Today I have the pleasure to announce a new regular feature on this blog, a weekly SITREP about the Boko Haram movement and the conflict in Nigeria which has potential regional consequences. This weekly SITREP will be written by ‘Fulan Nasrullah’, an ex-intelligence analyst and private intelligence contractor who is now an Imam of the Ahlus-Sunnah Wal-Jamaa’ah/Salafiyyah of Sunni Islam and a resident of Northern Nigeria. No doubt, this will expose us to a very different view of Islam than the mostly Shia view which this blog is (correctly) known to have sympathies with. As always, Fulan Nasrullah’s views are his own and I post them here because I believe that they are interesting, not because I endorse them.
First, a short introduction: Who Are Boko Haram?
1. They are not one group but rather several seperate groups who follow the Yusufiyya ideology founded by Sheikh Muhammad Yusuf.
2. The sect was established in 2002 by Sheikh Yusuf a controversial cleric who was Sufi and became Shia and then became traditionalist Sunni before espousing his own ideology that called for boycotting Modern Education schools in Nigeria until such lies and blasphemies such as the theories of evolution are removed from textbooks. He also called for his followers to segregate themselves and establish their own parallel institutions i.e schools, hospitals, courts etc.
3. Military operations ordered against the sect in 2009 based on false intelligence supplied to Nigeria by the CIA, SIS and Mossad, and serious American diplomatic pressure mounted on Nigeria’s political leadership at the time. This assault on the hitherto peaceful movement in July 2009, would lead to the deaths of several thousand residents of Maiduguri, many of whom had no relationship to the sect or were Christians, would spark off the current war after Sheikh Yusuf surrendered to the Police and was tortured and killed in custody before his body was thrown out to his supporters gathered outside the Police headquarters in Maiduguri.
4. By 2011 group had split into four factions united in their ideology and their waging of a war against the Nigerian State.
5. Over 5million people affected in the three North-Eastern Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, including thousands displaced.
6. Collectively the sect’s factions have carried out scores of bomb attacks across the country, on mosques, churches, shopping malls, the National Police headquarters, the UN country headquarters etc. The factions have also carried out jail breaks to free thousands of their fighters and relatives held in prisons across the country.
7. Declared terrorist organizations in 2013 and 2014 by the US with both US and UN sanctions in place. the leaders of some of the factions have bounties on their heads of millions of dollars placed by the US and Nigeria.
Nigeria SITREP (Boko Haram)
Damboa: A Turning Point.
Damboa is a town and local government area (County or Parish to non-Nigerians) roughly 85km (53miles) south of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in North-East Nigeria. The local government area (LGA) hosts a population of around 350,00 persons with up to 80,000 in Damboa Town itself.
Damboa Town has a full Army Infantry battalion (Motorized) deployed in it along with up to a hundred police men of the Nigerian Police Force based there too. For two weeks a continuous under-reported battle has been raging with there with the Yusufiyya/Boko Haram groups (Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah of Sheikh Bukar Al-Barnawi, Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah of Abubakar Shekau, Ansorul-Muslimiin and Harakatul-Muhajiriin) joining forces and lunching a combined assault involving at least three full infantry battalion-size units (Nigerian standard= 510 per battalion).
Before this assault, the combined Yusufiyya forces had launched their first conventional campaign in April this year that had seen them push the military out of Talasla, Ajigin, Mangozam, Abima, and Kworua, thus cutting off Damboa Town (these villages are all around Damboa Tow) except for the highway northwards to Maiduguri that is still under government control, although extremely risky to use for non-military transports. The assault on Damboa Town was the culmination of this campaign.
The battle for Damboa Town began on 25th June when insurgent forces comprised mostly of Harakatul-Muhajiriin and some Ansorul-Muslimiin fighters, overran a military post 5km outside the town killing 21 soldiers and wounding dozens more. Hours later hundreds of insurgents (this time mostly from Ansorul-Muslimiin with the two Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah of Sheikh Bukar and Abubakar Shekau supplying a minority of the fighters) in Toyota pickups and utilizing dozens of captured Otokar APCs and BTR-3s would storm the town following intensive shelling from 75mm recoiless rifles and 81mm mortars for an hour or so.
The initial push into town would leave up to 30 soldiers dead including the battalion commander Lt. Col Shonva and the insurgents would press the attack until 5:00AM 26th June when they would break off the attack leaving a further 20 policemen dead in their wake including the local police commander.
Pulling back the insurgents instead concentrated on harassing government forces inside town with sniper and mortar attacks, until the soldiers and policemen began a controlled pullout. On July 7th, they again launched full scale combat operations (with increased troop strength on their part), overrunning the Army barracks after several hours of fighting which culminated in a full scale retreat by the soldiers. some 53 insurgents and 31 soldiers are killed and over a hundred more soldiers are injured, many of them badly. After the retreat of the Army to positions northwards along the highway to Maiduguri, it emerged that the rebels captured the battalion’s armouries almost intact many of which were newly delivered including dozens of APCs, 57.5mm Anti-Aircraft guns, hundreds of GPMGs, over fifty RPG-7 with several hundred rockets, over a hundred anti-tank missiles and some launchers, dozens of towed 75mm and 105mm howitzers with several thousand shells etc.
Following the rout and retreat of the Army and the Police, the defence of the town fell to local civil defence militias aka Civilian Joint Task Forces (CJTFs). Sevral thousand CJTF fighters from Maiduguri and other nearby towns and cities poured into Damboa by 10th July, setting off Phase IV of the fighting.
Airforce jets drop some bombs on 10th and 11th July, but the Airforce High Command soon rules out further operations due to heavy Anti-Aircraft flak from insurgent positions.
Army launches operations to re-enter and retake the town on 11th and 13th July, but the operations are called off after advancing troops are ambushed along Damboa-Biu and Damboa-Maiduguri highways by fighters from Harakatul-Muhajiriin and Ansorul-Muslimiin. At least a dozen troops are killed.
On 16th July, reports surface from Damboa Town that Khalid Al-Barnawi and over three hundred ‘shock troops’ from Harakatul-Muhajiriin have arrived to take charge of rooting the several thousand CJTF fighters in the town. Al-Barnawi is the Amir/Leader of Harakatul-Muhajiriin Wal-Mujahidiin (Movement Of Those Who Have Migrated And Those Who Strive/Struggle) the most capable of all the insurgent forces battling the government collectively named Boko Haram.
On 17th July, combined Boko Haram forces launch offensive combat operations to clear the CJTF forces from their positions in the town. This operations are spearheaded by Harakatul-Muhajiriin’s elite commandos wth Khalid Al-Barnawi said to be the theatre commander.
Fighting rages throughout the whole day and night of 17th July, well into the next morning. Local media reports an unspecified number of people were killed and most of the town’s few remaining residents (many of the civilians had already run away when the campaign began) had fled into the bushes.
CJTF commanders acknowledge that most of the town is under insurgent control (18th July) with the Imam of the town and the local government chairman dying in the fighting, and possibly ‘hundreds’ of their men killed in the last phase of the battle. Most of the town is in ruins. Bodies are still being collected of CJTF personnel (19th July). Military sources confirm the defeat but decline to give casualty figures.
Importance Of This Battle
Attached to this SITREP is a map showing Borno State and its various local government areas (LGAs, counties/parishes for non-Nigerians). Damboa is southwards from Maiduguri and north of Chibok where over 200 girls were abducted two months ago. It runs across the state like a belt from the Cameroun-Nigeria border area (and Lake Chad with the Republic of Chad just across on the other side) to Yobe State where the Jamaa’atu Ahlis-Sunnah factions of Sheikh Bukar and Abubakar Shekau both maintain significant presence. Already with most of Biu, Chibok, Gwoza and Askira-Uba LGAs under insurgent control except for the towns, the fall of Damboa creates a contiguous territory for the rebels which I will henceforth refer to as WarZone South.
WarZone South is ‘liberated’ territory running from the Adamawa Mountains (and insurgent safe havens and bases in Adamawa State and Northern Cameroun), to the southern part of Yobe State (Westwards from Borno).
This is the opposite of WarZone North which runs from the Chadian border at Bama, northwards through Ngala, Monguno, Kukawa and Abadam LGAs of Borno State (see map) across the inter-state boundary into Northern Yobe State.
The capture of Damboa represents a significant escalation and a strategic shift in the war. It is the first time the Boko Haram groups have jointly or individually launched a conventional operation, and also the first time they have come together and it was not to carry out a prison break. It is also the first time they have seized an urban centre and held on to it. This campaign marks a shift from their hit and run attacks to wear down government troops to a new phase of capturing and holding on to territory.
Simultaneously with the campaign to carve out territory in WarZone South, fighters have also been moving their bases in the inaccessible Mandara Mountains and Sambisa Forests and across the border in the Republic of Niger, to push out government forces from the strip of territory I have named WarZone North. I expect a major battle may soon be fought there.
The shift from guerilla operations to conventional warfare has been dramatic. Soldiers who have engaged the insurgents throughout the Damboa campaign and the battle for Damboa Town, have testified that they have employed complex tactics unlike before. They have for the first time taken to the field in regimental-size formations and have displayed remarkable command and control capabilities which the Army (amongst many other things) seems to lack.
The capture of Damboa Town and the clearing out of government forces from WarZone South has effectively cut off Maiduguri from Southern Borno, and with insurgent guerillas very active in Konduga LGA (see map), the capital of the state is gradually getting surrounded.
If Damboa is any indication of things to come, the Boko Haram/Yusufiyya groups are going to launch more combined operations, pushing out outwards from WarZones North and South, clearing rural ares of government troops and isolating them in towns before launching large-scale assaults to push them out of those towns until both WarZones meet in the Maiduguri-Jere axis (see map), thus leaving Maiduguri City surrounded by insurgent positions and rebel-held territory.
While the Army has tried to recapture Damboa, they have found themselves outmaneuvered by the rebels. Despite being overstretched on all fronts and lacking weaponry and equipment (this is due to massive entrenched corruption bleeding the $10billion defence budget dry), the Military’s greatest problem is that strategically speaking they are ten steps behind the insurgents. The rebels dictate the battle pace, and the course of the whole war. The strategic initiative is with them and the Military can only react to their moves. Already the Damboa Campaign has left the government confused on the response to give.