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Remote warfare and the Boko Haram insurgency

by Scott Hickie, Chris Abbott and Matthew Clarke

Boko Haram fighters

The United States has been using special operations forces, covert agents, mercenaries and proxy armies in order to fight wars out of the public eye since the Cold War. By the time of the ‘war on terror’, these unconventional forces were being used alongside regular coalition military units in counter-insurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, the recent and rapid development of new technologies and capabilities, as well as a lack of political appetite for large-scale military interventions, has led Western governments to embrace a strategy of ‘remote warfare’ in today’s multiple and dispersed operations against violent jihadist networks. The recent shift away from ‘boots on the ground’ deployments towards light-footprint Western military interventions means Western forces often now work with and through local and regional forces, who undertake the bulk of the frontline fighting.

With the rise of Boko Haram, international support to Nigeria and its neighbours has increased, with the US, the UK, France, Russia and China providing training, equipment, intelligence and military aid. The evolution of the Boko Haram insurgency over 2017 presents an opportunity for reflection and evaluation. Analysis for this report shows that while the operations carried out by the Nigerian military, alongside its regional and international partners, have degraded Boko Haram, they have also encouraged the factional forces to metastasise, build resilience and craft new tactics to sustain ongoing political violence.

These developments raise important wider questions. What happens when territory is reclaimed from insurgencies through high-tempo counter-terrorism operations and remote warfare yet militants retain the capacity to exploit human insecurity and destabilise efforts at normalisation? Does remote warfare provide sufficient flexibility to span broader timelines and the different stages of a conflict? The answers have significance outside Nigeria, as ISIS has now entered a similar stage in the wake of the destruction of its ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria.

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While Boko Haram’s focus remains on the three strategic attack nodes of Maiduguri, Lake Chad and the Borno (Nigeria)/Extreme Nord (Cameroon) border, it has increased its attacks on civilians relative to attacks on military and law enforcement targets. It has also increasingly relied on suicide attacks, including using children as bombers. The same mix of conventional military operations and remote warfare that Nigeria and its partners used to reclaim territory and prevent larger-scale swarm attacks may not now achieve the same successes in this new conflict dynamic.

Open Briefing and the Remote Warfare Programme at the Oxford Research Group have been closely monitoring these developments over 2017. As part of this, Open Briefing has produced five intelligence briefings since April summarising and analysing the main international developments, the actions of US and European partners, the actions of local governments and coalitions, and the various Boko Haram attacks over the previous month. Through these, we have tracked Boko Haram’s shift from high-profile attacks on government forces and infrastructure to high-frequency attacks on soft targets, such as camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). We have also noted the need for the forces arrayed against Boko Haram to evolve their tactics away from bombing raids and ground clearance operations, as this approach is unlikely to counter the new Boko Haram threat.

Nigeria’s government currently appears to be in a tactical halfway house. It is expending significant effort on killing or capturing Boko Haram’s leaders. This is often through air strikes by armed manned and unmanned aerial platforms followed up by ground forces raids, sometimes with special operations forces (SOF) support. These operations are designed to restore confidence in the government’s ability to protect its citizens, but when the leaders remain at large it undermines that confidence. At the same time, it is deploying the newly-developed special mobile strike forces from military and law enforcement agencies in order to try and counter Boko Haram’s attacks on soft targets. However, the ability of mobile teams to reduce these attacks and deny Boko Haram access to their strategic attack nodes is uncertain. While local and regional defence and security actors have the tactical upper hand in the conflict, the potential need for further external support cannot be ruled out.

Any US, European or Russian military participation in or support for Nigeria’s mobile strike forces carries reputational and operational risks. Limited air platforms to move troops, a higher likelihood of civilian casualties and friendly fire incidents and the potential for human rights abuses are all risks for external foreign forces. Foreign involvement becomes riskier where counter-terrorism (CT) operations are shared across multiple Nigerian agencies and are reactively shaped by opportunistic Boko Haram attacks. The geopolitical objectives of foreign powers may not sufficiently justify such risks. For some foreign powers, containing Boko Haram within north-eastern Nigeria may be enough to meet their national security interests.