THE Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram seems to be on its back foot, and probably pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in desperate hope to get help.
Continuing weeks of mounting military pressure against the militants, the armies of Niger and Chad on Sunday launched a major ground and air offensive against Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria, a source from the Niger government said.
The offensive opened up a new front against the Islamists as part of regional efforts to combat them. Significantly, this regional push comes after Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in an audio message.
“An offensive is underway against Boko Haram,” the source told AFP.
Very early this morning, the troops from Niger and Chad began an offensive against Boko Haram… in the area of Bosso and near to Diram.”
A resident of Diffa, located in Niger near the Nigerian border, told AFP he saw troops headed toward the frontier early Sunday followed by the sounds of heavy arms fire.
“After some time, the detonations grew further away, an apparent sign that the troops were moving inside Nigeria,” he said.
Privately owned radio station Anfani, based in Diffa, reported more than 200 vehicles, including those equipped with machine guns as well as tanks, ambulances, water tankers and transport trucks, in a convoy moving toward the Nigerian border.
It also reported that aircraft had targeted Boko Haram positions on Saturday and early Sunday.
AU endorses 10,000-strong force
On Friday, the African Union endorsed the creation of a regional force of up to 10,000 men to join the fight against Boko Haram.
The force, the idea for which was adopted at an AU summit in January, will be based in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, the pan-African bloc’s Peace and Security Council said.
Diplomats said Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Benin had committed to providing troops, who would “operate freely” in a still-undefined region.
Regional efforts were already been underway to fight Boko Haram for several weeks, particularly in the Gamboru area of Nigeria on the border with Cameroon. The borders of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon converge in the region around Lake Chad.
In addition, the Islamists have apparently been pummeled out of captured territory by the Nigerian army.
Confirming the shifts in military fortunes, Nigerian forces said they recaptured towns in northeastern Yobe state from Boko Haram militants, Bloomberg reported.
Troops seized Buni Yadi and Buni Gari towns in Yobe state Saturday, as Nigerian authorities seek “to recover the few areas remaining in the hands of the terrorists,” Sani Usman Gombi, a spokesman for the military, said in e-mailed statement.
Cordon and mopping-up operations are under way in the recaptured areas, he said.
Boko Haram, which seeks to impose Islamic law in Africa’s most populous country, pledged allegiance to Islamic State and called on all Muslims to follow, according to a statement on a Twitter account tied to the terrorist group.
The unverified audio message released Saturday purports to be from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and urges loyalty to the “caliph of the Muslims,” or Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi. The pledge was reported by SITE Intel Group, a Bethesda, Maryland-based analyst of jihadist communications.
Speaking in Arabic, Shekau said that Boko Haram’s decision to declare allegiance to Islamic State is meant to bring their groups “under one umbrella as ordained by Allah and fight the unbelievers.”
While Shekau had in the past openly flirted with ISIS, it looked then like a wild shot, and little more than an attempt to get some of the stardust from the jihadist star of the moment.
However, with ISIS now in Libya, and some Nigerian officials alleging some elements of it had come to the country with Boko Haram, Shekau could well get a lifeline from them. However, because Boko Haram is suffering reversals doesn’t make it less lethal.
Back to deadly urban warfare
Squeezed out of captured territory, security analysts have predicted a rise in bomb attacks in towns and cities, including at election sites in three weeks’ time.
Already Boko Haram and its regional allies have returned to their previous campaign of urban guerrilla warfare. Three separate suicide bombings in the past day killed 54 people in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, which has been targeted by numerous bombings and grenade attacks attributed to Boko Haram.
ISIS’s momentum also seems to have broken—for now at least. In addition to losing some towns it held in recent weeks to Kurdish and Iraqi forces, the U.S. and Iraq are said to be planning a major spring offensive with as many as 25,000 Iraqi troops to retake the city of Mosul from Islamic State.
The Sunni Muslim extremists swept across northern Iraq from Syria last year in a bid to expand their self-styled religious state, and have claimed responsibility for dozens of beheadings, burned alive a Jordanian pilot and have carried out attacks in Europe and elsewhere.
Boko Haram drew international attention and outrage with the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from a town in Borno state in April 2014, as well as the razing of two northeast towns this year.
Neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger have been drawn into the fight against the insurgents, which has also caused a six-week delay to presidential elections to March 28 in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer.
-AFP & Mustapha Muhammad and Emele Onu (Bloomberg).