Islamic State – West Africa Province or ISWAP is a Salafist jihadist militant group, administrative division and affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The objective of ISIL is to establish a caliphate control and govern the Caliphate, expand Islam and Sharia Law worldwide and recreate the power and glory of Islam. With the loss of ground in Iraq and Levant, ISIL cashed in on the pervading corruption, poor governance, poverty, local grievances, youth population bulge, resentment of heavy-handed and extrajudicial police and military actions against extremism that exists in many African countries to expand to the continent.
This expansion into Africa was done covertly. ISIL identifies a country with weakened national institutions, a fledgling insurgent group and a history of social injustice, then makes overtures to the militant groups in the target clime with the allure of financial and materiel support and a request for an oath of allegiance. The plan of action serves two purposes: to fast track insertion into the target jurisdiction without going through the hassles of local recruitment and to acquire its operating base. This was the case of ISIL intrusion into Nigeria, Mali, Somalia, Burkina Faso, etc.
ISIL was introduced into Nigeria in March 2015, when Abubakar Shekau’s group, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (Boko Haram), pledged allegiance to ISIL and changed the group’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISIL accepted the pledge the same month. However, an internal dispute on account of differences in objectives and leadership style later fractured the group. ISIL recognized another leader in 2016, and Shekau’s faction reassumed its original name, continuing to be commonly known as Boko Haram. ISWAP killed Shekau and almost wiped out or co-opted most of the Boko Haram adherents in Sambisa forest and took over the forest as its base.
This marked the coming of the ISWAP brand of terrorism in Nigeria. ISWAP distanced itself from the indiscriminate violence that came to characterize Boko Haram, renouncing the killing of Muslim civilians and vowing to focus attacks on Christians and state targets. It reportedly started providing some state-like services (e.g., basic law enforcement) in its areas of operation to win the hearts and minds of the local population. By 2020, it was assessed that ISWAP had outstripped Boko Haram in size and capacity and was operating with a degree of success including conducting raids on security forces, which have yielded significant war spoils in the form of materiel and other supplies. All these indicate, from the very beginning, that ISWAP may prove to be a more resilient threat than Boko Haram. ISWAP’s efforts to build legitimacy in areas it governs and its reputedly strong resource base, which are in tandem with IS global objectives, were the initial pointers.
By January 2022, ISWAP Nigeria is estimated to have 4,000-5,000 fighters and it tops the attack chart of all IS formations with 162 attacks. The group has attacked military facilities, killed soldiers, looted materiel and funds itself through raiding, kidnapping for ransom, and taxing local populations and commerce. Since 2020 more than 11,000 schools have been shut down in Northern Nigeria with over 2,968 persons killed and 1,484 abducted in the same period. Furthermore, amid rising insecurity in parts of northern Nigeria by the presence of bandits and pervading farmers/herdsmen acrimony there is a mounting concern of convergence of the ISWAP threat and the others. Additionally, United Nations (UN) investigators report that ISWAP Nigeria has links to another IS faction, known as IS-Greater Sahara, which is active in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, although each group appears primarily focused on local aims, the platform can used for transfer of tactics and knowledge.
The modus operandi of ISWAP Nigeria, just like the mother ship, ISIL, remains to take advantage of fragile states with the aim to supplant them. It brings to the fray resources, experience, knowledge from foreign terrorist fighters and the disposal of the organisation. In Nigeria, the writing is on the wall, ISWAP is now in the process of forging an alliance with the bandits in the north. This will lead, predictably, to increase in attacks, raids and kidnap for ransom in the first instance because financial strength is very important to ISWAP and quest for territorial control in the medium term and finally the destruction or co-option into ISWAP of the bandits in the long term for the organisation to carve a niche for itself in furtherance of ISIL objectives.
To avert this impending disaster, national institutions must be strengthened, morale in the security sector must be raised. Furthermore, social services and social justice must be entrenched. One of the favourite tactics of ISIL and by extension ISWAP Nigeria is to win the hearts and minds of the local population in areas they operate to ensure secrecy and loyalty. Therefore, it is imperative that the FGN engages in similar tactics for the same purposes urgently.
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