Rise of the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA)
Islamic State Affiliate Controls Huge Lake Chad Territory
They have been described as a greater threat than Islamic extremists Boko Haram, but until recently little international attention has been paid to the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA). Now they control huge swathes of territory in the Lake Chad region.
One problem in identify this new Islamic terrorism threat has been agreeing on the name of the organization. The Islamic State in West Africa is also known as ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA), also known as ISIS West Africa, also known as ISIS West Africa Province, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria West Africa Province, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-West Africa (ISIL-WA), also known as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
According to other sources, Boko Haram is simply the common name used for the Islamic State in West Africa, but according to new analysis, they would appear to be a different group.
Islamic Extremists Use Moderate Strategy
Unlike Boko Haram, the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) is on a mission to win over the local people. Where Boko Haram has won a reputation for savagery, ISWA is digging wells, giving out seeds and fertilizer, and providing safe pasture for herders in the Lake Chad basin.
The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) split from Nigeria’s Boko Haram in 2016 and has been rapidly gaining ground with its “hearts and minds” strategy.
One local man told Reuters that “If you are a herder, driver or trader, they won’t touch you — just follow their rules and regulations governing the territory. They don’t touch civilians, just security personnel.”
This strategy has created a taxable economy for ISWA, supporting its wider campaign to bring territory in northeastern Nigeria and in Niger under Islamic control.
ISWA-Controlled Territory Stretches 100 Miles in Lake Chad Area
Officials have tried to downplay the threat, but new findings show that ISWA stretches farther and is more entrenched than they have previously acknowledged. For the first time provided detailshave been forthcoming of the Islamic group’s growing efforts to establish a form of administration in the Lake Chad area from witnesses, people familiar with the insurgency, researchers and Western diplomats.
A map produced by the U.S. development agency in February shows ISWA territory extending more than 100 miles into the northeastern Nigerian states of Borno and Yobe, where government has in many areas all but vanished after a decade of conflict.
The Islamists have not been defeated, as Nigeria says, and researchers say ISWA, less brutal than Boko Haram, has evolved into the dominant group. The U.S. map paints a similar picture, with ISWA operating in much of Borno.
“Islamic State has a terrible reputation for being so brutal around the world, and people can’t imagine an Islamic State faction could be more moderate (than Boko Haram),” said Jacob Zenn, of The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C.
ISWA Poses Greater Threat Than Boko Haram
Analysts estimate that ISWA has 3,000-5,000 fighters, roughly double Boko Haram’s strength. The Lake Chad countries — Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon — have long neglected the region, allowing ISWA to create a stronghold from which to launch attacks. Its gains contrast with setbacks for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Vincent Foucher, who studies Boko Haram at the French National Centre for Science Research, said:
It makes sense for ISWA to organize the local economy and raise taxes. It opens the longer game of trying to create a connection to people.
He thought that if ISWA succeeds, then it may become a greater threat than Boko Haram.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to finish off Boko Haram in 2015 and officials maintain this has been achieved. The conflict, however, continues and is now into its tenth year. A presidency spokesman declined to comment for this story.
Designated Terrorist Organisation
The complexity of the regional situation, and possibly confusion over the name, meant that it was not until 2018 that the USA officially declared ISWA a terrorist group. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed a public notice to the effect that the Islamic State in West Africa was a designated foreign terrorist organization. The Office of the Federal Registrar has published this:
Based upon a review of the Administrative Record assembled in this matter, and in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury, I conclude that there is a sufficient factual basis to find that the relevant circumstances described in section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended (hereinafter “INA”) (8 U.S.C. 1189), exist with respect to ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA), also known as ISIS West Africa, also known as ISIS West Africa Province, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria West Africa Province, also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-West Africa (ISIL-WA), also known as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Therefore, I hereby designate the aforementioned organization and its aliases as a foreign terrorist organization pursuant to section 219 of the INA.
A large number of aliases had to be admitted into the document, inexplicably, the specific wording “Islamic State in West Africa” was not among them.
Threat’s to ISWA’s Territory
But ISWA’s territory is not completely secure. The Nigerian air force often bombs, and troops from Lake Chad countries attack the insurgents’ domain around its shores and islands.
Nigeria’s armed forces “just see them as Boko Haram,” said Brigadier General John Agim, spokesman for the Nigerian military, at a briefing. “We are not interested in the faction, what has that got to do with it?”
“They are not a government, they kidnap girls from schools,” Agim told Reuters in a separate interview.
The military has announced an operation “to totally destroy Boko Haram locations in the Lake Chad Basin” — ISWA’s domain — and end the insurgency within four months.
Maiduguri is the biggest city in Nigeria’s northeast, the center of the military’s fight against Boko Haram, but rural areas largely remain no-go zones for the authorities. It is there that ISWA is making its mark, offering people protection, particularly from Boko Haram.
ISWA has so far proved intractable in its Lake Chad bases, where troops have been unable to make effective inroads, according to a Western diplomat who follows the group. The Nigerian military had “completely lost the initiative against the insurgency,” they said.
The diplomat said ISWA was ready to cede less important areas because the military cannot hold them. “However, they maintain absolute control over the islands and immediate areas near them where they train, live, etc.”
The U.S., British and French militaries are helping regional governments with intelligence and training. Western officials declined, or did not respond to, requests for comment.
Conflict Between ISWA and Boko Haram
ISWA protects locals from Boko Haram, something Nigeria’s army cannot always do. That, according to one of the people with knowledge of the insurgency, has won the group local backing and eroded support for the military.
ISWA is led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammed Yusuf, who was killed by police in 2009. After Yusuf’s death, his deputy Abubakar Shekau took control of Boko Haram and continues to lead it until the present day. It is estimated that the Islamic insurgency in Nigeria has led to the deaths of more than 34,000 people, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
In contrast to usual ISIS tactics, ISWA’s leaders keep a low profile. They do not appear in videos or claim responsibility for attacks. It has been suggested that this to avoid the attention of both regional governments and international media. Reuters, for example, was unable to contact the group for comment.
This contrasts with the wholesale violence of Boko Haram under the publicity-hungry Abubakar Shekau, who has even executed close lieutenants. His group has strapped suicide bombs to women and children to attack civilians in mosques, markets and refugee camps.
Boko Haram and ISWA are bloody rivals, but some travelers in ISWA territory feel safer than elsewhere in Nigeria’s northeast.
The ISWA Economy
The herders said ISWA provides safe grazing for about 2,500 naira ($8) a cow and 1,500 naira ($5) for smaller animals. ISWA also runs slaughterhouses for the cattle, taking a cut for each animal, as well as from other activities like gathering firewood.
“Al-Barnawi is sending people into IDP [Internally Displaced Persons] camps to encourage people to return and farm, and the people are,” said a person with knowledge of ISWA’s activities.
“They [ISWA] are friendly and nice to those who come to the area, while they indoctrinate other people and sometimes they bring motorcycles for those who want to join them,” a charcoal maker said.
Nigeria’s military plays into the insurgents’ hands by shutting down markets to deny supplies to the group, while ISWA encourages business.
“They have checkpoints for stop and search, and if you are a regular visitor they know you,” said a another herder, adding that ISWA has spies everywhere, including informers who alert them to military attacks.
He described seeing Islamic State’s black flags and said preachers were used to win people over.
Under ISWA, men must wear long beards, nighttime movements are restricted, and prayers are compulsory, the herder said. Offenders can get 40 lashes.
Links Between ISWA and ISIS
Despite its name, experts believe that ISWA’s ties to Islamic State in the Middle East, while theologically strong, are tactically loose.
“What’s clear from ISWA primary source documents is that ISWA has asked IS for theological guidance on who it is lawful to attack,” said Zenn. Daily activities, including military operations, are left to its leaders, he said.
Others say the insurgency lacks the broader appeal of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“ISWA is the largest IS affiliate, but it’s very much a Nigerian organization. It doesn’t have foreign fighters coming, it’s hard to get to this place,” said the Western diplomat.
What fighters it does have can carry out targeted attacks, including the February kidnapping of 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, most later released without explanation, and a deadly raid on a Nigerian military base in March.
But ISWA faces a dilemma: while wooing the population, it has harshly punished those who resist it, for example massacring dozens of fishermen last August, and this could hurt its standing with local people.
“It’s important not to paint too rosy a picture,” said Foucher, the researcher.
Sources: Voice of America; and other sources.
Image: Islamic State in West Africa, Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) fighters in Michika organised against Boko Haram (VOA, 2016).