CONWAY WADDINGTON continues his discussion of the poor reporting of Boko Haram, and the negative consequences this has had on attempts to understand the group’s sources of funding. Part I is available here.
So what then of the other anti-aircraft weapons the group has been described as possessing? Well, these refer to anti-aircraft guns, and in particular, the large-calibre machine guns that are pintle-mounted on the backs of vehicles. Traditionally, mounting large calibre machine guns on the back of vehicles (which are known as ‘technicals’), has been a highly effective means of providing mobile firepower for rebel or insurgent forces. The Libyan civil war and the ongoing Syrian civil war have both shown numerous iterations of such vehicles. It is likely that reports of anti-aircraft weapons found at caches or amongst abandoned or captured Boko Haram materiel refers to such weapons. These are not especially complicated or technologically advanced weapons. A 12.7mm DshK heavy machine gun, which can and has been used as an anti-aircraft weapon, and is a favourite weapon to be mounted on a technical, was designed in the 1930s. And yet, the phrase ‘anti-aircraft’ appears enough to signify a sophisticated capability. Worse, that capability is inferred to mean the group must have some significant backing. And here is where the speculation gets out of hand.
Overlooking facts to fit narratives
In late 2013, Nigerian military reports suggested that the May 2013 state of emergency and subsequent military crackdown on three north-eastern states (Adamwa, Borno and Yobe states) had been successful to the point that the military was essentially mopping up the remnants of Boko Haram. Reports of airstrikes and ground sweeps of training and resupply ‘bush camps’ suggested (perhaps counter-intuitively) that large groups of Boko Haram, possibly moving back and forth across the Cameroon and Niger borders, were being wiped out. Other incidents in that period contradicted this narrative further. In particular, Boko Haram launched several attacks on military targets, including a tank battalion barracks, and an air-force base in Maiduguri. Though the Nigerian military claimed to have decisively won these engagements, the fact remained: a broken and rag-tag insurgent force does not willingly and repeatedly attack military installations.
The first three months of 2014 have shown that Boko Haram retains the willingness and capability to engage in significant, high intensity attacks. Instead of military targets, Boko Haram raiding parties (described as convoys of vehicles with military-like markings)have been striking numerous villages around the city of Maiduguri in Borno state. Not only did these attacks signal the group’s ability to move about relatively freely, but also that the group could rally at least some, sizeable forces. However, it should also be noted that the attacks themselves were not particularly sophisticated – small arms, possibly hand-grenades and RPGs being used, while other parts of the attacks consisted of torching buildings.
So what of the logistical needs of such a group? Frustratingly, the very nature of Boko Haram reduces analysis of the group’s logistical footprint largely to speculation. We simply don’t know how large the group is, or even what its organisational structure consists of. Traditionally, it was believed that Boko Haram consisted of numerous, small cells, scattered across urban centres in the north-east of the country, capable of massing on occasion but benefiting from dispersion as a means of eluding detection. Since the crackdown, those cells have presumably been expelled from the cities – and the military narrative would suggest Boko Haram to now be operating more like an insurgent force or rebel army of sorts, moving between camps. Logistically, supplying such a group with ammunition, fuel, food and water would become far more challenging under the latter scenario.
Debating the means by which Boko Haram might be acquiring supplies or from whom it might be receiving support opens up further territory for speculation, particularly over its relationship with other non-state actors groups, or indeed, the possibility of internal support (as has often been rumoured in Nigeria’s highly competitive political circles). All too easily, a heavily edited and summarised comment might emerge as a standard sign-off on media reports on the group – popularising and propagating wildly speculative assumptions based on inaccurate reporting in the first place. This has been seen before in recent memory: see the Lord’s Resistance Army’s supposed presence in Uganda according to the Kony2012 social-media campaign which based its story on woefully outdated information.
When statements by local politicians argued that the group was better equipped and better paid, and had higher morale than Nigerian security forces, this should have been perceived as an indictment of the state of the Nigerian security sector, not an indication of Boko Haram’s growing support base.
Indeed, bank robberies, extortion, looting, or kidnap and ransom are all means by which the group could fund itself, particularly if the operational costs of the group are low. However, the emergence of a narrative that Boko Haram is now in possession of ‘advanced’ and presumably expensive weaponry defies such simple explanation, and instead logically presumes some more complex funding model must be in place.
A critical analysis of potential sources of funding is then required to dispel knee-jerk assumptions. One possibility for external funding could see Boko Haram receiving support from state or non-state actor groups outside of Nigeria. Boko Haram’s continued existence does not appear to directly favour any of Nigeria’s neighbours – so it seems unlikely that it is being used as a proxy. Nor does Boko Haram seem to have made much headway in terms of forming strong or working alliances with other militant groups (like AQIM), at least, not to the extent that they might be receiving substantial support. Furthermore, it seems doubtful the group is receiving much in the way of aid from supporters further afield: the bulk of the Nigerian diaspora is Christian, and so unlikely to aid the group.
There are also good reasons to believe that the group is relatively isolated compared to many other militant groups. Efforts to develop a working partnership with AQIM have seemingly borne little fruit – probably because Boko Haram has quite regularly killed Muslims (who disagreed with the group’s activities). It was for this reason that a sub-group, Ansaru, splintered from Boko Haram in 2011. Similarly, Boko Haram is predominantly comprised of a minority ethnic group, the Kanuri, which has further limited its ability to gain support, or extend its presence beyond the northeast corner of the country. The group has, however, engaged in activities to fund and sustain itself, notably through prison-attacks to free captured personnel, and bank robberies. Some media reports and analyses are even going as far as to suggest Boko Haram has dealings with transnational organised criminal networks participating in trafficking across the region, or, that the group is connected to pirate and oil-smugglers on the coast. The former is not completely implausible, particularly as Boko Haram’s traditional territorial backyard happens to be the meeting point of several, difficult to guard borders. However, to suggest Boko Haram is in any way connected to MEND is highly unlikely – given substantial apparent animosity between the groups. Similarly, the logistics and practicalities of supporting pirate activities in the Gulf of Guinea – some 1000 kilometres away on the opposite side of the country – effectively rules out the likelihood of any meaningful relationship existing there.
Finally, the possibility of secret funding through Nigerian-based supporters or patrons has been floating around since at least the early outbreaks of violence in 2009/2010. All sorts of allegations against various political figures have been raised, usually peppered with political undertones. These allegations have gained traction, not least because it is actually quite plausible that Boko Haram could be receiving at least some support from political actors within Nigeria. Something worth bearing in mind is the role that tribal, religious, and ethnic loyalties play in Nigerian politics. The more chaos Boko Haram causes, the greater the political pressure on the current government (which could translate into opportunity for opposition leaders, or those seeking greater autonomy). However, this potential motive does not in any way constitute actual evidence of direct funding or logistical aid being given to Boko Haram.
Several factors promote the narrative that Boko Haram possesses allies amongst the Nigerian political elite. There are strong motives for accusing political rivals of collaboration with Boko Haram, for example. Local media have been happy to speculate freely about such things, feeding into infighting and counter-allegations between politicians. Hanging over this, in a perverse sort of circular logic, is the ‘evidence’ of Boko Haram’s apparent acquisition of advanced arms and capabilities. For an insurgent group to continue to survive and inflict significant harm in large attacks, despite the major victories claimed by the Nigerian military – must mean that the group is receiving outside aid. Or so the story goes, in isolation of any real factual basis.
It is apparent then, that analysis of Boko Haram and the insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria remains highly dependent on questionable reporting from local media, international media, and military announcements. Given the frequently inaccurate nature of these reports, it is important to remain cautious about forming more complex analyses using them, and to take efforts to be as accurate – and circumspect – as possible with what material is reliably known.
COVER IMAGE: Nigerian troops on exercise – A1C JEFFERY ALLEN (US Army)