Boko Haram suffers setback in border clash amid growing fears of expansion

The killing of 143 militants from the Nigeria-based Islamic extremist group could be a major blow to their expansion strategy. Hundreds of people died during a recent Boko Haram attack on a Nigerian garrison town near the border.

Jossy Ola/AP/File
A soldier and government officials inspects the bridge that link Nigeria and Cameroon following an attacked by Islamic militants in Gambaru, Nigeria, May 11, 2014. Thousands of members of Nigeria’s home-grown Islamic extremist Boko Haram group strike across the border in Cameroon, with coordinated attacks on border towns, a troop convoy and a major barracks. Further north, Boko Haram employs recruits from Chad to enforce its control in northeastern Nigerian towns and cities.

Cameroonian soldiers killed at least 143 Boko Haram fighters when the Islamist militant group attacked a military base along the Nigerian border on Monday, amid fears that the insurgency could spiral into a broader regional crisis.

Cameroon's minister of communications, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, said in a statement that the failed assault resulted in the heaviest loss sustained so far by Boko Haram in Cameroon. In addition to the 143 militants killed, he added, the group lost “important warfare equipment made up of assault rifles of various brands, heavy weapons and bullets of all calibers.”

Mr. Bakary said one Cameroonian solider was killed and four were wounded in the assault on the military base in Kolofata, a town in the far northwest of Cameroon.

The raid was the latest in a series of increasingly brazen attacks by Boko Haram from its stronghold in northeastern Nigeria. On Saturday, explosives strapped to a girl said to be no older than 10 years old detonated at a crowded marketplace in the city of Maiduguri, killing at least 20 people and wounding many more. As The New York Times reports:

The terrorist group has increasingly employed women as suicide bombers, even as it has stepped up its abductions of girls across northeast Nigeria, including the kidnapping of more than 200 in the town of Chibok last April …

But the use of a child to kill – witnesses, police officials, a top hospital official in Maiduguri and local vigilantes all agreed that the bomber was very young – may be unprecedented in the insurgency. 

Boko Haram’s failed cross-border attack into Cameroon follows a raid last week on the garrison town of Baga in northeastern Nigeria, in what many observers say may be one of the group’s deadliest attacks ever. 

While local officials initially estimated as many 2,000 people died in Baga, the Nigerian Defense Ministry countered that the number was no higher than 150, according to the BBC. Nigeria is often accused of underestimating death tolls in order to downplay the threat of Boko Haram.

With Boko Haram now in control of Baga, those who fled are fearful to return to bury their dead. CNN reported on Monday that bodies still littered the bushes around the town. 

"It is still not safe to go and pick them up for burial," Musa Bukar, the chairman of the local government where Baga is located, told CNN.

Boko Haram takeover of Baga, which sits on the border with Chad, and even their failed attack of the Cameroonian army base, speaks to the group’s growing regional influence and its strategic goals. The group’s territorial gains have led to fears of an outright collapse of government control in northeastern Nigeria since the Nigerian military has done little to curb its spread. As the BBC’s Will Ross reports from Lagos:

… the military faces a mountainous task trying to protect civilians from the bombers and gunmen who are spread over a large area of the north-east and although officials don't like to hear it, they have often been overpowered and failed to protect civilians.

The world is slowly waking up to express shock at the latest violence but beyond condemnation and limited help with training, it seems there is little or no appetite to become more deeply involved in this conflict.

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