Since the early 2010s, the jihadist armed group Boko Haram has wielded power and influence in north-eastern 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 a particularly rapid pace between 2013 and 2015, the group seized control of much of Nigeria’s Borno state, and began operating in border areas of neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The organisation 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.
Yet, 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 in hills and mountains east of Gwoza.
Boko Haram’s retreat exacerbated longstanding personality clashes and doctrinal differences within the organisation. 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, a number of 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.
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 In 2018 an internal dispute reportedly led it to execute Nur, and in March 2019, it announced that Abu Musab had been replaced by another (albeit unrelated) al-Barnawi, Abu Abdallah.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 successor 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.
Yet 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 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.
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 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.