SOF and Boko Haram – Nigeria’s Long-Term Insurgent Nightmare

Boko Haram area of operations in Nigeria (image adapted from CIA maps World Factbook)
Boko Haram area of operations in Nigeria. The area contracts or expands depending on success or failure of Nigerian security forces in managing the conflict. (image adapted from CIA maps World Factbook)

Boko Haram is the insurgent group that won’t go away. The group has caused a tremendous amount of disruption in Africa’s most populous country with its violence and intention of establishing an Islamic state in Nigeria. The rise of this group is the biggest crisis the country has faced since its civil war in the 1960s.

The group has killed thousands of people, devastated communities, and created more than 2 million internally displaced persons and over 200,000 refugees throughout the Lake Chad Basin. It destroys infrastructure, school houses, government buildings, police stations, medical clinics, and places of worship. Its tactics include bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations.

2002. Boko Haram emerged in the early 2000s in northeastern Nigeria – a mostly Muslim area of the country – as a political movement aligned against the corruption of the central government. In the early years the city of Maiduguri was the center of its operations.

2009. It became a more militant group in 2009 with the launch of an armed resistance against the central government. The group draws many of its followers and fighters from the Kanuri ethnic group.

2013. The insurgent group was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in May 2013. Several other nations (mostly western) have done the same. During 2013 the group was strongest in the three northern Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa.

2014. In the 2014 time frame the insurgent group gravitated to the Islamic State (turning its back on al-Qaeda) declaring its allegiance to the Islamic State and establishing itself as a ‘caliphate’. Another name in use is the “Islamic State West Africa Province” or ISWAP. During this time frame it controlled a significant portion of the Muslim areas of the country and was at the peak of its strength.

Kidnapped Chibok Schoolgirls. In April 2014 the insurgent group kidnapped over 200 schoolgirls from a school dormitory in Chibok in northeast Nigeria prompting an international media glare on the group. The girls were held and presumably could be exchanged for Boko Haram prisoners held by Nigerian authorities.

U.S. SOF Operations. In May 2014 news broke about a small detachment of U.S. Special Forces headed to Nigeria. The team’s mission was to train the Nigerians on ways to combat the insurgent group. [1] A small airport in Garoua, Cameroon has been home to a few hundred U.S. service members (and contractors) that – among other things – provide a drone capability . . . presumably in the fight against Boko Haram. [2] The U.S. SOF commitment to the counterinsurgent fight has been an ongoing topic in U.S. military circles with SOCAfrica considering the feasibility of resuming a train, advise, and assist mission with select Nigerian forces. [3] The U.S. mission had been suspended for a period of time during 2015 due to tensions between the U.S. and Nigerian governments. [4] In addition to military assistance to Nigeria and Cameroon – the U.S. has provided training and assistance to the military’s of Chad and Niger – neighboring countries of Nigeria.

SOF Organizations Providing Assistance. The lead for SOF in Africa is Special Operations Command – Africa or SOCAFRICA. It is a subordinate unit of AFRICOM. Within the region of Africa where Nigeria is located a number of SOF units conduct training and operations. The 3rd Special Forces Group based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina is the SF group primarily responsible for Africa (having re-focused from its long-term mission in Afghanistan). The 10th Special Forces Group based at Fort Carson, Colorado (and with its 1st Bn at Stuttgart, Germany) provides training assistance to the regional nations via its annual FLINTLOCK Exercise and command of SOCFWD-WA. Special Operations Detachment – Africa (SOD-A), a Texas Army National Guard unit provides members of its unit to assist in operations and training events (for instance the FLINTLOCK exercise). The 19th and 20th Special Forces Groups (National Guard) also provide augmentees and SFODAs for training and operations as well. In addition, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) provide a host of support to the various SOF elements.

SOCAfrica’s Role. In May 2016 Brigadier General Don Bolduc, a highly experienced and decorated Green Beret and the commander of Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAFRICA) was interviewed by the CTC Sentinel (a West Point periodical) about U.S. special operations role in countering Boko Haram. The excerpt below is from that interview [5]

“CTC: In Nigeria, how has the United States helped in the fight against Boko Haram? What is the degree to which Nigerian military are improving in operational capability and also in dealing with corruption? Can you see progress? What is the right role for U.S. SOF in Nigeria?

BG Bolduc: As I’ve said before, cooperation with Nigeria and the surrounding Lake Chad Basin nations is critical to ensuring the success of the counter-Boko Haram mission. The government of Nigeria leads the counter-Boko Haram fight within their country; U.S. efforts focus on assisting affected states to increase their ability to cooperate across borders, share information, and carry out effective counter-VEO ops. This also includes human rights training, messaging, and civil affairs training—again, a comprehensive approach to the problem set.

In recent years, and at the Nigerian government’s request, we have worked with the Nigerian military on their counter-force, conducting recurring training events. This training has included basic soldiering skills; basic, small-unit infantry tactics; and leadership training. It’s this sort of professionalization-type training that will have the most impact on the problem of corruption. By building a professional, ethical officer and NCO corps, the Nigerian military will become increasingly able to gain the trust and confidence of the people. A fully trained military acting in the best interest of the local population is one of the most powerful legacies our engagement can lead to. Countering Boko Haram is not only about soldiering; it’s also important to build a force able to address the grievances of the people in an honest and professional manner.

We have also worked with the Nigeria’s Special Boat Service, a unit similar to the Navy SEALs, during the annual Flintlock exercise and other engagements. In addition, we’ve worked to increase the coordination between Lake Chad Basin countries as part of the Multi-National Joint Task Force and provide intelligence and imagery via ISR flights based in Cameroon. Everything we’re doing in the Lake Chad Basin region is intended to build the right capability and capacity, trust and interoperability of SOF, linked to legitimate civil administration postured to defeat Boko Haram or any other VEOs threatening the stability of the state. That’s the bottom line of what our teams are doing across the region.”

“The New C2”. General Bolduc, COMSOCAFRICA, has described how his “. . . organization’s integration of policy, strategy, campaign planning and resources all rely on one single element for success, collaboration and coordination, what he calls the ‘new C2’.” General Bolduc goes on to say “Only with excellent planning to neutralize and degrade al Shabaab and Boko Haram can we enable our partners to contain and ultimately defeat this threat”. [6] This approach to providing assistance to African natures is ideal in developing a regional approach to degrading and defeating violent extremist organizations (VEOs).

Training Exercises. AFRICOM and SOCAFRICA conducts periodic training exercise to increase the competency and capability of the countries in the Chad-Nigeria-Cameroon-Niger region. One of these is FLINTLOCK – a yearly exercise involving SOCAFRICA units in Africa. The sub-unit of SOCAFRICA conducting the exercise is Special Operations Command Foward – West Africa (SOCFWD-WA). There are three forward elements of SOCAFRICA. SOCFWD-WA is commanded by elements of the 10th Special Forces Group, SOCFWD-CA is commanded by elements of the 20th Special Forces Group, and SOCFWD-East is commanded by the Navy SEALs. The quote below is from a Facebook posting. [7]

“The three-week Chad hosted event included the implementation of a collaborative Command and Control and information sharing systems, which will remain in place for African partners to share operational information and intelligence with each other, as well as international partners.”

FLINTLOCK 2016 Logo from SOCAFRICA's FLINTLOCK Facebook page

France as a Partner. France also “. . . cooperates with the U.S. and African partners in the Lake Chad Basin as part of the multi-national effort to counter Boko Haram. For that mission in particular, intelligence-sharing and medical support provided by the French have really helped to bolster the African-led Multi-National Joint Task Force’s ongoing mission.” [8]

British Assistance. The United Kingdom has always had a quiet but persistent presence in the Middle East and Africa. This is true of Nigeria as well where a small contingent of British special forces have assisted in the Nigerian capital. [9]

Multi-National Joint Task Force. A multi-nation effort involving Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon was successful in reducing the strength of the insurgent group. The group has retreated to the Sambisa forest and nearby mountain areas not easily patrolled by the security forces. However, despite the efforts of the 9,000 man multinational force by the end of 2016 the number of the insurgent group’s force was still in the thousands. The regional task force has not been a complete success – there are differing views on the insurgent threat and a hesitancy to fully cooperate and exchange information.

Support to Regional Countries. The U.S. continues to work with the regional countries in the Lake Chad region – where Boko Haram has its operating and support zones. For example, as recent as 2016 SOCAFRICA has had “. . . an enduring relationship with Chadian Special Operations Forces as the organizations collaborate on countering the threat of violent extremist organizations in the Lake Chad Basin.” [10] The Chadian Special Anti-Terrorist Group (SATG) supports multi-national counter-terror missions across the African continent.

Niger. U.S. SOF had a small element (approximately 20 personnel) in neighboring Niger working with local troops to enhance security against Boko Haram incursions. Niger’s Diffa region includes more than 200 villages that can be found along the Komadougou Yobe River – the lightly patrolled border with Nigeria. The SOF personnel have been training Niger’s 3rd Antiterrorist Company while another U.S. element has been working with a newly-formed civil-military affairs unit of the Niger military.

Cameroon. The United States has maintained a drone base in Garoua that overfly northeastern Nigeria. The imagery is sent to the troops of the African nations fighting the insurgent group.

Chad. Military forces of Chad have contributed troops in the fight against Boko Haram. This nations involvement in the counterinsurgency effort increased significantly in late 2015. Chadian forces have fought on Niger and Nigerian soil in the fight against the extremist group.

Nigerian Army Special Operations Command (NASOC). The NASOC was stood up in early 2014 and was intended to be a low density, high level strategic utility force capable of direct action missions. U.S. SOF helped to stand up the NASOC force – providing training and equipment from AFRICOM and SOCAFRICA. [11]

2015. By mid-2015 the Nigerian security forces had conducted a series of offensives that have lessened the swath of land controlled by the insurgent group. In the later part of 2015 the president of Nigeria said that the insurgents were all but defeated. However reports of the demise of this insurgent and terrorist group were premature.

2016. Like almost all insurgencies Boko Haram is adaptive. The terrorist / insurgent group has lost a significant amount of territory since 2014 . . . but will certainly continue to present a threat over the long-term. The group enjoys sanctuary in remote border areas of the neighboring countries of Chad and Niger. It still has a base of support and has adapted its tactics to the current strategy used by Nigeria, the other surrounding countries, and the support to the counterinsurgency effort provided by the U.S. and European countries.

2017. As we enter 2017 now is the time for the Nigerians and its allies to reassess the fight against Boko Haram. It may be time to analyze some non-kinetic aspects of the COIN fight along with its kinetic operations. An examination of why the group enjoys support of a segment of the population may yield some insight on how to diminish the group’s appeal.

Foreign Internal Defense as a Suitable Option. The U.S. special operations personnel have been conducting a classic Foreign Internal Defense (FID) mission. Their principal function is performing as advisors not as combatants. In addition to training and advise the U.S. has provided assistance in the form of ISR (operation of drones or UAVs from nearby Niger and Cameroon), military equipment, logistical support, and humanitarian aid. While this effort is important and key to the success of the four nations combating Boko Haram it is also one that is small enough (call it the “small footprint” if you will) to not attract attention. In addition, the lack of casualties helps the overall endeavor – public support won’t wane and less media attention is drawn to an American presence in a foreign country (fears of “American occupation”). The long-term FID mission will (hopefully) – in time – diminish the ability of Boko Haram to spread its message, conduct terrorist operations, and threaten the population of northeast Nigeria and the border areas of neighboring countries. In addition, the FID mission should develop host nation military capabilities and enhance regional cooperation that can effectively conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations without assistance from the United States over the long-term.

Readings on Boko Haram:

“Analysis: Boko Haram insurgency far from over, despite Nigerian claims”, December 27, 2016.

“Boko Haram’s Resilience: Its Adaptive Tactics Require a New Approach“, Foreign Affairs, December 19, 2016.

“Boko Haram’s Shekau is Back Again”Council on Foreign Relations, September 27, 2016.

“Boko Haram”, Wikipedia. An exhaustive resource on the insurgent group.

Rethinking Counterinsurgency: A Case Study of Boko Haram in Nigeria, a thesis submitted by Samson Eyituoyo Liolio, European Peace University (EPU), Stadtschlaining, Austria, February 2013.

“Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist Group?”BBC News, November 24, 2016.

Boko Haram: An Assessment of Strengths, Vulnerabilities, and Policy Options, National Consortium of the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), authored by Amy Pate, January 2015, College Park MD. This 58-page report was wrote for the Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) Office of the Department of Defense and the Office of University Programs, Department of Homeland Security. The report explores the strengths and potential vulnerabilities of Boko Haram, the policies that can be employed to counter Boko Haram, and the options that USAFRICOM has for engaging U.S. government and foreign partners to deploy policies to counter Boko Haram.

Boko Haram / Nigeria”, Current Context, California History-Social Science Project, June 4, 2014. University of California Davis. Four pages.

“Staying Small to Stay Feasible: SOF Support in Countering Boko Haram”Small Wars Journal, by Rick Chersicla, July 21, 2016.

FACT SHEET: U.S. Efforts to Assist the Nigerian Government in its Fight against Boko Haram, White House, October 14, 2014.

Statement Designating Boko Haram as Foreign Terrorist Organization, The White House, November 13, 2013. . . .

“Operating and Building Capacity in the Gray Zone”African Defense, September 1, 2016. In an extensive interview the commander of SOCAFRICA – BG Don Bolduc – provides an informative perspective on SOF efforts on the African continent – to include efforts to contain, degrade, and eliminate Boko Haram.


[1] For source on deployment of 12-man Special Forces team see “Small Special  Forces Unit Will Deploy to Nigeria”, May 12, 2014.

[2] For drone assistance to the counter Boko Haram effort see “Hunting Boko Haram: The U.S. Extends Its Drone War Deeper Into Africa With Secretive Base”The Intercept, February 25, 2016. See also “US troop deployment against Boko Haram is largest of its kind”Deutshe Welle, October 15, 2015.

[3] See “U.S. mulls special ops mission to support Nigeria’s Boko Haram fight”Reuters.

[4] “US looking to send special forces advisors to help in Boko Haram fight”Stars and Stripes, February 26, 2016.

[5] Quote from “A View From the CT Foxhole: Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc, Commander, Special Operations Command Africa”CTC Sentinel, May 25, 2016.

[6] See article entitled “SOCAFRICA Commander Shares Unique Mission with NPS Students”Today@NPS, Naval Postgraduate School, October 6, 2016.

[7] See Facebook posting “Flintlock Exercise” dated March 9, 2015. For an intensive read on the FLINTLOCK EXERCISE read “Over There”Texas Monthly, December 2015 where the mission contributions of Special Operations Detachment – Africa (SOD-A) are outlined. For more on 10th SFGA and FLINTLOCK read “10th SFG(A) leads exercise in Chad”Fort Carson Mountaineer, March 2015.

[8] Quote from “A View From the CT Foxhole: Brigadier General Donald C. Bolduc, Commander, Special Operations Command Africa”CTC Sentinel, May 25, 2016. France has taken a keen interest in African security affairs to include the Nigeria security situation. In May 2014 President Francoise Hollande hosted the Special Summit of Security in Nigeria (held in Paris) where the insurgent group was deemed a threat to regional peace and security.

[9] For mention of British SOF see “U.S. Plans to Put Advisors on Front Lines of Nigeria’s War on Boko Haram”The New York Times, February 25, 2016.

[10] See press release by the Embassy of the United States in Ndjamena, Chad dated January 28, 2016.

[11] For more on the Niger mission see “In Niger, U.S. soldiers quietly help build wall against Boko Haram”Reuters, September 18, 2015.

[12] See OE Watch, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Vol. 5, Issue 4, April 2014.

About John Friberg 201 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.