AnalysesArmed Violence

What Recurring Airstrike Mishaps Mean For Nigeria’s Counterterrorism Operations

Attacks by state and non-state actors show the extent to which civilians are increasingly getting caught in the crossfire of the raging conflict in the North West. What does this say about Nigeria’s counter-terrorism strategy in the region?

The persistent attacks on civilians by both state and non-state actors as the fight against terrorism in North West Nigeria rages underscores flaws in the country’s counterterrorism strategy.

On Dec. 3, residents of Tudun Biri village in Kaduna gathered on a field for a religious procession when a military drone conducting aerial patrol hovered over and shelled the gathering. The military said “they were wrongly analysed and misinterpreted” as their pattern of activities was observed to be similar to that of the terrorists.

More than 120 civilians, including children, died during the strike, according to a statement by Amnesty International.

This is not a one-off. 

The military has been infamous for bombing civilians on various occasions. There have been 18 incidents of such air raids, resulting in the death of over 400 civilians, according to Beacon Consulting, a security and risk management firm.

Analysts warn that these incidents have far-reaching consequences for the country’s counterterrorism operations in the region.

For years, the North West has been a hotbed of armed violence. Terrorists, locally known as bandits, have raided villages, killing an estimated 12,000 people as of October 2021 and controlling a booming kidnap-for-ransom enterprise.

They also wield considerable influence in rural communities where they act as de facto authority, often serving as direct challengers of the state’s sovereignty and projecting themselves as alternatives. They hold territory, impose levies, and even force locals to work as farmhands on lands confiscated from them in return for peace.

“Many people traditionally have not thought of the North West as a war in the same sense as the Boko Haram conflict in the North East,” said James Barnett, a specialist in Nigerian politics and security at the U.S. think tank, Hudson Institute. “But what we’re seeing is that, in fact, the North West is increasingly militarised, increasingly experiencing violence between powerful non-state actors and the full force of the Nigerian military, and this is going to have repercussions on local communities that are caught in between the two sides.”

The attacks on locals from both sides underline the extent to which civilians are getting caught up in the crossfire of an increasingly militarised conflict. Unfortunately, operations carried out against terror groups which end up bringing danger to civilians could push locals further away from the government. 

“Many communities in the North West are already sceptical about the government’s ability to protect them from the predation of bandits. The tragic airstrikes in Tudun Biri are only going to exacerbate the scepticism and those fears, and I am certain that bandits will attempt to exploit those fears and angers from the community in some way or another,” said James.

One thing terrorists do is appeal to the grievances of local communities, James explained. Armed groups in the region are not sophisticated with propaganda like the jihadist groups in the North East. However, they have shown the tendency to weave certain narratives to their advantage. For example, terror kingpins like Shehu Rekep and Bello Turji had once attempted to exploit the marginalisation of Fulani communities to recruit and justify their thirst for violence.

“They (terrorists) don’t typically appeal to broad-based grievances of, say, northern Nigerians in the same way that some jihadist groups attempt to. The bandits tend to be more specific in the communities that they try to earn support from and the ways in which they do so. But nonetheless, because of the scale of the tragedy in Tudun Biri, the number of people killed and the very strong sentiments it has evoked, some opportunistic bandits will attempt to exploit that to their benefit,” he added.

Jesse Attah, Lead Risk Intelligence and Analysis at Beacon Consulting, explained that terrorists draw on the general distrust of government that stems from these attacks to avail themselves of the monopoly of violence. They exploit it to mete out a system of punishment and rewards, leaving locals at their whims.

In Zamfara, terrorists abducted over 100 people for failing to pay ₦110 million ($141,000) as compensation for informing on them.

“These attacks on communities that actively engage and collaborate with security forces foster mistrust and alienation largely exacerbated by inadequate and inefficient military responses during vulnerable periods,” said Attah. 

“These circumstances have, in turn, provided loopholes in which threat actors have often exploited vulnerabilities over time.” 

Analysts say the government would need to look beyond conducting air strikes and other high-intensity military operations in the region to engaging in more tactical ground works like addressing policing deficits and appealing to the hearts and minds of local communities to collaboratively fight terrorism while ensuring those caught in crossfires get justice.

“Right now, the military has to do better in terms of intelligence gathering and more in terms of tactical operations, like curbing kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling. With that, we would be disrupting the huge resources that sustain them,” said Murtala Abdullahi, an independent defence and security analyst. “This also goes for the growing pool of people to recruit from, either from vulnerable people who don’t have a livelihood or those who seek to  join armed groups as a way of defending their people.”

High-end military operations, according to him, have not really resulted in long-term stability in the region. “The most these attacks have achieved is temporal peace. We need to address key issues to solve the problem effectively both in the short and long terms.”

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Abiodun Jamiu

Abiodun is an investigations reporter at HumAngle. His works focus on the intersection of public policy and development, conflict and humanitarian crisis, climate and environment. He was a 2022 Solution Journalism Fellow with Nigeria Health Watch under its Solution Journalism Africa initiative project.

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