By David Otto
“it is not the most powerful nor the most intelligent of actors that will survive new conflicts, it is the ones that are most adaptable to change” to paraphrase Charles Darwin.
For the past 5 years, ISIS and Al-Qaida affiliates in Africa- Alshabaab, Boko Haram and ISWAP (Boko Haram) have mastered the tactic of manipulating the eco-system of field researchers working for local and international Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). The Jihadist take advantage of NGOs like Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights (HRW) and others to generate exaggerated and untrue Gross Violations of Human Rights (GVRH) and war crimes reports against the security and military forces of state and regional partners pursuing the global war on terror.
While the reports distract, demoralise state security and military forces and place them on the defensive, they legitimise and embolden the jihadists. The regularly produced and strategically published reports provide fresh oxygen for terrorist groups to survive, recover, build more violent capacity; produce online propaganda; and maintain the capacity to launch deadly attacks targeting soft civilian and hard military positions in Africa.
In Africa, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups operate predominantly in North East Nigeria states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (BAY States); the fringes of Lake Chad Basin countries (Cameroon, Tchad, Niger Republic) and the Horn of Africa.
A field research, operations and reporting policy review of humanitarian watchdogs like Amnesty International (AI) and others operating in the Lake Chad Basin, the Sahel and Horn of Africa is overdue.
Conflict or no conflict, sovereign states establish a social contract and duty to respect and protect the basic and fundamental human rights of all its citizens from violations and interference. The right to life; to private and family life; to freedom of thought; to freedom of speech; freedom of assembly and association; freedom of movement; to a fair hearing; to education; freedom from unlawful arrest and detention; to freedom of conscience and religion. These limited or qualified rights belong to everyone.
To balance national security and to safeguard the rights of others and the wider community, States and public authorities face the challenge of interfering with some inalienable rights in pursuit of restoring order, peace and security in asymmetric warfare against terrorist and non-state armed groups (NSAG) embedded within the civilian population.
‘Amnesty International reports thrive on the common perception that state military and security authorities will always deny allegations of GVHR and War Crimes even if they were caught red-handed’.
NGOs specialised in reporting on GVHR and war crimes against citizens in asymmetric warfare by the security and military forces of state actors (SA) ignore existential operational challenges faced by frontline battlefield troops in distinguishing friends from foes in a mix of innocent civilians, unarmed and armed non state groups dwelling in the same community.
Timing And Immediate Impact:
The timing of Amnesty International (AI) reports on alleged GVHR and war crimes against state and regional security and armed forces is counter productive to the ongoing global war on terror. Each stakeholder including Humanitarian organisations should play a positive role in the the global quest to defeat terrorism from its roots.
Not so, when AI reports of alleged GVHR coincide with state announcements of battle field successes and precision strikes on Boko Haram strongholds by Nigeria, Chad and regional Multinational Joint Task Forces (MNJTF). These reports have a texture of slowing down and interrupting planned military offensives against high value terrorist targets in the theatre of operations.
The moral of frontline troops is disturbed. Their professionalism, legitimacy and credibility as defenders of the civilian population is questioned, creating further fear and distrust between frontline military and security forces and the civilian community. Untrue and exaggerated reports by AI amount to tacit support, encouraging terrorist manipulative tactic of hijacking and using the most vulnerable civil populace to shield their activities and sustain the war on terror.
Exaggerated and untrue reports severely impact on state and regional counter insurgency (COIN) efforts. Partners against terrorism organisations and states are quick to pull out from needed technical and resource funding where accusations of GHRV are reported without adequate verification and context interpretation.
At worst, State and Regional COIN interventions are curtailed, allowing terrorist groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab the time and space to increase their capacity, moral and criminal operations.
Condemning The Terrorist:
GHVR reports may appear balanced and impartial to ordinary readers in condemning terrorist violent activities against the civilian population. The AI report accuses Boko Haram of committing a series of ‘widespread atrocities’. It acknowledges that such violations are impossible to verify ‘due to security and access challenges’.
Terrorist groups are categorised as non-state belligerents with extreme ideologies. They enjoy no legal or recognised authority; they do not answer or defer to any authority or legitimate international organisation.
Therefore, any allegations of GHRV are meaningless to terrorist groups, above all, Boko Haram factions have no reputation to protect – state actors do. These imbalances mirror the real rational of such reports.
Follow The Money:
The business continuity model of Human Rights watch dogs – AI, HRW – is to write ‘chilling’ reports alleging GVHR and war crimes etc. targeting state actors that can be investigated and held accountable either by the United Nations (UN), The International Criminal Court (ICC) or local judicial systems.
This consistent reporting on GVHR is necessary to justify donor funding and maintaining operational relevance in an ever changing and complex asymmetric warfare environment. This is the NGO version of the ‘street light effect’ phenomenon. But for these reports, local staff will have little or no justification for continued employment and funding.
Jihadist Manipulating Theatre
From the experiences of US led global coalitions pursuing the war on terror in Afghanistan – Iraq – Syria – Somalia and Nigeria, local terror networks and sponsors linked to either Al-Qaeda (AQ), Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL/IS), Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab have mastered the act of manipulating and coercing NGOs and the most vulnerable local population including women and young children to provide untrue but incriminating statements of GVHR and war crimes against frontline state military and security forces and their partners. These single sourced unverified statements from unidentified victims and witnesses form the basis of damning reports generated and published at strategic times by NGOs.
These reports seem to thrive on the common perception that state military and security authorities will always deny allegations of GVHR and War Crimes even if they were caught red-handed. In the 21st century era of technology, state authorities are developing innovative methods of conducting asymmetric warfare to minimise civilian casualties and deploy cutting-edge tools to investigate reports alleging GHRV and war crimes. Civilian organisations like AI do not have access to these tools.
In March 2019, AI released a report accusing US Africa Command (AFRICOM) that 8 of its airstrikes targeting Al-Shabaab positions resulted in the killing of innocent civilians. These coordinated planned airstrikes between AFRICOM and Somalia security forces were assessed and found to be proportionate in denying jihadist the ability to build capacity and attack innocent Somali citizens. Of the 13 allegations submitted by AI, joint US and Somalia independent investigations and post strike analysis not available to AI, revealed that no civilians were either injured or killed as a result of US – Somali coordinated airstrikes.
These investigations were expanded to find that two civilians died and three others were injured in the midst of terrorist as a result of US AFRICOM airstrikes but not as reported by AI.
AI report was blindsided by Al-Shabaab’s traditional tactic of hiding key fighters and weapons in civilian populated areas; using civilian population as human shield and coercing vulnerable civilians into making untrue claims against Somali state and AFRICOM forces.
Intentionally or otherwise, AI reports have consistently served the interest of Al-Shabaab terrorist by slowing down COIN operations and preventing AFRICOM and Somali security forces from deploying proportionate planned precision airstrikes as one method of eliminating high value terrorist (HVT) targets and capabilities. Boko Haram terrorists factions copy-cat similar tactics in Nigeria and the Lake Chad area.
A recently published 2019-2020 AI report targeting the government of Nigeria and the Nigerian Army is no different in context and form – coincidentally, the reporting patterns are the same with previous allegations in the Horn of Africa against Somali-AFRICOM. AI alleged GVRH violations and war crimes rely squarely on unverifiable eyewitness and victim accounts of security and military extra judicial killings, torture; child abuse; arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention without trial; poor detention facilities and pitiable medical facilities; The report claims to have interviewed more than 230 people from 15 Local Government Areas (LGAs); informal settlements and Internally Displaced Camps (IDPs). It says 119 children were interviewed. Of this number, 48 children were detained for months or years by the military and 22 adults detained with children across North East states of Borno and Adamawa.
Boko Haram ISWAP Tactic:
In North East Nigeria and the fringes of the Lake Chad Basin, Boko Haram factions have moulded a psychological operation consisting of human community shield – coerced and vulnerable men, women, young boys/girls and children, some as young as 6 years old. In 2019, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that over 800,000 people still live in remote and inaccessible villages. There is no accurate data on exact figures due to the vast and complex ungoverned space but these communities are mostly under the control and at the mercy of Boko Haram factions.
Most of these communities consist of families that have either refused to move to refugee/IDP settlements; are Boko Haram families or have voluntarily returned to their villages in preference to living in refugee/IDP camps. The true nature of individual interaction between these communities and Boko Haram factions is impossible to comprehend. least by anyone with limited access. However, Boko Haram factions are known to brainwash and recruit hundreds of women, girls, boys and children and deploy them as fighters, spies and suicide bombers to target vulnerable IDP communities and military positions.
Detention Camps (DCs) Challenges: Safe Corridor
In a volatile environment with a manipulative invincible enemy, caution and vigilance is the key. When state and Regional Multi-National Joint Task forces (MNJTF) launch offensives on Boko Haram strongholds and rescue or capture individuals, groups, in remote communities the safety of frontline security forces is a priority. This is to avoid past cases of hidden explosives in bags and garments of unsuspecting women and young children.
All captured and rescued persons are treated as suspects. They are detained and transferred for debrief at Giwa Barracks and Kainji holding facilities. This depends on the LGA they are rescued or arrested from; the number of people, the time and available logistics, it could take days or weeks before these persons or groups reach resourced Detention centres (DCs) in Maiduguri – Borno State.
While at DCs, the prevailing task, time and technical knowledge required for evidence gathering; debrief of suspects, overstretched personnel could mean that suspects are not processed through as quickly and safely as they would like to be on arrival. This logistics and structural complexity in the North East accounts for most delays in processing Boko Haram suspects through DCs to the court system for prosecution and judgement.
According to the Acting Director Army Public Relations Col. Sagir Musa, DCs have been modernised over the years by the Nigeria Army.
“Nigeria Military Detention facilities have modernised feeding, sanitary and medical conditions in tune with international best practice and standards. Red Cross, Human Rights Watch and other Human Rights organisations have visited the detention centre at Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri – key observations raised have been implemented by the Nigeria Army”
Although there is a policy of holding children in separate DCs from adults, there have been instances where families insist on staying together as a unit, citing Right to family life.
“The detention policy is clear, the Nigeria Army does not detain minors in DCs with adults, children have a separate holding centre. But staff face field challenges when parents insist on staying together in one unit with their young families citing human rights related issues like sickness, breastfeeding etc. …even when they are major culprits of acts of terrorism – staff sometimes have to balance these issues and allow parents in exceptional cases – this is the main source of allegations of children mixed with adults – its rather some children with their parents” Col. Sagir Musa concluded.
On the contrary, Operation SAFE CORRIDOR is faced with internal and external criticism. Advocates for conventional Correctional Services Facilities point to better sanitary conditions, better quality and quantity of food, medical treatment, vocational training and community reintegration in DCs for Boko Haram suspects – than ordinary criminals. These criticism is a reflection of the support for modernisation received from the European union and other donors for Operation SAFE CORRIDOR programmes at Giwa Barracks and Kainji DC.
The Nigeria Army Leadership and Human Rights:
“GHRV perpetrated by a few bad cases cannot be used as a blanket reporting policy to systematically condemn the entire state and security forces above the greater goal of a collective effort to winning the war on terror”.
Some level of collateral damages and instances of GVHR are unavoidable in asymmetric warfare where prompt identification of threats and the real enemy is a primary challenge. All safeguard measures should be put in place to prevent further abuses, and all reported allegations should be condemned, promptly investigated and punished accordingly.
In the last 5 years, the Nigeria Army under the leadership of Lt Gen. TY Buratai has improved HR record with the introduction of HR reporting desk across all units and formations. These desks are open to the public. All allegations of violations of HR are received, investigated by the military police (MP) and appropriate actions taken by impartial qualified public affairs personnel while serious breaches go through the stringent military justice system.
The introduction of information and reception centres during exercise and operations, checkmate and prevents abuses by some rogue Nigeria Army personnel. Civilians have access to these centres where complaints are presented to information officers, who relay such complaints to the appropriate quarters for follow up action.
GVHR perpetrated by a few bad cases should never be used as a yardstick for a blanket reporting policy to systematically condemn the entire state and security forces against the greater goal of a collective effort towards winning the war on terror. The Nigerian Army has enhanced its rules of engagement and training curriculum to reflect respect for and promotion of Human Rights, erring personnel were arraigned and tried through court martial. GVHR reports should balance the steps taken by the military and security forces and situate same in its rightful context.
Boko Haram Infiltrates Refugee/IDP Camps:
In areas of operation, Boko Haram factions deploy their families (often sick, pregnant women and young children under 5years) to seek medical treatment and refuge into nearby state and NGO managed refugee/IDP camps in North East Nigeria and the fringes of Lake Chad Basin. These camps are used as safe haven; and strategic spying spots for the jihadists. Factions also radicalise communities of local farmers, fishermen and hunters. Factional commanders coerce and groom these communities on simple methods of gathering and reporting information on troop movements and other activities of state and regional forces within and outside refugee and IDP camps.
NGOs Fatten Boko Haram:
Boko Haram family networks blend into surrounding refugee/IDP camps and gather vital information such as routine food and relief supply and activities of military and security forces. They radicalise and recruit young and vulnerable men and women within refugee/IDP camps; and pose as victims of GVHR by state and regional security and military forces. Armed with direct contacts of Humanitarian NGOs like AI and HRW, these individuals and families are trained on and how to provide false and incriminating statements against state and regional military and security forces.
Within refugee/IDP camps in North East Nigeria, World Food Programme (WFP) and local delivery partners selected and trained 100s of refugees on monthly food distribution techniques. Some of these IDPs are Boko Haram members. Behind the scenes, these members provide information on vital relief materials and operational activities of nearby state security forces. Boko Haram uses this information to plan attacks on military positions, divert or launch raids for food, medication and petroleum products.
In May 2017 – about 126 suspected Boko Haram members were rounded up at Damboa- Borno IDP camp with one suspect found in possession of an ID card of a soldier killed by Boko Haram insurgents in another attack in a near-by location given as Sabon-Gari. These Boko Haram members and supporters posing as refugees, lie in wait to vomit false statements to incoming International Human rights organisations and observers like AI.
NGO Staff – Boko Haram Alliance:
Boko Haram factions coerce local NGO Staff, at times in collaboration with local vendors and delivery partners to inflate the number of registered IDPs/refugees in camps and remote settlements. Some are kidnapped or killed for not complying. By multiplying the actual need assessment figures, a higher quantity of humanitarian relief in the form of food; non-edible items; petroleum; medical and other essential supply is dispatched to IDP/Refugee camps or vulnerable communities. These humanitarian items are either diverted to Boko Haram jihadist links before they arrive designated IDP camps or jihadist factions operating a few miles within IDP settlements will be given prior information on when these items arrive (even if they are delivered by air) in IDP/refugee camps. Many Boko Haram violent raids on IDP camps for essential items often coincide with the delivery of humanitarian relief items.
Several food convoys en-route to IDP camps are subject to violent raids by Boko Haram factions following leaked information from camp residents, local NGO staff, contracted vendors and delivery partners. Some regional states have threatened to shut down IDP/refugee camps after suspecting infiltration and insider leaks from ‘Fake refugees’, local staff and delivery partners linked to NGOs.
The government of Cameroon was accused of expelling several Refugees to Nigeria and threatened to close down a notorious UNHCR administered IDP/Refugee camp in Minawao/Kolofata town after internal investigations revealed that Boko Haram Jihadist had infiltrated the overcrowded camp and spies posing as IDPs were responsible for leaking timely information that led to several raids on IDP camps and deadly attacks on nearby military (Rapid Intervention Force – BIR) positions – these Boko Haram loyalist were equally behind several damning reports generated by AI against Cameroon special/Regional forces.
The manipulative and shrewd modus operandi of Boko Haram jihadist provides a false platform by anonymous persons posing as victims from affected areas and refugee/IDP camps and the basis of AI damaging GVHR and war crimes against state and regional military and security forces.
Recommendations For States And NGOs:
In North East Nigeria, the Lake Chad Basin and the Horn of Africa, Key stakeholders treat NGOs as unhelpful partners and rarely as part of the solution in the ongoing war against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates. In a complex asymmetric warfare and widespread environment where the enemy can be anyone and anywhere (urban and rural) –fluid, horizontal, invincible, and extremely manipulative. There is an urgent need to re-evaluate the role of some of the Humanitarian actors and allegations of GVHR reports by these International NGOs.
Winning the global war on terror (GWOT) requires a short, medium and long term multi-level, multi-agency and sustainable counter insurgency strategy. The monitoring and reporting of alleged incidence of GVHR and war crimes by Humanitarian NGOs is an important component to curtail abuses by all parties engaged in the war on terror. State and public authorities have a duty to investigate and safeguard against all incidence of GVHR and war crimes.
Reports alleging GVHR should not deliberately ignore success records of state military and security forces in mitigating against GVRH and war crimes. As non-military organisations with limited capabilities and access to real time field operational information, NGO reports are often blindsided to the extra-ordinary measures military and security state authorities go to reduce the likelihood of GVHR and War crimes. Acknowledgements and pointing out positive developments by International NGOs will act as incentive for good behaviour and for others to emulate.
There is an urgent need for NGOs to review operations and intervention methodologies and coordinate their activities with state and regional authorities as a crucial step towards winning back the trust of local stakeholders to achieve a sustainable goal of a return to peace and security in Northern Nigeria, the Lake Chad Basin and the Horn of Africa.
For security reasons – detailed operational and intervention recommendations for NGOs and states actors will not be published here. To paraphrase Charles Darwin, it is not the most powerful nor the most intelligent of actors that will survive new conflicts, it is the ones that are most adaptable to change.
About the Author
David Otto – Counter Terrorism & Organised Crime Expert and Certified Master (CMAS) Anti Terrorism Specialist with the Anti Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB) – Twitter: @ottotgs