Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar publishes new research in NATO journal, Defence Strategic Communications.

Published (Updated )

The Nigerian army is using secretive tactics to disrupt Boko Haram’s online propaganda as part of its communications strategy against the militant group, according to a new paper from a City, University of London researcher.

Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar says the army has gained the upper hand against the jihadists on the battlefield and is now complementing this with a variety of communications techniques – some of which the authorities refuse to discuss.

The City academic argues the army was forced to improve its approach to media relations because of Boko Haram’s high public profile, aided by brutal publicity stunts, use of social networks and the media's “obsession” with jihadi stories.

Published in the NATO journal Defence Strategic Communications, the paper concludes that the Nigerian authorities are making some progress against Boko Haram propaganda but costly errors are hampering efforts to win the public’s trust.

Dr Abubakar, a researcher and lecturer in the Department of Journalism, writes: “The open engagement of the security forces with the digital media is wide-ranging and generally robust, but they also use technology in their covert operations to counter the jihadists.

“What they do exactly is unclear, but officials indicate that they are secretly using technological expertise to dislodge Boko Haram from cyberspace… They have largely managed to contain the militants on this front.”

Psychological operations

The City academic says senior figures in the Nigerian army have revealed that they deploy “scientific measures” to find anti-government content on social media and other websites.

The army also helps to get Boko Haram videos removed from YouTube, blocks access to insurgents’ accounts or gets them suspended, “distorts their messages” and “frequently disrupts the online activity of the jihadists”.

Dr Abubakar also cites evidence, from a former army media consultant, that the security services are using “psychological operations” (or “psy-ops”) in their counter-insurgency campaigns, although authorities have been quiet on the issue. Psy-ops is a broad term that refers to a strategy of influencing the public’s behaviour and views on issues related to national security objectives.

“The extent to which the Army has engaged in PsyOps is difficult to know and that is the nature of PsyOps,” Dr Abubakar says. “They have never publicly explained why they engaged in psychological operations – nor have they even admitted using them.”

A lack of trust

The researcher says the authorities have made mistakes since the Boko Haram insurgency began in 2009, and the army has had to apologise for issuing false statements.

He argues that the militant group became a more credible source of information than the authorities at some stages, for example when the army claimed to have rescued a set of hostages and the jihadists responded with a video showing three people they still held captive.

Dr Abubakar explains that the military has developed an array of techniques with digital platforms, including websites with videos showing the fight against Boko Haram, and social media channels.

The army liaises with print and broadcast media more effectively than in the past, when it had an “obsession with information control” – offering tours of key battlefield sites and issuing 3,000 items to media at the peak of the insurgency between 2013 and 2015. But the army has been intolerant of some coverage – destroying some newspaper editions, persuading editors to avoid certain stories and intimidating journalists.

With both Boko Haram and the Nigerian army using strategic communications, Dr Abubakar concludes that the security services must become more honest to match its successes on the battlefield.

“Credibility is the cornerstone of effective narratives,” he argues, “and honesty – or the perception of it – is a necessary condition for the long-term efficacy of strategic communications.”

The research was drawn from: interviews with journalists and public relations officers; analysis of Boko Haram’s video and audio messages; Dr Abubakar’s personal experience from covering Boko Haram as a journalist, with the BBC World Service and the Daily Trust newspaper; library research; and analysis of press releases and web content generated by the Nigerian armed forces.

The article, Strategic Communications, Boko Haram and Counter-Insurgency, was published in Defence Strategic Communications, the official journal of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (StratCom COE).

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