The following essay was contributed by geopolitical analyst Adam Ragozzino.
In May of 2021, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP or ISWA) attacked Boko Haram's (BH) stronghold in the Sambisa Forest. This was ostensibly in retaliation for BH leader Abubakar Shekau's brutal tactics, which used women as suicide bombers and children as soldiers. In reality, it was primarily in response to his policy of killing Muslim civilians he judged to be unbelievers and his recent killing of his own Chief of Staff. His views ran counter to the operations of the main branch of Islamic State (IS), caused dissension within his own ranks, and made ISWAP recruitment more difficult.
When cornered, Shekau detonated an explosive vest rather than face capture. His death left BH in disarray, with some vowing vengeance for their leader's death, some joining the ranks of ISWAP, and some abandoning the cause altogether. As a result, ISWAP has been left the strongest violent extremist organization (VEO) in the Lake Chad basin, with a substantial foothold in Nigeria.
Why does it matter?
In 2019, Nigeria suffered 160 attacks at the hands of ISWAP, but Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso were also targeted---this, despite some notable setbacks to ISWAP in Iraq and Syria that same year.
The group's success signals systemic state failures. Invariably, areas where the group operates suffer from weak centralized governments, high levels of corruption, economic inequality, high levels of insecurity, and existing internal ethno-religious conflicts. So far, IS has been able to create five other provinces in Africa in addition to the West Africa branch.
Their activity (and, ironically, the government's efforts to remove them) is a drag on the economy, destroying infrastructure and disrupting trade and production. This in turn makes it more difficult for any state to remove the group without outside help.
Originally, ISWAP was an offshoot of BH. Both organizations shared the goal of creating a caliphate in Nigeria, but they differed in how they pursued it. BH itself has been defined by internal tensions since its inception in 2002, when co-founders Mohammed Ali and Muhammad Yusuf disagreed on where members could live. Ali believed the group needed to immediately move to an area free of un-Islamic influences like secular governments in order to prepare for "holy" war. Yusuf believed the group should remain in cities to recruit members, build support, and acquire weapons.
In early 2004, roughly 70 members of the Ali camp clashed with Nigerian security forces after creating a commune just outside the village of Tarmowa. The group then moved to Kanamma in northern Yobe State Nigeria where another clash with security forces left 20 members dead. Ali was not at the camp that day but was later killed trying to escape into the Mandara Mountains in Borno State.
A turning point for BH came in 2009 after what started as a traffic incident resulted in Mohammed Yusuf's arrest and subsequent death while in police custody---presumably by execution. Afterward, Abubakar Shekau was appointed Boko Haram's new leader. Shekau believed any person who didn't join his cause was a legitimate target, including other Muslims. His approach, conscripting child soldiers and using women as suicide bombers, was polarizing even within Boko Haram.
The group gained notoriety in 2014 when 276 girls were kidnapped from a Chibok school in Borno state. Similar kidnappings by so-called "bandits" are widespread across Nigeria and in recent years have become a main revenue stream for organized crime. The theory that the Chibok school bandits worked for BH was never definitively proven, but the school kidnappings did further an explicit goal of BH and IS: eliminating Western-style education. And more recently, the Nigerian Government has claimed that ISWAP is training bandits engaged in mass kidnappings.
After intense military campaigns in 2015 decimated BH's ranks, newly elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was confident that the group was finished. Nevertheless, it survived; following Shekau's pledge of allegiance to Islamic State, Boko Haram became the new Islamic State West Africa Province.
Despite Shekau's pledge, however, his polarizing tactics and his unwillingness to change them led to the appointment of Abu Musab Al Barnawi as regional Governor. (The IS Shura council appoints a governor to each province.) Shekau balked at the decision and split off from ISWAP, creating Jama'atu Ahlus Sunnah Lidda'awati Wal Jihad (JAS).
By 2016, Boko Haram had split into 3 parts
- ISWAP, who were interested in maintaining ties with IS under the leadership of Abu Musab Al Barnawi
- Jama'atu Ahlus Sunnah Lidda'awati Wal Jihad (JAS), the Shekau faction of Boko Haram that many in IS and ISWAP considered too extreme
- Ansaru al-Musulmina fi Bilad al-Sudan (Ansaru), which split from Boko Haram in 2012 as an al-Qaeda affiliate headed by Khalid Barnawi and Abubakar Adam Kambar. The group was thought to be defunct after Khalid Barnawi was arrested in 2016, and many remaining members defected to ISWAP. Still, after years of inactivity, the group took credit for attacks in 2020 on a police helicopter and the convoy of a local Emir.
After the death of Shekau
In June of this year, JAS announced Bakura Modu (aka Sahaba) as their new leader. The 24-year old Sahaba promised revenge for Shekau's death, but at the same time claimed he was willing to work with the Islamic State. A week later, JAS and ISWAP announced Aba Ibrahim Al-Hashimiyil AlKhuraishi as the new leader of both groups with no mention of Sahaba or Al Barnawi. This was a sign that ideological fractures still exist but that a broader reconciliation and consolidation between JAS and ISWAP is forthcoming.
Further evidence of ISWAP's consolidation and JAS's weakening since Shekau's death was JAS's tactical shift to conform to ISWAP. JAS no longer attacked Muslim civilian targets, and it banned raiding and stealing from villages, despite this being a controversial decision among group members. Indeed, these changes made JAS "unrecognizable" to many existing members.
By August of this year, the group experienced waves of defection as the ideological changes, the Nigerian military offensive Hadin Kai, and an ultimatum by ISWAP to pledge allegiance or die pushed thousands of members and their families to surrender to the Nigerian army.
However, Bulama Bukarti, a senior analyst with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, cautioned that the recent consolidation and defections don't indicate a newfound unity, saying "I think Boko Haram is still very much divided, and they will continue to fight each other."
That said, a divided BH does leave ISWAP in a strong position regionally if the Shekau-loyal JAS faction is too resource-stretched fighting IS-aligned factions to counter ISWAP.
What fuels violent extremist groups in Nigeria?
The trajectory of IS in Nigeria is a multifaceted issue driven by the Nigerian economy, the actions of the Government, and violent extremism---or, the progression from holding radical beliefs to acting on those beliefs. Per the United Nations Development Programme, Violent extremism is driven by societal grievances, poverty, lack of education, government corruption, ethno-religious conflict, and violence committed by government security forces. These drivers all feature prominently in Nigeria.
In fact, British colonialism, in its "casual disregard ... for the consequences of enveloping so many disparate cultures within one state," fomented and exacerbated some of the social grievances now on display. In other words, the British assembled the Nigerian state in a way that made financial sense for the British.
Today, conflict has continued in the North between the mostly Muslim cattle herders and the mostly Christian farmers as they compete for usable land; in the Southwest, Yoruba separatist Sunday Adeyemo has called for an independent Yoruba republic; and in the Southeast, Igbo separatists have formed an armed group, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), to protect them from a government that favors the Muslim Fulani, who count among their numbers President Buhari. Violent extremist organizations often lever these various tensions in order to recruit members.
Even seemingly "good" colonial policies, like improving education, have had lasting unintended consequences. The mostly Christian South readily accepted British education initiatives and prospered, while the mostly Muslim North, whose Qur'anic education does not cover math or reading**, was more resistant and subsequently suffered economically. Those economic disparities then grew into political disparities, resulting in mistrust of the wealthier and more politically connected South.
Further compounding the various social grievances at work, Nigerian Security forces are often accused of using violence against the very people they are sent to protect. The most well-known incident is from October of 2020, when 12 unarmed civilians were shot at the Lekki Toll gate during the End SARS protests. Their crimes? Peacefully protesting the very violence committed by the police's Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
All that said, according to a UN study from 2017, the most influential driver of violent extremism is such behavior by government security forces. "A striking 71 percent pointed to 'government action', including 'killing of a family member or friend' or 'arrest of a family member or friend', as the incident that prompted them to join [a terrorist organization]."
What are the implications of continued ISWAP attacks in Nigeria?
Given that further and more widespread ISWAP attacks in Nigeria are likely in the short term and almost certain in the long, what are their implications? The result will be a vicious circle of insecurity, which will weaken the economy and thereby create more insecurity. It may also usher in political change if opposition parties are able to translate President Buhari's perceived ineffectiveness into a boost at the polls in 2023. Such a perception of the federal government's and federal police force's inability to keep the country safe could also fuel the ongoing separatist movements and pushes by some opposition party state governors for their own state police forces.
What are the implications if ISWAP does not launch attacks in Nigeria?
For ISWAP inactivity to have a long-term effect, it would need to remain "quiet" long enough for daily life and the normal functioning of the economy to resume. It would take some time before farmers driven from their land by violence could return to their fields, for food production to increase, and for prices to improve. Such a sustained ceasefire might signal to investors that Nigeria's security was improving.
This break in violence would likely be viewed as a victory for President Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) party, even if it were short-lived. It would also create an expectation that the government should fill the vacuum with better governance and services in the Northeast. As it stands, the APC party has a poor track record delivering on its 2015 and 2019 campaign promises of strong economic growth, improved security, and reduced corruption. This is important, because ISWAP has established a "largely symbiotic relationship" with the inhabitants of the Lake Chad area, treating "local Muslim civilians ... in some ways better than the Nigerian state and army have done since the insurgency began in 2009." Indeed, the group is known to dig wells, provide some minor healthcare services, and dissuade cattle rustling.
However, such a quiet period for ISWAP should not be confused with dormancy. Unlike JAS, ISWAP prefers to remain under the radar while establishing a solid base from which to launch attacks when ready. To better understand, track, and forecast the expansion of Islamic State into Nigeria, with all its attendant knock-on effects, the following forecast questions have been developed which ask how many of the most at-risk states of Nigeria will see IS or BH attacks within the next 6 months, the next 12 months, and the next 24 months.
*The second highest number of attacks were suffered by Niger in 2019, with 20.
**Unicef estimates 61% of Nigeria's 6-11 year-olds attend school. In the northern rural areas, only 53% of all rural children attend school, and only 47% of rural girls.