ISIS’s West African Offshoot Is Following al Qaeda’s Rules for Success
The amorphous Boko Haram splinter group is taking inspiration where it can get it and bringing disaster to the Lake Chad Basin in the process.
As the Islamic State is squeezed out of its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East, its offshoot in West Africa, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), appears to be growing even stronger.
In the last five months, the insurgent group has gained a grim kind of momentum, establishing itself in new towns in northeastern Nigeria and beyond. Along the way, its fighters have slain hundreds of people.
In November 2018, the group showed that it could outmaneuver the Nigerian military when it overran a base in Metele, Borno state, killing about 100 soldiers. On March 22, ISWAP demonstrated its ability to strike beyond Nigeria’s borders, killing 23 soldiers during a raid in Chad.
The attack came just as Kurdish and Shiite militia fighters were taking back the eastern Syrian town of Baghouz, which was widely interpreted as a signal that the Islamic State’s caliphate in the Middle East had finally been defeated after four years of combat.
With the Islamic State’s territory in Iraq and Syria, once the size of Britain, all but gone, it is time to look to its affiliates across the world as the next set of threats to address. Doing so won’t be easy.
Far from beaten, ISWAP is rising in West Africa. And it is clear that the splinter group, which broke away from Boko Haram in 2016, works very differently from the organization it swore allegiance to.
Instead of modeling itself on the Islamic State, ISWAP is gaining ground, and influence, around the Lake Chad Basin area—spreading out from Nigeria into Chad and Niger—using the same approach that has strengthened organizations aligned with the Islamic State’s rival, al Qaeda.
For one, it has avoided the Islamic State’s vulnerability to leadership changes by favoring the kind of amorphous structure that has helped other al Qaeda affiliates, such as the Nusra Front in Syria and Somalia’s al-Shabab, survive attacks on their top brass.
In addition, where the Islamic State focused on carving out claims to territory at the expense of the population who lives there, ISWAP has attempted to co-opt rather than coerce. In fact, rather than fighting to gain territory and attempting to hold on to it by governing with brutality as the Islamic State has done in Iraqi towns such as Fallujah and Mosul, ISWAP, like al Qaeda affiliates, has placed great emphasis on cultivating relationships with local communities and taking advantage of those strong ties to exert great influence on how they function.
The Nusra Front group, for example, has around 20,000 fighters and focuses on creating relationships with political and civil society groups in Syria. Al-Shabab, which has nearly 9,000 fighters, provides social services in an effort to generate support among Somalis, often going as far as constructing infrastructure and collecting money to be redistributed to the poor.
ISWAP has learned from al Qaeda affiliates that blending into local communities will make it a lot easier to win support and gain a foothold in the Lake Chad region. On the ground, ISWAP has moved to assure people that they will not be harmed in the territories it is seeking to control, provided locals do not cooperate with the Nigerian military.
Under these conditions, it becomes extremely difficult for the Nigerian military or coalition forces to target the group, because unless they can earn the genuine support of communities and motivate them to incriminate members of the terrorist organization, ISWAP’s members can largely pass undetected.
As part of ISWAP’s efforts to gain popularity and win the allegiance of future fighters, the group has even been offering loans to young entrepreneurs in the region. It has placed particular emphasis on butchers, traders, tailors, beauticians, and other vocational entrepreneurs. The group doesn’t necessarily expect all of its recipients to pay back the loans. Instead, it operates on an understanding that those who can’t repay their debt with money will settle their account by playing a vital role in facilitating the group’s growth by providing both loyalty and services.
ISWAP’s ability to attract a range of fighters from Nigerian communities has helped the group extend its reach in northeastern Nigeria, where many locals are in dire need of social assistance. People in the region are also concerned about protection from armed bandits, a service that ISWAP often provides. The more militants the group attracts, the more resources and popularity it is able to draw on when it targets new communities.
In the same way al Qaeda has muscled its way into in wars in Yemen and Syria, ISWAP has waded into the conflict in northeastern Nigeria between Fulani herdsmen, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, and predominantly Christian farmers. Although Fulani herdsmen involved in the fighting may see ISWAP’s support as an act of solidarity, for the group itself, the conflict is just another opportunity to target Christians, who they view as a key obstacle to establishing an Islamic State in West Africa. ISWAP’s meddling in one of the most explosive conflicts anywhere on the continent could prove disastrous for Nigeria’s already fragile security environment. To effectively counter the group, outsiders must better understand it.
A year before ISWAP split from Boko Haram, the original militant group under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. However, Shekau proved to be a difficult collaborator, even for one of the most infamous terrorist organizations in the world. Ultimately, he fell out of the Islamic State’s favor over his failure to comply with its instructions, including requests that he stop using children as suicide bombers. Disgruntled, the Islamic State stripped Shekau of its endorsement and recognized a new leader: Abu Musab al-Barnawi. A faction remained loyal to Shekau and endured the withdrawal of the Islamic State’s favor, which was from then on only given to ISWAP under Barnawi.
When ISWAP officially cut ties with Shekau’s Boko Haram, Barnawi turned to familiar faces from his early days in Boko Haram for support. Many of those figures had powerful ties—either aspirational or actual—to al Qaeda.
From the start, Barnawi announced that he would bring significant changes. Unlike Shekau, who gained notoriety by targeting fellow Muslims who didn’t subscribe to Boko Haram’s vision for Nigeria’s future, he made it clear that he would refrain from violence against Muslims. In his inaugural address, he also outlined the need for local support, which would help ISWAP one day wage a war against Nigeria and, potentially, the West.
Although the Islamic State in West Africa has not confirmed as much, the Islamic State’s central leadership may have removed Barnawi from his post in March. Soldiers from the Multinational Joint Task Force—made up of troops from across the region drawn together to fight Boko Haram—uncovered and translated an unverified clip into English. A voice, allegedly from the Islamic State, is heard saying that Abu Musab al-Barnawi has been “deposed,” and that new leader, Abu Abdullahi Ibn Umar al-Barnawi, has been appointed in his place.
If ISWAP has learned its lessons from al Qaeda-affiliated groups, the changeover won’t cause the group any lasting problems. A key strength of the al Qaeda template is the ability to persist and adapt when there are changes at the very top. When a U.S. drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a key figure within al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen in 2011, the group had about 1,000 fighters. Far from diminishing the group’s reach, its numbers grew to around 4,000 after Awlaki’s death. In Somalia, al-Shabab’s troop numbers also expanded greatly after the death of the group’s leader, Ahmed Godane, in 2014.
It is a dynamic that has allowed groups to persist even under other strains. In Algeria, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continues to grow in strength despite navigating the demands of integrating new leaders from other groups and replacing those who have broken away. Jemaah Islamiyah, which operates in Southeast Asia, has consistently built new madrasas even though its aging leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, has been incarcerated since 2010. In north-central Nigeria, Ansaru, another Boko Haram splinter group, has re-emerged three years after its leader, Khalid al-Barnawi, was arrested by Nigeria’s intelligence agency.
In contrast, after Iraqi and coalition forces killed most of the Islamic State’s founding members, the group was seriously degraded. Two figures in particular have left a void. The organization never recovered from the loss of its top strategist, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who led a number of the Islamic State’s foreign attacks on Paris, Brussels, and Istanbul, among others. Along the same lines, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was reportedly incapacitated during a strike. In the absence of a central leadership, divisions among the terrorist group’s cells emerged, striking a devastating blow to the Islamic State.
In one of Africa’s most volatile regions, an offshoot of the Islamic State is very much alive and expanding. The loss of the Islamic State’s grip on a physical caliphate in Syria will give it an occasion to go looking for other fights to enter. The Islamic State West Africa Province, which has styled itself largely in opposition to its namesake, could provide it with a dangerous and effective template.