key differences in the strategies employed by Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria and al-Shabaab in Somalia lead us to believe that while both groups are likely to remain active, al-Shabaab is likely to be the larger international threat due to its relations with the local population, international recruitment, geopolitical strategic importance, and forward planning. By BAT-EL OHAYON and FRANK CHARNAS.

Sub-Saharan Africa is currently the scene of two prominent militant insurgencies, Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia. On the surface the two insurgencies are in similar situations, both being the subject of international media attention and currently combating renewed offensives from multinational military forces. Additionally, both organisations have links to international terrorist organisations and intend to create Sharia states or caliphates in the areas under their control. The following article seeks to highlight the key differences in the two groups’ strategies that lead us to believe that while both groups are likely to remain active, it is al-Shabaab that will likely be the larger international threat, because of  its relations with the local population, international recruitment, geopolitical strategic importance, and forward planning.

Nigeria is the continent’s largest economy and instability could be detrimental for the region, however the northeast in undeveloped, mostly economically insignificant for the country and, aside from for potential oil and gas reserves in the Lake Chad Basin, has little geostrategic importance. It should however be noted that Chad and Cameroon have suffered economic damage owing to the group’s control over trade routes and pipelines in the Extreme North Region of Cameroon. In contrast, Somalia sits in an extremely strategic geopolitical position in terms of international maritime trade, is neighbour to two of the continent’s most important economies (Kenya and Ethiopia) and is close to Yemen. This places al-Shabaab within touching distance of fellow al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, currently involved in the conflict in Yemen, potentially allowing for terrorist control over both sides of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which connect the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and is a significant thoroughfare for international oil and trade shipping.

At its peak, Boko Haram’s success was in part a result of the political situation within Nigeria. Governors of the majority Muslim north were unhappy with the presidency of southern Christian Goodluck Jonathan, who had come to power in 2010 following the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, unsettling an agreement to rotate the presidency between Muslim and Christian leaders. In some respects, an insurgency in the north served these leaders by destabilising the Jonathan regime. Jonathan himself was slow to react to the crisis, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to it and thus portray the country as unstable. Additionally, corruption and cronyism was rife during his term, which furthermore served to weaken the military.

This changed when Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls in Chibok in April 2014. The widespread international media coverage forced the federal government to actively address the conflict. Boko Haram had ties to international militant organisations which further enhanced its already direct threat to the power of northern political leaders, including the traditional Emirs, who hold much influence in the region. Additionally, Boko Haram was active in terrorising and destabilising the Extreme North Region of Cameroon, drawing both Cameroon and Chad into the conflict and affecting Chad’s trade flows which are reliant on passage through areas of northern Cameroon, although it should be noted that a multinational military force was already in place monitoring shared borders in the Lake Chad Region. The combined military efforts of Chad, Cameroon, Niger and determined Nigerian forces was successful in liberating large swathes of territory and manpower, partially changing the momentum of the conflict.

Ahead of US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Kenya and Ethiopia, African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces launched a multi-pronged offensive against some of al-Qaeda linked al-Shabaab’s last strongholds in the country, successfully capturing the former militant strongholds of Bardere and Dinsoor, which are agriculturally rich and strategically important, linking Mogadishu to Ethiopia and Kenya. Overall, AMISOM forces marked significant successes in recent months during Operation Indian Ocean, capturing key towns including the port of Kismayo, from which al-Shabaab sold coal and smuggled other goods, which financed its operations.

Additionally, several of the group’s top figures were killed in the last year, including head Ahmed Abdi Godane, on September 1 2014. Despite these successes, AMISOM proved to have limited capabilities in maintaining their positive military momentum, particularly given the weakness of the central government in Mogadishu, as well as the weak Somali National Forces (SNA), which are unable to guarantee that formerly captured towns will remain liberated.

Moreover, Operation Indian Ocean has created major negative consequences by pushing al-Shabaab away from the coast and towards the rural areas of the country, and thus closer to Somalia’s neighbors, particularly Kenya. With its financial supply routes cut off and its senior leadership consistently targeted, many suspected that al-Shabaab’s capabilities would decline, but that’s not the case. Attacks in Mogadishu continue, including bombings such as the high-profile attack on the Jazeera Hotel on July 26 which killed 15 people, as well as offensives against AMISOM military bases, most recently in the town of Lego, which reportedly claimed the lives of at least 50 Burundian soldiers. While this is in part attributed to the weakness of the Somali Army, the central Mogadishu government, and AMISOM’s limited capabilities, it is additionally linked to al-Shabaab’s ability to quickly adjust to the situation on the ground, not only in order to survive, but also to fulfill its long term plan of creating a caliphate. Al-Shabaab’s ability to change strategy has proven successful in the past: For example, its fighters would suddenly no longer engage AMISOM directly, opting to simply withdraw from an area only to regain control of it later. This comes from al-Shabaab’s long experience and its ability to learn from past mistakes, its reach having peaked in 2012 before it lost most of the territory it once held.

Similarly, the multinational West African military coalition battling Boko Haram was initially highly successful in defeating the militant group, liberating large swathes of captured territory. This was in part due to a tactical advantage; their troops were well-equipped and better trained, while the militants adopted a modus operandi similar to that of the Islamic State, using large numbers of fighters in broad attacks on locations with the purpose of occupying and administering their captured territory. Boko Haram has since pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and has officially renamed the Wilayat Gharb Afriqiya (West Africa Province). However, the group has returned to using traditional terrorist and guerilla tactics, with notable success. Additionally, coalition forces were unable to hold on to territory, claiming local Nigerian forces did not provide adequate support in filling power vacuums in the liberated territories as coalition troops moved further into combat.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who was inaugurated on May 29, was elected in part due to the belief that he would be more effective in the conflict against Boko Haram, and he has wasted little time in taking concrete steps toward combating the militant group. Most recently, he decided to move the headquarters of the military operation against Boko Haram to Maiduguri, the symbolic and important capital city of Borno State, and the birthplace of Boko Haram. Buhari also reshuffled the military command, called for greater military aid and has solidified his country’s relationship with coalition partners Chad, Niger and Cameroon. However, despite these steps, the Islamist insurgency has not abated, with an estimated death toll of 800 since the inauguration of the new president, as well as an apparent increase in attacks on Maiduguri, possibly in response to the decision to relocate the military command. The militants have also launched notable attacks on N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, and in Cameroon, as well as in areas surrounding Lake Chad, including parts of Nigerien and Chadian territory.

Boko Haram has been able to maintain its ranks through economic incentives offered to its militants. But despite this, the group has a poor relationship with the local population in the area, kidnapping women and children and carrying out mass executions of those deemed to be non-believers or those unwilling to join its ranks. However, as the pressure on the militants builds, and their domestic political positioning becomes untenable, it appears that Boko Haram has little option for survival and thus has its back against the wall. The group’s allegiance to Islamic State, may bring it much needed support, but it is unclear how this will concretely aid militants on the ground. Additionally, due to its harsh treatment of local populations, and the rise of a northern Muslim president, it is likely that the group will be increasingly unable to rely on local populations for support and shelter.

Thus, though Boko Haram may continue to operate as a terrorist or guerilla force, it is unlikely to achieve the goal of establishing a caliphate in West Africa, particularly given the multinational political will to defeat it and the political situation in Nigeria which is no longer conducive to the group’s survival.

Contrary to the current Boko Haram tactics, al-Shabaab is seemingly attempting to gain more local support and indoctrinate the population. This has mostly been underscored by recent incursions into Kenya, with al-Shabaab members preaching in mosques or public squares, hoisting their flag and leaving the area, without being involved in any violence. These actions are motivated by two main aims. The first is to demonstrate the inability of Kenyan security forces to prevent al-Shabaab’s presence. But al-Shabaab is also taking a softer approach and attempting to gain support in border areas. Should this approach be successful, it would enable al-Shabaab to gain a haven of sorts in Kenya’s eastern regions, which it needs as a rear operational base given its recent losses in Somalia. The tactic of using back operational bases in the border regions of neighboring countries was employed successfully by Boko Haram in Cameroon’s Extreme North Region, but led to a harsh reprisals from both Cameroon and Chad, whose trade routes were interfered with. It is important to note that the eastern regions of Kenya  have a highly disenfranchised Somali ethnic population, which is often accused of supporting al-Shabaab. Indeed, several of the attackers in the Garissa University incident last April were Kenyan nationals. Likewise al-Shabaab has been able to recruit youths from Somali populations around the world, including in the US, Canada and Germany. These, in addition to Western non-Somali recruits, give al-Shabaab a wider recruitment base, and prove the group’s ability to function internationally including in the West, potentially underscoring a threat to a recruit’s country of origin.

In sum, the current tactics employed by Boko Haram may be viewed as juvenile and possibly shortsighted. Launching attacks against regional military forces such as Chad is likely to encourage an increasingly staunch military response from what have already proven to be more powerful forces. Moreover, its approach towards the local population and the current political situation in the region is not one that will enable the group to achieve its end of establishing a caliphate. However, history has shown that the Islamist militant group is robust and that it is extremely difficult to entirely destroy isolated terror cells. Thus Boko Haram is likely to remain active, albeit in a localised manner, reverting to classic terrorist techniques, threatening local physical and economic security. In contrast, al-Shabaab has adopted a more calculated and mature approach. The group has witnessed the loss of its strategically important territory and has began adapting to this new reality. The group’s geopolitical positioning and links to al-Qaeda militants in Yemen may create a danger to international shipping and commerce in the Red Sea region. Additionally, through its ability to attract foreign recruits, and new territorial designation, the group is likely to continue toward its goal of establishing a state, posing a notable security threat both regionally and internationally. DM

Frank Charnas and Bat-el Ohayon are senior intelligence analysts specialising in sub-Saharan African affairs. Follow them on twitter @Frankcharnas and @Bateloh

Photo: Police officers and members of the media take cover at a distance from the Westgate Shopping Centre after continuous gunfire was heard coming from the mall in Nairobi September 23, 2013. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola


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