Part 4: 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 a number of 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 fealty, 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.

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.

ISWAP also levelled 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 organisation’s spoils, including money and captive women. It was particularly critical of what it characterised 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 claimed repeatedly 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 “tumour” 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 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.

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 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.

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