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Border Security in West Africa

Terrorist organizations survive and prosper in countries with ineffective, porous, and unsecure borders. Organizations like Al Shabaab in Somalia, the Haqqani Network in Pakistan, National Liberation Army in Venezuela, and Boko Haram in Nigeria use weak and porous borders to evade the grasp of whichever government they are attempting to subvert. They will often establish training camps in the relative protection of an unstable country unable to secure its borders, then conduct attacks in the neighboring countries. Boko Haram has flourished in West Africa due to the lack of border security in the region. The organization uses the unsecured borders of Nigeria to conduct operations in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, acting as a destabilizing force in these neighboring countries. These countries must start taking border security seriously if they wish to defeat Boko Haram.

The lack of a solid border and border security apparatus allows for cross-border illicit actions, such as the drug and arms trade, and human trafficking. According to Polaris, there are approximately 40.3 million victims of human trafficking, and in some parts of West Africa, almost 100% of the victims are children. Human trafficking is a major source of revenue for Boko Haram. Moreover, the absence of a secure border allows terrorist organizations to cross legal and geographical boundaries with impunity, hindering any one nation from capturing or defeating Boko Haram fighters and perpetuating the suffering of the local populations. Therefore, for these nations to successfully defeat Boko Haram, they must mount a closely coordinated effort.

Boko Haram, founded in 2002 by Islamic cleric Mohammad Yusuf, was created in an effort to establish fundamentalist Islam practiced by Salafi-Jihadists in West Africa. In July 2009, after years of significant clashes between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, Boko Haram attacked government buildings and police stations across northern Nigeria. Over the next several years, Boko Haram conducted regular attacks, with increasing ferocity and scope, targeting the government and civilians alike. As Boko Haram’s strength grew, its attacks evolved from suicide bombings and assassinations, into conventional combat engaments. May 2013 marked its first large-scale assault against military forces, when it used armored vehicles and small arms to mount a 200-man operation to successfully capture a Nigerian military base.

After the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in 2013, Nigerians fled into neighboring countries, such as Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. These countries worried that Boko Haram fighters would travel with the fleeing civilians, and rightfully so. In 2014, the Nigerien government arrested 20 Boko Haram members planning an attack on a market. On August 16th, 2014, Boko Haram fighters captured at least 97 young men and boys, loaded them onto boats, and crossed from Nigeria into Chad, eventually being captured by Chadian forces. Nigeria’s border with Cameroon is approximately 10,050 miles long, forming the entirety of Nigeria’s eastern border. Boko Haram uses this enormous border to its advantage, maintaining control of the Chad Basin border regions by regularly conducting attacks, preventing Cameroonian forces from gaining control of these regions.

Following the astounding growth in Boko Haram’s operations, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and the international community launched efforts to combat Boko Haram’s dramatic growth. The U.S. Department of State designated Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2013, opening up funding to aid West African nations in this conflict. Nigeria reprioritized its efforts toward regaining the territory lost to Boko Haram in the Northeast region. Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon formed a military coalition in 2015, increasing their communication across national lines and operating in tandem to surround Boko Haram. These efforts were effective in reducing Boko Haram’s manpower, resources, territory, inevitably driving Boko Haram to its previous modus operandi, returning to guerilla-style conflict and suicide attacks. Today, Boko Haram operates across borders in smaller engagements, which which makes it more difficult for governments to identify and track Boko Haram’s movements. To effectively defeat Boko Haram, these nations must now secure their borders.

An effective counterinsurgency policy requires West African states to execute a wide variety of programs concurrently and successfully. These programs include those that focus on local and national security, health, welfare, and (re)education, among other aspects. In the conflict with Boko Haram, border security plays a key role in finally defeating Boko Haram. Nigeria and other West African nations do not have the infrastructure nor the manpower to constantly patrol their border regions. Therefore, Nigeria should incorporate a network of electronic detection systems, such as radars, ground based sensors, cameras, and drones in select regions. This targeted network will reduce the workload required to surveil the border regions, while keeping costs relatively limited. Nigeria should then begin investing in physical instrastructure, establishing checkpoints and forward operating bases in the remote regions, allowing for a rapid response to any triggered sensor. Finally, Nigeria should increase military patrols in high threat regions, to demonstrate a consistant presence and control that spans the border region. This hybrid approach of technical and physical security infrastructure, and roaming patrols in targeted sections of the border reduces costs and workloads while improving effectiveness.

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Connor Collins

Connor is an International Security Consultant at Command Group, a Washington D.C. based consulting firm, where he assists governments, corporations, and high-net worth clients with international, national, and geopolitical security issues. He previously worked for a corporate risk management firm, protecting the most prominent and influential people and organizations around the globe, and studied terrorist organizations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa while at the U.S. Army War College. Prior works on U.S. Military Information Operations have been published by the U.S. Army War College. Connor majored in Political Science at Dickinson College, also receiving a minor in Economics, and a certificate in Security Studies.

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