Boko Haram militants carried out their first attack in Chad on Friday, crossing from Nigeria into the border village of Ngouboua. The assault killed seven people, according to the Chadian army, including a village chief and a police officer.
At 3 AM on Friday, roughly 30 militants stormed the village of Ngouboua, a strip of dry land on the shores of Lake Chad located 11 miles from the Nigerian border. An eyewitness told Reuters that the insurgents arrived on three motorized canoes and proceeded to torch parts of the village. The Chadian army intervened swiftly, sinking the three boats as they tried to flee. It is not known how many militants died.
The incursion came as the region's countries vowed to step up their efforts to combat the radical Islamist insurgency in Nigeria. Less than a week ago, officials from Benin, Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad formalized the creation of the FMM (Force Multinationale Mixte), an 8,700-strong regional military alliance to combat the militant group.
The initiative follows an intensive campaign of cross-border attacks by Boko Haram, which has recently terrorized neighboring countries, with offensives in Cameroon, Niger, and now Chad. Boko Haram fighters killed at least 70 people on February 4 in the northern Cameroonian town of Fotokol.
Niger, which weathered its first Boko Haram attack last Friday, joined the coalition Monday following a parliamentary resolution to send ground troops into northern Nigeria, to help battle the group on home turf. On Thursday, Niger's security forces announced that they had killed 260 Boko Haram fighters since February 6, when the group attacked the southeastern town of Bosso.
Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted the village of Diffa in Niger over the past week.
On Wednesday, militants killed a Chadian soldier in the Nigerian town of Gamboru, which is currently occupied by the Chadian army. A spokesman for the army told AFP that at 4 AM on Wednesday, "14 pick-up trucks and two armored vehicles showed up, and we forced them to retreat. A helicopter chased them and neutralized them."
Ngouboua, a village of refugees
Over the past few weeks, Ngouboua has become a makeshift refugee camp for around7,000Nigerian civilians fleeing from Boko Haram. Survivors of the Baga massacre — a series of mass killings carried out by the group in early January — have converged on Ngouboua, where a transit camp was set up.
"UNHCR is not running an actual camp in Ngouboua, but there are still refugees living there," Massoumeh Farman-Farmaian, a UNHCR worker based in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena, told VICE News. She added that UNHCR had transferred the refugees further east to a lakeside camp in Baga-Sola, following a request by the Chadian government reflecting security concerns.
A resident of Diffa, located on the other side of Lake Chad in Niger, described Ngouboua as "an important crossroads in the region."
"People from everywhere — from Chad, Niger, Cameroon and obviously, Nigeria — converge on the town's market," he told VICE News, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety. "You can buy anything there, mostly fish. Fishing is the only profitable activity in the area, and fish is often the only food on the table."
Villages infiltrated by Boko Haram
The region is increasingly anxious that Boko Haram is infiltrating villages along the border to facilitate attacks and expand the dubious "caliphate" it declared in the area of northern Nigeria that it controls.
In a public radio address delivered on Wednesday, Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou called on "[Niger's] people to support defense and security, particularly through [the sharing of] intelligence."
Local police in Diffa are also trying to root out the rebels.
"The police are going around town with the Qur'an and are asking people to inform on Boko Haram militants," the Diffa resident said. "People are scared of the Qur'an, it makes them confess things. It's one way of fighting the infiltration of the Islamic sect into the local population."
On Thursday, Diffa police arrested Kaka Bounou, the man suspected of masterminding the recent attacks in Diffa. According to our source, Bounou is a well-known figure locally.
"Bounou is a shopkeeper in his 40s, everyone in the village knows him," the resident told VICE News. "Everyone knows he's part of Boko Haram."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray