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Should Nigerian Forces Carpet-Bomb Forest Areas In Tackling Terrorism?

Nigerians have repeatedly raised the idea of bombing large expanses of forests possibly providing a haven for terrorists. What are the risks and benefits?

Several Nigerians, including political leaders in the country, have floated the notion of defeating terrorists in Nigeria with carpet bombing. Nasiru El-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna State in Northwest Nigeria, has repeatedly argued in favour of the tactic, claiming that it is the only way to take the fight against terrorists to their hideouts.

Terrorists often seek refuge in Nigeria’s vast forest areas. In the Northeast, the Sambisa forest, especially the mountainous part of Gwoza villages, has served as a haven for Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) insurgents. 

Several operations to displace them from the dense part of the forest have met with limited success due to the terrorists’ better understanding of the landscape and ability to exploit the local environment for concealment. Nigerian forces have conducted frequent raids in some areas of the forest. Still, Sambisa has remained a notorious enclave for the insurgents. 

The vast Kamuku/Kuyanbana forest in the Northwest links Kaduna and Zamfara, and provides access to other states through mutually accessible forest areas. The twin forests have become a haven for several armed groups, including ideological and non-ideological armed groups. There is also the presence of Ansaru insurgents in the forest area, who use it for operations and coordinating propagation exercises in nearby villages. Many wandering herders also use it for grazing and setting up settlements. 

“Waiting for them to attack before we respond is not what will bring an end to these challenges. It is compulsory that we take the battle to their doorstep and deal with them,” El-Rufai recently said

He was referring to carpet bombing, a type of area bombardment meant to cause the most damage and target almost everyone in a specific location. 

Seventy-five (75) per cent of Nigerians who responded to a Twitter poll in August voted in favour of using carpet bombing to eliminate terrorist presence in forest areas. But at what cost?

Supporters of carpet bombing acknowledge that it will result in innocent casualties, but they argue it is the lesser of two evils. According to them, every act of violence or military action has unavoidable collateral damage that should be minimised. 

“In this case, carpet bombing will reduce future occurrences of terrorist actions by completely defeating them,” said Balarabe Abdallah, a public analyst based in Kano. He, however, warned that this type of aerial bombardment should only be used as a last resort, and that “some places that can be easily accessed by the military, foot soldiers operations should be prioritised.”

But Idris Muhammad, a security analyst from Northwest Nigeria, dismissed this idea. Nigeria’s armed forces are in an operational bind, he told us, and what they need is more collaboration with those who have a better understanding of the forest areas, rather than doing what would result in not only many innocent casualties but also deforestation that will exacerbate climate change. 

“The carpet bombing strategy will be disastrous,” he said. “In the forest areas, there are many villages and settlements that could easily be mistaken for terrorist hideouts.” He added that terrorists are more familiar with forest areas than the military, and using air raids has posed numerous risks, particularly to settlements near forest areas.

Nigeria’s military has frequently engaged in air operations that have “mistakenly” targeted civilians. Over 100 internally displaced people (IDP) were killed in an air raid five years ago in Rann, Yobe State. On Sept. 26,  2021, 20 civilians reportedly died from an airstrike in Dabar Masara, a town in Monguno Local Government Area (LGA) of Borno State. A similar occurrence happened in Zamfara, where an airstrike killed a woman and her four children. This year, a Nigerian fighter jet dropped another bomb, killing 17 people, mostly women and children, in Niger State. These cases and many others made some Nigerians concerned about the precision of air raids because of these and other factors.

Muhammad observes that terrorists are holding many innocent people captive, who could also be endangered through indiscriminate raids. “If terrorists are attacking everywhere, the Nigerian government should employ standard engagement strategies. No one wants his relatives killed in the name of collateral damage.”

He was echoing what the federal authorities had previously said. Information minister Lai Mohammed said last year that the armed forces were exercising caution “to avoid collateral damage”. Other experts further believe that such a strategy is more expensive to sustain since it is difficult to pinpoint the location of the terrorists in a vast and dense forest.

Environmental risks

Carpet bombing threat to civilians lies not only in the direct impact of explosives but in the form of remnants of unexploded bombs and the destruction of the local environment and associated livelihood opportunities. This could further worsen popular grievances against the state. 

The strategy, if adopted, could also lead to the depletion of important forest areas and increase the rate of deforestation in northern Nigeria, a region already struggling with the impact of desertification and climate change-related security risks. 

Environmental resources and the effects of Climate change have long been associated with communal conflict between farmers and herders, including in the Northwest, where the conflict is complex and driven by numerous factors. 

“Carpet bombing will wreak havoc on the Nigerian government’s afforestation plan, and no planting will make it return sooner. The first step toward saving our climate is to avoid anything that will endanger it,” said Dahiru Sadi, a Nigerian climate activist.

Sadi recommended that Nigerian forces intensify their training to give them easy access to every part of the forest areas in order to save lives from terrorist attacks that use forest areas as a shelter. “They should set up military camps in the forests,” he suggested.

Since 2019, the Nigerian Army has considered using some forest areas as a training ground. The presence of the military in the Falgore forest, which connects Kano state to some parts of Plateau, has reduced the number of attacks that have begun to be recorded in the area.

“The Nigerian government needs to adopt a strategy that isolates and surgically deals with the threats, without causing havoc to the local communities and the environment, which are mostly designated forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries,” says Murtala Abdullahi, Head of Armed Violence and Climate Security Desk at HumAngle. 

He adds that what’s needed is the ability to set up better surveillance and strengthen the capacity of security forces to identify, track and subdue armed groups. 

This approach has to go hand in hand with efforts to improve governance presence, the management of environmental resources, and livelihood opportunities for the local population. “We don’t need large-scale military operations or bases to secure and govern our reserves and parks,” Murtala suggested.

‘Still, it’s not an excuse’ 

Some residents of terror-affected areas, however, have stated that they do not mind sacrificing some of their relatives who have been held captive by terrorists if air raids can end the problem of insecurity in their areas. They stated that hiding behind the goal of minimising collateral damage in forest areas is not an excuse if peace is desired in the region.

A resident of a forest area near Bukkuyum village in Zamfara, who preferred anonymity, said the incessant attacks that kill people have made life unbearable. More than 20 members of his community, including his relatives, have recently been abducted, and he said they are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others if peace can be achieved.

“Even if they die, we believe it is martyrdom,” he told HumAngle, adding that even if they did not die in the process of establishing peace, they would perish at the hands of terrorists emerging from the forest areas to attack their villages.

Many people in Northern Nigeria, including some clerics, support the idea of martyrdom in the hands of terrorists rather than giving them what they want or allowing them to live in peace. 

The Imam of Abuja’s Central Mosque, Sheikh Ibrahim Maqari, for example, urged his followers not to pay ransom to terrorists. The death of the kidnapped victims is a form of martyrdom, he said, and is preferred over providing money to the abductors, who could then use it to harm others. 

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Aliyu Dahiru

Aliyu is an Assistant Editor at HumAngle and Head of the Radicalism and Extremism Desk. He has years of experience researching misinformation and influence operations. He is passionate about analysing jihadism in Africa and has published several articles on the topic. His work has been featured in various local and international publications.

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