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US steps up fight against Boko Haram

Jane Ayeko-KummethOctober 15, 2015

The US is to deploy up to 300 military personnel to Cameroon for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations against militant Boko Haram insurgents.

President Barack Obama
Image: Reuters

Nigeria has welcomed a US decision to send up to 300 military personnel to Cameroon to help the regional fight against Boko Haram. According to the AFP news agency, President Muhammadu Buhari's spokesman Garba Shehu said the deployment was a "welcome development" while the military said it demonstrated cooperation was needed against the Islamists.

US President Barack Obama says the move is part of an effort to conduct airborne intelligence gathering in support of ongoing regional counter extremist efforts.

Boko Haram, which has pledged its allegiance to"Islamic State" (IS), has stepped up attacks in Nigeria and northern Cameroon since Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari took office in May. DW spoke to Ryan Cummings, a security analysis for sub-Saharan Africa at the crisis management assistance company Red24.

DW: How significant is the deployment of the US troops and the role they are to play in the fight against Boko Haram?

Ryan Cummings: I think we need to place Barack Obama's decision to deploy US troops in the context of the fight against Boko Haram. It is by no means the first occasion that the US administration is deploying its military assets against the Islamist extremist group. We saw in 2014, in the aftermath of the Chibok kidnapping in the northeast of Nigeria when close to 200 girls were kidnapped, that the US government deployed a number of military advisers to the capital of Chad, N'Djamena, to assist with surveillance and intelligence gathering on Boko Haram. This was specifically focused on trying to figure out where the group was holding the girls, but also on other aspects of the Boko Haram organization, specifically looking at the size of the organization and where they maintained an operational presence.

More recently in Niamey in Niger, the US government deployed about twenty special forces and they were mandated specifically with providing some form of counter insurgency training to Nigerien special forces who themselves were mandated to combat Boko Haram within the Diffa region that borders Nigeria.

So obviously the deployment of the US military, who have a very defensive mandate and won't be directly involved in combat operations against Boko Haram, is the largest deployment of its kind against the group but certainly it is not the first act by the US government in trying to find a solution to the Boko Haram insurgency.

Why did US President Barack Obama, as commander in chief, prefer to deploy troops in Cameroon and not in Nigeria that has borne the brunt of Boko Haram more than any other country?

The decision was based on a request of assistance by the Cameroonian government. It wasn't any unilateral decision made by the White House.

What can you tell us about the timing of the latest deployment of US troops to fight Boko Haram?

It speaks to a phase within the Boko Haram insurgency which has many people worried. Basically, Boko Haram has transcended from a Nigerian-focus group to one which has more regional ambitions. We have witnessed this with the group pledging allegiance to "Islamic State" and then redefining itself as "Islamic State in West Africa province", which suggests that its ambitions are much wider than Nigeria, than they initially were in its ten years of existence as a so-called insurgent movement.

Recently President Muhammadu Buhari was feted by the White House, but has not received significant US military support. How do you explain this?

Ryan Cummings
Ryan Cummings is a security analyst for sub-Saharan AfricaImage: privat

It is very difficult to be definitive about US and Nigerian diplomatic relations specifically with regard to the fight against Boko Haram. I think the US government has previously flagged the human rights record of the Nigerian army, specifically with reference to their counter insurgency operations against Boko Haram which have been problematic. This may have caused tensions between the two countries, for example with the Nigerian government claiming that the US refused to sell arms and weaponry to their force because of their perceived human rights abuses. So obviously the strained relations between Nigeria and the US may be a stumbling block to cooperation between the two countries at this time in fighting against Boko Haram. This may be why Cameroon, which has a better rapport with the US government, at this time chose to request assistance as opposed to the Nigerian government asking for help.

Ryan Cummings is the chief security analyst for sub-Saharan Africa at the crisis management assistance company Red24 where he specializes in assessing political risk in West Africa. He is also a founding member of the Nigerian Security Network.

Interview: Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth