How Boko Haram mastered the art of ‘self-sustaining’ warfare

West African insurgents get their hands on too many guns from the armies sent to combat them

Boko Haram militants do not buy guns and ammunition on the black market to fuel their decade-long insurgency in West Africa – they simply nab weapons from the armies sent to fight against them, a study has revealed.

Set for publication next month, the report calls on the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) of West African armies tackling Boko Haram to better protect their arsenals and stop guns falling into insurgents’ hands.

“Boko Haram has been able to continue fighting this past decade as a result of weapons, ammunition and materiel seized during raids on convoys and bases of the government-backed forces fighting them,” said study author Eric Berman, who shared details of the report with The National.

“Much needs to be done in guarding caches and boosting the morale of anti-insurgency troops so militants cannot arm themselves and prolong conflicts.”

The report, to be published by the International Peace Information Service research group, echoes findings from other African conflicts by the Small Arms Survey, which tracks illicit weapons flows.

The militants have since 2015 seized weapons in dozens of attacks, in some cases making off with hundreds of guns, hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition and small convoys of off-road attack vehicles, Mr Berman said.

Other military booty includes battle tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers and mine-resistant vehicles. The true scale of the seizures is unknown, because military chiefs typically keep quiet about missing materiel.

In the most recent incident, at least 26 Chadian soldiers were killed and 14 others wounded in the early hours of Thursday by suspected Boko Haram assailants in an attack on their patrol around the Lake Chad area. It is not clear whether weapons were seized.

In some cases, whole battalions are overrun, like in Boko Haram’s rout of a military base and 700 troops in Jilli, Yobe state, in July 2018. In others, rebels hit patrols of a dozen soldiers and scarper after loading up with guns and ammunition.

Weapons airdrops to resupply government troops fall into the wrong hands. Convoys are raided. Underpaid soldiers from morale-sapped units are prone to abandoning their posts – and their weapons – in the face of an attacking militia.

Militants post videos online of gloating fighters on top of battle tanks pilfered from Nigeria’s army – replacing striped flags with Boko Haram’s black-and-white logo. Hauls have raised the group’s prowess, as well as its firepower.

The MNJTF coalition members, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, need to better protect caches and raise troop morale, while international bodies such as the UN, African Union and the EU should use their leverage to push for change, the report says.

“We need tighter rules and enhanced oversight by bodies authorising peace operations as well as arms transfers, especially to recipients whose security forces are active in conflict zones,” Mr Berman said.

The problem of extremists seizing arms from government-backed foes is not limited to West Africa, he said. Somalia’s Al Shabab group and insurgents fighting against the G5 Sahel force of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger also stage weapons-seizure raids.

A Nigerian soldier, with a rocket propelled grenade (RPG), patrols on the outskirt of the town of Damasak in North East Nigeria on April, 25 2017 as thousands of Nigerians, who were freed in 2016 by the Nigerian army from Boko Haram insurgents, are returning to their homes in Damasak. - Yagana Bukar's younger brothers Mohammed and Sadiq were among about 300 children kidnapped by Boko Haram from the town of Damasak in remote northeastern Nigeria nearly three years ago. But instead of the global outrage and social media campaign that followed a similar abduction of 219 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, there were no protests for the children of Damasak. (Photo by Florian PLAUCHEUR / AFP)

Officials from the UN and African governments told The National they were aware of the worrying trend of Boko Haram, Al Shabab and other African militant groups seizing weapons caches and have called for action.

Martin Kimani, Kenya's ambassador to the UN and chairman of an international group tracking small arms, called it a “very real problem” that Nairobi was using its two-year seat on the UN Security Council to tackle.

“Terrorist and insurgent organisations are gaining part of their weaponry from attacking state institutions, [including] police stations with armouries, deliberately seeking new weaponry and better weaponry,” Mr Kimani said.

“A lot more that needs to be done in terms of stockpile management within the peacekeeping environment.”

Ivor Fung, a UN deputy director on disarmament, emphasised the importance of arms manufacturers tagging weapons during their production so that they can be traced after they fall into “the wrong hands”.

The insurgency initiated by Boko Haram in 2009 has left more than 36,000 dead, mainly in Nigeria, while three million people across the region have been uprooted, the UN has said.

The group seeks to create a hardline Islamic state in Nigeria free of western influence, but has been dogged by infighting and splintered into rival factions, known by the acronyms JAS and the ISIS-aligned ISWAP.

Updated: August 8th 2021, 10:35 AM
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