How Top Military Officers Led Sambisa Forest Operation
The one month long military offensive that led to the capture of Sambisa Forest last Thursday was led by “the best hands” in the Nigerian Army and Air Force, sources close to the operation told Daily Trust yesterday.
Before the renewed offensive to reclaim the dreaded forest where Boko Haram fighters held sway since 2013, officers between the ranks of Lieutenants, Captains and Majors normally led operations, sources said. This time around, more senior officers led the operation on all fronts during the final onslaught. It was gathered that the officers, besides various trainings they obtained at home, have been trained abroad and had participated in serious military operations.
The 60,000 square kilometres (23,000 sq mi) vast Sambisa Forest had been the nightmare of the Nigerian security forces, including their foreign allies, who provided various security reports over the years. It was gathered that some of the fighting troops were mobilized with light rocket propelled grenades [RPGs], weapons they did not use previously. The light RPGs, according to one of our sources, could be carried on by soldiers on their shoulders for long distances because of their light weight and were used against far flung targets.
“With the exception of one major of the Nigerian Army, all the commanding officers that led the 4,200 troops into the Sambisa Forest are of the rank of Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel,” a soldier who participated in the operation said. He said “the Bama axis was led by a Colonel who viciously decimated many Boko Haram fighters. Together with his troops, he captured Alafa 1, 11 and 111 in the Sambisa Forest and freed over 1,000 people. He also captured nearly 500 suspects, mostly men who are being interrogated for having links with the Boko Haram.”
According to him, “some of the suspects are claiming that they were forcefully conscripted into the violent group while others have admitted that they belong to the group.” Another source said the Konduga/Aulari axis of the Sambisa Forest was captured by a daring army Major. “This Major is one of the heroes in the Nigerian Army. He was very close to the late Lieutenant Colonel Abu Ali of blessed memory. He knows the Sambisa Forest very well and was therefore directed to approach the forest through the infamous Gate One,” the source said. He added, “The Ngurosoye axis of the Sambisa Forest was led by a Lieutenant Colonel who is also a fearless and versatile officer. His 151 Battalion is known as Blocking Force. His troops recovered many AK47 rifles of fleeing Boko Haram insurgents and they also freed many women and children.”
The real operation
Sources said during the planning to re-take Sambisa Forest, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Lt. General Tukur Buratai frequented Maiduguri almost on daily basis. “Sometimes he passed the night there (in Maiduguri) and sometimes he went back to Abuja. He personally commanded the general operation,” an officer who craved for anonymity said. He said radar with monitors was mounted at the 7 Division of the Nigerian Army and everything, including troop movement; logistics, ground operation and aerial reconnaissance both day and night were closely monitored with precision.
He said, “The close monitoring from Maiduguri helped a great deal in reducing mistakes. This gave the troops the confidence to relentlessly march on during operations. The fact that the mine detectors deployed to the Sambisa forest also demobilized all the bombs planted by the insurgents gave our troops added impetus. The mine detectors normally detonated most of the IEDs with ease and also cleared the terrain for armoured vehicles to move freely.”
The source that added some Boko Haram commanders and foot soldiers who were arrested long ago and “de-radicalized” were also imbedded in the operation. “The repentant insurgents, some members of the civilian JTF and local vigilantes know the Sambisa Forest very well, far better than the maps we used in the operation and therefore, they assisted greatly in helping us to locate hideouts. Also, sophisticated fighter jets and drones that have capacity to monitor things as far as away as 600 meters were deployed to the Sambisa forest and worked day and night,” he said.
The fall of ‘Camp Zero’
A military officer told our correspondent that this was not the first time attempt made to capture “Camp Zero” in Sambisa Forest where the factional leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau used as his hide out on different occasions. “This is the second time Camp Zero is taken. The first was during the JTF (Joint Task Force) in June 2013 before it (JTF) was disbanded and the area was lost completely,” the officer said.
He said despite the success recorded, there is worry among the military high command because some of the things expected to be recovered at the building were not found. “It is likely they (Boko Haram) are somewhere because they moved away with their equipment and prized possessions, including the Chibok girls in possession of Shekau group,” he said.
He said there were other dreaded cells that have been deserted by the Boko Haram terrorists, such as the ones in Kareto and Gudumbali at the height of offensive last year and another one in Kukawa which was reclaimed this year. It was learnt that while some of the Chibok girls and other captives are with the Shekau camp, many of them are with the Mamman Nur faction, led by Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, son of the group’s late Mohammed Yusuf. They are suspected to be held in cells in northern Borno State.
“Camp Zero has for a long time been an objective for our troops but it is not the end of Sambisa in the true sense of the crisis. Boko Haram terrorists have been trained in the art of war, so it is likely they moved away for tactical reasons,” he said. The source said the COAS, the Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole as well as the GOCs of the army’s 3, 7 and 8 Divisions and other key Army Headquarters officers held a marathon meeting on December 24 and continued meeting yesterday on the operations in the North East. “They had a break on the 25th because of Christmas and they went to open the roads from Maiduguri to Damasak and to Baga. Their main concern in the meeting is the disappearance of Boko Haram leaders with their equipment and lack of trace of the Chibok girls,” the officer said. Sources said beside the equipment found there, Boko Haram fighters had raided many workshops and laboratories in schools around the Sambisa Forest in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states and had fabricated fighting equipment and chemicals with the facilities they carted away.
There is controversy as to how Camp Zero actually looked like. While some soldiers that participated in the operation said it has two underground buildings and tunnels as well as hardware and equipment for the training of the disbanded National Guards, some officers told our correspondent that the place was actually inherited from the Sambisa Game Reserve.
“The National Guard were to train there but were never there. A team went to inspect the place in the 80s but the movement and training did not hold. The solid structure there belonged to the forest management authority,” he said.
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