BRUSSELS — The top American commander for Africa says Boko Haram has lost territory but, with ties to Islamic State, remains a grave threat to the civilian population in Nigeria and neighbouring countries.
BY WALL STREET JOURNAL
The comments by General David Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, contradict the statements of Boko Haram, which claims to have retained the Belgium-size caliphate it carved out of Nigeria last year.
Gen Rodriguez said Boko Haram has altered its propaganda as a result of its growing ties with Islamic State. Boko Haram, Gen Rodriguez said, has also refined its use of roadside bombs and suicide bombings, mirroring tactics honed by Islamic State.
The US effort to train and share intelligence with military forces in Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and other African countries have helped push back Boko Haram’s territorial control, forcing it to alter its tactics, Gen Rodriguez said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
“They are different; a year ago they held more territory,” Gen Rodriguez said. “Now they maintain control of less area.”
In August, Boko Haram released a video claiming it hadn’t lost any territory: “We are still present everywhere we have been before,” said a young combatant, standing before a black-and-white Boko Haram flag modeled from the Islamic State banner.
This year, Islamic State militants said they had accepted Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance. In April, Boko Haram militants said the group should now be known as the Islamic State West Africa Province.
Gen Rodriguez said his command hasn’t tracked much in the way of financial support or resources flowing to Boko Haram from Islamic State. But he said in addition to the use of bombs, the group’s use of propaganda has shifted since its allegiance with Islamic State militants.
Other military officials said they suspect Islamic State has advised Boko Haram on improving its use of social media and other propaganda. The officials caution, however, that there is no hard evidence of on-the-ground advisers.
Boko Haram’s communications have shifted from militant leaders standing in front of a camera exhorting their followers, to more slickly produced products, US military officials said.” It seems like they are getting some counseling, literally,” said a US military official. “It is now a much more structured or polished approach.”
While Boko Haram has used roadside bombs and suicide attacks for years, Gen Rodriguez said the US has seen the organisation adopt tactics honed by Islamic State fighters in the Middle East.
“They have obviously pledged their allegiance [to Islamic State],” Gen Rodriguez said. “Some of the evolving tactics, techniques and procedures of Boko Haram have now started to mirror some of those things. So we continue to watch that.”
Gen Rodriguez was in Brussels on Thursday for consultations with European Union military chiefs, who were gathering to discuss the rising threat of Islamic State militants in Libya and other parts of Africa.
As a result of the shifting tactics by Boko Haram, the US is trying to adjust the training it provides the African militaries fighting the group, Gen Rodriguez said.
The US in October said it was opening a new base in Cameroon from which it would launch Predator drones to try to track Boko Haram fighters. The US is also expanding its training with Niger.
In addition to increasing training on how to spot and defuse improvised bombs, the US has stepped up efforts to help partner nations build their own intelligence networks among the local population.
“We are trying to change and stay ahead of the adjustments of the enemy. The training has evolved,” Gen Rodriguez said.
Nigerian officials on Wednesday said they had freed 338 captives from a Boko Haram stronghold this week in a military operation that killed 30 militants. The rescued hostages didn’t include any of the 276 schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok last year, an incident that drew international attention to Boko Haram’s insurgency.
Hundreds of women and girls have been rescued this year from Boko Haram encampments near the Sambisa Forest, where many said they were abused and sexually assaulted by young fighters.
Gen Rodriguez said Boko Haram continues to kidnap civilians, both as a defensive measure to deter attacks and as a source of ransom money.