- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2016

A high-level delegation of U.S. diplomats will huddle with their African counterparts in Nigeria this weekend in hopes of escalating the fight against Boko Haram, just as analysts say signs of real progress are finally emerging in the fight against the brutal jihadi terror group.

The Nigeria-based Boko Haram has made headlines with its grisly use of female suicide bombers and its mass kidnappings of schoolgirls — rated in one survey as the world’s deadliest terror group. But after scoring major gains after launching its insurgency in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, national security sources say the pieces are slowly falling into place for a coordinated military push by Nigeria and its neighbors.

With a name that loosely translates as “Western education is sin,” Boko Haram presently controls a territory the size of Maryland along northeastern Nigeria’s borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and intelligence officials say its leader, who has pledged allegiance to the Syria-based Islamic State, is bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate there.

But International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said in a new analysis earlier this month that the group has already been “weakened” and “put on the defensive” by a growing and coordinated military response that Nigeria and its neighbors began putting in place last year.

Under new President Muhammadu Buhari, elected last year, “Nigeria has regrouped, and neighbors are collaborating with it more meaningfully, taking a more powerful military response to Boko Haram into rural areas where the jihadi group remains strong,” the ICG report found.

The Nigerian capital of Abuja on Saturday will be the site of a regional summit, bringing together top officials from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, France, Britain and the U.S. The gathering presents a “major opportunity” for improvement in the multinational campaign, the ICG analysts said. The Obama administration has also committed roughly $200 million in humanitarian assistance for Boko Haram-affected populations in the region.

Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, along with the State Department’s Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell, will represent the U.S. at the gathering.

They’re likely to push for an expansion of informal education centers for children of families displaced by Boko Haram, some 300 of which the State Department says have already been established.

But behind the scenes, the Obama administration is also expected to seek greater influence over the direction of the multinational African military campaign against Boko Haram.

Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon have engaged in airstrikes and ground offensive against the group since early 2015, establishing a 7,500-strong multinational force with the aim of eventually taking back villages and towns held by the extremists.

Boko Haram remains a dangerous, if weakened, force: A suicide bomber just barely stopped from entering a government compound killed at least six people, including two police officers, on Thursday in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri.

Boko Haram later claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place in the city considered the birthplace of the Islamist movement.

U.S. officials have so far remained tight-lipped about the extent of Washington’s role in the military campaign, although President Obama said last October that 300 American troops were being deployed to a secretive base in Cameroon.

At the time, administration officials said troops would be accompanied by unarmed Predator drones that would bolster a five-nation military task force, consisting of soldiers from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger.

The announcement came amid heightened concern over the prospect of growing links between Boko Haram and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau pledged support to ISIS in July 2014.

In addition to holding a large swath of territory, Boko Haram was able to seize a wide cache of military-grade weaponry, including armored personnel carriers, from retreating Nigerian troops. By February 2015 U.S. intelligence officials believed the group had some 5,000 fighters and was on the offensive in its bid to establish a caliphate.

Corruption hinders the fight

Despite recent progress, American officials say concerns remain high over corruption in Nigeria, whose military is a key leader of the fight against Boko Haram.

U.S. sources, speaking on background, said they’re hopeful about moves being made by Mr. Buhari, following revelations that rampant theft occurred from the nation’s defense coffers under previous President Goodluck Jonathan.

Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo — who ran an anti-corruption election campaign with Mr. Buhari when he defeated Mr. Jonathan last year — has claimed some $15 billion was stolen from Nigeria’s public purse during the former president’s 2010 to 2015 presidency.

Most of the money is said to have been siphoned away from contracts meant for new military equipment to fight Boko Haram. Corruption charges were filed during recent weeks against former military chiefs and companies accused of involvement. They have pleaded not guilty.

Some analysts argue that Boko Haram might have been contained, and perhaps even defeated, long ago were it not for rampant military corruption in Nigeria.

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria now with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, recently noted that, “from 2011, when it re-emerged, until early 2015, Boko Haram inflicted one defeat after another on the Nigerian security services, principally the army.”

“Boko Haram’s ostensible success clearly owed more than observers thought at the time to the criminal misallocation of resources away from the Nigerian army and the other security services into private pockets,” Mr. Campbell wrote in a blog on the council’s website last week.

Questions have also been raised about the strength of the links between Boko Haram and Islamic State.

A March report by the Critical Threats program at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War said there are few signs of serious movement of fighters or weaponry between the two.

“Boko Haram in Nigeria is an anomaly among ISIS affiliates. The ISIS leadership has been inconsistent in describing its formal affiliation with Boko Haram and likely has not exported more than media capability to the group,” the report said, adding that “Boko Haram is deadly in its own right, but it does not appear to be operationally linked to ISIS leadership in the same way as the other affiliates.”

U.S. intelligence officials say that while Mr. Shekau had clearly shown “affinity” for Islamic State in propaganda videos, there was no reliable evidence of human contact between the two groups.

One of the officials also said racism on the part of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an ethnically Arab extremist from Iraq, might prevent his group’s embrace of Boko Haram. “The idea that Arab jihadis would accept black African jihadis as their equivalents needs to be considered,” the official said.

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