Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)


    1.0 Background

    The Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) is a jihadist terrorist group that operates in the Lake Chad Basin, among Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Even if its formation dates back just to 2015, its roots are more profound. Indeed, ISWAP belongs to the salafi-jihadist environment that gained momentum consistently during the nineties in Northeastern Nigeria. Specifically, its direct predecessor was the religious sect, and successive terrorist group, Jama’at Ahl as-Sunna li-da’wa wa l’Jihad, better known as Boko Haram (BH).

    After Becoming famous in the western world due to the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping in 2014, BH and the groups that derived from it, still constitute a substantial threat to peace and stability in Northeast Nigeria and the entire Lake Chad Basin. The International Crisis Group estimates that the jihadist activities caused over 300,000 deaths and around three million displaced.[source]

    Despite consistent improvements in the last year, the crisis in Nigeria remains highly severe. Indeed, in 2022, over 10,000 people died because of political violence, thus merging its unfortunate position on the podium of the most violent crisis globally after Ukraine and Myanmar. [source] 13 percent of the endemic political violence comes from the jihadist insurgency, mainly in the Northeastern Nigerian states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa.

    Given their profoundly interconnected nature and ever-changing power balances, the terrorist groups are a nebula. In other words, the groups in the area are not centralised monoliths but are rather composed of a reticular structure of battalions with a certain degree of action independency. This renders their action less foreseeable and their internal relation more fluid and volatile. [source] Therefore, the analysis of ISWAP cannot be detached from the other hostile actors that operate in the Lake Chad Basin.

    2.0 ISWAP Genesis and Evolutions in the Lake Chad Basin

    2.1 From Dawn to 2009 Uprising

    BH finds its roots in the spread of salafist views by the anti-Sufi organisation Izala, which operated in Northern Nigeria from the late 1970s. After a militancy period in Izala during the nineties, Mohammed Yusuf became the Maiduguri-based Muslim Youth Organisation leader in 2002, changing the name and significantly contributing to its radicalisation.Yusuf’s main focus concerned the critique of Nigerian society’s profound contradictions and endemic corruption. Furthermore, the other principal target of BH’s rhetoric was Western culture. Indeed, proposed returning to a purer observance of Islam by applying an extreme version of the Sharia to heal Abuja’s decadence and inefficiency. From here, “Boko”, a  Hausa word signifying “fraud”, and “Haram” (حَرَام) meaning forbidden in Arabic. [source]

    In July 2009, the group decided to raise the level of the struggle, passing to violent means and launching an uprising. Nevertheless, this attempt was a complete failure, resulting in the death of hundreds of members and the extra-judicial killing of Yusuf while the police held him.[source]

    Boko Haram Logo
    Boko Haram Logo

    2.2 Revival and Splintering, 2009-15

    After the insurrectional attempt, BH lived through a deep crisis. Indeed, the severe military repression directly threatened its existence, thus obliging the remaining members to change the method. Abubakar Shekau could fill the leadership void and directed the group towards continuing the fight through terrorist means. 

    2.2.1 Ansaru splits

    Sometimes called the African al-Zarqawi to underline his ferocity, Shekau used violence indiscriminately. His attacks targeted all those considered opponents, not sparing even the Muslim civilian population. However, this attitude induced the rise of doubts within the group. Finally, leading to the splintering of the moderate wing. In 2012, BH’s defectors founded Jama’atu Ansaril Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan, better known as Ansaru. They abandoned the offensive use of violence and returning to Salafi quietism [source].

    2.2.2 Insurgency

    Despite this split, BH continued to gain power, shifting its strategy again and deciding to launch another insurrectional campaign in 2014. Initially, it was successful, obtaining control of a territory approximately equivalent to Belgium while causing a massive displacement crisis. More precisely, Boko Haram seized considerable portions of Northeast Nigeria (Borno, Yobe, Gombe and Adamawa states), Niger sud-east (Diffa region), Chad sud-west (Lake region) and Cameroon northwest (far-north region).

    However, after a year of fighting and the activation of the Multinational Joint Task Force, a military coordinative framework among the riparian countries of lake Chad, BH suffered many defeats and heavy territorial losses. As a result, the group was again constrained to abandon insurgency while seeking refuge in the Sambisa forest, near the Borno’s border with Cameroon. On the brink of the total debacle, the BH swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, becoming the Islamic State Western Africa Province (ISWAP) in 2015.

     2.3 A Problematic Relationship, 2015-16

    Shekau’s “cry for help” was welcomed by Daesh, which sent material aid, trainers, tactical and ideological recommendations. This support helped the group to recover. However, the honeymoon soon ended because of substantial disagreements. Indeed, over time, Shekau’s brutal practices, such as women suicide bombers and child soldiers, lack of religious observance, and his reluctance to obey resulted in notable tensions increasing with ISIL and within the group.

    Hence, in 2016, the internal opposition to Shekau, increasingly intolerant of his insubordination, split. Suddenly, the secessionist group got the support of IS: al-Barnawi, Yusuf’s son, took its leadership and moved northward, nearer Lake Chad. 

    2.4 Forced Reunification, 2016-2022

    Despite the 2016 force split and bloody competition between BH and ISWAP, the counterterrorist effort could not enforce the end of the terrorist activities. In the first half of 2021, BH and ISWAP began to fight for supremacy. The clash culminated in May with a direct ISWAP attack at the heart of the opponent’s territory (the Sambisa forest). This resulted in the death of Shekau himself [source]. After the leader’s demise, except for a few rare cases (Bakura group) the BH katibas majority converged towards ISWAP, violently restoring the five-year fracture and consolidating the basis for new pernicious insurgencies. [source] Nevertheless, in September 2021, also ISWAP leader, al-Barnawi get killed during a battle with a rival faction.[source]

    At the beginning of 2022, Ansaru, after ten years of quietism, swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI). Nevertheless, so far, the group has remained marginal, completing only a few attacks in centre-west Nigeria. 

    2.5 ISWAP Latest Developments

    In 2022, for the first time after 2017, the violence in the Lake Chad Basin associated with BH and ISWAP has decreased by 27 percent from 2021. This reverses a dangerous upward trend that lasted five years.  [source] Nevertheless, this does not mean that ISWAP has definitely been defeated. On the contrary, ISWAP maintains between 3500 and 5000 members and remains deeply rooted in Lake Chad and the Alagarno forest.

    2.5.1 ISWAP principal revenues

    Additionally, ISWAP has consolidated a resilient economic supply chain and income sources that guarantee reliable flows of capital and goods. As well as controlling the markets in Marte and Abadam, the group formed ad hoc teams that operate in Kano, Kaduna, Lagos (Nigeria), N’Djamena (Chad) and Kolofata (Cameroon). The main revenues come from:

    • Taxation on fishing, livestock and farm produce
    • Kidnapping for ransom
    • Foreign donations
    • Business activities and fines
    • Cattle rustling
    • Arms trafficking
    • Drug trafficking: tramadol and cocaine.

    This generates an income of approximately five million $ per month, equivalent to 2.3 billion Nigerian Nairas. [source]

    Finally, ISWAP tries to entertain positive relationships with the locals to forge and keep a favourable social base. The Kanuri people have been the most susceptible, contributing in increasing the group’s resiliency. Indeed, ISWAP has incredibly developed bureaucratically by replacing the State as a service provider in some areas. Specifically, particularly concerning the judicial system. [source] [source]

    3.0 Simplification and reality  

    Although the mainstream media focus only on ISWAP’s terrible attacks, its brutality can not explain its longevity. The insurgency in the Lake Chad basin has root causes it is necessary to tackle to eradicate it.

    3.1 ISWAP Causes

    3.1.1 Police predatory attitude

    First, the corrupted and predatory attitude of the Nigerian police is clear. Its placement in the last position in the internal security and police index of 2016 is symptomatic. Moreover, the influence of the often-unpunished military abuses on civilians in the radicalisation process is relevant. Over 40 percent of the BH’s fighter interviewed stressed the abuses’ impact on their radicalisation. [source] Lastly, the widespread corruption and the relative ease with which terrorists can infiltrate the State’s forces do not help their delicate task. [source]

    3.1.2 Dreadful economic situation

    Secondly, the dire economic conditions. Even if they are not a direct radicalisation source, persistent lack of employment opportunities favoured it. For instance, in 2012, the unemployment rate in Borno was at 65 percent. [source]

    3.1.3 Climate change as a threat multiplier

    Additionally, climate change’s threat multiplier role severely exacerbates tensions between the different livelihoods, notably herders and farmers’ rivalries. Even if Lake Chad is currently in an expansionary phase, the climate disruption has exasperated its intra-annual fluctuations, thus fostering community movements and resource competition [source]. Given that 90 % of the local population rely on lake water and rainfall, these changes have a deep impact. In this context, the armed groups affect the access to the volatile resources. [source

    3.1.4 Transnational Organised Crime

    Finally, the link between ISWAP and Transnational Organised Crime (TOC). Indeed, despite the salafist rhetoric about sins and purity, these groups have built resilient financial sources in strict interconnection with criminal networks. In particular, drug trafficking and the smuggling of small arms and light weapons (SALW) are more profitable and developed in the area.[source][source]

    Islamic State West Africa principal area of interest in North-east Nigeria
    ISWAP principal area of interest in North-east Nigeria (Author’s elaboration, ArcGIS)

    4.0 Conclusion

    The problematic situation in the Lake Chad Basin lasted over ten years. Since 2015, ISWAP has made up one of the principal actors. Whereas the number of violent events and related fatalities significantly decreased from 2021, they have not tackled the root causes. Indeed, ISWAP activities are inscribed in a wider crisis that comprehends several interlinked factors. Among others, the grievances related to corruption, the dire economic situation, the climate disruption to seasonal cycles and the connection with transnational organised crime are the most relevant ones.

    Samuele Minelli Zuffa
    Samuele Minelli Zuffa
    Samuele is an Italian international security and intelligence analyst. His main area of interest is Sub-Saharan Africa, where he focuses on climate-conflict nexus, asymmetric warfare untraditional security threats. He complements traditional research methods with Satellite Imagery and GIS investigation.

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