ISWAP Rebrands, Expands Scope Of Operations

Starting up as a faction of a local Jihadi group, ISWAP has dominated the terror sphere in Africa, holding territories larger than those of its parent group and governing over millions of people across several West African countries and the Sahel.

The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) has intensified operations and expanded its sphere of influence, bringing other franchises of the Islamic State in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso under a new arrangement where the ISWAP leader has a say in their violent campaign.

The ISWAP leadership has now been elevated to the level of the global Shura (advisory) council of the Islamic State, coordinating activities of Islamic State franchises beyond the Lake Chad region. 

While there have been rumours and claims of the death of Abu Musab Albarnawi (Habib Muhammad Yusuf) since 2021, HumAngle learnt from multiple sources that he was only elevated within the rank and file of the Islamic State. “Habib is well and alive,” one of the sources said.

ISWAP has appeared in most of IS Central’s recent propaganda messages. On Sept. 13, the official spokesperson of the IS, Abu Umar Al-Muhajir, released a 36-minute audio statement in which he praised ISWAP fighters. Al-Naba issues have also revealed that ISWAP claims more attacks than any other IS affiliate except in Iraq and Syria, which are its headquarters. The group now outperforms its former operational ally, the IS affiliate in Libya.

Since the death of Abubakar Shekau, former leader of Jama’atu Ahlussunnah Lidda’awati Wal Jihad (JAS), also known as Boko Haram, ISWAP has expanded its operational bases from Lake Chad enclaves to large swaths of land in Sambisa area that were previously under the former’s control. The group has consolidated many Boko Haram fighters to the point where Shekau’s biological son, known as Abul Musanna, is now a top commander in ISWAP.

ISWAP has also expanded into areas within Nigeria that were previously outside of its operational sphere. In Northwestern Nigeria, the group attacked Nigerian military forces in Sokoto, destroyed electrical power installations in Katsina, claimed responsibility for the assassination of two individuals in Kano, and established a presence in Zamfara. In North-central Nigeria, the group has attacked multiple locations in Kogi and Taraba and carried out a deadly prison break in Abuja. 

In South-Western Nigeria, especially in states neighboring Kogi, the terrorists have attacked a church in Ondo state and claimed responsibility for an assault on a security formation in Edo. Considering other IS affiliates’ tactical operations and propaganda strategies, especially in Mozambique and Congo, it is likely that ISWAP will continue to stage attacks in areas with a high Christian population, especially in Southern Nigeria. 

Historical transition: from local to global 

What began as a local Islamist insurgency in the Nigerian city of Maiduguri evolved into a multinational nightmare. The terrorists, who started as stick-wielding radicals, graduated into using assault rifles and machine guns. They captured a large swath of land in 20 local government areas in the North-east, with its then notorious leader Abubakar Shekau declaring a caliphate in Gwoza in August of the year. 

New members arrived in towns and villages from neighboring Chad, northern Cameroon, and southeastern Niger, paying allegiance and taking up arms to expand around Lake Chad. They came from areas where the founders of Boko Haram had either lived or had family ties. Sermons and lectures of the group’s spiritual founder Muhammad Yusuf were viral in places like Diffa, Niger Republic, where some Islamist supporters influenced by his lectures considered the country as embodiment of democracy and secularism, western education schools with mixed genders, and many other ideological positions that Boko Haram doctrines preach against.

At the time Shekau declared a “caliphate among the caliphates of Islam” (daula min duwalil Islamiyya)Abubakar Al-Baghdady had already ascended to the pulpit of a Friday mosque in Mosul, Iraq, dressed and turbaned in black and declared himself caliph of the new Islamic State caliphate “Dawlatul Islamiyya.” But, as he said, he couldn’t do it alone, so he called on others to join him, saying, “If you knew know about the reward and dignity in this world and the hereafter through jihad, none of you would delay in doing it.” 

Boko Haram had already joined Jihadism; all that remained was for it to surrender its independence to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as done by other jihadi groups in Africa, such as those in Libya, Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria. A year later, on March 7, 2015,  Shekau announced his allegiance to Al-Baghdady, implying that Boko Haram had relinquished its former status and had now become an affiliate of the Islamic State in West Africa Province.

“We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to and support the caliph [Al-Baghdady] in obedience to Allah and as fulfillment of this era’s absent duty [of establishing the caliphate]. We pledge allegiance to the caliph in order to protect Muslims’ interests in their religion and their worldly affairs, which can only be protected by a leader who looks after them according to Allah’s law and fights the enemy of Islam and those who oppose Allah’s rule,” Shekau said in an audio message shared on various social media platforms.

The main difference between Shekau and Albaghdady, however, was evident the day each of them declared a caliphate. While Shekau attempted to distance himself from the wider mainstream Salafism by not beginning his speech with “Khutbatul Haja” – a sermon opening Salafis use worldwide that was popularized by Albanian Saudi scholar Nasiruddeen Albany -, Albaghdady attempted to rally other Muslims, particularly Salafis, to his cause by beginning with “Khutbatul Haja.” This was to demonstrate his willingness to work in accordance with the Islamic States’ slogan of “Baqiyatun Wa Tattamaddad” (remaining and maximizing.)

That was only the beginning of what would sever Shekau’s ties with Islamic State (IS), as the latter would find the former’s intolerance intolerable and problematic, eventually leading to his death. That was not the first time Shekau’s  views were found to be too extreme even in the circle of extremists; his connection with al-Qaeda, which began in 2009 when Muhammad Yusuf was killed, would begin to deteriorate as early as 2011 when some dissidents within his Shura circle began accusing him of innovating theological habit of excommunicating Muslims residing in areas under the control of the Nigerian government (takfir bighayr uzr). 

According to Jason Warner and other authors of Islamic State in Africa, documents discovered by the US after the assassination of Osama bin Laden revealed communication between Shekau and Al-Qaeda leaders via its African operation in Maghreb (AQIM). The documents revealed how Shekau requested operational and financial assistance to aid him in his terror campaign by sending delegations to Algeria. Al-Qaeda promised a cache of ammunition and a large sum of money to fund Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria. 

According to the researchers, Boko Haram benefited from AQIM through military training and occasional financial assistance. Later, Shekau demanded to meet with Bin Laden’s deputy and subsequent leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who was recently killed. Still, he could not do so because the relationship between Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram had deteriorated. Dissatisfied with his extreme doctrinal views, a group within Boko Haram that received bomb-making training accused him of not only excessive use of violence and takfirism but also challenged his way of appropriating the “spoils of war” to only himself as a leader and executing anyone who dared to challenge him. Mamman Nur, a now deceased senior commander within Boko Haram and a close disciple of Yusuf, led these dissidents.

Shekau refused to listen to AQIM’s suggestions regarding his leadership style and denied all allegations about his ways. Realizing that Shekau would never change, Nur and other Boko Haram Shura members announced the formation of Ansaru, a Boko Haram breakaway, in 2012. This ended Boko Haram’s demand to be an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Nigeria. Instead, Al-Qaeda acquired a Boko Haram faction. This, however, did not de-escalate Boko Haram terrorism in Nigeria. In fact, between that time and joining ISWAP, Boko Haram carried out its most heinous attacks on the Nigerian government and civilians.

Promising Propaganda and Adapting Strategy 

By kidnapping schoolgirls in Chibok in April 2014, Boko Haram rose from the obscurity of low-level insurgency to global attention. This was a watershed moment in Shekau’s leadership, earning the praise of the Islamic State after Al-Qaeda distanced itself from the operation.

Later, Dabiq, an IS propaganda magazine, justified the mass kidnapping with an entire chapter dedicated to it. The Islamic State would later claim that the idea of kidnapping thousands of Yazidi women in the Iraqi city of Sinjar originated from Chibok. This was the most significant ideological divergence between Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, as well as a point of convergence between Boko Haram and the Islamic State. Observers would later notice more similarities in the operational tactics of the Islamic State and Boko Haram from when Dabiq magazine praised the kidnapping of schoolgirls until Albaghdady formally received Shekau’s allegiance.

Boko Haram announced its official intention to join the Islamic State in February 2015. “We are pleased to inform you that the consultative council group (Shura) is in the process of mutual consultation and study and that we will inform you shortly of the group’s decision regarding swearing allegiance to the Caliph of Muslims, Abubakar Al-Baghdady,” said a communiqué issued by Boko Haram and Africa Media, a jihadi media group based in Tunisia.

A few days after Shekau pledged Bay’ah, the Islamic State’s spokesperson, Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, accepted his oath of loyalty, and Boko Haram was renamed Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The vision of the merger, as described by Jason Warner is, aside ideological similarities, different for each of the two groups. Boko Haram’s declining fortune, attempts to establish international connections, and the willingness of some group members to be subordinated to the Islamic State are all factors that made it join the global sphere. The IS, on the other hand,  uses groups in various parts of the world to demonstrate its international connection and territorial expansion. According to multiple accounts, ISIS sent Libyans to Nigeria to advise ISWAP on its operations. ISWAP’s propaganda and media approach resulted from the direct training of Libyan IS members.

This merger with Boko Haram to form ISWAP would later fail as communication from the IS favored ties with Abu Musab Albarnawi and other Boko Haram dissidents. They, for the second time, accused Shekau of excessive takfirism, and even after joining ISWAP, he continued to wage violence against Muslims and non-Muslims. However, after dissatisfaction with Shekau’s leadership, Abu Mus’ab Albarnawi was appointed as the new governor of West Africa Province. Albarnawy would later corner Shekau at the Timbuktu triangle and demand surrender and allegiance, but Shekau detonated a bomb vest, killing himself and several others. 

However, an audio Shekau released a day before his death showed how he attempted to approach IS but was unsuccessful. He also spoke on how they got money and weapons from Al-Qaeda. Some of his followers, he claimed, had betrayed him. A week later, IS claimed that the new leadership of ISWAP ordered the operation to bring down Shekau.

Ultra-extremism and excessive takfirism  

What distanced al-Qaeda from Shekau and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (formerly Alqaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq) was the same operational, and doctrinal issue that distanced IS from Shekau. Al-Qaeda Core accused IS of indiscriminate violence against Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, just as IS accused Shekau of targeting Muslims in Nigerian-controlled areas.

Shekau has been a takfirist to the extreme. There were various Takfir schools within the jihadi-Salafi movement even before the rise of the Islamic State. Shekau and his supporters adhered to the extreme school of thought of Diya al-din al-Qudsi, who wrote a book advocating a radical version of takfirism. In one of his sermons, Shekau was said to have quoted al-Qudsi verbatim justifying “la udhra bil jahl” (no excuse for ignorance). 

The doctrinal issue of “udhr bil jahal” prompts Jihadists to question the verdict of those who do not understand or know the jihadi message, as well as those who excuse people for their ignorance (takfiril adhir). Anyone who did not aggressively demonstrate devotion to his group, according to Shekau, had lost their Muslim status, and those who excused those people had also nullified their beliefs. This is an extreme interpretation of how the Islamic State treats Sunni Muslims in Iraq who collaborate with the Shia regime. 

The Islamic State was founded as a local jihadi group known as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad by Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi, who Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi intellectually raised, a Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi ideologue who later would also condemn IS violence in its heydays. Al-Zarqawi later pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2004. In 2007, the dead leader of Al-Qaeda central who was recently killed in an American airstrike, Ayman Alzawahiri, announced the official dissolution of Al-Qaeda in Iraq to form the Islamic State of Iraq, a merger of jihadi groups.

In 2014, al-Qaeda condemned Islamic State after it was renamed ISIS, accusing the group of killing Muslim civilians and other “protected blood,” and disavowing the group’s actions. Al-Qaeda pushed for a focus on U.S. targets, whereas ISIS emphasized sectarianism and attacks on Sunni Muslims deemed apostates, such as those who collaborated with the Shi’a regime.

Despite the brutality of ISIS, they found Shekau’s violence too extreme. In an audio message released after the death of Shekau, Abu Mus’ab Albarnawy described him as an “extremist terrorist.” IS desired to be in the middle of what it saw as Al- Qaeda’s docility and Shekau’s ferocity. 

After Shekau and the expansion of ISWAP  

Since Shekau’s death, ISWAP has emerged as the dominant force in the Northeast. Previously holding territories in the Lake Chad region, the group has now consolidated what was previously an area of influence of Boko Haram’s JAS faction. JAS has lost command structures, according to a source familiar with Jihadist operations. The leadership of the group has been changing, which has caused other members to become dissatisfied and leave, forming a faction within another faction. Some of the fighters, according to sources, have moved to the Niger Republic’s axis in an attempt to establish a new settlement to counter-attack ISWAP and raid nearby communities. Many Shekau fighters have sworn allegiance to the ISWAP or surrendered to the Nigerian military. Few of them, particularly a faction led by one  Bakura, are carrying out attacks on a minor scale.

ISWAP, on the other hand, has emerged as the new IS queen as an important IS asset, controlling large territories  Despite claims to the contrary, HumAngle reports that Abu Musab Albarnawi is still alive and has been promoted to the Islamic State’s Shura council. Analysts speculated that this promotion was motivated by Albarnawi’s refusal to engage in the level of violence desired by the Islamic State. He was replaced by a new jihadi figure who falls between Shekau’s brutality and Albarnawy’s docility. He was Abu Abdullah ibn Umar Albarnawi, also known as Ba Idrissa, killed in an internal feud in early 2021.

ISWAP has shown more enthusiasm than any other affiliate of the Islamic State worldwide since the inception of Ba Idrissa, later replaced by Ba Lawan as the governor of West Africa, surpassing even the Libyan franchise that helped groom it. According to the Al-Naba weekly newsletters, the number of attacks recorded by ISWAP per week is only second to the IS Central. 

The group has also used propaganda more effectively than other African jihadi players. Its strategies for winning hearts and minds have brought the terrorist group closer to civilians. Instead of using violence and harsh punishments in some areas, the captured group began distributing money to entice civilians to join them.

The group has also adopted a governance model that involves providing   the population resident in its territory  with what their respective governments have failed to deliver. ISWAP provides health services, builds public toilets and boreholes, and enables children to be immunized in the areas it controls. They have also provided a new curriculum based on jihadi literature and have abolished the Nigerian government’s secular educational system. To effectively run their new government, ISWAP generates revenue by taxing Lake Chad residents in exchange for protection. According to reports, residents are willing to pay taxes to the ISWAP and remain under its leadership.

With strategic attacks on the Nigerian military and consolidated territories previously controlled by JAS, ISWAP sphere of control grows by the day. According to sources, whenever the Nigerian Army engages in ground combat with terrorists and chases them away, the terrorists return as soon as the troops leave or move to another community. 

That is not enough for ISWAP. The group is trying to live up to the parent ideological group’s motto of “remaining and maximizing.” ISWAP has attempted to expand its territory since Shekau’s death by shifting its terror operations from its stronghold in the northeast to the northwest and north-central areas, where it competes with Ansaru Jihadists. Ansaru has sought refuge in the North-central region and some parts of Northwest for many years, controlling some communities in a remote part of Niger state. Ansaru has begun to consider doing something it has long avoided because it feels threatened by ISWAP’s advancement. The group has already started to spread propaganda and carry out attacks in areas where it has a presence.

Northwest Nigeria is also dealing with bandits or non-ideological terrorists. Jihadists have since attempted to gain a foothold there, but collaboration has proven difficult due to their opposing motivations. Although there is no clear evidence of terrorist and Jihadist collaboration, ISWAP and JAS are thought to have a presence in the region. ISWAP claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in the area that resulted in the deaths  of soldiers.

Nigeria Wins the Battle but Loses the War

According to experts, the Nigerian government’s response to ISWAP terrorism using a kinetic approach will not be successful. While the Nigerian government spends millions fighting an insurgency by purchasing weapons, the country’s multiple socioeconomic causes of terrorism are being ignored. According to experts, poverty, corruption, and extreme religious indoctrination are among the loopholes that groups like ISWAP use to adapt and grow. ISWAP’s change in the school curriculum in the Lake Chad region is preparation for grooming the next generation of jihadists. Videos show children in formal classes being taught Arabic grammar and anti-democratic doctrines.

The ISWAP services in some remote parts of Lake Chad have been among the residents’ basic needs that successive Nigerian governments have abandoned. Despite the violence directed at residents of ISWAP-controlled areas, such as the killing of farmers, ISWAP treats local Muslim residents better than JAS. Locals have expressed sympathy for the group, allowing them to recruit fighters and gain support. The group is also suspected of sending members to IDP camps to recruit others and collecting taxes from fishermen.

The group has not stopped enforcing its interpretation of Shari’a law. Still, they attempt to control the populace and communities without resorting to arbitrary attacks or property confiscation, as JAS did under Shekau. When Abu Mus’ab Albarnawi announced Shekau’s death, he promised that all those with grievances could appeal to him and that justice would be served.

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Aliyu Dahiru

Aliyu is an Assistant Editor at HumAngle and Head of the Radicalism and Extremism Desk. He has years of experience researching misinformation and influence operations. He is passionate about analysing jihadism in Africa and has published several articles on the topic. His work has been featured in various local and international publications.

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