Boko Haram given old-style South African hiding

Johannesburg – This week, Nigeria boasted that its war against Boko Haram was all but won, and that the Jihadist insurgents had been driven by Nigerian-led forces from the towns and forest camps from which they had formerly launched their reign of terror.

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IOL pic mar13 boko haram members

This still image, captured from a video obtained by AFP, shows Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau (centre) delivering a speech. The Nigerian group has pledged its allegiance to Islamic State.

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“So they really have no base,” military spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade is reported by AP as observing. “All we are doing is mopping up and conducting cordon and search operations for weapons and as many of them as may be straggling.”

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Olukolade’s confidence may well prove somewhat premature. At more or less the same time, Chad has reported losing 71 deployed soldiers in ongoing conflicts with Boko Haram.

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But all indications are that the tide has turned and that recent successes by Nigerian-led strike forces can at least in part be attributed to the involvement of the South African-linked Private Military Company (PMC), STTEP, in training and strategising Nigeria’s military response to a geopolitical security crisis that held its government seemingly mesmerised and ineffectual for several years.

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At the heart of their recent success is the application of an apparently simple strategy pioneered by STTEP’s predecessor, Executive Outcomes, in bush wars in Angola and Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

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Describing the strategy as one of “relentless pursuit”, Eeben Barlow, STTEP chairman and former boss of Executive Outcomes, in a blog in 2011, goes on to say it “implies the enemy is pursued with speed and aggression, without stopping, pushing him past the limits of endurance, while we continually substitute the men doing the pursuit with fresh troops…”

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He also insists that it can only be effectively engaged with superior firepower on the side of the pursuing forces. It is also vital, Barlow argues, to have expert trackers among the pursuers as well as “outstanding communications” and intelligence capabilities to facilitate leap-frogging ahead of the enemy by means of helicopters (thus allowing for ambushes and the cutting off of their lines of retreat).

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The strategic terrain indicated by Barlow is also traversed in the book Four Ball One Tracer, by former EO field operative Roelf van Heerden and Andrew Hudson. It details EO campaigns in Angola and Sierra Leone.

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Here, the pursuit was launched on the premise of outgunning the enemy with an infantry backed up by mobile armoured vehicles as well as helicopter gunships. But the principles as well as the reliance on intelligence and mainly Bushman trackers first used by the South African counter-insurgency units Koevoet and the SADF’s 32 Battalion in the 1970s and 1980s, are virtually identical with those used in EO’s early military successes.

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In the Nigerian theatre, however, as Barlow notes in an interview with the Special Operatives website, Sofrep’s James Murphy, the force available to the military includes an “air wing”, intelligence structures co-ordinated with the government’s military apparatus, and access to weaponry that includes bombs, mortars and RPGs.

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Underlying it all is a coldly logical countering of the strategies classically used by insurgents throughout Africa.

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As Sofrep’s Murphy notes, Boko Haram uses “guerrilla hit-and-run techniques, striking when and where they choose, hoping the media will act as a force multiplier by replaying stories about the attack over and over again…”

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The core insight driving the strategy pursued by Barlow’s command is to take this initiative away from the enemy, and it appears to be working as effectively today as it did a quarter of a century ago.

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Meanwhile, Eeben Barlow, who headed the Executive Outcomes private security firm, has been named as the person behind a secretive former South African Defence Force (SADF) contingent that is helping Nigeria to combat Boko Haram.

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iol news pic EEben Barlow SA mercenaries in Nigeria

Eeben Barlow, former head of Executive Outcomes, is said to lead another security company, STTEP.

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Barlow is the chairman of a private security company, STTEP, which was contracted to train the Nigerian army’s strike force that has helped turn the tide against the violent Islamist group, according to a US website for soldiers, Special Operations Forces Situation Report (Sofrep), which says it has interviewed him.

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Until recently Boko Haram was humiliating the Nigerian military, driving it out of one town after another in north-eastern Nigeria.

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But in the weeks before last weekend’s presidential elections, the Nigerian defence force went on an aggressive offensive against the group, recapturing most of the territory it had lost.

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This change of fortune has been attributed to the greater involvement of regional armies as well as private security forces in the fight.

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Media reports in January said, without naming them, that former SADF soldiers were helping to train the Nigerian military.

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Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula vowed that the “mercenaries” would be arrested on their return home because they had violated the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act, which made it a crime for South Africans to participate in foreign wars without the government’s permission.

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This week Sofrep said Barlow had spoken to it about his involvement. He told the website: “The campaign gathered good momentum and wrested much of the initiative from the enemy.”

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Sofrep said that in 2006, three SADF veterans had founded STTEP (Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection) “to help fill the vacuum left by the departure of Executive Outcomes”.

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Executive Outcomes became known in the 1990s for helping Angola’s government inflict defeats on the Unita rebels and Sierra Leone’s turn the tide against the notorious RUF rebels.

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Sofrep said that the founders of STTEP had begun approaching African governments, in a discreet manner.

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“STTEP refuses to name any clients it may have worked for, other than to say that it works exclusively in Africa.”

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“We work under the radar as far as possible,” Barlow told Sofrep, “and will never compromise a government or client.”

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Barlow was approached in 2009 to become the chairman of STTEP and help guide the company, Sofrep said.

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“STTEP initially focused on training African military forces, as the training they had received from outsiders (the US or UN, for instance) left much to be desired.

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These foreign efforts failed because of “poor training, bad advice, a lack of strategy, vastly different tribal affiliations, ethnicity, religion, languages, cultures, and not understanding the conflict and enemy”, Barlow told Sofrep.

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“Much of this training is focused on window-dressing, but when you look through the window, the room is empty.”

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Sofrep said STTEP’s presence in Nigeria had “spurred a predictable and all-too-familiar cacophony, from hand-wringing policy wonks, politicians, and media pundits lambasting the use of ‘apartheid-era’ mercenaries in Nigeria’s bloody war against Islamic extremists”.

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Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan postponed the presidential elections by six weeks because of the threat of Boko Haram disrupting voting.

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It was largely during this postponement that Nigeria began defeating the jihadist group.

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Most analysts believe Jonathan hoped that turning the tide against Boko Haram would also turn the tide in his declining chances of winning the election and staying in power. But in the end he was defeated by Muhammadu Buhari.

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Sofrep also reports that another Executive Outcomes-linked private security company is involved in the fight against Boko Haram.

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It says that Pilgrims Africa Ltd, run by Cobus Claassens, who served with Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone, “is employing South African Special Forces veterans to do what they do best: fight the dirty little bush wars that the UN can’t or won’t fight themselves”.

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“America’s Joint Special Operations Command first offered its services to defeat Boko Haram, only to be turned away by the Nigerian president. Instead, Nigeria brought on board seasoned South African veterans who know a thing or two about bush fighting. According to Sofrep, Pilgrims Africa Ltd has slipped through a loophole in South Africa’s anti-mercenary law.”

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The website suggests this is because it is based in Lagos. It quotes Bloomberg news agency as saying the company provides security services in Nigeria.

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“It provides armed escort teams to protect people from militant and criminal action. The company was founded in 2008 and is headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria.”

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Sofrep also offers the opinion that the South African military assistance to Nigeria in fighting Boko Haram must have the blessing of the South African government.

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Senior South African officials have strongly denied this.

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Sofrep said Leon Lotz, the South African killed in Nigeria on March 9, was employed by Pilgrims Africa.

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“Leon Lotz was killed in a suspected friendly-fire incident with the Nigerian military.

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“Lotz was a former member of Koevoet, a police paramilitary unit that saw extensive deployment in South Africa’s border war.

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“Specialising in tactical tracking operations that hunted down and killed communist insurgents during the war, Lotz would have been an ideal member for a team charged with tracking and killing Boko Haram terrorists.”

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Barlow was approached for comment on the Sofrep story, but a family member said that he was “uncontactable”.

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Political Bureau