Study: Islamic State in West Africa Forming ‘Jihadist Proto-State’ in Nigeria

People pack the rest of their belongings following an attack, at the Sajeri village, on the outskirts of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on January 8, 2019.
AUDU ALI MARTE/AFP/Getty Images
EDWIN MORA

Members of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), a Boko Haram offshoot, are employing their growing power and influence to establish a “jihadist proto-state” in northern Nigeria, a non-governmental organization (NGO) reported this week. 

In 2016, Boko Haram split from ISWAP over leadership differences. Unlike Boko Haram, ISWAP has cultivated support among local civilians, allowing the terrorist group to turn the neglected communities into a source of economic aid. 

On Thursday, the International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts, reported: 

Three years after Boko Haram broke apart [in 2016], one faction, the Islamic State in West Africa Province, is forming a proto-state in northern Nigeria. The state should press its military offensive against the jihadists but also try undercutting their appeal by improving governance and public services.

The crisis in north-eastern Nigeria is about more than the military balance of power, as underscored by the support ISWAP has won by creating a proto-state providing a measure of governance and services. If the Lake Chad states hope to dislodge the group and prevent its expansion, they therefore will have to do more than challenge ISWAP in battle. To make inroads, authorities will need to demonstrate that they can fill gaps in governance and service provision in areas of weaker ISWAP influence.

The Islamic State’s (ISIS/ISIL) West African wing is reportedly growing stronger and expanding its influence across northern Nigeria, ICG noted, adding:

ISWAP poses a particular challenge to the Lake Chad states because it represents more than aggressive fighters, rumbling pickups with mounted guns or proclamations of the caliphate’s rebirth. It is filling a gap left by decades of poor governance and neglect in the region. It has cultivated stronger ties with local residents than Boko Haram ever could by helping recover lost cattle, settling disputes over grazing and fishing rights, fending off rustlers, providing care to expectant mothers in rural areas, and imposing swift if terrible justice upon criminals, sometimes including when they are ISWAP members.

ISWAP is often cruel and arbitrary, even with civilians whose support it ostensibly seeks to gain. But for now, in the eyes of many locals, what it has to offer is often better than what came before.

Despite the growing threat at the hands of ISWAP, Boko Haram appears to remain the most prolific and deadliest group, having killed 20,000 people in the past nine years ending in 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported.

It revealed that the situation of the region as a result of the decade-old crisis led to increased frequency of disease outbreaks.

ISWAP is expanding across Africa’s Sahel region as well, where jihadi groups like al-Qaeda have been affiliated with Latin American drug cartels seeking to move narcotics into Europe and beyond. 

Egypt’s state-run Ahram Online reported: 

The vast Sahel-Sahara region, which spans Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, has become home to such terrorist organizations as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic State group (or Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, ISGS) and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF).

These groups have close and extensive relations inside Libya which have enabled them to obtain material and financial support across Libya’s southern borders, an area that has become one of their preying grounds for abducting migrants, human trafficking and arms smuggling.

ICG pointed out that there are thousands of ISIS fighters operating in Africa in the wake of the U.S.-backed victory over the group’s territorial caliphate in Marcy. U.S. military and intelligence officials acknowledge that the group still poses a threat.

The NGO reported:

With an estimated 3,500-5,000 [ISIS] members according to Crisis Group’s sources, it overshadows [its rival faction Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad] JAS, which has roughly 1,500-2,000, and appears to have gained the military upper hand over the latter. 

It has also caused real pain to the Nigerian military, its primary target, overrunning dozens of army bases and killing hundreds of soldiers since August 2018.

In March, U.S.-backed forces completely destroyed ISIS’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but the jihadi organization remains a major threat. This week, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS said 10,000 members of the group are in Iraq and “thousands” more in Syria, he said. 

ISWAP is primarily based on the banks and islands of Lake Chad, the NGO noted, adding:

This jihadist group is waging a guerrilla war across north-eastern Nigeria and elsewhere on the lake’s periphery. By filling gaps in governance and service delivery, it has cultivated a level of support among local civilians that Boko Haram never enjoyed and has turned neglected communities in the area and islands in Lake Chad into a source of economic support. 

If Nigeria and the neighboring Lake Chad states want to sever the bond between ISWAP and these communities – and they should – then they cannot stop with countering ISWAP in battle. They will need to complement military action by filling the service and governance gaps that ISWAP has exploited.

Unlike its rival factions Boko Haram and Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), as well as the Nigerian troops and state, ISWAP has grown closer to civilians. 

The NGO noted:

It digs wells, polices cattle rustling, provides a modicum of health care and sometimes disciplines its own personnel whom it judges to have unacceptably abused civilians. In the communities it controls, its taxation is generally accepted by civilians, who credit it for creating an environment where they can do business and compare its governance favorably to that of the Nigerian state.

Displacing ISWAP will not be easy because it has established a largely symbiotic relationship with locals, the NGO determined.

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