French Air Force Back Fight Against Boko Haram on Nigeria's Borders

Boko Haram
A security barrier marks the scene of a car bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church (background) at Madalla, Suleja, just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja. Afolabi Sotunde/REUTERS

France has entered the campaign to tackle the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram by conducting reconnaissance flights along the borders of Chad and Niger, according to French officials.

Despite French president Francois Hollande's previous claims that French warplanes were operating in Nigerian airspace, French officials have since confirmed that French operations are limited to the airspace of Nigeria's neighbours, Chad and Niger.

"Our air force is carrying out reconnaissance missions, but not over Nigeria," a French defence ministry source told Reuters today. "Our support is limited to neighbouring countries such as Chad and Niger," the source added.

The French government established an anti-Islamist operation in the Sahel region last year, entitled Operation Barkhane, with 3,200 troops stationed in the Chadian capital, N'Djamena, and 20 combat helicopters, six fighter jets and four drones located in the wider Sahel region.

Discussing how France's involvement will work in the fight against the terror group, Imad Mesdoua, a political analyst at Africa-focused advisory Africa Matters, says that the country will probably play a supporting role to fill in gaps in its partners' military and intelligence capabilities.

"My guess is that the French would help their counterparts spot any unwanted intrusion or incursions or pick up anything noteworthy," he said. "These are really vast and arid territories and it's tough for the already overstretched Chadian, Nigerian and Cameroonian forces."

Mesdoua says that cooperation between these three regional players is becoming increasingly important, as Boko Haram expand their attacks to the borders of Nigeria and they must work together to combat the jihadist threat.

Nigeria Boko Haram Chad
The borders being monitored by the French air force and the borders being contested by the Chadian and Cameroonian militaries with Boko Haram. Luis Ouriach

France launched Operation Barkhane in order to tackle jihadists groups in the Sahel sub-region and protect its former colonies. Niger and Chad both used to be colonised by France and analysts say that the threat to Paris' economic interests in the region, such as uranium mining and oil production, may have played a role in bringing France into the fight against Boko Haram.

"There is a lot of French economic interest in Niger and Chad, given that they are former colonies," notes Manji Cheto, vice president at political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence. "It's clear that there are very strong French economic interests, not only in Chad and Niger, but also in the Sahel more broadly."

France has been reluctant to deploy ground troops into other regions of the Sahel given that they already have over 4,000 troops on the ground between Mali in the west and Central African Republic (CAR) in the east.

However, France dispatched a number of security service operatives to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, last May in order to help find the Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram.

French nationals have previously been targeted by Boko Haram. In November 2013, a French priest was kidnapped by the group and a French family of seven were seized by the Islamists in northern Cameroon. A confidential Nigerian government report, seen by Reuters, confirmed that French and Cameroonian hostage negotiators had agreed to pay the Islamists £2.07m ($3.15m) in exchange for the French family.

The news of the French surveillance flights comes after the African Union (AU) agreed last week to the creation of a Multinational Joint Task Force [MJTF] of 7,500 troops to tackle the radical Islamist group.

On the ground, more than 2,000 Chadian troops crossed the Nigerian border yesterday to attack Boko Haram militants in the town of Gamburu, which was captured by the group last year. Chadian and Cameroonian forces also battled the group in the Cameroonian border town of Fotocol, where 200 Islamists and nine Chadian soldiers were killed in exchanges.

"Our valiant forces responded vigorously, a chase was immediately instituted all the way to their base at Gamboru and Ngala [in Nigeria], where they were completely wiped out," Chadian military spokesman Col. Azem Bermendoa said in a national television address on Tuesday night.

The Council on Foreign Relations' Nigeria Security Tracker estimates that Boko Haram have killed up to 10,404 people since January 2014. In its four-year-long insurgency, which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in similar vein to that of the Islamic State, the group have captured territory equal to the size of Belgium.

The Hunt for Boko Haram, an in-depth ebook on the terrorists tearing Nigeria apart by Alex Perry, is available now from Newsweek Insights.