For more than a decade, the Islamist group Boko Haram had a limited strategy: to create an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria. But now it has spread its terror campaign to neighbouring countries as well.
Chad, Niger and Cameroon have responded with a military alliance which, since January, has been helping the Abuja government.
“What these children have seen, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.”
In March, Boko Haram signed a deal with ISIL, or the self proclaimed Islamic State. This turned the conflict into an international one, switching on red lights across the region and accelerating a joint offensive.
The latest war in Africa is being fought in a desert, a triangle of the porous borders of Nigeria, Niger and Chad. It’s a conflict between a regional coalition and one of the most barbaric and ruthless jihadist organisations in the world, the Nigerian group Boko Haram.
Liberating Malam Fatori
Euronews has been on the frontline, embedded with Chad’s army, during the liberation of a very important village in northern Nigeria.
“We’re making the dangerous journey to the village of Malam Fatori,” said euronews reporter Luis Carballo, onboard a helicopter, travelling with the joint military force of Niger and Chad.
“Soldiers from Chad and Niger have been in control there since the end of March, but there’s still some resistance from Boko Haram nearby.”
Around 50 metres away from Malam Fatori is the base of a strike force, which has been re-taking Boko Haram strongholds in northern Nigeria. The soldiers at the outpost are hardened in close combat and are used to the harsh environment in which they operate. The heat and sand could otherwise be a challenge. The troops are not afraid of dying, but they know the enemy is not afraid either.
“The streets are deserted, the houses are empty and there’s no sign of any business going on on – no workers, nobody shopping.”
Boko Haram fighters think death is the quickest way to reach paradise. It is something that is promised to them by their group leaders, through their interpretation of Islam.
Among the mass of military troops at the outpost, there is an unusual sight. Two four star generals, chiefs of staff from Niger and Chad, alongside each other.
Some days later, euronews discovers from a source close to Chad’s government that it was thought the leader of Boko Haram had been killed. Abubakar Shekau took over the militant group in 2009 and has turned it into a killing machine.
He was believed to have died during during a battle in the 24 hours that followed the liberation of Malam Fatori. But it turns out that Shekau was not among an estimated 200 Boko Haram fighters who it is claimed lost their lives. Chad’s army says nine of its soldiers were also killed in the violence.
The only proof euronews sees of the battle is a haul of weapons. According to Chad’s army, the weapons were seized from the militants who were killed in the fighting. Among them are dozens of Kalashnikovs. The weapons have most probably been stolen or originally left by the Nigerian army.
The liberation of Malam Fatori is a major strategic victory as troops take on Boko Haram.
“This joint operation, particularly Chad’s involvement, is starting to change things on the ground,” said Carballo.
Boko Haram used Malam Fatori as a command centre, launching attacks against Niger and Chad. The Nigerian village is less than four kilometres from the border with Niger.
The journey from base camp to Malam Fatori takes just a few minutes.
The village has become a ghost town. The streets are deserted, the houses are empty and there’s no sign of any business going on on – no workers, nobody shopping.
Malam Fatori used to be home to 30-thousand people, it was the venue of an important market. But after five months of strict Sharia law, imposed by Boko Haram, it is now a shadow of its former self. The only people to be seen are mainly elderly men and a few children. Very few women, and none of them young.
The mother of a boy seen in the area recalls what happened 72 hours earlier, when the area was freed from militants. “Boko Haram left the village when they saw soldiers coming. They escaped in all directions. Before they left, they told us to get out of our houses – and they burned them,” said the woman.
Other residents returning to the village tell euronews that when Boko Haram left, they took dozens of young women with them.
It is claimed they were stripped naked, so they would not escape. Since then, there has been no sign of them. Other women confirm the girls were kidnapped. They say male teenagers were killed.
“Boko Haram took the girls for forced marriage. They also took young children and cut the throats of male teenagers,” said one of them.
“Boko Haram had eyes and ears everywhere. They monitored every movement – when we went out in the street, when we were in our houses, they were looking at us all of the time.”
The tragedy in Malam Fatori, as with many others in Nigeria, seems like something from another era. Something inconceivable in the 21st century.
A feeling of collective paranoia is so strong that it is impossible to separate facts from rumours about massacres, murders and kidnappings. And this is the strategy of Boko Haram, to conquer through fear.
Boko Haram militancy threatens Chad’s economy
The river Chari is the natural border between Chad and Cameroon. It is very easy to cross the border in a boat or to swim across. On one bank lies the village of Kousseri. On the other side is N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.
The Ngueli bridge stretches across the river, a meeting point for people and trade. Thousands of people cross it every day. Until recently, the main problem facing customs officers was smugglers. But now things are very different.
“Security has been boosted to prevent terrorist attacks and gun smuggling,” says Carballo.
Chad’s taking the threat seriously because several of Boko Haram’s attacks in Cameroon have happened just a few kilometres away from here.
For Chad, there is also an economic dimension. Militant attacks have endangered the routes it uses to trade with Nigeria and Cameroon. The border with Nigeria has been closed for more than a year.
So the only remaining option for Chad – a landlocked country which imports most of what it consumes – is Cameroon. The goods arrive by road along a route which Boko Haram has been targeting for months. The route starts in the Cameroon port of Douala and ends in N’Djamena. The alternative link means more fuel, less goods and higher prices in the markets.
Many more months of combat on the border could end up destroying Chad’s economy.
Seeking safe refuge at Dar es Salaam camp
Over the last three months, around 20,000 Nigerians have crossed Lake Chad looking for safe shelter. Everyone who has fled has a story to tell.
“The refugees arrived with nothing. They have seen their relatives die. Some have been wounded, but the psychological wounds will take longer to heal.”
The Dar es Salaam refugee camp in Chad is home to around four thousand people. Many of the families have come from Baga, the scene of one of Boko Haram’s worst massacres.
The refugees arrived with nothing. They have seen their relatives die. Some have been wounded, but the psychological wounds will take longer to heal.
Children at the camp are without their families. Their parents have died or they lost them when they escaped the massacres being committed by Boko Haram on the other side of the lake.
Medecins Sans Fronteries is providing psychological help for those at the camp.
“What these children have seen, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. The Islamists have taken their childhood,” said Idriss Dezeh, Coordinator, Dar es Salaam refugee camp.
Some of the refuges at the camp are trying to regain some sense of childhood. Among them, a group who are learning songs in French at a makeshift school in the camp. But while the language may be foreign to them, tragically the sound of gunfire is not.
Their short lives so far already dominated by death and horror.
Chad’s president aims to ‘destroy’ Boko Haram
President Idriss Deby has been in power in Chad for 25 years, during which time he has been directly or indirectly involved in most of the region’s wars. In N’Djamena, he explained the reasons for Chad’s involvement in this latest battle against militant fighters.
“Boko Haram is supported, Boko Haram is financed, Boko Haram has received war material, including field armour. Who from? I don’t know.”
Luis Carballo, euronews: How great is the threat currently posed by Boko Haram towards Chad?
President Idriss Déby: “Until 2013, whatever Boko Haram did, however harmful those actions were to the population, it was within Nigeria. However, in 2013, Boko Haram started to extend its actions beyond Nigeria, especially into Cameroon and Niger. And, of course, Boko Haram ended up attacking Chad. It is an extremely dangerous organisation, and one which had the time to get organised, to recruit people who had no work. Boko Haram also has very tight links with Daesh — the Islamic State movement (ISIL) — and with AQMI — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In economic terms, clearly, Chad’s economy has lost substantially. Boko Haram decided to strangle Chad by disrupting the axis that joins us to the port of Douala in Cameroon, which is vital to Chad’s interests. It was a potential danger to the entire sub-region. It is certain that no country in the sub-region can get out of this nebulous business on its own, hence, the need to pool our resources, limited as they are, to manage to curtail Boko Haram’s capacity for harm.”
euronews: What are the exact objectives of this military intervention, to destroy Boko Haram or to keep it away from your borders?
President Déby: “It is to destroy Boko Haram, short and clean. It has to be destroyed, by any means.”
euronews: Your country, Chad, took part in Operation Serval in Mali in 2013, and in 2014 it was part of Operation Barkhane in the Sahel — against fundamentalist groups. Now, France is providing you with intelligence on Boko Haram, as are other countries. But maybe you’d like a bigger involvement from Europe and the United States?
President Déby: “No. I believe you must understand that it’s been 60 years, practically since African countries got their independence, that we ought to have been able to take responsibility for ourselves, we should be capable of handling our crises, we should be able to cope with terrorist movements first and foremost by uniting our efforts, African efforts.”
euronews: At the beginning of March, Boko Haram swore allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State — Dawla al-Islamiya. Can this allegiance make them more dangerous as a terrorist group?
President Déby: “What we have done is break Boko Haram’s military strength. We have also disrupted its military staff. All that, I think, can only show us the real face of Boko Haram, which is not, as it is said, an organisation at local African level, at the level of Nigeria, but an organisation that has links to other terrorist organisations of the world, in particular Islamic State. One has to ask what is behind Boko Haram.”
euronews: That is my next question. We don’t have much information on the number of fighters Boko Haram has, or its financial sources. We know they get money through kidnapping ransoms and robberies. But do you think Boko Haram receives money from foreign countries?
President Déby: “Boko Haram is supported, Boko Haram is financed, Boko Haram has received war material, including field armour. Who from? I don’t know.”
euronews: But you are sure that they have received outside support?
President Déby: “Well, how else do you think that a terrorist organisation can conquer one third of a big country like Nigeria, with an organised army, with armoured vehicles, with methods of operation that resemble those of a regular army?! They don’t make armoured vehicles in Nigeria, they don’t make weapons. Therefore, all that hasn’t just fallen from the sky.”
euronews: We have seen that groups close to Daesh are also operating in Libya. Could that become a new front on your northern border?
President Déby: “In 2011, when the West and NATO triggered military operations in Libya, I warned them. I had no love for Gaddafi, but the way they got rid of him, which left a country super-equipped, militarily, heavily armed. No measures were taken, I’d say, to manage the time after Gaddafi, to prevent weapons from leaving Libya. Since Gaddafi’s assassination, we’ve been on a war footing. In the north, the same as for our other borders, weapons cross, Daesh grows, and the terrorists also develop in Libya. There is a real physical threat to the countries of Africa south of the Sahara.”
euronews: Chad is a mostly Muslim country, and you are a Muslim. Given that, what’s your opinion of Daesh appropriating your religion, Islam?
President Déby: “What Daesh or Islamic State or Boko Haram do is far, far from Islamic. I reject it, and Muslims must not just stand by and let it happen. We’ve let it go on for a long time and it’s high time that Muslims get organised and confront this terrorist organisation that has nothing at all Muslim about it. Those are not Muslims, and we have to fight those people. Muslims must fight those people.”
The anti-Boko Haram coalition appears to be making real progress by expelling Islamists from the areas they occupied in Nigeria.
But will this be enough to be able to talk about the end of this sinister organisation, or is Boko Haram preparing a terrible revenge?