Parsing Through a US-Boko Haram Strategy

February 18, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Security analysts have called for a more coherent strategy from the United States regarding the burgeoning insurgent group in Nigeria, Boko Haram.  While it is flippant to assume that the administration is not taking the Boko Haram threat seriously or does not have a policy, it is worthwhile to examine a Boko Haram-specific policy and assess its merits.

To do this, it would be appropriate to begin with the recent announcement that the U.S. will supply intelligence and communication equipment to African partners.  Previously, the U.S. deployed drones to the region to assist in finding over 200 school girls who were kidnapped by the militant group.  A key hurdle for the U.S. in providing aid to the Nigerian military directly is the Nigerian government’s record on human rights since U.S. legal stipulations prevent direct military aid to nations with poor human rights records.  Though, at a Senate hearing last year following the kidnapping of the schoolgirls, Alice Friend, then principle deputy director for African Affairs at the Defense Department, stated that the U.S. was engaged in intelligence sharing with the Nigerian government, which does not violate U.S. laws.  Further, Ms. Friend suggested at the time that U.S. policy should focus on training members of the Nigerian military, especially in counterinsurgency.

For the U.S., training Nigerian troops would appear to be a formidable start.  “So far, the U.S. military has trained only small numbers of Nigerians to participate in international peacekeeping forces,” wrote former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations John Campbell.  “In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense deployed twelve active-duty U.S. soldiers to Nigeria to train a 650-man Nigerian Ranger battalion for combat operations that would presumably be free of the taint of human rights violations.”  However, Campbell asserted that training small bastions of Nigeria security forces implicates the U.S. with Nigeria’s “ongoing human rights violations” and “tars” the U.S. reputation.  There are clear signs that Nigeria’s military and leadership is both ill-equipped and incompetent as reports indicated they had prior knowledge of Boko Haram attacks and did not act to prevent them.

Neighboring countries such as Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Benin have all committed ground troops to help quell the Boko Haram insurgency numbering 8,700 troops.  Boko Haram has also begun small incursions within the borders of several of the above mentioned nations and has threatened the security situations of their central governments.  Given much of the density of the geographic terrain in which Boko Haram operates, a ground force is necessary to push them back. Moreover, the troop commitments are something the U.S. can work with as the U.S. is finding reliable troops difficult to come by in Iraq and Syria as part of their effort to beat back the Islamic State group.

Mr. Campbell also outlined various short and long term policies for the U.S., which mostly include bolstering humanitarian efforts and ensuring free and fair elections.  Professor for Africa Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Seth Kaplan, attributes Boko Haram’s rise to poverty in the northern region of Nigeria, which is primarily inhabited by Muslims.  “There is also growing resentment in the predominantly Muslim north toward the south, which is doing much better on almost every conceivable measure: growth is higher; there is more investment; and public services such as education and health care are, however poor in some places, significantly more robust,” wrote Kaplan.  The accepted political practice in Nigeria has been to alternate between northern Muslim presidents and southern Christian presidents, though this paradigm was disrupted when current president Goodluck Jonathan decided to run again.  “A victory in February’s election for Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north, would help lessen the feelings of marginalization in the north,” Kaplan continued, though noting that a Muslim candidate victory would not be a panacea.

Boko Haram has rapidly shifted from a parochially peaceful group that wished to institute Sharia Law in the north to the barbaric terrorist insurgency it is today.  Their leader, Abubakar Shekau, is very mysterious with rumors sprouting that he has been killed and an actor has taken his place in propaganda videos.  Boko Haram’s general objectives are known but they seem much less organized than other, more well established terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, with whom Boko Haram was thought to loosely coordinate, and the Islamic State group, with whom Boko Haram is now thought to coordinate.  In fact, there is evidence to support media cooperation between the adept Islamic State group and Boko Haram whose previous videos were immensely inferior to the cinematic quality of the Islamic State group’s.  Boko Haram’s cryptic practices are exemplified by their support for Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph and therefore the spiritual leader of Muslims worldwide, yet their declaration of their own caliphate in Nigeria.

With the rise of the Islamic State group and their growing influence among provinces around Africa and South Asia, the U.S. might take a greater interest in trying to prevent the group, its ideology and potential allies from spreading.  Egypt has already begun striking the Islamic State group’s province in Libya following the murder of Egyptian Coptic Christians this weekend and has called for more foreign intervention in Libya.  Furthermore, Italy has stated that if diplomatic efforts in Libya fail, they are prepared to offer 5,000 ground troops to defeat the Islamic State group’s province.

With limited resources due to budgetary constraints and a shrinking force combined with taking the lead in a global military coalition in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. could be spreading itself thin with greater involvement in northern and western Africa.  However, it could be wise policy to aid Nigeria’s neighboring nations with small special operations trainers and intelligence assistance.  However, the situation in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen will draw most of the attention for the severely limited U.S. drone fleet for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collection meaning they will likely be unable to supply African partners with ISR assistance from above.  It is possible that the U.S. could sell armed or unarmed ISR drones to African partners as the U.S. announced this week it will begin to sell such equipment on a case-by-case basis, though, this prospect is unlikely.

The Nigerian government has already been forced to postpone the February presidential elections in order to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency.  There is reason to believe the group is weakening some, but that is no reason to let the foot off the gas.  The U.S. can try to ensure that the elections take place fairly – given sentiments of the system being rigged – as well as continuing to commit humanitarian assistance.  Intelligence support is also another feasible area for U.S. cooperation.  The lack of intelligence and individuals on the ground has led to a significant delay in reporting on massacres Boko Haram has committed in remote locations.  Nigeria is the most populous African nation with robust economic potential and Boko Haram has killed more people than the Islamic State group.  The U.S. should (and is) assessing the situation but many concerned experts and citizens want a more overt strategy.