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Nigerian Neighbor Cameroon Faces 'Phantom Enemy' Boko Haram

The militants slip over the border, hiding among the local population, which is either sympathetic to their cause or terrified into compliance.
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Editor's note: This story originally stated that Boko Haram had not been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. The story has been corrected.

AMCHIDE, Cameroon - Cameroon’s elite special forces have a new base and a new mission in the country’s rugged extreme north on the border with Nigeria: root out Islamist militant group Boko Haram. These days that includes keeping an eye out for the nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls the militants kidnapped more than a month ago.

While the soldiers are well armed – each carries an Israeli-made Galil assault rifle and is protected by sophisticated body armor – the force, known as a rapid intervention battalion, or BIR, is acutely aware that victory won’t be easy.

"They can be among the population, the people, but you cannot by first sight know that this is Boko Haram," BIR’s commander Maj. Felix Bias said.

The militants can and do slip over the border into Cameroon, often hiding among the local population, which is either sympathetic to their cause or simply terrified into compliance.

“Radical Islam is progressing in Cameroon,” political scientist Dr. Mathias Nguini says. And the government doesn’t “understand the fight.”

The BIR relies heavily on local intelligence, and commanders regularly meet with the village chief and other elders reinforcing the importance of eyes and ears in the community. Still, information is in short supply.

It is unclear how much support Boko Haram has in mostly Muslim Amchide, as villagers who don't support the group may be afraid to speak out. The group has assassinated 20 informants in the region since the beginning of the year, according to Dr. Mathias Nguini, a political scientist at the Paul Ango Ela foundation in the capital Yaounde.

‘Declare War on Boko Haram’

While Cameroon has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the radical group, officials now bristle at the suggestion that they have turned a blind eye to the group.

“We are here to declare war on Boko Haram,” President Paul Biya proclaimed during a summit in Paris last weekend.

Biya is getting a hand from the outside. The American government designated a number of Boco Haram's leaders as terrorists in 2012, and the group as a whole was given the classification last November.

Cameroonian special forces have also been getting counterterrorism training for the past two years from Africom, the United Stated African Command, focusing on urban warfare and close-quarter combat, Bias said. Indeed, a small team of U.S. military personnel lives in a nearby city and meets with the battalion regularly.

And the BIR, originally created to battle a costly and violent problem of highway robbery, needs the help.

The military is "not very competent" and they are fighting a "phantom enemy," Nguini said.

Cameroon’s other obstacle, according to regional experts, is Nigeria itself. The two countries came to the brink of war in the recent past over the Bakassi peninsula, territory they both claim. The international community declared the territory Cameroon’s in 2002, but distrust and tension continue, making cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram difficult.

Radical Islam’s Progress

The fact that the insurgency has already spread into Cameroon complicates matters further.

In January 2013, a gunfight between Nigerian forces and the militants left a Cameroonian border crossing riddled with bullets. No one was hurt, but the damaged customs house and a Mercedes with a blown out windshield are reminders of the threat of the insurgency spilling across borders.

Local experts believe the country has become a staging ground for Boko Haram militants, who easily slip in and out of Cameroon undetected. The border runs down the middle of town, in some places splitting homes down the middle.

The front door of one house is in Cameroon while the kitchen sits in Nigeria. People pass freely back and forth all day long, and securing the roughly 1,200-mile-long border would be nearly impossible, the special forces admit.

Boko Haram rearms and regroups here. Last month Cameroon officials said they seized a large weapons cache in the town of Kussare, near the border with Chad. Video released by the ministry of defense shows AK-47s, mortars and anti-aircraft weapons.

Boko Haram is also responsible for a string of attacks and other kidnappings in addition to the Nigerian schoolgirls. The most recent took place in the town of Warza last Friday. One hundred armed militants attacked a Chinese construction facility, ambushing Cameroon forces in the middle of the night and kidnapping at least one worker.

Image: A village chief in northern Cameroon showed NBC News bullets from a high-velocity rifle, which he says were found inside a nearby home.
A village chief in northern Cameroon showed NBC News bullets from a high-velocity rifle, which he says were found inside a nearby home. Boko Haram is using the region as a staging ground for attacks across the border.Anthony Galloway / NBC News

So while Boko Haram was born in the 1990s in Nigeria, it has grown into a complicated regional problem. The kidnappings and an increase in violence are evidence Boko Haram is only growing stronger, Dr. Nguini says.

“Radical Islam is progressing in Cameroon,” he said, and the Cameroon government doesn’t “understand the fight.”