Countering Jihadi Swarm Tactics in the Sahel


Widely spread in the Sahelian zone because of its affordability and the mobility it provides motorists, motorcycles have become an element of social prestige for the youth. However, their use has been inordinately diverted for criminal purposes, thus leading to an increase of motorcycle attacks in the region. Facing this danger, should we hinder these motorcycles or counter them by creating even more mobile vehicles for law enforcement and military uses?

Motorcycles in Africa, A Versatile and Popular Tool–And an Unlikely Weapon

Motorcycles have proliferated in Africa during the last 30 years due to their compact size, mobility, and inconspicuousness. The motorcycle in Africa has multiple uses.: Approximately 1.5 million of them are used as taxis in urban areas, where they are used to transport passengers and goods. Meanwhile, in the rough terrain of rural areas of Africa, motorcycles are used to run vital pumps needed for irrigating crops on African farms..

In fact,, an entire culture based on motorcycles has developed in the cities of North Nigeria and Cameroon. The city markets were first dominated by the Japanese motorcycles. In Cameroon, the Honda CG125 is called “Bazooka”, a Suzuki A100 is known as “Chagari”, and a Suzuki AS100, is referred to as the ” black cat “. These Japanese motorcycles were very popular until the arrival of their Chinese competitors in 2004 with Nanfang, Lifan, Jingseng, Crankcase and, the fastest, TVS125. These motorcycles, equipped with a lengthened seat, can carry three-to-four people. More importantly, for smuggling purposes, they can transport six plastic cans of 60 liters each (gasoline smuggling is a major factor on the African black market).

Although, the real advantage for most young Africans is the fact that the Chinese bikes are infinitely cheaper than their Japanese counterparts, making them much more easily accessible. Young people can acquire a motorcycle by saving up, without help from their family. Giorgio Blundo studied the circuits of distribution of the Chinese motorcycle in Africa. The city of Cinkassé, for instance, in the North of Togo, appears to be a dry port for the import of Chinese motorcycles and the biggest market in western Africa.

Situated on the Burkina Faso border, Cinkassé has become a hub for buyers from the whole Sahel region looking for cheap, reliable bikes. In Togo, Chinese motorcycles are delivered in spare parts before being assembled by African workers who have benefited from the assistance of Chinese technicians. Because of the very moderate cost of the Chinese motorcycles, local production is almost impossible. Motorcycles have become a tool of spontaneous development, before being used by criminals.

The Anatomy of a Motorcycle Attack

Motorcycle banditry rages from the Balkans to Afghanistan. It consists in assaulting police or gendarmerie stations with a few armed men on motorbikes; or to surround villages in order to loot them. Motorcycle assaults enable several AK-47 armed men to perform a kidnapping, to storm a marketplace, or to perform a suicide attack. Sometimes, hundreds of fighters deploy on motorcycles, make a short assault, and disappear as quickly as they emerged.

A motorcycle attack usually plays out like this: the driver, seated on the fuel tank, holds the slightly enhanced handlebar while the passenger seated on the metal extension of the seat takes the role of the gunner. Meanwhile, the third passenger, situated between the other two riders, paints the targets and provides new ammunitions.  

Many motorcycle-bound criminals and terrorists haveadapted their Chinese motorcycles to the mountain by giving them double rear shock absorbers and protecting their inner tubes from the Balanites spines with a metallic ribbon . This has made the motorcycles extremely durable for the rough riding that the bandits and terrorists will put them through.

In Burkina Faso, Boko Haram uses the promises of access to a motorcycle and the offer of one (or more) women to attract young recruits to their jihad. Obtaining a motorcycle is a condition of spatial mobility in these areas, in addition to a form of social recognition. Since the proclamation of the state of emergency and the prohibition of motorcycles in Diffa, the promise of a motorcycle is all the more compelling for the local youth to join Boko Haram.

In the minds of these young enlisted, Boko Haram gives what the Nigerian state and society no longer offer. The Chinese motorcycle is  Boko Haram’s preferred bike. It is used in all of its attacksm from attacks, to kidnappings, andopen battle with the army. After the fighting, the press photographs always show the ground strewn with burnt motorcycle carcasses. More importantly, the Boko Haram’s order of battle is predicated on the injudicious use of motorbikes in their offensive operations. Not only are these motorbikes are used for small attacks, but they are also operate to allow for the rapid deployment of hundreds of fighters; encircling a village and enabling the jihadists to enjoy rapid dispersion in combat.

Attacks combining Chinese motorcycles, Kalashnikov automatic weapons, and mobile phones prove particularly efficient. All the actions of Boko Haram in Nigeria, as in Cameroon, were perpetrated thanks to these fast moving, cheap motorcycles: The attacks at Waza on 17 May 2014, Izage soon after, Kolofata on 26 July 2014, or at Hile-Alifa; the capture of the big market of Banki in August 2014, Ngala in September 2014 were all perpetrated by motorcycle-bound jihadists.

The same is true for hostage-taking. In each motorized unit, you find an individual approximating a mechanic and someone responsible for ammunition and explosives. The bike often belongs to the fighter (or to the squad leader).

How Jihadists Make Good Use of Ancient Swarming Tactics

The great military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, advised military leaders that, in order “To achieve victory, [they] must amass [their] forces at the hub of all power and movement. The enemy’s ‘center of gravity.’” Mobility in conflict is essential–especially if a smaller, less advanced force is facing a larger, more powerful one (such as what jihadists fighting in the Sahel region are facing). Motorcycles give the jihadists the mobility they require to conduct offensive operations against larger, slower-moving targets. These vehicles also give their users the advantage of surprise (due to the speed and small size of the motorcycles).

For a millennia, swarming attacks had been conducted by nomads against entrenched farmers. It was one of the favorite tactics employed by the Scythians. During the Samarkand besiege, the Spitamenes used swarming against the relief army of Alexander the Great. During that ancient conflict, small horsemen groups were coming, then were disappearing in order to resupply just as another group was coming. Alexander the Great split his army and attacked the logistic of Spitamenes, thanks to a network of fortified outposts in order to cut the enemy supply; in this way, Spitamenes had to fight in hand combat.

Later, Parthians crushed the Romans at the Carrhae battle using their mobility in order to fix the enemy and inhibit any movements. Mongol invasions are another example of swarming attacks, but on a far larger scale. Indeed, the Mongolians were betting on the combination of mobility and intelligence, to  rapidly mass several armies. A large network of messengers capable of traveling quickly over great distances collected intelligence and enabled the Mongols to keep the initiative.

The development of urban warfare in the twentieth century necessarily made swarm tactics evolve. Thus, in the battles of Grozny between Russians and Chechens (1994, 1996, 1999), the insurgents defended the city by quickly infiltrating the enemy rear by means of tunnels, ruins and passages in order to brutally engage the enemy by surprise and at a short distance, before breaking the contact and retreating. The Russians lost many tanks to Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG), and were defeated during the first and second battles of Grozny. To counteract the insurgents’ swarming, the Russian forces established a “spider’s web,” so to speak, made up of advanced outposts in order to limit the enemy mobility. However, despite these efforts (and the overwhelming Russian numerical superiority), the Chechens inflicted heavy losses on the Russian army, frequently encircling the outposts.

Swarming was also used in terrorist attacks. For example, during the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai (which killed 179 people), five, two-man teams led simultaneous attacks against several objectives.

Modern Swarming Tactics: How Does a Defender Counter Them?

When facing an enemy deploying swarm tactics, the responses of defenders have varied throughout history. One response has been to focus on a swarming enemy’s supply chain. This is precisely what Alexander did during his siege of Samarcande.

Some African states have tried to hinder biker gangs by forbidding the traffic of motorcycles at night. As far back as 2011, in Abuja, the Nigerian federal capital city, a ban to mototaximen Okada was decided, because they could have been used by Boko Haram in order  to commit targeted murders. In Cameroon, since 2013, the government set up a curfew from 6 pm to 6 am in the North of the Mandara, like in Am Chidé and Banki, near to the Nigerian border. Since then, this measure has been applied to all the regions in the North of Maroua.

In Togo in 2014, the national army received the order to seize all the motorbikes which were not registered. In September 2018, Burkina Faso, which is often targeted by jihadist attacks in its eastern territory, banned motorcycles from 7 pm to 5 am.

The second response to swarm tactics is to simply copy the enemy. Rather than prevent the rapid swarm attacks by targeting things like an attacker’s logistical supply line, the defender attempts to outclass its adversary by giving its own forces greater levels of mobility than the attackers have.  This explains why, in Iran, counter-riot policemen are equipped with motorbikes. It also explains why Lithuanian Special Forces in Afghanistan used powerful Yamaha motorbikes. They built a special training camp in Lithuania on uneven grounds. In motorbikes fights, Afghans were certainly slower, but also lighter. Considering the motorbikes fights, ambushes were displaced to 1.5 km away from the main roads.

Due to the lack of discretion of motorbikes, DARPA is currently developing a new vehicle, called Silent Hawk, in order to meet the needs of the special forces. One thing is certain, swarming tactics are here to stay and the United States and its allies fighting against insurgents the world over will have to develop countermeasures to the ubiquitous motorcycle swarm attacks.

Screen Shot 2018-10-02 at 12.04.43 AM.pngThomas Flichy de La Neuville teaches geopolitics at France’s prestigious Saint-Cyr’s military academy. He has also recently been named as a Research Professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. Neuville has published numerous articles on international relations, some of which have been featured in The World Post.

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