The days-long siege by Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) fighters on one of the locations where Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah Wa’l-Jihād (JAS), lived, following several months of trailing, seems to have paid off for his former associates turned arch-rivals.
The details trickling in so far surrounding his death are conflicting. However, one line remains consistent, “Shekau is dead.” Whether he killed himself to avoid humiliation or he died from injuries after he was shot is murky.
Shekau’s death happened in an operation conducted by Bako Gorgore, one of ISWAP’s most influential soldiers. Gorgore died alongside Shekau after the latter detonated an explosive vest.
The operation, according to multiple sources, was conducted and executed by ISWAP fighters familiar with the Sambisa environment and Shekau’s routine. This contradicts news reports that the putsch was successfully carried out with the active participation of foreign combatants from Libya.
An impeccable source however confirmed the presence of dozens of foreign and returning diaspora fighters to ISWAP in northern Borno, notably in the Lake Chad islands, but added that “their role is greatly exaggerated”.
Both factions have often described each other as Khawarij (renegades). For ISIS, there cannot be two Islamic State fighters operating in the same region with conflicting ideologies and strategies, especially those they refer to as exaggerators in Takfir (announcing labels of ‘infidels’). One report said the invasion of the Sambisa forest followed months of efforts by ISIS leaders to advise the Boko Haram leadership against mimicking IS themes and identity.
Meanwhile, one of the immediate implications of Shekau’s death is that it calls into question the capacities of state actors. With various reports over the years of failed attempts to kill Shekau by the Nigerian military and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), his death in the hands of a “technically defeated” non-state actor is considered embarrassing for the country’s intelligence and military institutions.
More ISWAP foot soldiers, arms
In addition to overrunning military bases, including super camps, killing Shekau adds to ISWAP’s gains within the Jihadi sphere and will further advance the terror group’s recruitment drive.
For ISWAP, Boko Haram has been a major distraction in their fight against the military and getting rid of Shekau’s leadership may not only win over most of his fighters to their fold but eliminate any distraction in confronting state forces.
Close observers say, to prevent the chaotic northwest Nigeria conflict dynamics from getting replicated in northeast Nigeria and Lake Chad, ISWAP must rally Shekau loyalists to their fold, especially Boko Haram’s biggest sub-faction in the Lake Chad Basin.
HumAngle can authoritatively report that ISWAP had gotten the support of more than 70 per cent of Boko Haram qa’ids, a set of senior military leaders, weeks before the days-long siege on Shekau’s most visited home. “Only two out of about 20 qa’ids were loyal to Shekau as at the time of the gun battle,” said a source within the insurgency.
One cannot overrule the possibility of some members defecting to enrol in the Nigerian government’s Operation Safe Corridor programme, fleeing to major cities, or rather joining armed bands like what is the case in northwest Nigeria.
ISWAP’s original plan was to persuade Shekau to appear in a video asking his fighters in the northeast, north-central and northwest Nigeria, Niger Republic, Chad, and Cameroon to pay allegiance to ISIS (the Islamic State). Without such a statement from Boko Haram’s former strongman, it will be difficult to convince the rest of his teeming fighters to submit to IS’ authority, particularly those that were not in the theatre during the latest battle.
Another important point to note is that Shekau left behind an enormous cache of arms. He was obsessed with hoarding weapons because, having survived a number of coup attempts, he did not trust anyone with too much access, believing it would increase the chances of him getting overthrown.
As a result, the success of ISWAP’s onslaught gives the terror group access to an overwhelming amount of arms and ammunition, both from Shekau’s stockpile and those held by his many fighters.
Seizing control of the Sambisa forest area, which has for many years been a stronghold for Shekau-led JAS, gives ISWAP fighters a new location to operate from. Together with the Gwoza mountain and the Timbuktu area, this has strategic value for the group. Notably, the area provides them with the best possible cover against military air raids compared to the Lake Chad Basin whose terrain leaves them more vulnerable.
The Sambisa forest is located about 60 km southeast of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, covering parts of the states of Borno, Yobe, Gombe, Bauchi along the corridor of Darazo, and Jigawa in northwest Nigeria.
The Gwoza hills in the East have peaks of 1,300 meters above sea level and form part of the Mandara Mountains range along the Cameroon-Nigeria border, which is considered a treasured location for the insurgent groups in the region.
For some ISWAP members, Sambisa also holds wives, mothers, and children whom they left behind after fleeing Shekau’s brutal regime to form Abu Musab’s ISWAP faction. The August 2016 split had made Boko Haram a pariah in the global jihadi sphere and left the group without a benefactor, unlike ISWAP.
Available information to our reporters indicates that ISWAP members have started preparing to reunite with their family members in Sambisa who were forcefully separated from them by Shekau since 2016.
Expansion and increased risks for locals
Shekau’s death may also mark the end of indiscriminate killings, which we have seen with Boko Haram when the late leader had the resources to attack communities. ISWAP on their part may spare ‘Muslim communities,’ but are as ruthless as Boko Haram when dealing with Christians, students, teachers, civil servants, and NGO workers who can also be found in large numbers in Gwoza, Askira, Madagali, Michika, Gombi, Damboa, and Hawul. These communities are in Adamawa and Borno, both states that fall within the Sambisa general area.
The lives of over 200,000 people in Gwoza and surrounding communities such as Pulka and Izge hang in the balance. Bama town and surrounding communities close to Sambisa forest such as Banki, which have much higher populations, are also at risk of being attacked repeatedly in the same manner as Dikwa, Geidam, and other areas where ISWAP has operated in the past.
While some of these communities may not be attacked directly if they are Muslim-majority, the presence of ISWAP alone in the area scares humanitarian actors, which may, in turn, bring untold suffering to the people.
The takeover of Sambisa could expand ISWAP activities further into Adamawa and southern Borno. This is in addition to the control it already wields in other parts of Borno and, recently, Yobe State.
As if all these are not enough, a former hunter turned vigilante informed HumAngle that it is now easier for ISWAP to access the south-south of Nigeria from Sambisa through Taraba and Cross River. The terror group can also access the northwest from Sambisa through Bauchi and Jigawa. This wasn’t possible from their former base in the Lake Chad islands.
HumAngle had previously reported ISWAP’s long-term ambition to isolate Maiduguri, Borno state capital, by depriving the residents of electricity and other supplies, after circling the city. The latest developments appear to be working in favour of this plan because, by getting rid of competition, they are now positioned to focus their eyes on the ball.
Increase in revenue
Another reason for ensuring an end to Shekau’s influence and eliminating the vestiges of his 12-year-old brutal legacy is for ISWAP to safeguard villagers who paid taxes and levies to them but came under consistent attacks by Boko Haram.
According to knowledgeable sources in the region, Boko Haram’s Shekau ensured that not only did they seize the goods and properties of the people who were under ISWAP control but, like the Nigerian military, they punished anyone found to have paid levies and taxes to the Islamic State. For ISWAP, crushing anything Boko Haram is a moral duty they owe to tax farmers, herders, traders, and commercial drivers while they ensure their security.
Taking over Sambisa also provides access to more ungoverned spaces, which brings with it more resources and recruiting opportunities for ISWAP.
Stronger IS affiliate
A bigger ISWAP, in a bigger territory, with little opposition from a rival group like Boko Haram, coupled with the social services they provide in areas they control is far more dangerous to the security and stability of the region than the ISWAP before the death of Abubakar Shekau.
ISWAP currently has no substantive leadership and instead has an interim leader in the person of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of the founder of Boko Haram, late Muhammad Yusuf. He is in the process of reorganising the group after the entire Shura and sectional leaderships were dissolved. Overthrowing Shekau strengthened Abu Musab, who had promised the late Boko Haram leader in 2016 that he would be back.
It also presents an opportunity for the group to host a new stream of fighters from Libya and parts of the Sahel looking for new transit camps and safe-havens.
With ISWAP assuming the place of the dominant Jihadi group with a large expanse of ungoverned territory, at a time when the militaries of Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria are overstretched trying to contain rebellion and insurrections in their countries, we are likely going to see the terror group incubating to become a formidable force that portends more danger to the countries in the Lake Chad.
This analysis is published under a partnership between HumAngle Media and the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) under the media and terrorism programme.
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