Jihadist fighters killed around one hundred Chadian soldiers on Lake Chad in the country's deadliest attack in recent history. While the army has launched a counter-offensive, it is vital to improve military cooperation in the region and to protect civilians.
A Deadly Attack
The attack carried out on 23 March by a faction of Boko Haram on Lake Chad's Bohoma Peninsula is the deadliest attributed to the organisation outside Nigerian territory in recent years. An estimated force of roughly 400 fighters reportedly arrived at daybreak aboard at least five motor boats. After seven hours of combat, the attackers defeated the Chadian garrison before retreating with captured weaponry.
According to Chad's authorities, nearly 100 soldiers lost their lives, around 50 others were injured and a few were taken prisoner. The jihadists also allegedly destroyed 24 military vehicles which they could not take with them. A credible claim of responsibility appeared the following day on the Telegram messaging app, posted by one of the two Boko Haram factions, Jama'tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (JAS).
Boko Haram's split occurred in 2016. At the time, due to the counter-offensive launched by Nigeria and its neighbours, Boko Haram - which in 2015 had become a branch of ISIS known as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) - split in two.
One group led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur left Boko Haram's headquarters in the Sambisa forest and reached Lake Chad. There, they successfully rallied the bulk of the jihadist fighters and obtained recognition from ISIS, thereby keeping the name ISWAP. The second group, led by Abubakar Shekau, former supreme commander of Boko Haram, retained control of the remaining combatants, and went back to using an old name, JAS.
In the Lake Chad area, a small group had chosen to maintain its allegiance to Shekau. Led by a certain Bakura "Doron" (since he hails from the Nigerian town of Baga Doron by Lake Chad), the group was formed in the part of the lake belonging to Niger, opposite Nguigmi; it survives by looting and carrying out small attacks, especially in Niger and including against ISWAP. This group has clearly grown more powerful. In 2018, it began to strike further east, conducting operations against military bases and convoys in Cameroon and Chad. The Bohoma attack is the group's largest and most successful operation to date.
A Growing Threat in the Lake Chad Area
The fact that the groups (JAS and ISWAP) are divided does not make the task of the region's security forces much easier. Of the two, ISWAP is certainly the most dangerous because of its links to ISIS. ISWAP also has ties in the region with the group formerly known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which operates between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso; ISIS has in fact placed ISGS under the banner of ISWAP. While this mainly consists of a communication strategy for the time being, the links between the two West African groups appear to be strengthening.
The rise of JAS in the north of Lake Chad is probably related to the fact that in recent years Nigeria's military response has focused on the lake's southern shores - the Nigerian side where the hub of ISWAP is located. This would have left ample space for Bakura's group, which likely also benefited from ongoing tensions within ISWAP that led to the violent deaths of several of its senior officials in the first months of 2020. Some sources claim that certain ISWAP commanders have joined JAS; they may thus have supported Bakura in the attack on Bohoma. In other words, the interrelated nature of the groups likely allows some commanders to change their allegiance in response to internal disputes.
The Bohoma attack confirms that despite the rivalry between ISWAP and JAS, both groups are resilient, aggressive, innovative and mobile. The two jihadist factions have previously faced defeat and withdrawal; this will have forced them to rethink their strategy and adopt more professional methods. They have learned on the ground and all of them received advice and training from ISIS in 2015-2016, although only ISWAP still benefits from this since the 2016 split. They are able to change their area of operation in search of more fragile targets and appear to be well informed. Bakura's men no doubt knew that the Bohoma garrison had been relieved shortly before the attack by a smaller contingent of less experienced troops.
The Bohoma attack also testifies to the essentially subregional nature of the jihadist groups operating around Lake Chad. Created in Nigeria, Boko Haram recruited combatants from neighbouring countries from the very beginning. An area like Lake Chad is fertile ground for jihadist groups: it is difficult to access; state presence is scant and inefficient; it is covered in vegetation and rich in agricultural resources; and it borders on four countries.
The movement procured much of its initial armaments from Chad, buying up weapons circulating widely in a country that has been the scene of several civil wars since 1965. Some of the organisation's first military leaders were also former Chadian rebels in search of new combat opportunities. Today, much like ISWAP, JAS is not constrained by national borders and has launched attacks in several states.
Scope and Limits of the Chadian Response
In the days immediately following the attack, the authorities in N'Djamena made several major decisions. They adjusted the military presence on the lake; launched Operation "Colère de Bohoma" (Wrath of Bohoma); declared the Lake Chad region a "war zone"; decreed a state of emergency in the departments of Fouli and Kaya; and ordered civilians to leave the islands and villages in the lake's northern basin and move to its shores, further from the areas under jihadist control. In addition, the presidential decree signed on 26 March outlines a framework of measures - typical for a state of emergency in Chad - that include restricting movement and assembly, legal measures to facilitate searches, and prohibiting access to certain areas of the Lake.
"We are going to war, some will die and others will be wounded. This is the price to pay to protect ourselves and maintain our stability", President Idriss Déby declared. By going to Lake Chad on 24 March, the day after the attack, and by taking command of the counter-offensive himself, he sought to demonstrate how seriously he viewed the event.
Déby, who is officially Minister of Defence and still an army general, is presenting himself as a military leader and, by extension, a guarantor of the country's stability; once again embodying a role he likes. Being on the ground and heading operations allows him to send a message of support to troops at a complicated time, when part of the army is experiencing doubt and when some soldiers may feel demotivated.
By reaffirming "his commitment to defeating the terrorist peril", Déby is also trying to rally the population around his troops. From the benches of the national assembly to social networks, many Chadians have demanded a strong riposte to the attack. While the authorities spoke very little about the soldiers recently killed in Miski - in the north of the country in 2018-2019 - during largely unpopular operations against self-defence groups, the fight against Boko Haram, on the contrary, enjoys a broad popular consensus. Messages of support for the army are frequent on social media. The president is also sending a message to international partners, whose financial support is more vital than ever due to the major economic crisis looming in the wake of the disastrous effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices.
The announcement of Déby's military response was quickly followed by regional consultations and troop movements. The Nigerian General Ibrahim Manu Youssouf, commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) - a regional force fighting Boko Haram with troops from Benin and the four countries bordering Lake Chad - went to the Chadian town of Baga Sola on the shores of Lake Chad on Tuesday, 24 March, for a lengthy meeting with the Chadian president.
Two days later, Mahamat Abali Salah, Chadian minister delegate for Defence, visited his counterpart in Niamey to coordinate the response with Niger. Straight afterward, Déby travelled to Nguigmi, a town in Niger also on the shores of Lake Chad, to oversee the deployment of the logistics base for the new Chadian military campaign, "Wrath of Bohoma".
Chadian troops then quickly initiated operations in the lake area. The president made several trips to Kaiga-Kindjiria, an island in the lake's northern basin not far from the Bakura bases, for meetings with military top brass.
At the same time, the first videos circulated on social networks and on Télé Tchad, the country's main television channel, showing Chadian helicopters flying over this section of the lake, fighting and triumphs over jihadists on the islands, as well as images of corpses and prisoners from Bakura's group. After several days of combat, Déby stated that he had pushed jihadist troops out of Chadian territory, taken back command posts on the lake from Boko Haram factions, and deployed his men into Niger and Nigeria to hunt down fighters who had fled and to "clean up" the border areas with those countries.
On 3 April, the Chadian president announced that operations would continue in neighbouring countries and called on them to provide troops in order to prevent jihadists from regaining lost ground on the border areas of Niger and Nigeria. Nigerian authorities have since confirmed that they are participating in military efforts and conducting air strikes on the Tumbun Fulani camp not far from the shores of Lake Chad in Borno State.
While Chad's military actions have been successful thus far, the authorities in N'Djamena are aware of the significant risk of reprisals by jihadist groups on home ground. Beyond the current operation, there also remains the issue of strengthening the military presence on Lake Chad in the medium-term. Until Bakura's recent attack, 6,000 Chadian soldiers were deployed on the lake, of which 3,000 for the MNJTF and 3,000 for the Chadian National Army. There is only limited scope for the Chadian authorities to increase this contingent.
Although the Chadian army is highly mobile, the challenges it faces are manifold and its capacities cannot be stretched further. It is currently massively deployed across the country's borders to deal with various threats to stability, as well as in the Central Sahel to combat jihadist movements. It will also be increasingly mobilised by authorities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, with a new economic crisis looming, it is increasingly unclear for how long this war effort can be financed.
Faced with these challenges, N'Djamena decided to postpone the fulfilment of the commitments made at the Pau Summit in January 2020 (devoted to the security situation and military cooperation in the Sahel) by temporarily suspending its troop deployment to the so-called "tri-border area" located between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, in order to integrate these troops into the Lake Chad counter-attack.
Beyond the limited troop numbers, army morale is not at its highest. The Chadian army has recently suffered a series of setbacks on its own territory. In February 2019, the incursion of a group of Chadian rebels, the Union des forces de la résistance (UFR), from Libya, and the request for air support from France exposed weaknesses within this army, with some officers refusing to fight their "rebel kinsmen".
Bakura's group also stepped up its attacks around the lake in 2019, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Chadian soldiers. Furthermore, in Miski, a gold-mining area in the north of the country, Chad's army was defeated by self-defence groups, forcing the Chadian executive to open negotiations in late 2019. The recent attack on Bohoma is a further blow to an army which is held up as the strongest in the region and called on to hold the peace in a Sahel in crisis.
The Immediate Risks and Priorities of the Chadian Intervention
While jihadist violence has not abated in Nigeria, the attack that took place on 23 March tragically highlights the regional dimension of the threat. Far from reducing their overall potential to inflict harm, Boko Haram's split into several rival factions in 2016 seems to have had the opposite effect, sparking a violent competition between these groups. While Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria continues to be the epicentre of violence, the jihadist groups are highly mobile and occupy border areas to evade national authorities and extend their territorial grasp.
Their attacks beyond Nigeria, particularly in Chad, also send a message to governments in the region that any action taken against them will be met with reprisals. Shekau was quick to respond to Déby's decision to counter-attack with the following words: "Do not think that because you have fought in several conventional wars you can face off against those of us who have decided to fight for the honour of religion".
Since 2015, the Chadian army has frequently intervened in neighbouring countries to fight Boko Haram. This was recently the case of Operation Yancin Tafki conducted by the MNJTF, with Chadian troops remaining in Borno State, in north-eastern Nigeria, for almost a year. During this operation, coordination problems with the poorly prepared and unresponsive Nigerian troops hampered operations and frustrated Chadian soldiers.
While the Chadian army is currently launching a new offensive against jihadists on the lake and deployed its soldiers into Nigeria and Niger, uncertainties remain as to what role its neighbours will play. Although Chad's Operation "Wrath of Bohoma" was not organised in the framework of the MNJTF, Déby once again met with the MNJTF commander in early April to request that the joint force take over and that neighbouring countries commit troops within the territories currently controlled by the Chadian army in these states.
Chad's authorities have openly expressed their frustration at the tardiness of their neighbours' military involvement, and have called for improved coordination to prevent jihadists from regaining territory. As Nigeria confirms its participation in ongoing military actions, soldiers from countries in the region must differentiate between civilians and combatants in the areas where they operate; if they fail to do so, they will be helping jihadists in their recruitment efforts and harming the potential for future civilian engagement.
The struggle that began a decade ago against jihadists in the Lake Chad Basin is far from over. These agile and mobile groups, now split into rival factions, pose a very serious danger to civilians and soldiers in the four countries bordering Lake Chad. In the coming years, better cooperation between the states in the region will be essential to reduce this threat.