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Cameroon Launches First Airstrikes Against Boko Haram

The militants made their name carrying out terror attacks in Nigeria, but are increasingly crossing into neighboring Cameroon to bring their jihad into another country as well.

CAMEROON-NIGERIA-UNREST-BOKO-HARAM
Cameroonian soldiers patrol on November 12, 2014 in Amchide, northern Cameroon, 1 km from Nigeria. The city was raided by Islamists from Nigeria's Boko Haram, killing eight cameroonian soldiers and leading the population to flee on October 15, 2014, before another six coordinated attacks that killed at least three civilians in the remote north of the country, on November 9, 2014. Boko Haram's five-year insurgency in neighboring Nigeria has left thousands dead, and the Islamists have occasionally carried out attacks over the border. Cameroon has deployed more than 1,000 soldiers in the extreme northeast of the country to counter the Islamist threat. AFP PHOTO/REINNIER KAZE (Photo credit should read Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images)

Cameroon has ordered its first-ever airstrikes against Boko Haram, the Islamist group responsible for the infamous kidnapping of 270 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria last spring, after the group overran a Cameroonian military base and attacked five nearby villages.

Cameroonian President Paul Biya ordered the strikes after nearly 1,000 Boko Haram crossed into Cameroon from their safe havens in Nigeria this weekend to mount the bloody strikes, which killed and wounded an unknown number of civilians and soldiers. Cameroon and Nigeria share a 1,240-mile border, making Cameroon one of the African countries most susceptible to the growing threat posed by the terrorist organization, which now controls a large swath of territory across northern Nigeria.

In a statement, Cameroon’s information minister, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, said this weekend’s strikes proved Boko Haram’s new strategy was “distracting Cameroonian troops on different fronts, making them more vulnerable in the face of the mobility and unpredictability of their attacks.”

Monday’s airstrikes, which reportedly killed 41 militants, mark a renewed commitment by Cameroon to defeat Boko Haram, whose bloody campaign to impose their strict interpretation of Islamic law has killed more than 3,000 civilians, government officials, and security personnel in Nigeria and Cameroon in the past year alone. Last week, Cameroon’s military located and raided a Boko Haram training camp near the Nigerian border and seized 84 children that the militants had brought there to train for combat.

Boko Haram’s rapid growth and increasing influence in northern Nigeria threatens the stability of Africa’s wealthiest nation, where President Goodluck Jonathan has failed to slow the group’s advances. But the new attacks in Cameroon are sparking anger and fear among other nearby governments, who blame Jonathan for failing to prevent the group from menacing their own countries as well.

Boko Haram, which translates roughly to “Western education is illegal” in the Hausa language, has long targeted schools in northern Nigeria and Cameroon. Many schools in Cameroon’s northern territories shut down preemptively to avoid attacks by the group.

In recent months, Biya has sent thousands of additional troops to Cameroon’s north to help staff border checkpoints and protect villages along the long and porous border with Nigeria. And according to Reuters, more than 40 Cameroonian soldiers have died fighting the group this year.

A recent increase in suicide bombings in northern Nigeria has put local residents on edge ahead of February’s presidential elections, when Jonathan, a Christian, will face Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from the north. Voting will be particularly complicated in three of Nigeria’s northern states, Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe, where Boko Haram’s repeated attacks forced the government to announce states of emergency that allow Jonathan to impose travel bans and implement curfews.

Although the United States has offered to help train Nigerian troops to fight Boko Haram, the U.S. refuses to provide arms due to past human rights violations by the Nigerian military.

Despite repeated calls for American military assistance, Jonathan’s administration abruptly canceled the only U.S.-funded training program for the military last month. At the time, the government offered no explanation for their decision to cancel the program, which was training a special force to counter Boko Haram.

REINNIER KAZE

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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