Boko Haram factional violence worries Islamic State

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In October 2023, Boko Haram’s JAS faction (Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad) launched major offensives against the group’s other faction – Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). This forced ISWAP fighters to evacuate many of their island territories in the Lake Chad area, according to ongoing Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research.

JAS should have been on the back foot following several defeats in the past three years, a loss of territory, and the death of its leader Abubakar Shekau, which caused a mass exodus of its fighters. Instead, the group sacked ISWAP from some of its long-held territories. Those familiar with the clashes say JAS now occupies as much as 40% of the islands previously controlled by ISWAP. But ISWAP maintains control over the mainland in these areas.

JAS’ gains are linked to a crucial alliance with an influential former ISWAP commander, Mikhail Usman, AKA Kaila. Kaila, from the Buduma ethnic group, defected to JAS in early 2023 with some commanders and fighters. Among their grievances was the perceived marginalisation of the Buduma from ISWAP leadership positions.

As a predominant tribe in the Lake Chad islands, the Buduma are dissatisfied with being ‘lorded over by strangers’ – a reference to the Kanuri-dominated ISWAP leadership. They also object to ISWAP raising taxes on civilians living under its control. Riding on this dissatisfaction and his ambition for power, Kaila crossed over to JAS.

He masterminded the October attack and sold the idea to JAS. As a former senior commander, he knew ISWAP’s Achilles’ heel – without its Buduma fighters for whom the lake water is home, the group would struggle at water-based battles.

After Boko Haram split into two factions in 2016, Islamic State recognised ISWAP as an affiliate under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Barnawi. Since then, JAS has had some success against ISWAP. In August 2021, an ISWAP attack on a JAS base on the Barwa islands in Niger failed after 12 of the former group’s 20 vehicles were destroyed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

JAS retaliated five days later, wounding al-Barnawi in the ensuing battle. Around 25 November 2021, JAS attacked another ISWAP location at Shuwaram, killing about 180 fighters – ISWAP’s biggest casualty.

JAS’ capture of key ISWAP territories is arguably its most important success against its rival in recent years. Former fighters with knowledge of the dynamics within and between the groups told the ISS that while ISWAP isn’t panicking, it is preparing for major counter-offensives to reclaim ground. In April, two territories were reclaimed – Tumbun Allura and Falkima-Hakariya.

ISS sources say ISWAP doesn’t want to create the impression that it is weak. And given Kaila’s role in ISWAP’s defeat, the group intends to send a strong message to potential defectors.

While Islamic State hasn’t stopped ISWAP’s preparations, it has asked for a pause in attacks while it tries to persuade Kaila to return to ISWAP. But Kaila will be reluctant to return, given his role in spearheading the JAS attacks and the fact that his fighters took many of ISWAP’s weapons when they defected. Insiders told the ISS that Kaila reiterated this fear over the phone to Abu Rumaisa, al-Barnawi’s brother and ISWAP media head, a few weeks ago.

Why is Islamic State keen to reconcile Kaila with ISWAP? It may be concerned that JAS shouldn’t be taken lightly. But it also recognises the damage that defections caused to the group, and reconciling defectors with ISWAP could again weaken JAS.

Having already moved hundreds of fighters to Nigeria’s North West and North Central as part of its expansion efforts, Islamic State also knows ISWAP cannot afford a lengthy, distracting and deadly confrontation with JAS.

Islamic State may also not want to risk reputational damage to its major affiliate in West Africa. Especially since Islamic State’s other franchise in the region – Islamic State Sahel Province (still referred to as Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS) – is being overshadowed by the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusratul Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM).

Since separating from ISWAP in 2022, ISGS has been locked in a struggle for supremacy against JNIM. This rivalry affects ISGS operations, with JNIM emerging as its primary security threat. Between January and February 2024, Islamic State media outlet Al-Naba showed that ISGS carried out only eight attacks in the Sahel, with 57 casualties. JNIM claimed 145 attacks with 581 casualties in the same period, says al-Qaeda media outlet Az-Zallaqa.

JNIM also created more insecurity than ISWAP in the same period. According to Islamic State, ISWAP carried out 96 attacks in January and February, resulting in 205 casualties. Although fewer attacks occurred in February than in January, the casualty rate increased because IEDs were used in 41% of the assaults.

The proxy war between Islamic State and al-Qaeda across the Sahel and West Africa – manifested in the clashes between their affiliates ISGS and JNIM – along with the ISWAP-JAS rivalry in the Lake Chad Basin, should be good for counter-terrorism. The more these violent extremist groups fight each other, the more likely they are to be depleted.

Ongoing military operations across Lake Chad Basin by the Multinational Joint Task Force and national armies try to limit JAS and ISWAP’s operational spaces, forcing fighters to surrender. This could explain Islamic State’s reluctance to see ISWAP fight JAS, and its push to expand beyond North East Nigeria in search of more operational space.

What this means for governments is that they shouldn’t rely on these groups to self-implode. Instead, they should ramp up military pressure to complement the damage the groups inflict on each other.

Cutting their supplies and preventing recruitment in the Lake Chad Basin and beyond is also important. This can be achieved through tighter border control measures informed by cross-border intelligence gathering and sharing.

Conflict is a major conveyor of terrorism, with more than 90% of terrorist attacks in 2023 occurring in conflict-affected areas. That makes it vital to develop socially embedded conflict prevention tools focused on banditry, farmer-herder clashes and inter-communal violence. These measures would prevent terrorists from taking advantage of conflicts, as is currently the case.

Written by Malik Samuel, Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.