1098 views | Victor Gai | February 11, 2020
A report released in 2019 by the International Crisis Group (ICR), has revealed that the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter group of the dreaded Boko Haram group, had exploited most poorly governed territories in the north east of Nigeria to take a foothold of communities. The report therefore advised state authorities on what it must do to remedy the situation and avert a situation where the insurgent group will gain confidence with the people.
According to the report titled: ‘Facing the challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province’, observed that, “The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram, is growing in power and influence in north-eastern Nigeria. It has notched military successes and made inroads among Muslim civilians by treating them better than its parent organisation and by filling the gap in governance and service delivery”.
The report was drawn from credible and reliable sources made up of locals in the crisis communities as well as the authorities.
“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 north east 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 organisation 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”, the report says.
The report further highlighted the military successes ISWAP had over the state army and even its parent group (Boko Haram), which it says was due to the new tactics it deployed.
“Perhaps most worrying for Nigeria’s and its neighbours’ security is the way in which 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 organisations 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 north-eastern Nigeria, the more difficult it may be to dislodge”, the report further says.
But despite the threat of ISWAP, there exist a serious rift that has lingered since the break-up of the two groups that even attracted the intervention of ISIS itself. Even with ISIS’ intervention, little was achieved as to the cohesion of the two groups up to this day, going by documents released by ISWAP in the past.
It says: “For their part, the ISWAP materials highlighted the ways in which 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 thus fair game for attack. ISWAP made clear that it, by contrast, had adopted a posture less hostile to Muslim civilians”.
On his own part, Shekau claimed that ISWAP leaders had duped and sabotaged his attempts to explain himself. The two rivals had at one time fought the State as a united force; “at least two attacks in January and February 2019 reportedly involved fighters from both groups”. But “given the bad blood between the two groups, however, full reunification seems unlikely”, the report added.
Meanwhile, the report also revealed the possibility of foreign collaborators and a co-relation between ISIS in the Middle East and ISWAP.
“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 organisations 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 armour) to new infantry tactics and quartermaster techniques – it is also possible that some or all of these were self-taught”, the report revealed.
Besides this, evidences abound of ISWAP’s growing threat with its successful raids on military camps, including the July 2018 raid on a battalion sized camp (approximately 700 soldiers in Jilli Yobe state).
It also overran the town of Gudumbali-the first time since 2015 that militants had seized a local government area headquarters.
The report also pointed to the fact that the authorities could face challenges in defeating the resurgent group due to the strategies it (ISWAP) has adopted in its relationship with communities on the one hand, and the negative relationship the army has built with the communities on the other hand.
“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.
“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 strength and favour of communities in its territory through the provision of a semblance of justice and governance that was otherwise lacking.
“The crisis in north-eastern 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”, the report says.
The report then advised government on what to do in order to avoid the looming danger of ISWAP taking over territories using those subtle means.
“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 publicise its court-martials for soldiers accused of abusing civilians. This step would help remind soldiers of their obligations and educate civilians about their rights”.