Boko Haram ‘on the defensive’ as U.S., allies prepare to escalate fight
By Guy Taylor - The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2016
A high-level delegation of U.S. diplomats will huddle with their African counterparts in Nigeria this weekend in hopes of escalating the fight against Boko Haram, just as analysts say signs of real progress are finally emerging in the fight against the brutal jihadi terror group.
The Nigeria-based Boko Haram has made headlines with its grisly use of female suicide bombers and its mass kidnappings of schoolgirls — rated in one survey as the world’s deadliest terror group. But after scoring major gains after launching its insurgency in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, national security sources say the pieces are slowly falling into place for a coordinated military push by Nigeria and its neighbors.
With a name that loosely translates as “Western education is sin,” Boko Haram presently controls a territory the size of Maryland along northeastern Nigeria’s borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and intelligence officials say its leader, who has pledged allegiance to the Syria-based Islamic State, is bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate there.
But International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a new analysis earlier this month that the group has already been “weakened” and “put on the defensive” by a growing and coordinated military response that Nigeria and its neighbors began putting in place last year.
Under new President Muhammadu Buhari, elected last year, “Nigeria has regrouped, and neighbors are collaborating with it more meaningfully, taking a more powerful military response to Boko Haram into rural areas where the jihadi group remains strong,” the ICG report found.
The Nigerian capital of Abuja on Saturday will be the site of a regional summit, bringing together top officials from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, France, Britain and the U.S. The gathering presents a “major opportunity” for improvement in the multinational campaign, the ICG analysts said. The Obama administration has also committed roughly $200 million in humanitarian assistance for Boko Haram-affected populations in the region.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, along with the State Department’s Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell, will represent the U.S. at the gathering.
They’re likely to push for an expansion of informal education centers for children of families displaced by Boko Haram, some 300 of which the State Department says have already been established.
But behind the scenes, the Obama administration is also expected to seek greater influence over the direction of the multinational African military campaign against Boko Haram.
Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon have engaged in airstrikes and ground offensive against the group since early 2015, establishing a 7,500-strong multinational force with the aim of eventually taking back villages and towns held by the extremists.
Boko Haram remains a dangerous, if weakened, force: A suicide bomber just barely stopped from entering a government compound killed at least six people, including two police officers, on Thursday in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri.
Boko Haram later claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place in the city considered the birthplace of the Islamist movement.
U.S. officials have so far remained tight-lipped about the extent of Washington’s role in the military campaign, although President Obama said last October that 300 American troops were being deployed to a secretive base in Cameroon.
At the time, administration officials said troops would be accompanied by unarmed Predator drones that would bolster a five-nation military task force, consisting of soldiers from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger.
The announcement came amid heightened concern over the prospect of growing links between Boko Haram and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged support to ISIS in July 2014.