As Attacks on Boko Haram Mount, Where Might They Hide?

A Chadian soldier peers into a burnt armored vehicle, which the Chadian military says belonged to insurgent group Boko Haram, after the Chadians destroyed it during battle in Gambaru, February 26, 2015. (Stringer/Reuters/Corbis)

Boko Haram’s violent efforts to establish an Islamic state appear to have suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks, with the entry of security forces from Chad and Niger into the conflict placing additional pressure on the Salafi-jihadist movement. According to Nigerian government sources, Chadian military personnel have wrested control of the towns of Gamboru, Dikwa, Damasak, and Malam Fatori from Boko Haram, while their Nigerian counterparts have allegedly recaptured Baga, Marte, and Monguno. Meanwhile, the group’s hold on the town of Bama seems to be slipping, following sustained army and vigilante attacks. Soon, Boko Haram could find itself no longer in possession of any major population centers in northeastern Nigeria. This bleak prospect likely contributed to its purported decision to pledge fealty to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), even if many informed observers doubt the immediate practical benefit of the alliance.

Boko Haram has faced serious reversals before. The surge of Nigerian soldiers into the state of Borno following the government in Abuja’s May 2013 state of emergency declaration, coupled with the rise of local vigilante groups such as the Civilian Joint Task Force, seems to have crippled its presence in Maiduguri—Borno’s capital and most populous city—and several other towns. Despite this, Boko Haram successfully regrouped in northeastern Nigeria’s rural hinterlands. If its current military struggles continue, the group will likely elect to pursue a similar strategy of melting back into the countryside and reverting to hit-and-run attacks to exhaust its adversaries. Two rural areas in particular offer Boko Haram refuge: the Lake Chad region and the Mandara Mountains.

Lake Chad

Over the course of Boko Haram’s nearly six year-long insurrection, few areas have proven more susceptible to its armed operations than Lake Chad and its immediate environs. The heavy presence of Boko Haram fighters in the region reportedly prompted the April 2013 raid by Nigerian military forces on Baga that claimed numerous non-combatant lives. This incursion failed to curb Boko Haram activities, which include using the lake as a conduit to smuggle small arms. Its ability to operate here with relative impunity stems largely from the lake’s geography and demographics, which together have traditionally made the region a permissive environment for non-state armed actors.

Lake Chad has experienced a precipitous decline in its size since the 1960s. Today its waters cover approximately a 20th of the territory they once did. Much of the now-exposed lake floor has transformed into a nearly impenetrable marshland that is periodically inundated. This has contributed to there being no permanent roads in the vicinity, with many areas only accessible by boat, particularly during the rainy season. Further, most of the settlements found on the lakebed last for just several seasons before their inhabitants relocate. This fluid dynamic makes it exceedingly difficult for officials to maintain an enduring presence or gather accurate intelligence about activities taking place there.

The generally transient nature of Lake Chad’s population presents an additional challenge to counter-insurgency efforts. Soil found on the lake floor is relatively more fertile than the lands of much of the Sahel region, attracting would-be farmers from across northern Nigeria and beyond. Overwhelmingly young and male, these migrants frequently fail to realize their ambitions, instead forming a body of socially alienated itinerants, who are vulnerable to the monetary enticements of armed groups and exceedingly difficult for authorities to monitor. Lake Chad’s settlers also hold few, if any, allegiances to the local traditional leaders who often serve as a bulwark against political and religious radicalism.

Long before Boko Haram’s emergence, the lake played host to brigands and insurgents. During the 1990s, the Movement for Development and Democracy, a defunct Chadian rebel group, used the area as a haven for its fighters. Lake Chad’s chronic criminality prompted the governments of Nigeria, Chad, and Niger to set up the Multinational Joint Task Force, whose base Boko Haram sacked this past January.

Mandara Mountains

Running along much of the Nigeria-Cameroon frontier in Borno and northern Adamawa states, the Mandara Mountains may not appear on the surface to be an ideal base of operations for a Salafi-jihadist group such as Boko Haram. The area’s population has traditionally included large numbers of Christians and polytheists whose ancestors fled from Muslim slavers. Indeed, Nigerian security personnel had little difficulty ejecting a group of gunmen suspected of being affiliated to a Boko Haram faction when they attempted to establish a foothold near the vicinity of the town of Gwoza in 2004.

Yet the area’s rugged terrain—which stymied 19th century incursions by Muslim cavalrymen—makes it difficult for regular military units to maneuver heavy equipment or maintain logistical networks. The reported destruction of many local bridges has further isolated much of the Mandara Mountains from the rest of Nigeria. As for the territory’s non-Muslim inhabitants, many have reportedly abandoned their homes in the face of Boko Haram attacks, thereby depriving the anti-Boko Haram coalition of potential informants and auxiliary forces.

Nigerian forces claim to have recaptured a number of urban centers in the area since January 2015, most notably Michika. However, many uprooted locals have expressed skepticism over claims that the surrounding countryside is also secure. If reports that Boko Haram utilizes a network of caves and man-made tunnels in the hillsides prove accurate, then Abuja likely faces many more weeks, if not months, of hard fighting if it hopes to clear the Mandara Mountains of Boko Haram partisans.

Return to the Countryside

Boko Haram has several other options for potential havens aside from Lake Chad and the Mandara Mountains. The movement could withdraw some of its forces to southeastern Yobe State or the Hadejia-Nguru wetlands. Borno’s Biu Plateau presents another possible destination. Removed from Nigeria’s borderlands, this area could offer Boko Haram refuge from the seemingly more effective Cameroonian and Chadian militaries. Indeed, Biu appears to have witnessed an upsurge in Boko Haram violence since Chad’s armed intervention against the group.

Regardless of where Boko Haram’s fighters relocate, its current woes likely do not presage an imminent demise. Nigeria’s military will struggle to maintain its current operational tempo, particularly as it confronts other domestic security challenges, such as recurrent ethno-religious violence in the Middle Belt region. It remains a distinct possibility that the anti-Boko Haram coalition will prematurely declare victory, allowing surviving Boko Haram factions to regroup, perhaps with some limited support from ISIS affiliates. The final chapter of the Boko Haram story has yet to be written.

Michael W. Baca is a Washington-based Africa analyst. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.