Starting in February, the Nigerian Army (NA) made some very impressive gains against Boko Haram (BH) insurgents, liberating most of the towns and villages under the latter’s control and pushing them back into the now-infamous Sambisa forest. Not only that, the army has been attacking the insurgents in their stronghold and rescuing several hundreds of captives. By now, it is well-known that the successes have been in no small part thanks to a private military company (PMC) called STTEP. But how exactly did they manage to pull it off?
Note: This is the second in a 3-part series examining the contracting of STTEP by the Nigerian government to beat back the insurgents.In the first part, I looked at the timeline behind the hiring of a private, armed, foreign company to help fight this war. In this part, I discuss the roles they played, including tactics, what it has achieved and what it means for the Nigerian Army. Finally, in part 3, I will look at the difference between private military companies and mercenaries, as well as ethical arguments surrounding the use of them.
It is an intriguing fact that the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in its attempt to rescue the nearly 300 schoolgirls abducted from Chibok, Borno state, much preferred to hire STTEP than accept the help of the American military. As mentioned in the first part of this series, Nigeria canceled the 3rd and final phase of a training package with the American military right about the time it was agreeing a contract with STTEP. There is another event however; the USA is said to have offered to send to Nigeria its Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which is a branch of its special forces tasked with conducting missions of a highly sensitive nature. This offer is not to be sniffed at, as the JSOC has a long and colourful history, which includes the killing of Osama bin Laden.
However, Nigeria declined the offer, deciding instead to put its faith in STTEP. Whether this was due to a well-thought out strategy or simply out of spite for having been denied permission to purchase Chinook helicopters from Israel is anyone’s guess.
So how did they do it?
The STTEP chairman, Col Eeben Barlow, outlines in his blog what, in his view, are the most important requirements for successful combat operations. Details are available there, so I will simply name them: Timing, Synchronicity, Surprise, Tempo, Maneuver, Firepower, Speed, and Logistics.
One of the interesting factors of STTEP’s approach is how the advance party was sent ahead to select the troops who would undergo their training. They appeared not to take for granted what previous training that the soldiers had, despite being given one of the most elite units, but rather took their pick of the bunch and focused on refining those. According to Col Barlow, an advance team from STTEP arrived in Nigeria in January and set about screening the soldiers available to them such that, by the time the main force arrived, they had already selected the soldiers whom they deemed fit to work with.
Regardless of where we (STTEP) work, we always have a selection phase as…we would rather have 10 well-selected and trained men behind us than a 100 men. – Eeben Barlow
Another key factor, in my view, is as regards equipping those soldiers who had been selected for training by STTEP. It is probably the worst-kept secret of the entire affair that the Nigerian army is/was woefully ill-equipped, despite the billions of dollars set aside as defence budget each year. The soldiers have mentioned it, other countries have mentioned it and, if you are not the type to heed the words, you must still concede that Boko Haram has proved it severally. In fact, the $1bn borrowed by President Jonathan was to be used, in part, to purchase arms and equipment for the troops. It would be fascinating to know exactly how that money was spent…but alas, we can only speculate. Anyway, Col Barlow, in his interview, did mention the equipping of troops in passing when he said;
“I think we sometimes gave [the Nigerian military] gray hairs as we were forever begging for equipment, ammunition and so forth.”
That anecdotal remark actually says a lot about why STTEP was able to succeed in areas like obtaining equipment where others could not. Recall that one of the major reasons cited for cancellation of training of Nigerian troops by the American army was that some of the training was unable to take place because the Nigerian soldiers would show up without the required equipment. Embarrassing situation all round. However, that is where another difference between a contracted PMC and a gesture by a friendly country becomes evident. The American army had already offered to train our soldiers, and required them to show up with certain equipment to commence the training. When said equipment is not available, you cannot train. Thus, the Nigerian soldiers have to be turned away (exceedingly mortified, I imagine) until such time as the equipment becomes available. STTEP, on the other hand, is not only a private company but also one based in Africa which has performed across the continent and knows what it can sometimes take to do business here. And so they would know to beg, cajole and allow the people in charge no rest until the equipment was provided. You cannot do that when you represent a sovereign government. I would certainly not expect a Nigerian commanding officer to beg a foreign government to provide equipment for the training of its own troops. More and more, though, we see that the most successful businesses in Nigeria and indeed in Africa, are those who are flexible enough to bend where more conventional organisations do not have joints, and to be friendly, even sisterly (read: nag-a-lot) where others are trying to be professional. It appears that this may apply also to the area of defence.
As for the actual tactics involved, they adopted an approach which Col Barlow calls “relentless pursuit.” After the selection process, they formed the men up into a Strike Force intended to pursue and harry the insurgents. Basically, they would attack the Boko Haram fighters with a combination of land and air power. Once the insurgents were beaten back and on the run, they would not let up, rather chasing them into the ground. They achieved this not by simply following as the insurgents ran, but using their air superiority to track the fleeing insurgents, then airlifting members of the Strike Force to a point ahead of the fleeing fighters. The Strike Force would then engage them again, causing even more panic and confusion among the enemy. Crucially, the soldiers tasked with relentlessly pursuing the insurgents were regularly relieved every few hours, to be replaced by a fresh group of soldiers to keep the pressure on the fleeing insurgents.
In essence, the tactic seems to be a bit like herding gun-toting sheep because they did not simply allow the insurgents to flee in whichever direction they chose. Rather, it seems they herded them in the direction that was preferred by the Strike Force. Col Barlow admitted that STTEP, and its attack helicopters, was given “kill blocks” to the front and flanks of the Strike Force. What I understand this to mean is that, after the initial engagement which sends the terrorists into retreat, STTEP was cleared to bombard Boko Haram’s fighters as they retreated. You might remember the aerial video which the Nigerian Army released on 27 February claiming to show Boko Haram fighters fleeing in disarray in the Sambisa forest. As was visible in the timelines shown in the first part of this series, the release date is suspiciously close to the period of the Strike Force’s first deployment, which Barlow called a “tremendous success.” It is not inconceivable then that, upon their first deployment, they were being monitored from the air to determine their effectiveness. Whether the video was recorded by the Nigerian Air Force, as claimed, or by STTEP’s helicopters is not so clear.
The tactic of relentless pursuit may seem like such an obvious one, but I think it comes from a good appraisal of the situation on ground. Besides that, it is one thing to come up with a tactic, and quite another to be able to carry it out effectively. What I like about the “relentless pursuit” tactic is that it takes one of Boko Haram’s greatest strengths and turns it into a weakness. Here’s what I mean. As an insurgent force, Boko Haram relies greatly on its mobility; the fighters have to be able to attack quickly and, when necessary, retreat even faster. This means that they are bound to be highly mobile and cannot afford to be bogged down by maintaining supply lines and whatnot. You may recall from witness accounts as well as videos that they tend to use motorbikes a lot. Thus, they carry only what they need into battle and no more, so that they’re not overloaded with materiel that will slow them down. This mobility makes them particularly fluid in choosing when to engage the NA and when to vanish. It also makes chasing them down after a retreat difficult for a conventional army using conventional tactics.
What STTEP’s tactic of relentless pursuit did was to not give them any respite during their retreat. As mentioned, the tactic called for aerial bombardment, and positioning soldiers along the route they were fleeing. Thus, even when the insurgents stop to rest and re-fuel, they could then be engaged by the Strike Force again, forcing them back to the running which they viewed as their specialty. But it would have exhausted them to the point of madness that they would not be able to outrun the attack.
Crucially, the STTEP-trained Strike Force was never intended to hold ground. Their job was to engage the enemy and defeat them. Towns and villages, once liberated, became the responsibility of the regular army brigade in charge of the area to occupy and protect. The Strike Force operated strictly as an offensive weapon. This is in keeping with David Galula’s theory of fighting an insurgent force in which he recommended having the main body of the army occupying territory while developing mobile units with the freedom to roam in search of the enemy. It also allows for pursuit of the enemy to be carried out, as the mobile unit in question would be free to specialize in that and not have to worry about leaving civilian populations unprotected.
Col Barlow also mentions that both STTEP and the Strike Force would place themselves under the command of whatever division was in the area. This is significant as it indicates that they were not, as has been implied in some places, running around freely doing as they pleased. Rather, they appear to have operated within existing army structures, but with their own tactical methods. In the same vein, he talks about having tactical flexibility while the strategic objectives for his team were determined by the army hierarchy.
Another interesting factor is STTEP’s use of bush tracking. Clearly, STTEP arrived with their own aerial assets, which I suspect were bolstered by purchases out of the $1 billion the federal government borrowed in 2014. However, it appears that areas of Sambisa forest, for whatever reason, were resistant to aerial reconnaisance. Also remember that back in April/May 2014, after the infamous Chibok girls abduction, the US military was reported to have flown drones over the area in an attempt to locate them, though this was said to have proved unsuccessful. This is an important fact because drones are typically designed for the express purpose of reconnaissance. Though they garner all the headlines, armed drones constitute a small minority of the total number of drones in use worldwide. Because of this, drones are particularly adept at capturing images from a great height, and some even sport technologies which enable controllers on the ground to see in low-light conditions and even through vegetation. But technologies always have their limitation and, when possible, human intelligence is usually preferred. STTEP either came with or employed experienced bush trackers who were able to follow the tracks left by Boko Haram fighters. As Barlow said, the bush trackers were able to tell roughly how many fighters were ahead, as well as what vehicles they were in, what equipment they carried, how fast they were moving, and even what they had eaten. This, for me, is a key selling point for Barlow’s belief of “African solutions to African problems”.
It is factors like these which may have helped turn the tide of the war so drastically. Boko Haram, not being a regular army, does not employ regular tactics and as such, has a certain fluidity in its operations. Even the best militaries on the planet have struggled to cope with such tactics. By hiring STTEP to train and work with the NA, whether by design or not, the government essentially fought fire with fire by bringing in an unconventional force to train it in how to fight an unconventional war. Overall the tactical achievements of STTEP in their 3 months here were a resounding success and I for have to admit a grudging respect.