Lessons and Questions.

Boko Haram first rose to the attention of people in Europe and America in mid-2014.[1] Then Nigeria occupied the center of attention. However, the Nigerian military appeared incapable of defeating Boko Haram. The military has been used as a source of income for politicians, rather than as a fighting force. Furthermore, the Nigerian government largely spurned Western offers of assistance.[2] Boko Haram also spilled into the surrounding countries of Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. It conquered a territory the size of Belgium. So the Western countries (France and the United States) turned to those same neighboring countries to lead the fight against Boko Haram. American Special Forces troops were assigned to assist the African military forces actually willing to fight Boko Haram. The Americans established a base for drones in northern Cameroon. From this base surveillance drones have been hunting Boko Haram forces throughout the whole four country area.

Chad has played an important role in this process. Chad has a troubled recent history, to put it mildly.[3] As a result, its troops have a lot of experience at fighting armed opponents (as opposed to shooting at civilian demonstrators). Unlike Nigeria, Chad had devoted most of its defense budget to training and equipping the soldiers. Having already battled the Islamist uprising in Mali in 2013, troops from Chad helped roll back Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger during 2015. Recently, this strategy began to pay off as Boko Haram was forced out of territory it had controlled and lost much of its ability to wage “conventional”—if irregular–war.

However, the armies of Chad and Cameroon can defeat Boko Haram, but they are too small to hold all the ground and to provide security. So, defeat in one form of warfare has caused Boko Haram to turn to another form: suicide bombings and road-side IEDs. For example, since July 2016, Boko Haram has carried out at least 40 suicide bombings in northern Cameroon alone. Recently, a pair of suicide bombers struck in Chibok in northern Nigeria, killing 12 and wounding 15. So far, Boko Haram’s campaign is working. An estimated 100,000 people have fled the Far Northern region; driving from one village to the next requires a military escort; and the local economy is hardly functioning.

With the regular armed forces strung out on other operations, the government of Cameroon has had to improvise. One response has been to organize self-defense groups called “comites de vigilance” in each village. These local militias aren’t—yet—particularly well-armed. They possess a mix of what amount to “zip guns,” machetes, and bows and arrows. However, their chief role is to be alert to any strangers who appear, then to inform the army.

These developments raise a number of questions. First, most of Chad’s troops are Sunni Muslims. Why will they fight against an ISIS affiliate, when the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria will not fight against ISIS? Second, both Chad and Iraq get most of their income from oil, but the price of oil has fallen. Will this affect their ability to sustain the struggle? Third, will a defeat of ISIS forces lead to the same switch to relying purely on terrorism within Iraq and Syria?

[1] Yarolsav Trofimov, “ Nations Turn to Chad to Fight Jihadists in West Africa,” WSJ, 22 January 2016; and “After Losing Land, Boko Haram Responds With Bombs,” WSJ, 29 January 2016

[2] Probably the two are related. The former French territories have maintained contact with France. In addition, Israel has provided some training in Cameroon.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chad