Boko Haram-ISWAP and the Growing Footprint of Islamic State (IS) in Africa
In November 2015, the Islamic State (IS) dedicated the eighth issue of its English-language monthly propaganda magazine, Dabiq, to the propagation of strict Islamic governance in Africa, with the title “Sharia Alone will Rule Africa”. It was done to counter the growing tentacles of Al-Qaeda (AQ) in Africa. The issue also outlined IS’ strategy on how to mobilise, create and support various regional groups, known as provinces or wilayat, around the continent, whose members carry out violence in its name.
In early 2014, different jihadist groups around Africa, such as Boko Haram, began pledging allegiance to then IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leading the region to become the new IS wilayat in Africa. While each province undertook IS-approved activities in terms of violence and governance, one unifying element was total submission to the vision of a self-styled global Sunni caliphate. Today, some African militant groups have regional partners with networks spanning the North African region and straddling the Sahara into East and West Africa. At the same time, it has become an IS recruitment hub, with the terror group co-opting indigenous partners and interfacing with local imams (prayer leaders) to control, influence or intimidate other Islamic sects with similar ideologies to join their cause. Since early 2022, IS has conducted half of its claimed global operations in Africa. This means Africa has emerged as the new centre of gravity for IS. With existing structural issues of poverty and dispossession across different African regions, there is the potential for IS to consolidate its presence and serve as a threat to the global order.
Against this backdrop, this article examines the place of Boko Haram-Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in this expanding terror network of IS across Africa. It highlights the future scenarios that could emerge if this trend is not checkmated.
IS’ Expansionist Agenda in Africa
The formation and expansion of IS in Africa are well documented. After the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi welded together various insurgent groups that consisted largely of Iraqis from the former Baathist regime, nationalists, tribal elements and Islamist fighters; like al-Zarqawi, some had fought in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden. Al-Zarqawi named these groups Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ). After forging an alliance with AQ, JTJ became AQ in Iraq (AQI), until al-Zarqawi’s tactics led to the group’s break-up. Consequently, AQI evolved to become IS under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and, in 2015, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s then leader, pledged an oath of loyalty to IS and Boko Haram changed its name to ISWAP.
The role of IS has changed the dynamics of the conflict, with new actors and new forms of digital propaganda. IS has been a primary factor in the explosion of jihadist violence on the continent in recent years. As of September 2021, IS has established six official African provinces located in Libya (2014), Algeria (2014), Sinai (2014), West Africa (2015), Somalia (2018) and Central Africa (2019). However, the West Africa Province has two regions, one in the Lake Chad Basin (ISWAP-Lake Chad) and the other in the Sahel (ISWAP-Greater Sahara). Similarly, the Central Africa Province has two regions, one in Mozambique and the other in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is therefore logical to conclude that IS has at least eight provinces in Africa.
In addition to these administrative units, IS continues to provide the African provinces with some level of strategic support to exacerbate, service and sustain violence, targeting governments, institutions and individuals. For example, IS has facilitated financial transfers to ISWAP-Lake Chad, Somalia and Central Africa (DRC). In Libya, IS is alleged to have sent emissaries from Iraq to train locals, while returning foreign fighters provide support by offering blueprints for governance, funds, and advice on strategy and tactics. IS has allegedly also provided financial and technical support to Sinai, including media and digital support to the different African provinces.
IS’ technical and strategic support is evident among the provinces, particularly the activities of Boko Haram-ISWAP around the Lake Chad Basin. In 2020, the Lake Chad borderland region witnessed increased levels of violence linked primarily to Boko Haram (also known as Jama’atul Ahl Sunnah Liddawati wal Jihad, or JAS). From March to June 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, Boko Haram-ISWAP carried out more than 19 attacks around the Lake Chad basin, killing 452 people, including the March 2020 attack on Chadian soldiers, one of the deadliest ever recorded in West Africa. Between July and August 2020, Boko Haram-ISWAP carried out 22 more attacks, killing 230 people. On June 1, 2022, the government of Chad predicted in its Humanitarian Response Plan that more than 5.3 million people, 50 per cent of whom are women and children, are threatened by insecurity.
Boko Haram-ISWAP Riding the IS Tide
Although the history of Boko Haram remains contested, Muhammad Yusuf is considered its founder. When he was killed in 2009, Abubakar Shekau assumed leadership of the group and maintained the essential ingredients of the ultra-Salafi extremism espoused by Yusuf. However, he also introduced a “global vision”, openly identifying with other global jihadist organisations. In March 2015, Boko Haram pledged loyalty to IS, taking the name Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Shortly after this development, internal wranglings emerged and, in August 2016, Shekau was deposed and replaced with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of the late Yusuf. At this point, IS offered guidance on strategy and tried to reconcile the rival factions.
IS also increased its support for ISWAP as more Boko Haram fighters defected to the latter, allowing ISWAP to overrun at least 14 army bases around the Chad Basin. ISWAP created an extensive shadow government close to the Lake, with firm control of the local economy, including the southern Diffa Region, territories of Niger Region, and areas around northern Borno and Yobe states in Nigeria and towards northern Cameroon.
ISWAP also exploited the digital space for mobilisation and propaganda. Previously, Boko Haram used fake SIM cards to make calls to demand funds, claim responsibility, threaten or intimidate perceived enemies. Between 2016 and 2020, ISWAP is alleged to have released more than 100 videos on YouTube, including beheadings, executions and the stoning to death of those deemed in violation of shariah. They also posted images of their fighters carrying out attacks and/or in training, often acquiring suicide skills. ISWAP has used Telegram, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook for its online propaganda. Since November 2019, ISWAP has released a selection of its old videos on Amazon, Google Play, Vimeo, Dropbox, Flickr and other platforms. For instance, between December 2019 and August 2020, ISWAP is alleged to have posted a hostage video showing the beheading of 11 Christians, aid workers and soldiers around the Lake Chad borderland.
A 34-page manual on securing communications, developed by IS and quoted in the European Foundation for South Asian Studies report, highlights ISWAP’s deployment of applications such as Twitter, Justpaste.it, Telegram, iMessage and FaceTime, as well as communication applications considered to have better end-to-end encryption, such as Signal, German Cryptophone and BlackPhone.
The influence of IS has also seen a spike in the recruitment drive of ISWAP in Nigeria. ISWAP’s recruitment drive targets young people, especially teenage boys and girls, who are affected by poverty and relative deprivation. Estimates indicate that, since February 2019, ISWAP had between 3,500 to 5,000 fighters and JAS had between 1,500 and 2,000. The Global Initiative for Civil Stabilisation (GICS), a Nigerian research organisation, recently produced a much higher figure for ISWAP’s numbers – between 18,000 to 20,000 fighters – apparently based on an unpublished examination of ISWAP’s combat groups, built from contacts in the Nigerian military and ISWAP sources.
ISWAP has taken the initiative to raise its own funds rather than continuously depend on IS. While IS’ financial support was crucial to the survival of ISWAP in 2016 and 2017, by 2018 that support had dropped sharply to just 3.41 per cent of its previous rate, and ISWAP had to look elsewhere for funding. According to the 2019 report by GICS, ISWAP has, from 2018 onwards, earned as much as US$35.2 million, collected in a combination of Naira, US Dollars and West African CFA Francs from taxes, fees charged to local traders, smugglers and transport drivers of illegal goods across borders. ISWAP’s success is linked to its increasing involvement in and control of the trade and production of dried fish, dried pepper and rice.
However, in March 2019, ISWAP suffered a major setback due to internal disputes and changes in leadership. IS replaced Abu Musab al-Barnawi with Abu Abdullah ibn Umar al-Barnawi. The removal of Abu Musab triggered an untidy flight of ISWAP’s top fighters, led by Adam Bitri, a skilful military commander. He unsuccessfully sought collaboration with ANSARU, an earlier militant group that worked closely with AQ. However, he decided to set up a base in Abadam, Borno state, Nigeria, close to the ISWAP seat of power. Adam Bitri had been a loyal commander to Abu Musab. Afraid of being demoted under a new ISWAP structure, he set up his own base. More significantly, his strategy was to assemble other senior figures and disgruntled elements who lost positions because of the removal of Abu Musab and to confront ISWAP within its own territory.
In May 2021, ISWAP fighters tracked down Shekau, the erstwhile leader of Boko Haram. To ISWAP, as long as Shekau was alive, he remained a threat to the emerging structure of ISWAP. Consequently, obtaining his loyalty or neutralising him became its two options. When he was tracked down, ISWAP demanded that he surrender and pledge allegiance to them in return for his safety and protection. Shekau, who allegedly had a suicide vest on him, opted to blow himself up rather than surrender. Despite the setback suffered by ISWAP and the internal disputes that led to the death of Shekau, a close analysis of the group’s recent activity in the past two years reveals the continued and potent threat it poses.
ISWAP the New IS Super Ally
The death of Shekau has created a closer collaboration between ISWAP and IS around the Lake Chad Basin. In June 2021, according to the Institute for Security Studies, IS made a proposal to ISWAP to set up four caliphates in Borno, northeast Nigeria, to oversee its activities in the Lake Chad Basin area and beyond. The proposed caliphates were Lake Chad, Sambisa, Timbuktu and Tumbuma, each administered by a governor (wali). These four caliphates would be centralised around the Lake Chad caliphate and administered by a Shura Council (Consultative Assembly) and Amirul Jaish (Military Leader). ISWAP’s leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who was earlier replaced and had been in Sambisa since Shekau’s death, was elevated to head the Shura Council, with all the other governors reporting to him. However, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, an appointee of IS who was to oversee the overall administration of the four caliphates headed by a military commander and two representatives at the IS Council, was killed in a US raid in February 2022. At the moment, it is not very clear if his successor, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, has also taken on the role to oversee the four caliphates.
Additionally, IS-ISWAP continues to lobby for the return of former fighters to rejoin ISWAP, particularly those who left during the death of Shekau. So far, evidence suggests that more than 80 of such fighters have returned to Nigeria from Libya since June 2022. IS, in partnership with ISWAP leadership, has also undertaken some reforms to secure the loyalty of returnee fighters. Such reforms include fair treatment, the need to expend the spoils of war at will, an increase in economic incentive, and protection and support of livelihoods for civilians in areas of control. These decisions have given some legitimacy to the returnee fighters, a better bargain than what they would have gotten from the Nigerian government. The result of these changes is evident. During the first four months of 2022, IS claimed responsibility for more operations in Nigeria than in Iraq. This means Nigeria has emerged as the epicentre for IS activities. On December 29, 2022, a car bomb explosion that killed at least three people in Okene, Kogi state, close to Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital, was claimed by ISWAP. This came barely days after another IS-claimed attack in Ebira, also in Kogi state. Since April 2022, ISWAP has also conducted a series of attacks on civilians and security forces in Kogi, Niger, Edo and Ondo states, locations far away from its stronghold in Nigeria’s northeast.
Evidence suggests that the future of IS-ISWAP in Africa is tied to three key principles – the motivation, the opportunity and the capability to change. So far, IS seems to have the capacity to inspire its members, including the strategic creativity of its leaders to initiate changes for effective transformation and to acquire the necessary skills and resources for sustainability. Consequently, IS will likely seek a greater unification of likeminded groups in Africa. Reports indicate that IS has already branded a group operating in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso as ISWAP. The formal unification of ISWAP in Lake Chad, with IS factions in the Sahel under a single banner, therefore has the potential to unify terrorist groups beyond Lake Chad to the whole of Africa. Africa may become a centre for strategic coordination due to the opportunities available. Consequently, the potential threat to the entire continent remains uncertain and incalculable.
Another possibility is the fact that, increasingly, the successes of the African IS provinces have been more a product of their own initiatives and not just the administrative requirements of IS. This means, as the provinces are likely to acquire strong central leadership with vision, innovation and initiative and probably become more independent, governments of the region will find it more challenging to tackle the menace.
Additionally, the absence of governance at the border regions and the inability of the government to provide social services to the people means IS-ISWAP will likely provide a sense of protection and will serve as an alternative government, winning the hearts and minds of locals. This will make it more difficult for governments to win the war on terror.
For over a decade, the Nigerian government has waged an anti-terror war against Boko Haram and now ISWAP. Boko Haram, whose members were initially considered a ragtag group of deranged criminals led by a madman, Shekau, whose ambitions would simply fizzle away, has not only remained but evolved into different shades, consolidating its relationship with local communities as well as the international jihadist organisation IS. With the current state of things, the group has the potential to overrun substantial parts of Africa. Thus, African governments must work collaboratively to keep their social contract with citizens. They must address structural issues to prevent more young people from joining extremist groups, particularly ISWAP. This requires increasing government presence in border areas, providing social security and alternative means of livelihood, including access to quality education and healthcare, and mitigating the impact of climate change in order to address the economic deprivation that drives people to join militant groups.
About the Author
Fr. Atta Barkindo is a Security & Terrorism Expert on Africa with specialty in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions. He is also a Researcher, Writer and Consultant with over 15 years of technical expertise on issues of political violence, electoral conflict, terrorism, violent extremism, migration, and environmental and human security. He has consulted for and held several research positions at various institutions across the world. He sits on the board of the Africa Research Institute, London. He can be reached at [email protected].
Thumbnail photo by Ray Rui Ua on Unsplash
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