Tracking the Nigerian Armed Forces’ COIN offensive in North-East Nigeria

The original article was published on Bellingcat on February 20, 2017.

Scope

This research examines video footage officially released over 2016 by the Nigerian Air Force (NAF), and complements it with other open source information — including press statements by the Nigerian Army, social media content, news outlets, and forum boards.

Objective is to track the geographical focus of the counterinsurgency (COIN) offensive launched in 2014 by the Nigerian Armed Forces, with specific attention to 2016 as the year when the Air Force’s involvement became predominant; to match it against the official version of the events; and to identify discrepancies.

As it is not possible to verify NAF claims on the total volume of missions effectively conducted throughout the year, scope of this research does not include tracking those that are not documented, or making inferences on their geolocation.

Key Findings

  • The COIN offensive over 2016 has been intermittent, and at least until October, geographically unfocused, with temporary attention to specific areas quickly revoked following violent events.
  • Repeated claims by the Army of decisive victory and eradication of Boko Haram in the areas affected by the COIN offensive often did not match the Army’s subsequent actions, news on Boko Haram’s reprisal actions, or publicly available information that can be geolocated to those areas.
  • Similarly, the key objective of recovering the “Chibok Girls” — whose kidnapping was the main trigger for the launch of the COIN offensive in 2014 — appears to be pursued inconsistently, and with uncertainty on their possible location, which generates questions on the actual will, or ability, of the top or mid-level commanders of the operation to execute on it.

Background

The counterinsurgency (COIN) offensive against the jihadist organization known as “Boko Haram” (BH) in the north-east of Nigeria is nearing the completion of its fourth year. The state of emergency declared in the three border states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe on 14 May 2013 by the then president Goodluck Jonathan has been maintained under his successor, Muhammadu Buhari; and while with several setbacks — and some truly horrific episodes of mass violence, like in Baga, Kawuri, Asaba, and other locations — it has allegedly seen the Nigerian Armed Forces recapturing large swathes of territories, particularly between 2015 and 2016.

Especially since early 2016, the offensive has seen a key actor in the Nigerian Air Force (NAF), which has regularly conducted airstrikes, and destroyed several BH outposts in the affected states. A trove of video and photographic material exists that allows us to map at least part of the recent COIN military campaign.

This series of posts will focus on the 2016 portion of the anti-BH offensive. It will examine the support the Nigerian army and air forces received (or didn’t) from foreign governments; it will attempt to map the known airstrikes committed by the Air Force; and it will look more deeply into the recent claims of success by the Nigerian Armed Forces, with the intent of assessing how justified they are.

Weaponry and Reconnaissance

Combat

The Nigerian Air Force has deployed a large portion of their combat aircraft inventory during the operations in the North East. Particularly, light trainers Alpha Jets, repurposed and armed with unguided bombs [archive], cannons, and rocket launchers, are often seen or purported to be operating in the aerial video footage released by the NAF; and several air raids allegedly utilized the Nigerian-specific version of the Chinese fighter jet Chengdu J-7 (itself a version of the classic MiG 21 of the Soviet era), dubbed F-7NI.

Unspecified combat helicopters, most likely identifiable with the Russian Mil Mi-24 models available to the NAF, are also reported as used in several operations.

UAVs

Of particular interest for this analysis are the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle models deployed by the NAF on the theatre of operations. The NAF could reportedly make use of a locally produced UAV (without combat capabilities) called “Gulma”, which was used in several occasions for aerial reconnaissance operations as part of the COIN offensive. It is unclear how many specimens were available to the Air Force for their operations, but it was reported by at least one source [archive] in early 2015 that one of them had gone lost during one action.

However, since the earliest reconnaissance videos were made available by the NAF on its YouTube channel, other researchers [archive] have pointed out how the visible video feed interface resembled that of the Chinese CH-4 drones allegedly used by the Iraqi army over their territory.

In fact, a CH-3 UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, as it is armed) had reportedly crashed [archive] in Borno state in January 2015, essentially lifting the curtain on the use of this model by the NAF in the North East. In addition to that, we can observe strong similarities between the NAF’s early UAV footage, a CH-4 (locally renamed “Burraq”) video feed as visible on official footage released by the Pakistani army in march 2015, and an older Chinese promotional for the CH-3 model, uploaded on YouTube in 2010:

Screen grab of the UCAV feed from a NAF video showing an air raid conducted on 18 March 2016 in Borno

Screen grab of the UCAV feed from a Pakistani army video purported to show the “Burraq” UCAV in action

Screen grab of the UCAV feed from a 2010 Chinese video purported to show the CH-3 UCAV in action

Since at least May 2016, videos uploaded on YouTube (and/or distributed to the press) by the NAF show a completely different interface for the U(C)AV video feed. The new pictures show a heavier amount of real-time data from the vehicle, with text overimposed to aerial footage in bright green color. The type of data is also different: along with other pieces of information, a date for the footage is often visible in the top-left corner; also, one string of text (highlighted in the screen grab below) mentions “Flir Systems”.

Screen grab from one of the NAF videos showing what appears to be the Flir Systems video feed

That could represent the “forward looking infrared” technology in general; however, footage [archive] from a namesake company that provides thermal imaging solutions for manned or unmanned aircrafts on global markets, with confirmed military & defense applications [archive], appears to be very similar to the video feed’s interface as released by the NAF:

Screen grab from video footage from the British Maritime Coastguard Agency released on Flir Systems’ website in June 2016

Unfortunately, this makes harder to identify the aircraft used by the NAF, as Flir Systems cameras and sensors can be mounted on a broad variety of UAV models, whether armed or not, and even manned aircrafts such as surveillance planes, or helicopters. Vibrations that are at times visible in the video feeds for this camera model could suggest it is a helicopter mounting it — but that cannot be demonstrated at the moment of this writing.

Mapping The Counteroffensive

Scanning through the video footage released by the NAF over the past year, we can derive significant geolocation data from:

  • GPS coordinates shown on the videos, which we will try to match with publicly available satellite imagery;
  • Description of the villages and locations impacted by the NAF air strikes, or ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) operations — as disclosed by NAF itself.

We quickly realize that there are two important caveats to that:

  1. Coordinates are sometimes hard to validate as the natural environment in north east Nigeria, and particularly in the Borno state, shows minimal human intervention. The local population, including BH fighters, mostly inhabits makeshift settlements, even when called “terrorist camps” or “bases” by the Nigerian Armed Forces. This often removes important points of references for validating the geolocation of aerial footage.
  2. Topography of remote, rural Nigerian areas is hardly done. Or at least, hardly detailed on established products such as Google or Bing Maps. However, the open source platform OpenStreetMap contains much more detailed data that, we will see, often corresponds to the available information on NAF actions.

By using GPS coordinates visible on the released aerial surveillance footage, we can build a map that, with good accuracy, shows a portion of the 2016 aerial component of “Operation Lafiya Dole”. Although only a minimal part of the air strikes, or ISR missions, that the NAF claims to have conducted throughout the year is caught on publicly released footage, we can still notice trends, patterns, and matches (or mismatches) with official statements.

Part #1: March/June 2016 (Op. Lafiya Dole)

Map of the documented footage for the first half of 2016. Colors indicate the different months.

The first half of 2016 shows a still geographically distributed set of NAF actions. The COIN offensive was encountering a period of possible slowdown, after president Muhammadu Buhari, on Christmas Eve 2015, had declared Boko Haram as “technically defeated” [archive], alias incapacitated from committing conventional attacks to either the army, or the local population. To that, the terrorist organization had promptly answered by killing at least 14 civilians [arc.] in Borno on Christmas day.

The impression is that the offensive is at this stage still quite unfocused. It should be noted, however, that the NAF claims on its first released video, on March 29, to have conducted “a total of 55 missions comprising 14 ISR, 30 interdiction/combat air support and 11 air logistics support missions” only in the month of March. This claim cannot be verified via available video footage, as only a fraction of them is visible in officially published material.

The same debut video apparently shows an airstrike “at Allagarno”. The actual GPS coordinates point, however, to a small village named Fai, some 80 KMs South-West of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, and 15 south of the village of Allagarno:

Later the same month, the NAF shows a hit east of Bama, a town with an important road link to Maiduguri (Borno’s state capital); the exact location is the small village of Danbrum, within the general area of the Sambisa Forest — which will only later see the full attention from the Nigerian Armed Forces.

More significantly, though, the attacks (or at least their documentation) apparently move towards the dried Lake Chad basin in April, with the first video from an area that will soon become a key focus of the (publicly visible) NAF operations. Kangarwa is a village to which the NAF will attribute considerable Boko Haram presence throughout the year, and that will come back much more often than others in later air strike videos. The location will become frontline for the ground troops of the Armed Forces in the late months of 2016.

Later on, possibly as a testimony of some lack of a specific focal point for the military operations (as it was denounced [arc.] by “anonymous Nigerian intelligence sources” two years prior), the only video released by the NAF that briefly shows footage from the month of May points to a location quite far from the main theatres of operations — the village of Mansur, in the south of the Bauchi state. The short footage is part of a much longer clip aimed at countering BH’s narrative on the NAF attacking civilians, and particularly the “Chibok girls” kidnapped by the terrorist group. The few seconds dating to the 23rd of May show what only seems to be an ISR mission, allegedly not followed by an air strike:

Finally, two pieces of footage from the same video show ISR operations conducted during the month of June. These, once again in two very different areas of the country, represent the last two pieces of documentation related to the sparse activity conducted in the first half of 2016 by the NAF. After that, as we’ll see shortly, military operations — or we should say, their selective showing to the public — will increase in focus, and volume.

Frames dated on 15 June go back to the north-eastern front near Kangarwa. GPS coordinates point to a spot near the village of (Cross) Kauwa, where what appear to be Boko Haram vehicles are shown while congregating:

The last portion of the clip for the month of June, this time dating to the 21st, rather goes back to the central state of Bauchi, and once again depicts aerial surveillance in the area of Mansur. The blurry images apparently show BH militants together with civilians — possibly including women and children:

The counteroffensive will take on a different direction beginning around the same date as this last footage.

Part #2: July/September 2016 (Op. Gama Aiki)

Back To The North

On 16 June 2016, Boko Haram militants attacked a village called Kuda, in the Adamawa state just south of Maiduguri, and reportedly killed [arc.] at least 24 civilians during a funeral. In response to international pressure [arc.], particularly from Niger and Cameroon — both countries affected from the jihadist spillover through their porous borders — the Nigerian Armed Forces launched a new stage of Operation Lafiya Dole, called in Hausa language “Gama Aiki” (“Finish The Job”) on 19 June.

Gama Aiki puts for the first time great emphasis on its air component, driven by increased strikes — or perhaps, their much more frequent broadcast — conducted by the NAF.

This is predictably reflected in the amount of videos that the NAF released in that three-month span: 11 in total.

What is immediately apparent through an analysis of their geographical distribution is that all strikes or ISRs shown are now concentrated in a small portion of land, the area north of Kangarwa that became close focus of the Armed Forces after a tactical debacle in 2013 — and clearly, still is in mid 2016.

Below is a map of the incidents shown in the NAF footage for this period. We can see the mostly dried Lake Chad basin, crossed by the border between Nigeria and Chad, west of which are the locations interested by the NAF footage.

July

The July videos, or fragments, are all dated on the 6th of July. First, two separate clips (1,2) show airstrikes launched by the NAF over the small village of Tunbun Rago, some 25 km north of Kangarwa, and just west of the same settlement. The exact locations can be seen on this Google Earth satellite imagery — which, for this area, dates back to June 2013:

For the same day, we also have two additional fragments from the previously mentioned clip on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). One shows once again Tunbun Rego, the second one an unmarked location about 20 km west of the village, in the middle of the dried Lake Chad bed:

As we look into what’s clearly a significant escalation in effort, and the public promotion of it, by the NAF, it’s worth to note that according to the Facebook profile purported to be representing the Acting Director of the Army Public Relations, Colonel Sani Kukasheka Usman [arc.], the “Chief of Army Staff [Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai] visited the troops’ location [in Kangarwa] on 7th July 2016”:

The original post can be seen here [warning: graphic images. Archived version here]. It seems reasonable to conclude that the political pressure applied by the governments of Niger and Cameroon, and possibly others oversea, was leading in July 2016 to a stronger military and PR effort to show advancement of the Armed Forces in the Kangarwa area, for a long time considered as a Boko Haram sanctuary.

August

Videos showing actions conducted in August still display a complete focus on the Lake Chad basin area, confirming that “Gama Aiki” is really about northern Borno only. A total of four videos date to that month, geolocating on a vertical axis parallel to the Chadian border, and on the fringes of the lake’s basin.

The first video shows an August 19 airstrike against a Boko Haram camp that supposedly killed some 300 militants at one of their main “rendezvous”. The purported locations are “between Malan Fatori and Kangarwa”, where Nigerian Army troops are stationing. “Malan Fatori” most likely is a small town indicated as “Mallam Fatori” in OpenStreetMap, and described as completely depopulated [arc.] by BH since at least 2015. Barely readable GPS coordinates in the video allow us to geolocate the first part of the footage some 15 km north of the known village of Tunbun Rago:

A second part of the same video from what’s very likely to be the same set of airstrikes, dating to August 21, leads to another location further north, where a narrow, unpaved road and a small walled area are visible.

Later in August, two separate clips appear to show a follow-up NAF action to clear the remnants of the BH presence fleeing from the previously attacked location. One dating to the 28th of August again shows a follow-up reconnaissance and strike on militants fleeing the camp destroyed in the previous attack, but cannot be geolocated with precision as the text is unreadable even when manipulated via image editing; a second one, the following day, goes back to Tunbun Rago — evidently, still not as safe a location as the command of Operation Lafiya Dole is proclaiming.

Finally, airstrikes are still evident in the Kangarwa area as late as September. One clip dating to the 16 of September shows the bombing of a forested location near the settlement of Bula Bul, just a few kilometers west of the Chadian border:

Overall, the summer months of 2016 show a massive push of the counterinsurgency offensive in the most remote corner of north/eastern Nigeria. This can be matched to pieces of social media content, too. For example, one photo [arc.] posted on Facebook on July 10 is alleged to show the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, while breaking fast during the month of Ramadan with the troops stationed in Konduga (on the Maiduguri-Bama road), then later visiting the “119 Task Force Battalion of 7 Brigade located at Kangarwa”:

Ground troops are now permanently stationed in Kangarwa, and airstrikes support their increased recapture of territory in the surrounding areas. This serves the Nigerian Armed Forces’ narrative that BH militants are being neutralized, or pushed across the borders with Niger, Chad, or Cameroon. A narrative that will make the following developments even more confusing.

Part #3: Operations Forest Storm & Rescue Finale

Where Is Boko Haram?

Map of the documented footage for October/November 2016 in the Sambisa Forest. Colors indicate the different months.

The real pivotal moment for the Nigerian Armed Forces COIN offensive begins on 4 October 2016. On that date, the NAF announces [arc.] the launch of a dedicated, 7-day long operation called “Forest Storm”, with the stated intent of clearing the parts of Borno still affected by Boko Haram presence. What’s interesting is that, as it can be implied in the operation’s name, the NAF now pivots south of Maiduguri this time: to the large, no man’s land area that is the Sambisa Forest. This particularly inhospitable area, covered mostly by thorny bushes up to two meters tall, was flagged — as we have previously seen — by “anonymous intelligence sources” since at least 2014 [arc.] as one of BH’s strongholds, and a possible location where the “Chibok Girls” were held prisoners.

It therefore seems interesting that the NAF only fully focuses on Sambisa in late 2016. A video first “promoting” the Forest Storm-related operations is dated to October 2. The location in question, called “Goni Kurmi” in the clip’s overimposed text, can be traced to a settlement just south/west of Bama:

And The #Girls?

Map of all documented footage for airstrikes conducted in November 2016 by the NAF

One month after the launch of “Forest Storm”, on November 2, the Nigerian Army announces the launch of “Operation Rescue Finale”, aimed at “rescuing all the Chibok School Girls and other hostages held in Sambisa forest”. The rest of the Army statement gives a list of ongoing, or recent ground operations — but it doesn’t seem to evoke a specific focus for the broader counteroffensive.

However, videos published in November show a dual focus, once again. This time both Sambisa and the Lake Chad basin are hit by multiple NAF actions. One initial clip from the 6th of November focuses on both areas: Kangarwa, up north as we have seen, but also Kashimeri, west of Bama, in the Sambisa area.

We then move back, on 14 November, to the north again, a location called “Malkonori” by the NAF — which cannot be traced as a toponym, but geolocates north of Tunbun Rago, to a spot where we had already seen action in July and August:

Google Earth imagery (provided by Digitalglobe, and dated to June 2013) of “Malkonori”, as geolocated in the related NAF video

The following days get even more unusual. Between the 16th and 18th of November, the NAF pushes far east towards the border with Cameroon, for the first time on one of their videos. The single clip for all two days first shows an unnamed settlement near Kardali:

Unnamed village near Kardali (from Google Earth)

It then moves to the outskirts of the much more populated town of Ngoshe:

Town of Ngoshe (from Google Earth)

All before returning to Kangarwa — incredibly, still affected by BH presence despite the stable presence of ground troops in the area, and a campaign of airstrikes lasted for several months:

However, no sign of the “Chibok Girls” in the Army statements throughout Rescue Finale, and in any of the affected areas.

The Final (?) Step: Camp Zairo

The pressure is then on the Army, and the NAF, to show that they will be able to rescue the kidnapped students. As Operation Rescue Finale, an open ended set of attacks, continues its push within the Sambisa Forest in particular, the ultimate stated objective for the Nigerian Armed Forces is the eradication of BH from the area.

It is at the end of December 2016 that the Army proclaims their objective as achieved, by broadcasting the recapture of “Camp Zairo”, the supposed ultimate BH sanctuary in Sambisa.

What’s Camp Zairo?

The “camp” considered as BH’s headquarter actually appears to be a set of unspecified, and possibly fortified, buildings that, according to a few sources [arc.], were part of “an abandoned military facility constructed by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida for his ill-fated National Guard project.” Additionally, “the camp reportedly has underground bunkers.”, a probable exaggeration due to the sensationalism surrounding the current Army operations, and the ineffable enemy that Boko Haram appears to be.

The name — which is also spelled as “Camp Zero” by several sources, allegedly incorrectly [arc.] — does not appear to be a toponym, but a military codename. Nowhere in Google/Bing Maps, OpenStreetMap, or Wikimapia, the name “Camp Zairo” is found as a known location.

The National Guard was established in 1991 by then military President Ibrahim Babangida as a sort of personalized security service [arc.] aimed at preserving his power. It was however disbanded in 1993 [arc.].

Where is it?

Little material is available online, however, that could lead to tracing the location of their facilities — whether abandoned or repurposed — within the country.

Some social media content (for example, Facebook photos, archived here) mentions a place called “Parisu” as part of Camp Zairo. This is a toponym that we cannot trace to a specific location in Nigeria, even when trying variations of the spelling.

We then need to go back to the available video footage in order to locate it. A very grainy video published on December 28 is alleged to show ground troops advancing towards the Camp:

Throughout the video, only a few fragments show GPS coordinates under the overimposed text. At 55 seconds, what seems to be BH vehicles can be geolocated to a wild area west of the village of Dure:

At 1:02 minutes, a NAF Alpha Jet is seen as flying over another unpopulated area a few kilometers west of the initial spot:

However, it’s at 1:14 that visible coordinates point to a spot that we can speculate to actually host the infamous Camp Zairo facilities. The unnamed location, again on the fringes of the Sambisa Game Reserve, and next to a stream apparently called Bararam, is interesting when looked at on Google Earth. It shows an intricate net of rural trails, but more importantly, it seems to display a set of small buildings that could be consistent with the so-called “camp” of Boko Haram, and former military/intelligence facility — especially considering that we cannot find a name for it anywhere.

One of the most defined satellite images is dated to 30 October 2014:

Detail of the westernmost portion of the possible “Camp Zairo” area — from Google Earth, 30 October 2014

The most recent one, however, dates to just two days before the alleged recapture of the camp by the Nigerian Army — 24 December 2016, with the Army entering the area on the 26 — and shows a largely intact settlement. The alleged Boko Haram base is now clearly a larger network of buildings, with peripheral sectors possibly housing simple storage facilities, or other service areas:

It also appears obvious that the settlement had expanded over the past two years. A zoom-in on the peripheral areas in the 2014 view shows nothing but vegetation:

While the December 2016 imagery displays a web of trails, small buildings, and even some possible traces of farming activities — such as plantations on the eastern end of the area:

Attribution of such expansion to Boko Haram cannot be conclusive. However, it seems interesting that an apparently large population of militants was reportedly eliminated or driven from the area, and that a toponym is not published anywhere for what seems to be a bigger settlement than several others we’ve seen named.

Conclusions

The ultimate questions, in any case, remain:

  1. Where are the “Chibok Girls”, if they weren’t found at “Camp Zairo”, or elsewhere — whether on the Lake Chad, or in the Sambisa Forest?
  2. Where is the the leader of Boko Haram, the infamous Abubakar Shekau, if not at what’s supposed to be BH’s headquarter and sanctuary?
  3. Is Boko Haram alive, and regrouping, and was it ever really hit at the core of their activities?

The pompous statements by the Nigerian Army do not answer to either of the first two questions. The “Girls” are assumed as having been moved cross-border, or to a different nigerian area, by fleeing Boko Haram militants; and Shekau continues to be the ghost he’s always been — reported dead multiple times, and always resurfaced through BH videos after his supposed passing.

On the third point: was Camp Zairo really BH’s headquarter? Did BH even have just a single headquarter from which operations were (or are) led in the entire region they control?

The answer appears to be in the most recent events. Operation “Rescue Finale” continues to be officially undergoing at the moment of writing, with unclear geographical focus, and even less apparent benefit to the broader counterinsurgency offensive against jihadism in northern Nigeria.