Be it military or civilian based approach or both, the level of success or failure in counter insurgency operations is highly dependent on timely intervention. From strategic planning to launching ground and aerial operations and implementing local Prevent Violent Extremism (PVE) programmes to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) interventions, perfect timing is everything and everything is perfect timing. There is no better time than now for all impacted states of the Lake chad basin (Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger) to combine all available multi-agency resources and measures to crush (at least militarily) Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West Africa province (ISWAP). The armed groups are divided, weak and in a state of total chaos; never experienced since Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL/ISIS) in 2015.
Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’ awati Wal-Jihad, otherwise known as Boko Haram terrorists’ group and splinter factions linked to the ISWAP have been forced to focus their criminal and terrorist activities largely on the fringes of Lake Chad and the porous borders of Nigeria – Cameroon – Niger Republic and Chad. The Lake Chad border region host a complex terrain of deep forest, lakes, islands and caves, which provides natural cover for armed jihadist groups. It is equally rich in agriculture, pastoralism, fishing and arms smuggling routes required by Boko Haram ISWAP jihadist for sustenance and survival. The Lake Chad region is also a magnet for wealthy merchants. These merchants frequently travel along the lagone and Chari divisions of Cameroon, the Hadjer – Lamis regions of Chad and the lake Chad/Sahel in general. The trade route presents an ideal operating theatre for armed Boko Haram/ISWAP to mount water and road checking points and raise huge funds on a weekly basis. However, all these beneficial activities are in serious jeopardy due to internal splits, karma and recent offensives from regional states and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF).
The True State of Boko Haram/ISWAP Splits:
ISIS/ISIL leadership has thus far sealed its lips against any public recognition of Amir Abba Gana as the new Wali of Wiyalat Africa –ISWAP. They did not utter a word since their appointed Wali, Abu Musab Habib Al Barnawi, a surviving biological son of JAL/Boko Haram terrorists group founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was controversially cornered and placed under arrest by some of his key commanders. The young and less experienced Abu Musab Al Barnawi was questioned, suspended, incarcerated and finally demoted to a mere military commander, for offences related to insubordination, usurping power amongst other extreme Sharia related infringements. Al Barnawi was replaced by his own blood brother Abu Abdullahi Ibn Umar Al Barnawi (Ba’a Idrissa), initially on a temporary basis, while internal investigations were concluded and consultation approval received from the core ISIS.
Neither core ISIS, nor key ISWAP funders approved of or gave their blessing to Ba’a Idrissa’s leadership and the replacement of Al- Barnawi. Failing internally to overturn the leadership changes in a peaceful process, commanders loyal to Abu Musab Al-Barnawi including Abba Gana mounted a bloody coup. Ba’a Idrissa and four of his loyal commanders were slaughtered, accused of instigating a failed assassination plot on Al Barnawi and attempting to betray the ‘Caliphate’ to regional apostates. The bloody assassination of Ba’a Idrissa and 3 of his commanders and the narrow escape of other targeted commanders, splits ISWAP into three deadly factions.
Things got worse for the ISIS and Al-Qaida linked jihadist future, when some factional commanders loyal to Abu Musab Al Barnawi blamed the ISWAP split as a direct mastermind of Boko Haram erratic and power thirsty leader, Abubakar Shekau.
In August 2016, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau (who had reluctantly pledged allegiance to ISIS leadership his group to become the first ISIS Africa Wiyalat under ISIS Abubakar Al- Baghdadi), was shocked and furious after ISIS announced that he had been replaced by his spokesman — a much younger Abu Musab Albarnawi. Shekau called the move an unforgiven betrayal and blamed the decision squarely on his deputy – Mamman Nur (Nur was key in convincing Shekau to give Bayat to ISIS Leader). Nur was a Cameroonian born and came from Maroua – Far North region and was deputy to Mohammed Yusuf. He was known to be the most strategic and connected among the Boko Haram terrorist group leadership. He was and the man believed to have formally introduced Abubakar Shekau to the original founder of Boko Haram terrorists’ group, the late Mohammed Yusuf. Dissatisfied with Shekau’s unforgiven leadership tactics and quest for senseless violence, Nur and Al-Barnawi met with other top commanders and formed a recognised ISIS splinter group called ISWAP. Mamman Nur was at the centre of a bitter and challenging letter titled ‘expose’ responding directly to Shekau’s threats after his replacement and presenting justifications of the ISIS decision to replace Shekau. Shekau refused to back down from leading ISWAP and promised to hunt down Mamman Nur and Al Barnawi.
Mamman Nur became deputy to the Wali Al-Barnawi but in reality, the much experienced and connected deputy was indeed the real Wali. In the later part of 2018, Mamman Nur was killed after internal accusations of embezzlement and leaning towards a more liberal approach. Sources say, Al Barnawi was made to believe, that with Nur out of the way, he would have full command and control of ISWAP. However, while one finger was pointed directly at Mamman Nur, some quick thinking commanders pointed the remaining fingers directly at Shekau’s past promises of revenge by using his inside network to destroy ISWAP.
Fast forward — the accusations, arrest, detention and demotion of Abu Musab Albarnawi and failed attempts to assassinate the ISWAP appointed leader left some loyal commanders to breakaway. They took the young Al–Barnawi to safety, suspecting other commanders of planning to execute a hidden assassination scheme masterminded by Abubakar Shekau ISWAP leadership. The Al-Barnawi loyalist Commanders who continue to maintain strong network with ISIS core leadership and militants, have sworn to hunt down Abubakar Shekau and other factional commanders before they get to Al-Barnawi.
These series of past and present events have culminated to the current manhunt and bitter chaos existing between ISWAP commanders and JAS/Boko Haram terrorists group leader, Abubakar Shekau. The chaos, distraction, suspicion and infighting has seriously weakened the ability of these factions to coordinate operations as each is after the other for now.
The Current ISWAP – Boko Haram Structure:
ISIS most deadly and powerful Africa wiyalat – ISWAP has disintegrated into three independent rival factions each led by a new commander as follows:
ISWAP Faction One:
The main ISWAP faction that split from Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram in 2016 is currently led by Amir Abba Gana who took over from Ba’a Idrissa (known to be another surviving son of JAS/Boko Haram terrorists’ group founding leader, late Mohammed Yusuf). Recall that Ba’a Idrissa was assassinated sometime in February 2020. He was killed alongside four of his top commanders in another fierce leadership dispute. Ba’a Idrissa had replaced his brother, Abu Musab AI-Barnawi who was accused by some of his Shura Council commanders for not consulting them on key decisions amongst other accusations.
ISWAP Faction Two:
ISWAP Faction Two is an independent new splinter group commanded by Amir Bako Borgozo and Modu Sulum. Much is unknown about these duo commanders, but sources claim the ISWAP splinter group mainly operates along Goniri-Borgozo-Beni Sheik axis. This faction is alleged to have launched fierce surprise attacks against troops of Theatre Command of Operation LAFIYA DOLE. They were to have stolen heavy weapons including gun trucks, light and heavy arms to reinforce their units along Njibul, Buk-Long, Ajigin Long, Mangusum Long, under Damboa Local Government Area of Borno State, Nigeria. A recent Nigeria Army ground and Aerial offensive dubbed ‘Operation LAFIYA DOLE’ – has pushed the Bako Borgozo and Modu Sulum faction into a retreat towards the south into territories occupied by the Abubakar Shekau JAS/Boko Haram units prompting possibilities of violent clashes between the rival jihadist over resource control and operational space.
ISWAP Faction Three:
ISWAP Faction Three is another independent faction under the command of Amir Kannami and another commander only known by the name Zainammi. This faction is said to have experienced foreign fighters across the region. They are responsible for attacks on military positions and soft target attacks on Communities in northern Borno. Thus, forcing people comprising of mostly women and children, to flee to southern Borno. Amir Kannami is alleged to have commanded the unit that attacked and killed 98 Chadian soldiers and senior officers in the Island of Boma Lac Province in March 2020. This prompted Chadian President to personally launch ‘Operation Boma Wrath’. There are indications that massive loses in men has prompted concerns of this factions planning mass abductions and forceful recruitment to swell their ranks.
JAS Boko Haram Shekau Faction:
This faction remains the oldest in the region, although its leader Abubakar Shekau, was replaced by ISIS for a much younger Abu Musab Al Barnawi. Shekau is described by some of his estranged commanders as erratic, controlling and extremely brutal but he still retains command and control and continues to lead operations in the southern parts of Borno. This include confined space in the Sambisa forest and small units in the Lake Chad Basin. The JAS/Boko Haram faction is at the verge of collapse as sources indicate the evasive Abubakar Shekau could soon be overthrown. He might be deposed by the new and more aggressive commanders of ISWAP escaping from the northern parts and moving towards the southern parts, where Shekau has the strongest presence. In a recent audio circulating on social media, a screaming and shaky-voice Shekau was heard issuing his last prayers in an undisclosed location suspected to be somewhere in Sambisa forest. A desperate Shekau was screaming to God to kill all his enemies and protect him and his men from his rivals. He called on all his ground fighters to exercise patience and to keep fighting – a clear indicating that Shekau is under pressure from multiple fronts.
Will Jihadists reconcile?
Sources say all internal and external mediation attempts to broker a truce between ISWAP and Boko Haram rival factions have so far failed leading to bitter competition for limited operating space, new recruits, key logistics supply routes and source of funding. Divided, jihadists factions are struggling to withstand the fire power of regional states but left for long these groups could soon join forces again.
How Powerful are Jihadist?
It is impossible to measure the ideological strength of these various factions but the recent ‘Operation Boma Wrath’ by Chadian security and Armed Force and the MNJTF Nigeria sector 3, Niger Sector 4; ‘Operation YANCIN TAFKI’ and ‘Operation LAFIYA DOLE’ (combined together) severely impacted on the capacity and capability of these jihadists. These operations have cumulatively depleted the strength of the factions by thousands of fighters including top commanders. Boko Haram and ISWAP factions operate in small units spread across more than 150 locations in the region. They have an estimated joint human capacity of 20,000 frontline fighters and about 3000 special jihadist forces. It is believed that they have local and regional support network of sympathisers, sponsors and counter-intelligence operatives. For example, ISWAP is actively using local fishermen as front for recruitment networks along villages in Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria. They are trying to quickly replace lost fighters from recent operations. Stopping their ability to recruit further is a regional challenge that must be overcome and very quickly.
Pressure from the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF).
The MNJTF ‘Operation YANCIN TAFKI’, a coalition of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, have intensified intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as ground and aerial offensives on key Boko Haram ISWAP safe havens along the many Tunbum Islands of the Lake Chad Basin. ‘Operation YANCIN TAFKI’ has been supplemented along the porous borders by Nigeria’s ‘Operation LAFIYA DOLE’ and Chad’s ‘Operation Boma Wrath’.
From January 2020, JAS and ISWAP factions have lost over 50 experienced commanders from the direct action of the Nigerian Air Task Force; Nigerién and Chad Air Force and MNJTF artillery assault units- Sectors 2, 3 and 4. The most notable among those killed JAS commanders, was Mallam Bakura, who was killed by an air/artillery interdiction in one of the remote Lake Chad Islands in the borders of Niger and Chad. About 25 ISWAP commanders have also been killed and many more seriously wounded after stepping on landmines planted as booby traps to target MNJTF member states.
The Nigeria Army, Air Force and Navy is the biggest contributor of the MNJTF and has experienced the greatest impact of Boko Haram ISWAP activities within north and southern Borno and the fringes of the Lake Chad Basin. The gains of ‘Operation LAFIYA DOLE’ under the field command of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen. Tukur Buratai, should continue to mount pressure on ISWAP and Boko Haram jihadist recently pushed back by the MNJTF and Chadian Security and Armed Forces. These displaced jihadists are in search of shelter, fuel, food and other essential supplies through remote areas along Kannama and Gaidam axis.
Some of these items are moved from Kano state by land concealed in randomly selected goods vehicles towards Hadeja, to jihadists locations at Dogon Chukun, Arege and Metele. The Nigerian security and Armed Forces should deploy ISR and launch further ground and aerial offensives on reported terrorists’ activities and locations in those areas.
The axis of Dawashe, Kwata and Dabam Masara villages in Kukawa LGA, Boluwa village, Monguno LGA, Kelebareye near Baderi village, Dabenowa, Kattikime around Kirenowa town in Marte LGA, should be fortified to block jihadists movement and prevent their operational capacities.
From a soft approach intervention, some Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists survivors have been spotted in Marte Local Government Area of Borno State along the Water-Shores. Fishermen are targeted to join jihadists camps and recruit more vulnerable youths for terrorists’ missions. The Nigerian local authorities in these areas must urgently accelerate youth awareness initiatives on resilience against preying terrorists’ tactics of recruiting young people by convincing them with juicy job offers and huge cash payments with no requirement for formal school certificates. External and internal funding mechanism should be regularly monitored to cut out funders from pumping more cash into jihadists activities. These are urgent measures that need to be implemented immediately.
Chad –The Risk of a Balloon Effect
The recent Chad led “Operation Boma Wrath” neutralised many Boko Haram ISWAP armed jihadist and chased others from Baga-Sola Lac Islands. Terrorist camps at Lelewa, Gadera, Malum Musari, Korolgol, kwatan motor and Tumbun Boka villages close to the Niger Republic borders were all destroyed. The offensives forced jihadist to relocate to hard to access islands such as Toboroun, Fedonde, kan’ngedeya, Ngelewa and other remote villages around Niger – Nigeria borders.
There are over 2000 small hidden islands beyond the Lac Province within Chadian territory, many armed Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists have disappeared into these islands. Recent movements indicate that some jihadists have returned to a few hidden Islands in Baga-Sola – Chad.
The Chadian security and Armed Forces need to expand and maintain a stronger unit in the Islands of the Lac Province while actively coordinating with Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon military leadership. To consolidate recent military gains, the Chadian Security and Armed Forces need to urgently engage in a more regionally driven MNJTF ‘plan – launch – clear and hold’ offensive. Such can only be effective if all member states genuinely commit human and material resources to eliminate jihadists and organised crime activities in their backyard.
The Role of Niger Republic
Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists continue to use Niger Republic as the weakest link in the Lake Chad Basin MNJTF even though a US drone base is located close to the capital Agadez. In December 2019, hundreds of armed men linked to Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists killed about 71 Nigerien forces near Tongo Tongo, where 4 US soldiers were ambushed and killed in 2017 by armed men with close links to Islamic State of the Greater Sahel (ISGH).
Relative deprivation, insecurity and a comparatively weaker political economy provides armed groups linked to Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists a source of voluntary and forced recruitment from stranded, unemployed and under-educated youths. Ungoverned spaces and several waterways within Nigerien border provide confined routes for criminals and jihadist to smuggle large consignments of arms, food items, fish and other logistics under the security radar. Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists are known to rely on a constant supply of smuggled fish from Niger’s Tumur fish market. If Niger Republic deploys security forces to control and block this illegal economy along its borders, it will severely diminish the ability of criminals and jihadist to operate and survive without vital resources.
Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists have increased their criminal activities along the Maltam water ways of the Lake Chad long stretched porous borders of Cameroon. This area remains the largest arms smuggling route for ISWAP jihadist linked to the “Bulaburdo” Merchants. The Merchants pass through Bulgaram and Bularam to deliver ammunitions, fuel and other requirements to ISWAP groups in “Kasuwan Marya” located three kilometres to Darek for onward delivery to Mardas, Chukka, Doron Liman, Yobe and Ramin Dorina fringes of the Lake Chad.
The axis of Bulgaram and Bulanguwa are used as food and essential item supply routes and strategic location for planned jihadist raids on neighbouring Niger and Nigeria. Cameroon Special Forces need to conduct deep checks at Darak area to stop or deter ISWAP jihadists from mounting roadblocks and raising funds from local fishermen and arms traffickers. Their active presence will support joint MNJTF operations if intelligence obtained and shared is actioned on time.
Boko Haram/ISWAP jihadists attacks and criminal activities have been successful due to the lack of an effective joint military operations and intelligence sharing on suspicious activities around Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria porous borders regions among the member states of Lake Chad Basin/MNJTF. Misfortune and unresolved jihadists power struggle have left Boko Haram and ISWAP factions extremely vulnerable, disoriented and weakened. A genuine combined effort from all stakeholders, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad could finish them off (at least in the battlefield), before they eventually reconcile, recover, regroup and re-emerge stronger.
To completely obliterate Boko Haram and ISWAP jihadists’ activities along the Lake Chad axis, no one nation can triumph without other. Collateral damages must be accepted, with offensive strikes conducted through air operations especially on areas not accessible to ground troops. There is no ideal time to strike ISIS presence in Africa than now that they are weak and divided.
About the Author
David Otto – Global Risk International Counter Terrorism & Organised Crime Expert and Certified Master (CMAS) Anti Terrorism Specialist with the Anti Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB) – Twitter: @ottotgs
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