The second part in this series began to lay out a few of the internal drivers for Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram. The religious aspect is not to be overlooked, of course, but often it is poverty that attracts people to radicalism with religion acting as the rhetoric. While Islamism is a powerful movement in the Middle East and parts of Africa, at the end of the day, conflicts are fought by actors attempting to maximize the amount of power they have over a given piece of terrain. This chapter of the series will take a closer look at some of the external drivers for this conflict.
While there were plenty of motivating factors behind Nigeria’s conflict, there were also external ones such as the Libyan Civil War and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. As the Nigerian Army, with the help of South African contractors, put Boko Haram on the ropes, Abubakr Shekau pledged his allegiance to ISIS. Interestingly, there is also a power struggle within two factions of Al-Shabab in Somalia. One faction wants to remain aligned with al-Qaeda while the other wants to pledge allegiance to ISIS.
“It did not require a nuclear physicist to predict that the collapse of Libya would result in the proliferation of weapons and conflict across North and West Africa,” Eeben Barlow, the chairman of STTEP, told SOFREP. Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment, and Protection (STTEP) provided training and combat support to a Nigerian strike force from January to March of 2015. “It is also no secret that Boko Haram has been the beneficiary of some training and equipment from ISIL,” Barlow continued. “Prisoners have told us that Boko Haram is and has been supplied and supported by ‘Europeans’ who have arrived in their safe areas by helicopter.”
What anti-government force maintains helicopters—which would allude to a state sponsor—is unknown. As usual, there are more questions than answers.
The inadvertent impact of American support in Syria
SOFREP has previously reported on American support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). A number of covert programs have been underway for several years to arm and train members of the FSA. One such program involves transporting FSA members from Aleppo to an airfield in Turkey, where they are then flown to a Gulf state. Once there, they receive training from Americans, including how to use the TOW missile system.
The mission to vett alleged moderate rebels in Syria has been ongoing, sparking a few turf wars between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Army’s Intelligence Support Activity as contractors working within an Alternative or Compensatory Control Measures (ACCM) program were deployed to find viable partner forces in Syria. An ACCM allows information and operations to be compartmentalized on a need-to-know basis. In this way, the various participants in the program have no idea that they are working as a cog in a much larger machine.
However, this vetting process has not been particularly effective. Accounts gathered on the ground in Syria by SOFREP this November indicate that the FSA will fight alongside ISIS, Al-Nusra, or Assad’s forces depending on which way the wind is blowing that day. It is not uncommon for them to ally with one Syrian faction during a battle and then align against them in the next battle. Furthermore, the FSA has been infiltrated by the Assad regime, meaning many groups of returning fighters will be set up to be killed after they return to Syria following their American training abroad.
Barlow explains how American support of the FSA inadvertently ends up fueling other conflicts:
“The so-called FSA is not a large homogenous grouping of anti-government people in Syria. It is a fallacy to even call it an ‘army,’ as there are several groups of armed gangs roaming Syria, doing what they please under the banner of the FSA. They are supported with funds (very large amounts) and training, and at times, equipment. When FSA rebels cross into Iraq, they become ISIL (alternate acronym for ISIS) members. This mess was, again, not considered. With the link between ISIL and Boko Haram, some of this training has made its way back to Boko Haram and other anti-Western groups in Africa. I would certainly not be surprised if some of the funding for the FSA has ended up with Boko Haram, as they certainly had money to purchase their ‘technicals.'”
Technicals are pickup trucks with machine guns mounted to the bed—the preferred mobile weapons platform in many parts of the world.
While the conflicts in the Middle East and West Africa may seem separate from one another, “one cannot view these groups as ‘isolated’ and ‘independent’ groups, as they all serve a larger interest,” Barlow says. “Before I am viewed as some conspiracy theorist, people need to understand the conflicts, the threat networks, the geo-politics and interests associated with those conflicts. The adage ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has long lost its relevance, and in many instances, it should be replaced with ‘my enemy’s enemy is my enemy.'”
During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, massive arms depots built up by the Gaddafi regime were captured by rebel forces. “Any sane human being would have been able to predict that the collapse of Libya held numerous disadvantages in terms of weapons proliferation,” Barlow continued. “The impact of this collapse will be felt by Africa, the Middle East, and Europe in years to come.”
“The West assisted and trained ‘rebels’ in the now ‘democratic’ Libya. Some of these rebels originated from Nigeria, but in the haste to destroy Gaddafi, no vetting or checks were carried out on who the rebels truly represented or where their loyalties lay,” Barlow said. “As is well known, many of these ‘fighters for democracy’ have found themselves in other conflicts on the side of the Islamist forces. Some of the Nigerian ‘freedom fighters’ from Libya made their way back to Nigeria. It is also a fact that weapons from Libyan and Malian arms depots made their way to Nigeria.”
These weapons were then smuggled or even openly transported from Libya to other conflict zones in North, East, and West Africa. Transportation by ancient trans-saharan trade routes has existed for several thousand years. As can be seen in the map below, one of these traditional trade routes leads straight to Lake Chad—Boko Haram territory.
The smuggling is conducted “largely by coerced and co-opted members and supporters of the enemy. In some instances, it has been by helicopter delivery to the enemy’s strongholds. We are unaware of any African-based anti-government force that flies around in helicopters,” Barlow said. “The weapons consist mainly of small arms, machine guns, explosives, and shoulder-launched anti-tank systems. However, unless the enemy is totally destroyed, it is only a matter of time before more sophisticated weaponry makes its way into Nigeria.”
War never occurs in a vacuum, but modern telecommunications infrastructure such as cellular-phone networks and the Internet allow geographically dispersed forces to align with one another when they have a common interest—groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, and Al-Shabab.
“Our focus was and will always remain Africa,” Barlow told SOFREP, “so we dig deep to understand conflicts and their drivers on our continent.”
(Featured image: Strike Force member in Nigeria mans a MRAP mounted machine gun while a Gazelle helicopter delivers close air support on an objective.)