Boko Haram has achieved substantial notoriety, particularly as it has engaged in a ferocious campaign of raids on villages in north-eastern Nigeria in recent months. Difficult reporting conditions and the shadowy nature of the group itself have led to much analysis based on speculation, much of which has offered little more than a wide range of ill-informed interpretations of the group’s capabilities, structure, and strategy.
With current military efforts seemingly unable to quell the insurgency, the question of how best to deal with Boko Haram has become increasingly important. While the speculation offered by the media has created an array of plausible narratives, the widespread acceptance of stories based on questionable data is a threat to valuable and meaningful analysis. In particular, inaccurate reporting, compounded by insufficiently rigorous analysis can lead to outright fantasy.
Here, then, is an overview of how such things can occur, and perhaps, be avoided.
False narratives and media-pipe dreams
Analysis begins with raw intelligence. Often in the form of media reports. Those reports can be purely ‘factual’, in the sense of reporting on events alone, or attempt varying degrees of insight and speculation. Such insight pieces are often intended to relate to particular news angles, intended to appeal to the publication’s perceived readership. A favourite news value since at least 2001 has been anti-aircraft capabilities and terrorism.
Any firearm, if pointed at the sky, is technically capable of bringing down an aircraft (within reasonable limits in terms of the type and altitude of the aircraft). As an illustration, the vast bulk of damage inflicted upon US/coalition/ISAF helicopters in Iraq and Afghanistan, was small arms fire. ‘Anti-aircraft’ weapons, though, generally refer to a specific class of systems purposely designed to effectively engage airborne targets. Furthermore, there are key differences between the design of an anti-aircraft gun and an anti-aircraft missile system. An AA-gun typically refers to a quick-firing, specially mounted, high calibre weapon – a heavy machine gun on a special mount with special sights being an example.
An anti-aircraft missile system refers to Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs – which are generally part of an incorporated air-defence network composed of radar systems and multiple batteries for effectiveness), or man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) which are generally shoulder-fired weapons. The quintessential example of MANPADS are the US-supplied Stinger missile systems used by Mujahedeen rebels against Soviet attack helicopters.
In reporting about MANPADS entering into the hands of non-state actors – such as was feared in 2011 when the Gadaffi regime was overthrown in Libya and vast caches of weapons were alleged to have been raided by rebels and entrepreneurs alike – the concern was directed at Russian-made Igla 9k38 MANPADS (these weapons are known as SA-18/Grouses in the West). More advanced versions (SA-24s) are also frequently mentioned. The fear of terrorist attacks on passenger aircraft by these weapons is a plausible concern, but such attacks have not yet occurred – in part because of substantial counter-proliferation efforts. It should also be considered that the threat of such attacks has not come to pass because acquiring, storing, transporting and even using these weapons is not an easy task.
So why are the technicalities of anti-aircraft capabilities important here? Because Boko Haram has received periodic attention over its supposed attempts to acquire the ability to knock down aircraft. For starters, according to military reports, many grievous blows have been dealt to the group by Nigerian airstrikes. While the exact details of these strikes is largely unknown – or, in the case of claims of spectacular successes by Nigerian military spokesmen – highly dubious. Nonetheless, aircraft pose a substantial threat to insurgent groups, both in terms of their offensive capabilities, and as surveillance platforms. Boko Haram would certainly benefit from the opportunity to counter-act that threat.
The group would also likely want to bring down a passenger aircraft if it could. Such attacks draw substantial attention and would benefit the group’s brand awareness, in terms of attracting the support of other militant Islamist organisations like AQIM which the group has previously courted; as well as for attracting recruits. If indeed, Boko Haram does desire to conduct such attacks, and it is in possession of MANPADS, then it seems illogical for them not to have already tried. The logical conclusions, given that they have not conducted such attacks, is that they do not in fact possess such weapons. This not stopped rampant local media speculation on the threat of terrorist attacks on passenger aircraft.
As an example, a recent PunchNG news article excitedly detailed the unsurpassed killing power and danger posed by a number of AA12 shotguns, which – according to the report – were found at a Boko Haram anti-aircraft training camp located in Niger. Although the AA12 is real weapon, it is in fact, merely a shotgun – not an anti-aircraft weapon. The AA12 is a relatively uncommon weapon, particularly in Africa, and its appearance in the report raises several questions. However, the low quality of the reporting casts in doubt whether such weapons were even in the camp, given how much else was hyperbolised.
The ridiculous manner in which this weapon is portrayed by PunchNG – as evidence of Boko Haram’s development of anti-aircraft capabilities – is indicative of precisely the sort of false narrative to be weary of. Punch has a history of being ‘enthusiastic’ with details, and managing to patriotically inflate even the most optimistic military announcements of successes against Boko Haram. The danger, however, is that the basic message of the story is then republished more widely, and perhaps repeated by other local media (creating the illusion of wide-spread, confirming coverage).
This is the first of a two-part series, to be continued next week.