Defections alone won’t break ISWAP terror group

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The death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in 2021 triggered unprecedented exits from one of the group’s two factions, Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (JAS). He died when the other faction, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), invaded his Sambisa Forest fortress in Borno State, north east Nigeria.

Rather than being taken alive, Shekau detonated a suicide vest, bringing his brutal 11-year leadership to an end. Thousands of his fighters, who refused to join ISWAP because it caused his demise, surrendered to Lake Chad Basin authorities alongside civilians who JAS had kept against their will.

Shekau’s death and JAS’ losses benefitted ISWAP, which seized the former’s territories, recruited some of its fighters, expanded outside its traditional north-east Nigeria base, and boosted its revenue generation. This cemented ISWAP’s position in the Islamic State franchise, making it one of the global terror group’s most successful affiliates. This is evidenced in ISWAP leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s reported ascension to Islamic State’s Shura Council.

Lake Chad Basin authorities took advantage of the mass defections from JAS in a bid to weaken the group further. Tens of thousands of people have already left JAS-controlled territories, with still more departing. The state government driven Borno Model manages the exits, most of which happen in Nigeria – the epicentre of the crisis. The model encourages members to leave JAS, and reintegrates them back into society in keeping with its community-based reconciliation approach.

Before the Borno Model was established, Nigeria started the oldest non-kinetic programme against terrorism, Operation Safe Corridor. It provides secure passage for low-level and low-risk fighters willing to leave Boko Haram. Both programmes feed into the Lake Chad Basin’s strategy to stabilise Boko Haram-affected areas. But how should countries in the region now deal with a reconstituted and consolidated ISWAP?

Since 2018, Nigeria’s government has implemented a covert disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration strategy called Sulhu (‘peacemaking’ in Arabic), targeting Boko Haram’s leadership, especially ISWAP. Senior and influential commanders and fighters have since left the group.

The government doesn’t publicly admit to this open-secret programme, which is principally run by the country’s top intelligence agency, the State Security Service. One reason is public perception and potential backlash over what people see as tacit amnesty for terrorists.

Defectors told the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) that about 500 people had left ISWAP since the programme started. This includes 10 senior commanders, about 200 former fighters stripped of combat status for various reasons, and roughly 300 active fighters. Some of those who lost their status became traders, farmers or fishermen.

Despite this, ISWAP remains strong. In 2023, fatalities from the group’s attacks increased by 27% compared to 2022. In addition to taking over JAS territory, ISWAP has tried to expand beyond north-east Nigeria, claiming attacks in Edo, Jigawa, Kano, Kogi, Nasarawa, Niger, Ondo and Taraba states. The biggest attack outside the north-east was the 2022 Kuje prison break, less than 50 km from Nigeria’s Presidency. Over 800 inmates, including dozens of Boko Haram members, escaped.

ISWAP’s successes, aided by Islamic State guidance, contributed to al-Barnawi’s promotion within the global group. Since al-Barnawi’s return to head up ISWAP in 2021, the group has sought to address factors that encourage desertions, such as military pressure, disillusionment and group fracture.

The devolution of power through ISWAP’s restructuring into four and then six semi-autonomous groups between 2021 and 2023 – Sambisa Forest, Alagarno Forest (nicknamed Timbuktu or Farouk), Tumbumma, Lake Chad islands, Kirenowa, and Banki – was done for administrative purposes, but also to address leadership tussles.

In the third week of Ramadan this year, and with money from Islamic State, ISWAP started paying monthly stipends to fighters who cannot support themselves. Interviewees told the ISS that unmarried fighters were paid ₦35 000 (US$28), childless married fighters ₦45 000 (US$36), and married fighters with more than one wife and children around ₦150 000 (US$119).

When former fighters’ expectations about reintegration are unmet, some return to a life of violence, as happened with former Sulhu participants. ISS reported how a senior commander, Adam Bitri, left a government safe house to team up with bandits. Three others who fled with him participated in the 2019 abduction of a traditional ruler in former president Muhammadu Buhari’s hometown in Katsina State. One was killed during the rescue operation, while the other two returned to ISWAP. The terror group executed them for spying for the government.

For those who defect to the ‘government side’, there is almost no going back to ISWAP because they risk execution on accusations of espionage. However, ISS research shows that some become involved in other forms of crime and violence.

To defeat ISWAP, affected countries need to re-evaluate their strategies. The factors that aided the much-celebrated mass exits from JAS may be untenable with ISWAP, as the group works hard to prevent desertions.

Government approaches must go beyond depending on disgruntled commanders and fighters. Instead, strategies are needed that tackle the group on various fronts, including disrupting its financing, blocking routes used for recruitment and movement, and having a clear, practical plan that those who desert ISWAP can support.

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.