Why is Boko Haram Attacking Chad?


Why is Boko Haram Attacking Chad?

Emily Mellgard

01 Jul 2015

The recent attacks in Chad by Boko Haram are not surprising. Chad is at the centre of the campaign against the group and Boko Haram aims to undermine its legitimacy, says Emily Mellgard.

On 29 June, a security operation in Chad's capital N'Djamena left five officials and six militants dead. The country is currently engaged in a series of operations following an attack on 15 June in which  two suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing 27 and wounding over 100. The bombers, suspected to be from the Islamist jihadi group Boko Haram, were targeting the capital's police headquarters and academy. In retaliation, the Chadian military launched reprisal attacks on six suspected Boko Haram camps.

Reflecting the porous borders that have previously facilitated Boko Haram operations, regional governments have disputed in whose territory the camps were located. The Chadian government also announced an immediate ban on any head covering that veiled the face, such as the burqa. Although the group has not claimed responsibility, it is likely that the 15 June bombers were indeed from Boko Haram, as the attack followed the established tactics of the group. It also fulfills a threat made by its leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Boko Haram traditionally claims the attacks it carries out, although often not immediately. It is a tactical mechanism employed to build its legitimacy among members and recruitment targets. It also traditionally follows through on the threats it makes. In a video released on 9 February 2015, Shekau promised to destroy the reinvigorated coalition of regional militaries combatting the group across northeastern Nigeria and the wider Lake Chad Basin, the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). In the video Shekau singled out Chadian President Idriss Deby for particular warning.

Boko Haram aims to undermine the credibility of Chadian security forces.

The escalation of attacks in Chad should not be a surprise. That the police headquarters and academy in the capital were targeted is also in keeping with strategies Boko Haram employed in Nigeria. The group was not only following through on threats it has made, but was targeting the security forces charged, in part, with keeping the Chadian people safe. This was an attempt to demonstrate their inability to do so, thus undermining the credibility of the Chadian security forces to fulfill their duties. The new headquarters for the MNJTF will be in N'Djamena. This move follows the destruction of the previous MNJTF headquarters, near the Nigerian town Baga, by Boko Haram in January 2015. Boko Haram is demonstrating that it can strike at the heart of the campaign against it. 

Boko Haram used similar tactics in Nigeria where it targeted security facilities including prisons, police stations, and military bases. These targets had multiple purposes, including gaining weapons and freeing fellow fighters, but the raids were also conducted to terrorise. The loss of credibility of the security forces in Nigeria, not to mention their often brutal and communally based responses, widened existing legitimacy gaps between security services and the people. It simultaneously increased the – often fear-driven – acknowledgement that Boko Haram follows through on threats. This eroded the reliance on the state and its security forces.

Boko Haram traditionally follows through on its threats.

Within Chad, as well as the wider Sahel, Islamist, and particularly Salafi and jihadi, organisations have played a growing role since at least the 1990s, and have "found fertile ground and [grown] among societies embittered by at best the perceived lack of governance, at worst the authorities' corruption and predation." Boko Haram's presence in Chad is not new, though it continues to be seen largely as a Nigerian problem. Since 2013, and particularly since the establishment of the State of Emergency in the three northeastern Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa allowed for a surge in military activity against Boko Haram. Since then, the group has increasingly made use of the border regions around Lake Chad, which are poorly patrolled, enabling it to infiltrate and establish itself in the neighbouring states while continuing to launch attacks predominantly in Nigeria.

These activities began to threaten the economies and stability of neighbouring states in 2013 and 2014. As a result of the Nigerian military's inability to effectively combat the group's expanding influence and territorial control, regional states, including Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Benin, increased their involvement in combatting the group. Chad led the way in this campaign, drawing first on the mandate provided by an existing agreement laid out for the MNJTF to combat cross-order smuggling. This was redefined and formalised by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Nigeria and Chad to combat Boko Haram in February 2015. This agreement was the basis for the campaign against Boko Haram in the spring of 2015, for which Nigerian presidential elections were postponed, and which eventually pushed Boko Haram out of much of the territory it had claimed over the previous months.

But the MOU did not encourage military collaboration or communication between Nigeria and Chad, nor does it appear that the Nigerian military and international advisors worked with any member state militaries involved in the operation. Instead, each nation contributed and supervised its own troops, carrying out independent missions along the border region and within Nigerian territory. On multiple occasions this caused flare-ups of existing rivalries between the national militaries, especially Nigeria and Chad. Each see themselves as the regional military and political power. Nationalist sentiments on both sides also contribute to a competitive spirit toward the campaign, with spokespeople from both militaries claiming the same successful attacks against Boko Haram. The Nigerian military will also vehemently deny Chadian military activity on Nigerian soil. These rivalries are longstanding, but unfortunately hinder the success of the campaign.

Longstanding political rivalries hinder the campaign against Boko Haram.

If the recent escalation of attacks within Chad is an indication that the country will increasingly be targeted by Boko Haram for its military involvement in Nigeria, the Chadian government should not let traditional political and military rivalries blind it to the lessons it can learn from Nigeria's experience with Boko Haram. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in his communications with Chadian President Deby has raised the importance of addressing the underlying motivations toward radicalisation within Nigeria and Chad. This communication is a promising sign from the new leader that his strategies will be more holistic and long term than those of his predecessor, but it is as yet, too early to say if his rhetoric will have an impact on the ground toward rebuilding the legitimacy of the state and eroding Boko Haram's portrayal of itself as a more Islamic and therefore more legitimate structure.


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