LAGOS, NIGERIA - Nigeria’s military announced last week that it was raiding the Sambisa Forest, one of the last strongholds of Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. Liberating the forest might be the hardest part of the campaign against the group.
Aided by regional troops and foreign mercenaries, Nigeria’s military has managed to take back nearly all of the towns and villages controlled by Boko Haram in Nigeria’s northeast over the past few months.
But one area remains mostly under their control: Sambisa, a massive expanse of forest that spreads thousands of square kilometers over several states.
Boko Haram is thought to have retreated to this forest after being pushed out of cities like Gwoza and Bama. It is also thought to be where the group initially took the 219 schoolgirls kidnapped from the town of Chibok last year.
Nigeria’s national security spokesman announced last week that the military was going to retake the forest. Analysts and villagers from Chibok say ridding the forest of the extremists will be a stiff challenge.
Yan St. Pierre, an analyst with Berlin-based security firm MOSECON, says retaking Sambisa will be crucial to destroying Boko Haram.
“All these operations come from there, a lot of the attacks on Bama for example," he said. "The attacks on Maiduguri, across in Nigeria, in Cameroon, a lot of it comes from Sambisa Forest. So if they’re not pushed out, all the activities, suicide bombers, militia training a lot of the stuff they’ve been able to do so far will still go on.”
After last year’s kidnappings, parents from Chibok went into the forest in search of their daughters.
Yakubu Nkeki was one of those parents, who went into Sambisa in search of his daughter, Maimuna Nkeki.
He described a forest so thick you could not see the sky. About 48 kilometers in, villagers warned the parents that if they went farther, they would be killed by well-armed Boko Haram fighters. All the parents had for weapons were homemade guns, spears, machetes and bows and arrows.
“They were ever ready to face even Nigeria army, talk less of we parents. If we pursued them, we will all be killed," he said. "Therefore let’s go back and inform the situation to the government.”
St. Pierre expects the military to rely heavily on bombing in their campaign to retake the forest. The fighting will likely be fierce.
“It’s an ages-old tactic. You know they go back into the forest, the forest, you know, you can’t really map out the forest properly," he said. "There’s always the possibility of tunnels and setting traps. It’s a nightmare.”
A spokesman for Nigeria’s military declined to comment.