Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP)

(Crisis Group’s West Africa Expert, Vincent Foucher, carries out interviews during his field research in Maiduguri, Northeast Nigeria, in December 2018. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena.)

Executive Summary

The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram, is growing in power and influence. From its territorial base on the banks and islands of Lake Chad, this jihadist group is waging a guerrilla war across Northeastern Nigeria and elsewhere on the lake’s periphery. By filling gaps in governance and service delivery, it has cultivated a level of support among local civilians that Boko Haram never enjoyed and has turned neglected communities in the area and islands in Lake Chad into a source of economic support. If Nigeria and its neighboring Lake Chad states want to sever the bond between ISWAP and these communities – and they should – then they cannot stop with countering ISWAP in battle. They will need to complement military action by filling the service and governance gaps that ISWAP has exploited.

Displacing ISWAP will not be easy. Although the group’s methods are often violent and coercive, it has established a mostly symbiotic relationship with the Lake Chad area’s inhabitants. The group treats local Muslim civilians better than its parent organization did, better than its rival faction, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), does now, and in some ways better than the Nigerian state and army have done since the insurgency began in 2009. It digs wells, polices cattle rustling, provides a modicum of health care and sometimes disciplines its own personnel whom it judges to have unacceptably abused civilians. In the communities it controls, its taxation is generally accepted by civilians, who credit it for creating an environment where they can do business and compare its governance favorably to that of the Nigerian state.

ISWAP’s approach appears to have paid dividends in terms of recruitment and support. With an estimated 3,500-5,000 members, according to Crisis Group’s sources, it overshadows JAS, which has roughly 1,500 – 2,000 and appears to have gained the military upper hand over the latter. It has also caused real pain to the Nigerian military, its primary target, overrunning dozens of army bases and killing hundreds of soldiers since August 2018. As its name suggests, ISWAP is affiliated with the faded Islamic State, or ISIS, caliphate in Iraq and Syria, whose remnants count ISWAP victories as their own. ISWAP appears to be working hard to gain greater favor from its namesake organization, and it has obtained some support already, notably in the form of training, though it is not clear how significant a boost this will afford.

ISWAP’s deepening roots in the civilian population underscore that the Nigerian government (and, to a lesser extent, those of Cameroon, Chad and Niger) cannot look purely to military means to ensure its enduring defeat. Instead, they should seek to weaken ISWAP’s ties to locals by proving that they can fill service and governance gaps at least in the areas they control, even as they take care to conduct the counterinsurgency as humanely as possible and in a manner that protects civilians.

To combat impunity among the security services, they should release the report of the panel that President Muhammadu Buhari appointed in 2017 to investigate alleged military abuses and implement those recommendations that advance accountability. They should enhance public safety in towns that are under government control in Borno and neighboring states where ISWAP is building influence.

They should take care that, in seeking to cut off ISWAP’s access to local markets, they do not alienate locals by also strangling their ability to trade. And even though negotiations to end hostilities may not be a realistic prospect at this time, they should keep lines of communication open with ISWAP, focusing on practical issues such as how to get more humanitarian assistance to local communities.

These strategies certainly do not guarantee victory for state authorities over ISWAP – but they could help counteract important sources of the organization’s strength, provide a useful complement to ongoing efforts to degrade it militarily, and at the same time, channel necessary support to communities in the region which sorely need it.

I. Introduction

Since the early 2010s, the jihadist armed group Boko Haram has wielded power and influence in Northeastern Nigeria and parts of adjoining states in the Lake Chad basin. The group clawed its way back from a failed uprising in July 2009 against the Nigerian government that left more than 1,000 dead, including the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, to re-emerge as a full-fledged insurgency under the command of one of Yusuf’s lieutenants, Abubakar Shekau, a year later. Over the next five years, and at an unusually rapid pace between 2013 and 2015, the group seized control of much of Nigeria’s Borno state and began operating in border areas of neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The organization plundered villages and bombed markets and churches, as well as mosques it deemed “infidel”. In April 2014 it staged the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno state. This mass abduction, which earned it global condemnation, was only one in a long series of violent incidents of striking brutality.

Starting in 2015, Boko Haram found itself under increasing pressure from the Nigerian military and its regional allies, which fed its internal divisions, causing it to shrink in power. In March of that year, Boko Haram lost its self-proclaimed capital, Gwoza, to Nigerian troops, and over time, notable towns it had overrun in Borno state fell back into government hands, forcing the group back into safe havens on the periphery of Lake Chad, in the Sambisa Forest and hills and mountains east of Gwoza.

Boko Haram’s retreat exacerbated longstanding personality clashes and doctrinal differences within the organization. The group was still intact in March 2015 when Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and it took up the name Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). But a year later it fractured in two. Following the lead of Mamman Nur and Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a son of Mohammed Yusuf, several senior leaders split off from Shekau’s forces. Nur and al-Barnawi’s faction, retaining the name ISWAP, gained recognition from ISIS and attracted a growing number of militants.

By filling a void in civilian governance and service provision, ISWAP is strengthening its hand for the future.

ISWAP’s leadership has changed in the intervening three years. In 2018 an internal dispute reportedly led it to execute Nur, and in March 2019, it announced that Abu Musab had been replaced by another (albeit unrelated) al-Barnawi, Abu Abdallah. Shekau remains in control of a rump faction of Boko Haram that reassumed the group’s original name, Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS).

Neither of the two successors factions controls nearly the territory that Boko Haram once held. Their sway is limited to the marshland around and islands of Lake Chad, parts of the Mandara hills on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, and the inaccessible forests of Borno and Yobe states – terrain that provides cover from Nigerian and allied air power.

The two remain potent military forces. It is difficult to estimate the two factions’ precise numbers. Each is made up of a mix of ideologically motivated combatants toting AK-47s, watchmen bearing locally produced hunting rifles, and captives acting as ammunition carriers or weapon servants. But the numbers remain significant. A Western security official estimated in February 2019 that ISWAP had 3,500-5,000 fighters and JAS 1,500-2,000.

Moreover, ISWAP has been expanding its reach. In December 2018, it overran a major military base in Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad, which the Nigerian army had recaptured in February 2015. On 23 February 2019, the day of Nigeria’s general elections, ISWAP launched its first-ever attack on Borno state’s capital, Maiduguri, firing rockets at military targets.

Perhaps, most worrying for Nigeria’s and its neighbors’ security is how ISWAP has adapted its military tactics and policies toward civilians. This adaptation has allowed it to foster ties with local communities that its parent and parallel organizations never enjoyed. By curbing some of Boko Haram’s most wanton practices, and by filling a void in civilian governance and service provision, ISWAP is strengthening its hand for the future. The deeper it sinks its roots into the neglected communities of Northeastern Nigeria, the more difficult it may be to dislodge.

Forbidding formal education shuts the door to knowledge and development

Kidnap of teenage schoolgirls from their dormitories in Chibok is a drastic means to curb exposure of the youths in Muslim Northern Nigeria to formal education & Western worldview.

This report explores how and why ISWAP emerged from Boko Haram, how it has gained ground both territorially and politically against Shekau’s JAS faction, and how it uses guerrilla tactics to challenge regional armies, particularly Nigeria’s. It focuses in particular on ISWAP’s efforts to forge links to the rural population, and how these ties have become a source of its strength. The report considers what Nigerian and other government authorities are doing to provide their own governance and services and to encourage its own forces to conduct counter-insurgency operations humanely and in a manner that protects civilians. It also makes suggestions for how they might raise their game in order to deny ISWAP the competitive advantage that it seeks.

This report is based primarily on interviews carried out in December 2017 and March, October and December 2018 in Abuja and Maiduguri, supplemented by additional research conducted through May 2019. It reflects contributions from Crisis Group analysts working in all four Lake Chad countries. While it was impossible to get direct access to active jihadists, the report draws on interviews with civilians from the Northeast of Nigeria who are familiar with ISWAP because of the relations it has built with the local population and the fact that it allows people to move between areas it controls and Maiduguri. Several former Boko Haram members aware of its internal politics were also interviewed, in addition to vigilantes, diplomats, religious scholars, local and federal state officials, non-governmental organization workers, human rights activists, and international and Nigerian security experts, as well as journalists. Lastly, the report draws on the lively debates among academics who study Boko Haram.

II. Anatomy of a Breakup

The fracturing of Boko Haram is a story of clashing personalities, military one-upmanship and political maneuvering. A key figure in the split was the late Mamman Nur, who first gained stature in the organization as a top lieutenant of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and a rival of Yusuf’s successor, Shekau. A charismatic figure with some higher education – a rare trait in Boko Haram’s leadership – Nur married one of Yusuf’s widows. He dropped out of sight for several years following Yusuf’s death in 2009. According to some reports, while Shekau was establishing himself as Boko Haram’s new leader, Nur spent some time abroad, possibly in Somalia and Sudan, forging ties to other jihadist groups, including ISIS. Nigerian authorities labeled Nur the mastermind of the August 2011 bombing of the UN building in Abuja, although some local sources question this claim. At some point in 2014 or 2015, he joined Shekau in his stronghold in the Sambisa forest in Borno State.

It was not long before Nur and Shekau clashed. As links developed between Boko Haram and ISIS, Nur and other internal critics of Shekau’s autocratic, brutal and mercurial leadership began pushing for formal affiliation with ISIS, which was then on a winning streak. They were probably acting on a mix of enthusiasm for the newly declared caliphate and hope that they could use that affiliation to curb Shekau’s power. Shekau was reluctant, but he eventually bowed to internal pressure, pledging allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in March 2015.

Both ISIS and the new ISWAP faction heavily promoted the raid’s success on social media in an apparent attempt to establish the new faction’s credibility.

But disputes over the group’s future were not over. In late 2015, Nur reportedly left the Sambisa enclave to establish his own camp. The following June, the Boko Haram council (shura) held a reconciliation meeting in the Sambisa forest, but the effort failed. Nur challenged Shekau’s leadership, as did Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who enjoyed some notoriety because he was one of Mohammed Yusuf’s surviving sons. ISIS media were already promoting al-Barnawi to replace the more rough-edged Shekau as Boko Haram’s leading public figure. Nur and al-Barnawi sent a letter to ISIS, asking for arbitration of the leadership dispute. Before an answer arrived, Shekau’s critics fled, fearing for their lives. The response eventually came to Nur, deciding in his and al-Barnawi’s favor.

After Nur and al-Barnawi escaped the Sambisa enclave, they consolidated their own faction in Yobe state and on the banks and islands of Lake Chad in Northern Borno state. They began planning their operations. Their first major independent military operation was a 3 June 2016 attack on a Nigerien base in Bosso, a town on Lake Chad close to the Nigerian border. It illustrated what would become ISWAP’s modus operandi: a raid targeting the military, capturing weapons and supplies, without civilian casualties.

Both ISIS and the new ISWAP faction heavily promoted the raid’s success on social media in an apparent attempt to establish the new faction’s credibility. Shortly after that, in early August 2016, the ISIS weekly al-Naba’ published an interview with al-Barnawi, mentioning that ISIS had just designated him as ISWAP’s new wali (governor). (By some accounts, Nur had voluntarily stepped aside to ease al-Barnawi’s ascent.) Shekau soon released audio and video recordings insisting that ISIS had been tricked and that he remained the leader of the jihad in the region. But the split was complete, and with a military win to its credit and the valid endorsement by ISIS under its belt, the new faction emerged with a firm hand.

Although the militants who formed the new faction were united in disapproval of Shekau, there is a reason to believe that they did not all see eye to eye about everything. Some wanted to carry on fighting but felt that Shekau was a hindrance; others felt caught between the rock of Nigeria’s stronger military response and the hard place of Shekau’s ruthless command and were looking to settle with the authorities. Nur himself was in the latter camp, according to a religious scholar in direct contact with him and to someone involved in facilitating discussions between ISWAP and the state. This fundamental difference, muted at the time of ISWAP’s emergence, may later have contributed to Nur’s killing (discussed in section VI below).

III. A Struggle for the Mantle of Jihad

Immediately after the break-up, Shekau sent his troops after the dissenters, and the two factions clashed several times through the end of 2016. According to a former ISWAP member, dozens of ISWAP fighters were killed in one such battle in July 2016, near Chukungudu, Nigeria, on the shores of Lake Chad. ISWAP survived, defeating some JAS subgroups and absorbing others.

Since then, fighting has reduced in intensity, and the two groups reportedly reached a ceasefire agreement, which included a deal for JAS to free the families of ISWAP commanders that it had been holding since ISWAP broke away. It is possible that ISIS itself, which has never disowned Shekau’s pledge of loyalty, pushed for the ceasefire.

Occasional clashes still occur, particularly when Shekau’s raiders seek to rob and kidnap civilians in ISWAP-controlled areas on the Nigerien and Nigerian shores of Lake Chad, as well as in the Konduga local government area in Nigeria, and ISWAP units try to fend them off. Some fighters still loyal to Shekau have formed a group on the Nigerien side of Lake Chad and have been particularly persistent raiders.

While the fighting subsided relatively soon after the split, a war of words between the two groups raged until at least mid-2018. Alongside audio recordings in Hausa and Kanuri, the main local languages, the two factions put out elaborate texts in Arabic, painstakingly drawing on Islamic theology and jurisprudence to justify their respective stands and call into question – sometimes explicitly, sometimes not – those of the rival faction. The Arabic publications appear targeted at an international jihadist audience.

 ISWAP made clear that it, by contrast, had adopted a posture less hostile to Muslim civilians.

For their part, the ISWAP materials highlighted how the new faction sought to distinguish itself from Shekau’s. They portrayed Shekau as acting brutally, in violation of Islamic doctrine, and using methods that alienated the Lake Chad basin’s inhabitants and thus undermined support for Islamist militancy in the region. They were especially critical of Shekau for treating Muslims living outside Boko Haram territory as infidels and therefore fair game for attack. ISWAP made clear that it, by contrast, had adopted a posture less hostile to Muslim civilians.

ISWAP also leveled criticisms that appeared to target Shekau’s leadership style. It accused him of behaving in a dictatorial manner, refusing to take advice or criticism, and misappropriating the organization’s spoils, including money and captive women. It was particularly critical of what it characterized as the unjustified, secretive killings of several fellow senior militants whom Shekau saw as challenging his authority. ISWAP likewise questioned Shekau’s fitness for military command, saying he could not “protect the dependents and offspring of [his] soldiers” or supply his soldiers with “sufficient ammunition”.

As for the materials that JAS put out, these contained a mix of defensive parrying and religious claims of its own. Shekau repeatedly claimed that ISWAP leaders had duped ISIS and sabotaged his own attempts to explain himself. JAS also questioned its rival’s religious bona fides. In an August 2016 message addressed to all “mujahidin” and “particularly” to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, JAS insisted that al-Barnawi did not “follow a sound doctrine from authentic Salafism”.

ISWAP felt threatened enough by Shekau’s jabs to put out a 120-page treatise, its longest written communication ever and its first explicit indictment of Shekau, in June 2018. The document called Shekau a “tumor” to be removed. No public answer came from ISIS, and the verbal sparring has since died down, at least publicly.

Both groups, however, appear to see a continuing advantage in being associated with ISIS. Shekau has never renounced his pledge to al-Baghdadi. In his public articulation of JAS’s program and creed, Shekau referred to the group as “JAS in West Africa in the Islamic State”. Since early 2017, JAS has used a combination of ISIS and JAS logos on its messages. More recently, JAS stepped up its outreach to the international jihadist audience with the release of several high-quality videos purporting to show its military prowess, done in ISIS style.

ISIS has shared videos that showcase ISWAP footage and include ISIS stylistic touches, indicating growing cooperation and easier communications between the two groups. 

While Shekau could be mimicking ISIS without its approval, some security analysts interviewed by Crisis Group think Shekau is still courting ISIS, and that the latter is keen on reunification between the factions. Some also think ISIS has played a part in bringing about an unsteady ceasefire between JAS and ISWAP and even pushed the two to collaborate. At least two attacks in January and February 2019 reportedly involved fighters from both groups. Given the bad blood between the two groups, however, full reunification seems unlikely.

As for the link between ISIS and ISWAP, ISIS’s fast-growing promotion of ISWAP’s military successes – likely seen as welcome counterpoints to the collapse of its holdings in Iraq, Syria and Libya – suggests that the organizations are drawing closer. Through its communications channels, ISIS has shared videos that showcase ISWAP footage and include ISIS stylistic touches, indicating growing cooperation and easier communications between the two groups. Some Western sources claim that money flows from the Middle East to ISWAP (which stopped at some point in 2017 as ISIS came under severe pressure) have resumed though they remain limited. An unspecified number of Nigerian and West African militants who fought abroad for ISIS have reportedly joined ISWAP and several civilians claim to have seen trainers of Arab origin in ISWAP areas. A civilian source familiar with the region reported witnessing the departure of a convoy of ISWAP men from Baga in February 2019 to fight or train with ISIS in Libya. While it is possible that foreign fighters have contributed to the operational evolution that military experts have observed in ISWAP – from the use of improvised explosive devices (including vehicle-borne devices with custom-made armor) to new infantry tactics and quartermaster techniques – it is also possible that some or all of these were self-taught.

IV. ISWAP Asserts Itself: Tactics, Territory and the Regional Response

  1. New Tactics Bring Success

ISWAP’s military successes can be traced, in part, to some early good fortune but also, more enduringly, to its novel flexible strategy and improved tactics.

After it struck out on its own, ISWAP enjoyed some breathing room from the Nigerian military. The Nigerian military was focused on Shekau because of his global profile as the Chibok girls’ kidnapper, the organizer of child suicide bombings in Maiduguri and a provocative propagandist. ISWAP’s early activities got less attention. Some observers even suspected that the Nigerian authorities had cut a deal with ISWAP, though the existence of such a pact seems unlikely given that ISWAP began attacking military targets soon after its formation.

But at the same time that Shekau was drawing attention away from ISWAP, ISWAP was demonstrating that it had also learned from Shekau’s mistakes. Together with JAS, it learned from Shekau’s 2015 failure to defend his capital, Gwoza, and his broader retreat from territory Boko Haram once held that jihadists could not, at present, win a conventional war and hold towns against state armies with air support. Both ISWAP and Shekau’s JAS faction understood that they had to fall back to rural strongholds offering some protection from air power – for ISWAP, the forests of Yobe and Borno states, and the marshes and island of Lake Chad – and resort to guerrilla tactics.

ISWAP’s tactics seem to have contributed to a notable drop in civilian casualties in Northeastern Nigeria since 2016, and a rise in military casualties in 2018.

Important differences also emerged between the two groups, notably in terms of targeting. Whereas JAS continued to stage raids to capture civilians and plunder their resources, terrorize crowded markets and mosques with suicide bombings, and conduct mass killings and abductions at roadblocks, ISWAP focused primarily on military targets as well as, to a lesser extent, civilian targets associated in one way or another with the state – e.g., local officials, chiefs, vigilantes and suspected informers. While ISWAP, like JAS, would sometimes direct suicide bombers at military targets, unlike JAS, it did not send women or children on these suicide missions, and it does not attack civilian targets. And while there are outliers, by and large, ISWAP units seemed to make efforts to spare civilians, and they highlighted these efforts in direct contacts with the local population, as they did when they took the town of Baga in December 2018. ISWAP’s tactics seem to have contributed to a notable drop in civilian casualties in Northeastern Nigeria since 2016, and a rise in military casualties in 2018, particularly after ISWAP launched a major offensive in August that year.

ISWAP’s focus on military targets has produced certain practical benefits. After it split from Shekau, ISWAP likely suffered from weapons shortages, and frequent raids on military sites allowed it to replenish its supply. Following its repeated failed attacks on Kanagawa, a large Nigerian army base in the Lake Chad region, between August 2016 and January 2017, ISWAP adjusted tactics, selecting smaller military targets. This adjustment appears to have won it both arms stockpiles and combat experience. Since June 2018, it used these advantages to attack larger military targets again, meeting with more success.

The faction’s July 2018 raid on a battalion-sized camp (approximately 700 soldiers) in Jilli, Yobe state is a good indicator of ISWAP’s growing capabilities. The choice of target suggested that ISWAP possessed reliable intelligence about the camp’s vulnerability (the battalion was far from the center of fighting and comprised fresh, inexperienced recruits with new equipment); effective internal coordination (the raiding party reportedly included a few hundred fighters coming from distant locations); and operational sophistication (ISWAP used captured vehicles bearing the latest Nigerian army markings and camouflage).

Since then, ISWAP has waged many more such attacks on significant military sites, many of them successful. On the 7th of September 2018, it overran the town of Gudumbali – the first time since 2015 that militants had seized a local government area headquarters. Consistent with its guerrilla tactics, rather than trying to hold territory, ISWAP looted the camp and left. On 26 December 2018, it overran the twin towns of Baga and Doro Gowon, taking over the major army and navy bases there. This time, ISWAP was confident enough in its defensive capabilities to maintain a presence there. The Nigerian army was overmatched and had little choice but to regroup. In December 2018, it eventually evacuated all its outposts on the lake, including Kanagawa, which it had defended fiercely in 2016-2017.

B. A Two-Zone Territorial Presence

The territory that ISWAP has staked out appears to be divided into two different zones. The group’s power is greatest in its core territory on the banks and islands of Lake Chad, where the vegetation provides some protection from aerial attack, it has permanent bases and directly governs civilian settlements. Beyond these areas is a wider zone where ISWAP projects its influence via patrols, emissaries and sympathizers who crisscross significant parts of the Northern Borno countryside. One telling sign of its power projection is that civilians living far from ISWAP camps occasionally feel compelled to bring back fleeing captives. Another indicator is that residents of communities in the outer zone have been known to pay taxes to ISWAP, even when they are living close to a local government area headquarters controlled by the army.

For now, ISWAP’s focus is clearly on consolidating and extending its networks.

So far, however, ISWAP has not strayed beyond Boko Haram’s traditional territory. Within that territory, areas of militant control are fluid but – according to aid organizations that have sought to delineate zones where the two factions hold sway – the border between ISWAP and JAS zones seems to run through the Mafa, Dikwa and Kala Balge local government areas. It is now generally agreed that ISWAP’s reach extends well beyond the lake area, into Northern Borno state, in the Alagarno forest and along the Komadugu Yobe river, and into eastern Yobe in the Farooq forest. ISWAP is present around Maiduguri, notably in the Konduga local government area. Some observers think that ISWAP operates in the North of another Northeastern state, that of Adamawa, more than a hundred kilometers south of Maiduguri. ISWAP has also carried out some attacks against Cameroonian security forces in the district of Logone-et-Chari in Cameroon.

While ISWAP’s long-term ambitions are uncertain, for now, its focus is clearly on consolidating and extending its networks rather than trying to establish undisputed territorial control over larger areas. Several sources report ISWAP is striving to deploy networks in Nigeria beyond the Northeast in classic Boko Haram fashion, notably in Taraba, Kogi and Plateau states, using loans to create networks of supporters who can help for logistics. Also, ISWAP has links to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS), an ISIS franchise operating at the joint border of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. The publication in March 2019 by the ISIS media arm of a picture of ISGS fighters under an ISWAP caption seems to confirm a connection and may even suggest that ISGS is, at least in some formal way, subordinate to ISWAP. A Nigerien security source mentions the presence of a few Nigerian fighters in the ranks of ISGS (though it is not sure they are from ISWAP) and some religious scholars originating from ISGS area of operation reportedly sit on ISWAP’s shura. Although some Western diplomats and security analysts fear ISWAP is turning its sights toward terror operations elsewhere in Nigeria or West Africa, or mounting attacks on Western interests, there is little evidence of this so far.

The Nigerian and Regional Military Response

Nigeria’s military has struggled to counter ISWAP and is now looking to enhanced regional cooperation to advance its efforts.

For the Nigerian army, the challenge has been multifaceted. On the one hand, it is facing a formidable adversary: ISWAP is more battle-ready, better trained and more rooted in the population than its parent organization was. On the other hand, the army struggles to be effective. Experts describe how its troops are incompetently led, poorly equipped and insufficiently supplied. Army bases are poorly fortified. Troop rotation is rare, medical evacuation capacity is feeble, coordination with air support (which has occasionally been essential to repelling attacks on ground troops) is weak, and senior leadership has been slow to grapple seriously with its problems.

ISWAP prefers military targets

ISWAP, in contrast with its parent body, Boko Haram, preferentially targets the Nigerian military while attacks on civilian targets and local inhabitants are usually spared. Military casualties have increased in the Northeast since the emergence of ISWAP.

ISWAP’s successful attacks throughout 2018 hit the army increasingly hard, contributing to low morale. Soldiers have staged a few protests, and there are many reports of desertions. The Nigerian military typically downplays its losses, repeatedly claiming (as they did about Boko Haram before its 2016 split) that ISWAP’s attacks are “the last kicks of a dying horse”. But the army’s repeated threats to punish fleeing troops and frequent rotation of commanders indicate significant internal difficulties.

For Nigeria to counter ISWAP militarily, it will likely need to invest more heavily in cooperative efforts under the auspices of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) – a regional command that is supposed to coordinate the troops of the four Lake Chad basin countries operating in the area (i.e., Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad). The MNJTF has taken time to rise to the challenge that ISWAP presents. Its Operation Amni Fakhat (April-July 2018) aimed to reoccupy key positions and begin some service delivery to populations in the lake area but achieved little; ISWAP launched a massive offensive right after the operation stopped.

A new MNJTF operation, Yancin Takfi, began in March 2019. This time, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari canvassed neighboring states for support in person, and troops from Chad, which had played a crucial part in the 2015 pushback against Boko Haram, entered deep into Borno state to participate. After an unconvincing start (including a three-month delay), there are indications that the Chadian and Nigerian troops, backed by massive air support, are making some headway, reaching some important sites in ISWAP core territory. It remains to be seen whether they can hold their positions on the lake as the rainy season approaches (it begins in July), creating operational challenges for the MNJTF, which is a more massive, less agile force than ISWAP.

V. Building a Jihadist Proto-State

While ISWAP owes its relative strength, in part, to its break from Shekau’s most brutal tactics, it also has benefited by cultivating the economic power and favor of communities in its territory through the provision of a semblance of justice and governance that was otherwise lacking.

One way in which ISWAP has governed in its core areas has been through its own brand of “Islamic justice”. It has created a sense of security among locals that distinguishes ISWAP from its parent and parallel organizations – and from the Nigerian state, which was never very responsive in the Lake Chad basin. Notwithstanding the draconian nature of its punishments (described below), many civilians are grateful that they seem to have brought about a drop in crime. They note for instance that banditry, and particularly cattle rustling, a significant problem on the lake, has disappeared from ISWAP areas. ISWAP also helps resolve disputes between herders and others: its local chiefs (amirs) allocate grazing lands, adjudicate allegations of trespassing and impound errant cattle, which herders can retrieve for a fee.

Herdsmen and traders who operate in the Lake Chad area also mention that ISWAP closely monitors its combatants’ behavior toward civilians. One Nigerian NGO worker noted that ISWAP ordered its fighters not to bear arms when visiting places deemed safe. Reflecting a local perception that ISWAP (in contrast to JAS) tolerates unaffiliated Muslim civilians, one Fulani herdsman said, Dawla [the Arabic word for “state”, which is a reference to ISWAP] is trying to be friendly to people. They don’t kill. … They insist that jihad is not against people who say ‘la illah illa Allah’ [the first words of the shahada, the Islamic creed]. Only against people in uniforms”. An ISWAP amir reportedly ordered the execution of a fighter who had murdered a civilian in the Nigerian part of the Lake Chad basin. And in the Komadugu-Yobe area, ISWAP allegedly purged fighters who were kidnapping civilians for ransom; the expelled fighters formed a small splinter group.

To be sure, aspects of ISWAP’s approach to law and order are extraordinarily harsh and violent. It metes out the full range of punishments it believes the Quran to mandate, including cutting off the hands of alleged thieves and killing adulterers, though some units are reportedly more lenient than others. It meets perceived threats to its economic base (fishing without authorization, failure to pay necessary taxes) and security (using mobile phones in areas where they are forbidden, which is interpreted as spying) with brutal beatings, sometimes even executions. And it also polices public morality and worship, prohibiting smoking and drug use, and compelling both attendance at and the manner of prayer. But overall, its system of justice is less draconian than Shekau’s or the unified Boko Haram’s before 2016.

Another step ISWAP has taken relates to social services, which the settlements where ISWAP exerts influence tended to lack. ISWAP seeks to provide Islamic education (Western-style education is banned) and primary health care. ISWAP has at its command some medical specialists, both militants and captives, who serve not just fighters and their families, but also local civilians, sometimes for a fee, sometimes for free. The group procures medicine in raids on health centers or purchases it in Cameroon and Nigeria’s Yobe state. ISWAP can organize the transfer of seriously ill patients to hospitals in neighboring countries. The improvement in access to health care has been particularly felt around Lake Chad, where previously it was minimal. More recently, for both public health and religious reasons, ISWAP engaged in a program of latrine construction in some of the localities it controls. It also allowed humanitarian workers to proceed with polio vaccinations in its area of influence, though these campaigns have long been controversial in Northern Nigeria.

ISWAP’s approach toward local civilians has helped create an environment from which it can draw economic sustenance. ISWAP levies taxes, and though it does not seem to have a unified tax policy, most civilians with direct experience interviewed by Crisis Group seem to consider ISWAP’s taxation acceptable as a reasonable fee for services rendered, notably the provision of public safety. They see ISWAP’s system as more predictable and less exploitative than the various levies that competing government officials, civilian and military, exact. One herdsman described ISWAP’s tax collectors as scrupulous in their calculations and unlikely to abuse contributors. A Fulani community leader lamented, however, that the tax had gone up in 2018.

By forging ties with civilians, ISWAP maintains its capacity to buy food, fuel and medicine as well as sell its products, which includes charcoal, cattle, hides and fish. It encourages traders to do business in areas it controls, asking them to bring goods in high demand and to sell products in ISWAP-controlled markets to its members and local civilians. To encourage traders to supply its markets, it does not cap the prices they can command for the goods they bring into ISWAP’s territory. At roadblocks, ISWAP militants sometimes seize the products they need, but they often pay compensation, sometimes at high prices – an excellent way to keep the supply coming. The group seems particularly keen to buy fuel, which it needs for mobility.

Reinstating an old Boko Haram policy, ISWAP reportedly extends micro-loans to local youth and farmers. 

Reviving agricultural trade is also part of ISWAP’s policy to attract displaced persons back to its areas, as reflected in its propaganda videos that show well-stocked markets, fat cattle and bountiful crops. These videos circulate in displaced person camps, as a means of convincing the uprooted to resettle under ISWAP’s protection. Women living under ISWAP are advising their relatives living in camps in Maiduguri to come to the Lake Chad area, insisting that they will find decent wages there as agricultural laborers, as well as marital opportunities. Reinstating an old Boko Haram policy, ISWAP reportedly extends micro-loans to local youth and farmers. In the Lake Chad area, it sets caps on the retail price of local agricultural products, so as to ease access to essential food items for all. As a result, food prices are reportedly low, with a sack of maize selling for 3,500 naira ($9) on the lake, compared to 11,000 naira ($28) in Maiduguri. ISWAP reportedly digs wells and distributes seeds and fertilizers to farmers; farmers who use motor pumps can procure fuel. According to various reports, agricultural production in ISWAP-controlled areas has risen substantially over the last year.

VI. ISWAP After Nur

Internal differences that likely characterized ISWAP from its beginnings have gained in importance. They created the backdrop for its 2018 execution of founder Mamman Nur and the ensuing leadership shuffle, which has not yet fully come to rest.

While the reasons for Nur’s execution by members of ISWAP in August 2018 are still not well understood, they appear to be, at least, partly an outgrowth of a rift between a militant sub-faction that views ISWAP’s future as bound up in continuing conflict with the Lake Chad states, and others within the organization who favor looking for an exit from the conflict. Nur was in the latter camp and, to this end, had played a key role in Swiss-mediated talks that some members of ISWAP quietly conducted with the Nigerian government.

It appears that a hostage-taking incident at the beginning of 2018 might have accentuated this rift. On 19 February 2018, ISWAP fighters swept into the town of Dapchi in Yobe state and abducted 112 schoolgirls and one boy. On 21 March, following talks with the Nigerian government, the fighters released 107 of their hostages, leaving only one in captivity (five of the original 113 died during capture). Though there were undocumented reports to the contrary, both the government and ISWAP denied that ISWAP had received a ransom. As Crisis Group has previously reported, ISWAP claimed that it was making a goodwill gesture, and the government suggested that the group was concerned about jeopardizing the talks that had been underway, which it said included the possibility of a ceasefire.

Dapchi girls released for ransom

Cleanly dressed “abducted” school girls shortly after being dropped off by ISWAP terrorist insurgents at Dapchi. Girls had bags of luggage for carrying their personal belongings.

Whether because hardliners wanted to make clear their opposition to these talks, or because they blamed Nur for another aspect of how the Dapchi incident was handled, or for another reason altogether, ISWAP’s leadership caused him to be detained and executed after the March 21 release.

Since Nur’s death, ISWAP has seen further changes in its top ranks, which are now more dominated by hardline militants. Two ISWAP commanders who had been rivals of Nur and are reputed for their fierceness, Abubakar Mainok and Mustapha Kirmima, soon emerged as new leading figures in the organization. And although Abu-Musab al-Barnawi remained wali for the remainder of 2018, in March 2019, an audio recording disseminated by ISWAP announced that ISIS had ordered him replaced by the similarly named but unrelated Abu Abdullah ibn Umar al-Barnawi.

Theories about the reason for this possible change in leadership (which ISIS has not confirmed at the time of this writing) include speculation that Abu Musab was deemed too junior to lead the organization as it grappled with the aftermath of Nur’s execution, or that his close connection to Nur was a problem, or that there was suspicion of his efforts to engage jihadi contacts in Mali, presumably affiliated to al-Qaeda. One Nigerian security analyst suspects that the leadership struggle is not over, but two sources report that Abu Musab has moved on by leaving ISWAP to establish his own group. Even among those who have stayed under Abu Abdullah and ISWAP, there are reports of tensions. An Islamic scholar familiar with the group thus mentions that Nur’s former supporters “are with the new ameer [chief in Arabic], but they are not with him truly”.

Moreover, in addition to grappling with the preceding dynamics, ISWAP faces ethnically driven internal tensions as well. Although its leadership has been mostly ethnic Kanuri, ISWAP has recruited significantly among lacustrine communities, notably the ethnic Buduma, many of whom earn a living from fishing. Visitors to the Lake Chad area mention that militants of Buduma origin are pushing for more influence in the movement. Some Buduma may be keen on using their weight in ISWAP to gain ground vis-à-vis competitors for the lake’s resources, such as Kanuri traders and Fulani herdsmen. (Soon after the fall of Baga in late 2018, a major fish market, Buduma fighters established exclusive control over the town.)

It is still too early to get a full sense of how the changes in ISWAP’s upper ranks, or the other tensions with which it is grappling, will affect the way it conducts itself. ISWAP’s new militant core is in all likelihood less well disposed towards talks than Nur. One indicator of its attitude may be its murder last fall of two nurses working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has long played a role in supporting negotiations.

But notwithstanding these developments, ISWAP appears to be maintaining its fundamental business model. Residents of the Lake Chad basin report that – aside from increased pressure to pay taxes – little has changed in ISWAP’s behavior toward Muslim civilians. Whether Abu Abdullah ibn Umar al-Barnawi, if he is indeed the new wali, is committed to continuing this model remains to be seen.

VII. Taking on ISWAP’s Challenge: Complementing the Military Approach

The crisis in Northeastern Nigeria is about more than the military balance of power, as underscored by the support ISWAP has won by creating a proto-state providing a measure of governance and services. If the Lake Chad states hope to dislodge the group and prevent its expansion, they, therefore, will have to do more than challenge ISWAP in battle. To make inroads, authorities will need to demonstrate that they can fill gaps in governance and service provision in areas of weaker ISWAP influence.

One place to start is in better policing and the abuses committed by state security personnel. ISWAP gets credit from the local population for its efforts to regulate its own fighters’ behavior – an area where regional governments do not have strong reputations. The Lake Chad states, and particularly Nigeria, cannot afford to sit idly by as ISWAP’s reputation in this domain grows and theirs diminish. New scandals keep emerging about security force misconduct in the four Lake Chad countries. In 2018, female internally displaced people (IDPs) accused security personnel of demanding sex for food in certain camps in Nigeria, while a video surfaced showing soldiers executing two female Boko Haram suspects and their children in the small town of Zelevet, Cameroon.

To better compete with ISWAP, the Lake Chad states should also tackle persistent problems in food, water and health-care delivery, particularly in the IDP camps of Nigeria’s Northeast.

Nigeria and the MNJTF member states will need to step up efforts to hold accountable troops who commit such abuses – and do so visibly. So far, the initiative has been lagging; it took intense media pressure (including a searching investigation by the BBC) for Cameroon to arrest the soldiers suspected in the Zelevet killings. Nigeria has taken some steps to redress impunity among security forces but, to date, these have been inadequate. Although in 2017, President Buhari appointed a panel to investigate the military’s alleged human rights abuses, its report submitted in December 2017 has yet to be made public. The president should release it and swiftly act on any recommendations that serve the purpose of accountability. Likewise, the Nigerian military should, as a matter of course, publicize its court-martials for soldiers accused of abusing civilians. This step would help remind soldiers of their obligations and educate civilians about their rights.

A second area where the Nigerian government, in particular, should step up its efforts is in the provision of public safety. It faces a steep hurdle; federal authorities lack access to and therefore, cannot presently provide law and order in the portion of rural Borno state under ISWAP influence. But they can start to focus on towns under their control, and where they should be seeking to gird the population against being won over by ISWAP. The introduction of both civilian authorities to help administer these towns and a substantial police presence to help keep them safe is a necessity. As the Buhari administration commences its second and final term, it should take to heart that better protecting the public in Northeastern Nigeria is key to containing and weakening ISWAP.

Thirdly, to better compete with ISWAP, the Lake Chad states should also tackle persistent problems in food, water and health-care delivery, particularly in the IDP camps of Nigeria’s Northeast. Two years ago, after a visit to the Bama camp, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) sounded the alarm about miserable living conditions there leading to a steep increase in humanitarian assistance to the region. But even that increase was insufficient. In late 2018, MSF was still calling on the Nigerian authorities to improve nutrition and health care in that same camp. The fewer services the IDP camps receive from state authorities, the more prone they are to become fertile ground for ISWAP recruitment.

Millions languish in IDPs

Some authorities believe that millions of Nigerians have been forced to flee their habitual places of abode to seek refuge in makeshift camps created for the so-called Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The preponderance of IDPs are situated in the Northeast & Middle Belt regions.

Fourthly, regional authorities should be careful that in their efforts to hobble ISWAP economically, they do not exacerbate the hardships of local communities and create ill will among residents. For example, authorities have struggled to find an excellent way to stop ISWAP from drawing resources from the markets that ring Lake Chad, which it does by sending its own produce there for sale, taxing goods, and procuring food supplies and manufactured products. The Lake Chad states responded by banning or limiting the trading of certain items (notably fuel, smoked fish and red pepper) and closing specific markets and trade routes that the militants frequent or tax. These instruments are overly blunt, as cutting off trade inflicts economic pain that can drive locals to support militants. It also puts the military in a bad light, as the local population suspects them of using the bans to monopolies’ the trade to their own profit. Niger and Chad have both alleviated the trade restrictions. Nigeria should follow.

One line of effort that may not seem promising for the time being – particularly given the events surrounding Nur’s death, the increasing influence of hardliners within the faction, and the likely internal sense of momentum created by ISWAP’s recent military successes – is the pursuit of substantial negotiations that might lead to an end to fighting. But Nigerian authorities and international partners should keep channels of communication with ISWAP open, at least to test whether there might be ways to improve humanitarian access for NGOs and, where appropriate, organize prisoner exchanges. Though ISWAP is ambivalent about these channels at present, and authorities may face criticism for even limited engagement, they could be helpful in the short term and create openings for more substantial discussions in the longer run.

VIII. Conclusion

ISWAP poses a particular challenge to the Lake Chad states because it represents more than aggressive fighters, rumbling pickups with mounted guns or proclamations of the caliphate’s rebirth. It is filling a gap left by decades of poor governance and neglect in the region. It has cultivated stronger ties with local residents than Boko Haram ever could by helping recover lost cattle, settling disputes over grazing and fishing rights, fending off rustlers, providing care to expectant mothers in rural areas, and imposing swift if terrible justice upon criminals, sometimes including when they are ISWAP members.

ISWAP is often cruel and arbitrary, even with civilians whose support it ostensibly seeks to gain. But for now, in the eyes of many locals, what it has to offer is often better than what came before. The frontier governance and rudimentary services it provides have allowed it to build networks, spread its influence, muster resources and bleed the region’s armies – all while keeping the core territory it must hold modest and working successfully to attract ISIS support.

ISWAP may not achieve its goal of maintaining jihad in the Lake Chad area, much less expand it further afield. Challenges and contradictions hamper its project: Shekau is still around; Nur’s death has shaken some of its members; political and ethnic tensions could rip the group apart; and the limited support ISIS can offer may make little difference. The Lake Chad states are finally mounting a stronger counter-insurgency campaign. But for now, in both Northeastern Nigeria and neighboring countries, ISWAP continues to sink roots in various communities and to become a part of residents’ lives. This, too, is an essential part of the battle.

Dakar/Brussels, 16 May 2019