More than 800 Nigerian refugees, half of whom are children, were repatriated last week from Cameroon, over what the United Nations refugee agency's (UNHCR) Hanson Tumfa described as suspicion by the Cameroonian authorities that the refugees may "comprise some elements of Boko Haram." The northern region of Cameroon has suffered an increased spate of attacks by the jihadi group in recent years, making Cameroonian authorities "nervous" and culminating in this repatriation, said Jose Antonio Canhandula, UNHCR's representative to Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States.
Across the countries affected by Boko Haram's insurgency, a number of attacks have been carried out by the group's foot soldiers masking as refugees. At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded when two girls posing as hungry refugees detonated explosives in Kolafata camp in northern Cameroon in June 2016. In August 2015, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, the Cameroonian government's spokesperson told reporters that two Boko Haram fighters disguised as female refugees with explosives hidden in their luggage had been arrested at the Minawao camp in the country's northern region.
In a similar fashion, two women disguised as refugees killed at least 56 people and wounded 80 in February 2016, at Dikwa IDP camp, a 50,000 strong camp housing mainly women and children rescued by the Nigerian army. A third bomber refused to detonate her explosives when she realised that her parents and siblings were in the camp. She was then arrested by authorities. In December, 2014, scores of Boko Haram fighters camouflaged as refugees were arrested in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital.
But disguise by Boko Haram is not a new phenomenon; since 2010, the Islamist group has changed tactics and masqueraded in several forms to inflict maximum causalities and escape detection. The Nigerian Defence Headquarters had disclosed in several press releases that Boko Haram militants disguise as travelers, herdsmen, menial workers, hunters, preachers, epileptic patients, and even the mentally ill. However, when the Multinational Joint Task Force, consisting of military units from Benin Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, started its major offensive against Boko Haram, significantly weakening its capacity for coordinated attacks from the last quarter of 2015, the Islamist group increased its spate of masquerading to target soft locations and to melt into communities.
Last month, the Adamawa state government's commissioner for information, Ahmad I. Sajoh, raised alarm over Boko Haram militants' new tactic of slumping at public places pretending to be epileptic or stomach pain patients only to detonate explosives when people gather to help them. Furthermore, on several occasions would-be terrorists have been arrested disguised as refugees fleeing into towns or markets to purchase supplies. Their hideouts include places of worship, markets, motor parks, bridges, and uncompleted buildings.
On several occasions would-be terrorists have been arrested disguised as refugees fleeing into towns or markets to purchase supplies. Their hideouts include places of worship, markets, motor parks, bridges, and uncompleted buildings.”
There are a number of consequences of militants posing as civilians; it not only makes Boko Haram fighters more elusive and increases risk of attacks in communities, but also turns victims of Boko Haram insurgency into suspects. This is the message sent by the forceful return of the refugees from Cameroon, as authorities say more are on the way. In February 2015, the Voice of America reported how refugees who fled Boko Haram are being shunned and persecuted as suspects or sympathisers of Boko Haram.
But these tactics heighten the feeling of insecurity among the general populace just as it dims the prospect of helping people who may be in genuinely dire need, for fear that they may be terrorists in disguise. It is particularly destructive for the situation of the most vulnerable, including refugees, who may only be accepted as genuine IDPs after being subjected to intensive screening and profiling.
Boko Haram's shifting tactics makes the case for sound intelligence gathering, constant review and proper coordination among security agencies more compelling and obvious. A successful war against Boko Haram must, more than ever before, be intelligence-driven.
Most importantly, the ultimate aim of violent extremism is to terrorise, and to foment division within societies. Thus, while due diligence is crucial for the safety of lives and property, neglecting and casting unreasonable suspicion on vulnerable populations will essentially play into the hands of the extremists and be counter-productive to the fight against them.