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ISWAP Launches Hearts And Minds Strategy To Counter Nigerian Army Offensive – Analysis

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By Jacob Zenn*

Since Boko Haram’s launched its jihad in 2009, the group has undergone three major phases of territory-capturing military offensives. The Nigerian army turned the tide against Boko Haram after the first two phases with a ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B.’ However, Boko Haram’s ongoing military campaign is more serious than previous ones. Following the recent statement by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, is there no clear ‘Plan C’ for the Nigerian army except a possible U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) intervention? This article discusses such a prospect in the context of longtime Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s death in May.

Boko Haram’s First Two Territorial Military Offensives

Boko Haram’s first territorial military offensive occurred in mid-2013 when the group retreated from Borno State’s capital, Maiduguri, to Sambisa Forest in southern Borno. Boko Haram caught the Nigerian army by surprise when it raided military barracks and towns throughout Borno and neighboring Yobe State. This campaign included a raid on Chibok, where the militant group conducted its infamous kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls, as claimed by Shekau (vanguardngr.com, May 15, 2014). Several reports and videos suggest that Nigerians who trained with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) provided tactical support to Boko Haram before this offensive, which explains why the Nigerian army underestimated the group’s ability to raid military barracks like AQIM’s allies had done in the Sahel. [1] Nevertheless, Nigeria was able to recover most of the territory Boko Haram captured in 2015 with assistance from neighboring countries’ armies, including Niger, Cameroon, and especially Chad, which intervened on Nigerian territory to oust Boko Haram from towns its fighters occupied near their shared borders (france24.com, March 21, 2015). This was Nigeria’s ‘Plan A’ for denying Boko Haram territory when the Nigerian army itself struggled to do so.

In March 2015, Abubakar Shekau pledged loyalty to Islamic State (IS) ‘caliph’ Abubakar al-Baghdhadi and the group adopted the name, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). Although Shekau was removed by IS in August 2016 in favor of the comparatively more moderate Abu Musab al-Barnawi, ISWAP in mid-2019 again began conquering territory in Borno and parts of Yobe. This time, ISWAP did not so much catch the Nigerian army off-guard like in 2013-2014, but rather targeted rural, poorly constructed military outposts where ISWAP maintained an asymmetric advantage (thisdaylive.com, June 4, 2019). By this time, some ISWAP commanders had also trained with IS in Libya and the group became more professional in terms of tactics, media, and even uniforms. This was largely a result of integration into IS’ global network (Twitter.com/@FulanNasrullah, July 14, 2019). Nevertheless, in late 2019 and early 2020, Nigeria’s ‘Plan B’ came into being. The plan attempted to deny ISWAP territory by establishing ‘super camps,’ which are large, highly fortified, and theoretically impenetrable military bases surrounding Borno’s largest towns, camps for internally displaced people, and aid facilities (guardian.ng, October 7, 2019).

With fewer outposts to attack and super camps too strong to overrun, ISWAP’s pace slowed down in 2020. However, the Nigerian army was now largely confined to super camps with intermittent incursions into rural areas to target ISWAP hideouts. These incursions, however, often led to ambushes on rural roadways, and ISWAP began to hold territory in rural areas, where it recruited, preached, and rebuilt its forces (HumAngle.com, November 22, 2020). Since early 2021, ISWAP has been able to thwart Nigerian army incursions into rural areas and has even attacked the outer defenses of super camps and the towns they surround. They have raided other mid-size military barracks throughout Borno. ISWAP’s photosets and claims of attacks since March, for example, have shown military post attacks in:

  • Damasak, Borno on March 17;
  • Katarko, Borno on March 19;
  • Ngagam, Diffa, Niger, on April 5;
  • Kamuya, Borno on April 17;
  • Dikwa, Borno on April 20;
  • Mainok, Borno on April 27;
  • Kanama, Yobe on May 5;
  • Geidam, Yobe on May 6; and
  • Bulabulin, Borno on May 8. [2]

Besides this, ISWAP’s photo releases at the end of Ramadan showed its fighters providing money to children and charitable goods to civilians and preaching to elders and youths. [3] This approach revealed several things; first, that ISWAP has a population-centric insurgency strategy to countering the Nigerian army; second,  that the group enjoyed significant freedom of movement through Borno’s rural areas in an effort to win local hearts and minds (icirnigeria.org, August 24). The restoration of Abu Musab al-Barnawi—who had a reputation for leniency toward civilians during his first ISWAP leadership reign from August 2016 to March 2019—to ISWAP leadership around April 2021 suggests ISWAP will seek to win further civilian support in its main operational areas in Borno, Yobe, and northern Adamawa State’s rural areas, as well as parts of Diffa, Niger and the Chadian and Cameroonian borderlands with Nigeria (Twitter.com/@VincentFoucher, May 11).

Moreover, Shekau self-detonating a suicide vest rather than being captured by rival ISWAP fighters in May means the Islamic State branch will now take over the Shekau faction’s bases in Sambisa, southeastern Borno (HumAngle.ng, May 21). This will allow ISWAP another access point to threaten Maiduguri, and provide logistics routes into Cameroon and attack routes into northern Adawama. Not only will Shekau’s death under al-Barnawi’s leadership boost his credibility, but it will also reinforce IS’ commitment to ISWAP. This commitment was likely deepened following al-Barnawi’s reported purging of ISWAP ultra-hardliners only days after Shekau’s death (globalupfront.com, May 28). IS, for example, recognized that al-Barnawi replaced Shekau in August 2016, and never recognized the fact that al-Barnawi was subsequently overthrown in March 2019 by the same ISWAP hardliners who he had just purged. IS seemingly re-designated al-Barnawi as leader specifically to launch the now successful campaign against Shekau in Sambisa (Raid Media, May 2021). ISWAP’s civilian-oriented approach under al-Barnawi and new hideouts in Sambisa will only enable it to further recruit and launch insurgent attacks in the coming months as the new leader consolidates his position and tries to reincorporate Shekau’s commanders into ISWAP.

Future Trendlines: President Buhari’s AFRICOM Gambit

Given these trends, three possible futures for the Nigerian army’s counter-insurgency campaign against ISWAP can be foreseen. First, the Nigerian army may reduce ISWAP’s freedom of movement and the number of towns it controls in rural areas, such as Guzumala, which has had no government presence for more than a year (vanguardngr.com, February 1). However, no current information indicates that this will occur, given ISWAP’s momentum, especially after Shekau’s elimination. Further, no reports indicate that the Nigerian army is decisively improving its situation—including weaponry, resources and capabilities, soldiers’ morale—to turn the tide against ISWAP.

Second, a stalemate between the Nigerian army and ISWAP may occur where the militant group can no longer attack, let alone raid, Nigerian military posts or super camp perimeters. At the same time, however, the army would not be able to dislodge ISWAP from all of its territories. While this seems possible, recent trends still indicate that ISWAP is on the upswing. This is, therefore, a realistic, but still optimistic, possibility for the Nigerian army.

Third, ISWAP may continue to attack super camps and, at times, raid military posts in Borno and Yobe. Whereas Nigeria’s ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’ have already been tried (neighboring country support and establishing super camps), Nigeria may have to turn to a ‘Plan C.’ With Nigeria’s neighbors reluctant to enter Nigerian territory to oust an ISWAP organization that is stronger now than it was in 2015 and thus risk retaliatory attacks, it is unlikely ‘Plan A’ can be tried again. Moreover, Chad was the most effective external counter-insurgency force in Borno in 2015, but is now preoccupied with its own domestic rebellion.

This third scenario is coming to fruition with ISWAP increasingly controlling territory in Borno, including now also Sambisa, and in Borno’s borderlands, setting the stage for President Buhari’s announcement in late April after a virtual meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, that he wants United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) to moves its headquarters to Africa (premiumtimes.ng.com, April 27). Buhari has not since expounded upon this announcement in any detail. However, it raises the question as to whether, if current trends continue or even become worse, will Nigeria request foreign, and specifically U.S., aid to combat ISWAP under the rubric of the global ‘counter-ISIS campaign’? This would be somewhat unprecedented for Nigeria, which has historically rejected foreign military intervention on its territory. Nigeria even showed some reluctance when neighboring countries’ militaries intervened in 2015.

At the same time, the situation could become desperate enough that Nigeria has few other options but to seek external support to combat ISWAP, especially if military support does not come from its neighbors. Buhari’s ‘closed door’ meeting with the new Chadian transitional military leader, Mahamat Idriss Deby, reportedly involved counter-terrorism discussions (guardian.ng, May 14). However, it would be premature to suggest Chad will divert military resources from combatting its own domestic rebels to ISWAP in Borno. This is especially likely as ISWAP’s attacks have been fairly limited in the country since Chad’s post-March 2020 offensive against ISWAP and Shekau’s faction, primarily on the Chadian side of Lake Chad (Terrorism Monitor, May 1, 2020).

Foreign military intervention has not stifled jihadists in Mali since France and other regional and Western powers stepped up their military presence there in 2013. Thus, even if AFRICOM were to relocate to Africa and focus on Nigeria, while generating controversy among Africans concerned about ‘neo-imperialism,’ it would not necessarily lead to ISWAP’s downfall. It could even become a magnet for jihadists to come to Africa to ‘fight the Americans.’ In the short-term, however, little news has emerged supporting the possibility that AFRICOM might relocate to Africa, let alone take part in an intervention to combat ISWAP in Nigeria. All of this makes Buhari’s proposal to AFRICOM appear out of touch with reality. The Nigerian army, therefore, has no immediate ‘Plan C’ to combat ISWAP and must find other means to fight the group, but what those means will be are not immediately clear. Abubakar Shekau, however, will no longer be able to indirectly ‘assist’ Nigeria by being a thorn in ISWAP’s side.

*About the author: Jacob Zenn is an adjunct assistant professor on African Armed Movements and Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program (SSP) and editor of Terrorism Monitor and senior fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. He authored the book,Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeriawhich was published in April 2020 by Lynne Rienner in association with the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews.

Source: This article was published in Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 11

Notes:

[1]For full discussion, see Chapter 8 of Jacob Zenn, Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria, Lynne Rienner, Boulder, CO (2020).

[2] See relevant photostreams on tabs through the author’s personal website: https://unmaskingbokoharam.com/2019/08/06/iswap-photostreams-2015-onwards/

[3] See tab titled “iswapmay92021ramadanzakatnigeria” on the author’s personal website: https://unmaskingbokoharam.com/2019/08/06/iswap-photostreams-2015-onwards/. See also Aymenn J. al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State’s Imposition of Zakat in West Africa,” aymennjawad.org, May 28, 2021:  http://www.aymennjawad.org/2021/05/the-islamic-state-imposition-of-zakat-in-west.

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The Jamestown Foundation’s mission is to inform and educate policy makers and the broader community about events and trends in those societies which are strategically or tactically important to the United States and which frequently restrict access to such information. Utilizing indigenous and primary sources, Jamestown’s material is delivered without political bias, filter or agenda. It is often the only source of information which should be, but is not always, available through official or intelligence channels, especially in regard to Eurasia and terrorism.

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