Reports have emerged from the remote northeastern region of Nigeria that in-fighting has broke out within militant group Boko Haram after the so-called Islamic State (IS) group announced a new leader to its Nigerian affiliate last month.
In August, IS announced that Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s former founder Mohammed Yusuf, had replaced Abubakar Shekau at the head of the terrorist organization. Just days later however, Shekau insisted that he remained in charge of the Islamist group, whose insurgency has killed at least 20,000 people since 2009 and forced more than 2.6 million from their homes. In early September, sources in northeastern Nigeria reported that there have been deadly skirmishes between the two factions, even as the Nigerian military is seeking to finally rout the rebels in a sustained counter-offensive.
On 1 September, several fighters from Shekau’s camp were said to have been killed in two separate gunbattles that erupted with IS-backed Barnawi gunmen in the Monguno area of Borno state, near Lake Chad. While the Nigerian military has declined to comment on the reported in-fighting, one locate who lives in the area disclosed that “the Barnawi faction launched an offensive against the Shekau faction who were camped in the villages of Yele and Arafa,” adding, “in Yele, the assailants killed three people from the Shekau camp, injured one and took one with them, while several were killed in Arafa.” The attack prompted residents of Arafa to flee. The local also disclosed that fighters from Barnawi camp had the previous day attacked gunmen loyal to Shekau in Zuwa village in nearby Marte district, killing an unspecified number, adding that “the Barnawi fighters told villagers after each attack that they were fighting the other camp because they had derailed from the true jihad and were killing innocent people, looting their property and burning their homes.” News of the factional clashes has been slow to emerge because of the destroyed telecommunications infrastructure in northeastern Nigeria.
Since the death of Mohammed Yusuf in police custody in 2009, Shekau has led Boko Haram, waging a deadly, indiscriminate guerrilla war that has overwhelmingly targeted civilians in the three main northeastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. Within these states, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted mosques, churches, markets and bus stations while hit-and-run attacks have destroyed remote villages and have killed and maimed thousands of residents. Thousands of people, many of them women and young girls, have been kidnapped, with the widely most known hostage taking occurring in April 2014, when more than 200 schoolgirls were taken from the northeastern town of Chibok in an attack that sparked international outrage. In many videos and audio recordings that have been released over the years, Shekau has justified the attacks against the secular state, those who support it and anyone who does not share his radical interpretation of Islam. In March 2015, he pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and changed the group’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). However over the past year, there have been growing tensions within the group, and experts have suggested that the indiscriminate killings of civilians, coupled with Shekau’s “dictatorial” style, including secret killings of dissenting commanders, have caused a rift. This was evident shortly after his nomination, with Barnawi making a point of critiquing Shekau’s leadership and lambasting him for targeting ordinary Muslims.
France warned in early September that so-called Islamic State (IS) group fighters could flee towards Egypt and Tunisia after being flushed from their former Libyan stronghold of Sirte.
Speaking on 5 September during a defense conference in Paris, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that “we should begin to look seriously at the question of the spread of the terrorists once Sirte…(is) emptied of the terrorists.” He further disclosed that “they don’t disappear. There’s a new risk that appears,” adding, “indirectly this will pose new risks for Tunisia and Egypt.” He also indicated that it was a “shame, perhaps political reasons prevent it, that all the neighbouring states of Libya don’t meet” over the issue.
Le Drian’s Tunisian counterpart, Farhat Horchani, has also called for effective regional coordination. Horchani, who attended the same defense conference in Paris, stated, “we have a large number of foreign fighters who arrived from Sirte, or from Syria. I can see no strategy, no cooperation between the states,” to deal with the problem.”
Forces loyal to Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which has been backed by weeks of US air strikes, have recaptured nearly all of what had been the jihadists’ main stronghold in the North African country. On 3 September, pro-GNA forces launched a new attack against IS in Sirte, reporting the following day that it could take several days to gain full control of the city.
IS took advantage of the chaos in oil-rich Libya in the wake of the 2011 uprising. They went on to seize Sirte in June 2015, which sparked fears that the jihadists would use it as a springboard for attacks on Europe. While the loss of Sirte would be a reversal for IS, French and US figures indicate that there are between 5,000 and 7,000 jihadists that remain in Libya, with one French security source disclosing that many “have evaporated in th south of he country.”
In recent weeks, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group has suffered a series of setbacks in Syria, including the loss of access to the Syria-Turkey border and the killing of a number of top leaders. Analysts however warn that the terrorist group remains a potent force – a fact that has been demonstrated by a series of deadly attacks.
The growing pressure on IS, which includes Turkey’s decision to launch an operation against it in northern Syria, has seen the militant group lose ground at an unprecedented pace. IS however continues to maintain the capacity to obtain weapons, attract recruits and deploy fighters to carry out devastating attacks abroad.
On 4 September, the Turkish operation reclaimed the last stretch of the Syria-Turkey border from IS, effectively sealing off its self-styled “caliphate” in Syria and neighbouring Iraq and forcing the group to rely on smuggling networks instead. For IS, this was just the latest setback as the group is now under attack from Syrian and Iraqi troops, as well as Kurdish fighters, Syrian rebels, Turkish Forces, Russian warplanes and a US-led coalition. Experts believe that IS now controls just 20 percent of Iraq and 35 percent of Syria. At the height of its expansion, after it seized Syria’s Palmyra in May 2015, IS controlled around 240,000 square kilometres (more than 92,000 square miles) in both countries – an area roughly the size of Britain. Today however experts indicate that this number has fallen by more than a third to around 150,000 square kilometres, adding that the population it now controls has also declined from some eight million people in mid-2015 to 4.5 million people today. In another major blow to the group’s mobility, in August, IS lost Jazirat al-Khaldiyeh, an area in Iraq’s western Anbar province that was a key crossroads. Meanwhile in Libya, IS is on the verge of losing its stronghold of Sirte. Along with the territorial losses, IS has been affected by a number of high-profile assassinations of its key leaders, which include senior commander Omar al-Shishani and spokesman and top strategist Abu Mohamed al-Adnani.
While these setbacks paint a picture that IS is on the decline, analysts are increasingly warning that the group is far from finished, noting that its focus may simply be shifting from territorial expansion to consolidation of population centres, such as Syria’s Raqa and Iraq’s Mosul, and to launching new attacks against civilians in the region and the West. IS has proven capable of adapting to the changing territory, and it likely that it will do the same this time around. The loss of the border with Turkey will hamper the group’s abilities to import new weapons and recruits, as well as to export resources such as oil. However this challenge is hardly a new one as pressure from Kurdish forces coupled with a Turkish crackdown on the border had already forced IS to mainly rely on smuggling networks. In regards to attaining weapons, IS has always relied to some degree on purchasing from corrupt individuals among its enemies, or capturing arms from defeated opponents.
The French Prime Minister has disclosed that the country’s security services are foiling terror plots and dismantling militant networks “every day.”
Speaking to French media, Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated, “today the threat is at a maximum, and we are a target,” adding, “every day intelligence services, police, foil attacks, dismantle networks, track terrorists. There are about 15,000 people in France who are monitored, because these people are in the process of radicalization.” The Prime Minister warned that there will be further attacks. Authorities had previously indicated that about 10,000 were identified as high-risk.
The report comes in the wake of two high-profile arrests. On 10 September, a boy of 15 as arrested at his home in Paris on suspicion of planning an attack over the weekend. Investigators have reported that he had been under surveillance since April and had been in touch with a French member of the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, Rachid Kassim. Meanwhile on 4 September, a car loaded with gas cylinders was found near Notre Dame cathedral and jerry cans of diesel, leading to the discovery of a plot to attack a Paris railway station under the direction of IS. Seven people, including four women, have since been arrested. Prosecutors have since charged one of the women, Ornella G (29), with alleged involvement in a terrorist attack and attempted murder. On Friday, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins disclosed that Ornella G’s fingerprints had been found inside the car. She was known to intelligence agents as someone who was considering going to Syria. She was arrested on Tuesday in southern France along with her boyfriend, who has since been released. The three other women were questioned by police and are alleged to have been planning other “imminent and violent” attacks. One of the women stabbed a police officer during her arrest. It has been reported that French Islamist militant Kassim also guided one of the women. French newspaper Le Monde has reported that Kassim is currently in Syria and has used Telegram, the messaging service, to call for more attacks in France. Sources have disclosed that Kassim, 29, inspired two men who carried out an attack in July in a French church during which they slit the throat of the elderly priest.
While France has been under a state of emergency since IS attacks on Paris in November 2015, which killed 130 people, a recent commission of inquiry found that the state of emergency was only having a “limited impact” on improving security. The commission has also questioned the deployment of between 6,000 and 7,000 soldiers to protect schools, synagogues, department stores and other sensitive sites.
Security is becoming a central issue in the run-up to next year’s presidential election. Mr Valls however has stated that proposals by former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, to set up special courts and detention centres are not the answer. In August, Mr Sarkozy announced that he would run again for the presidency, stating, “every Frenchman suspected of being linked to terrorism, because he regularly consults a jihadist website, or his behaviour shows signs of radicalisations or because is in close contact with radicalized people, must be preventively placed in a detention centre.”
After months of fighting, militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) are on the verge of being completely ousted from their stronghold in Libya’s central coastal city of Sirte.
In May of this year, milita groups aligned to the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) launched an operation aimed at forcing IS from Sirte and regaining control of the city. More recently, after weeks of stagnating, the battle to expel the jihadist group has achieved more success with the held of US air strikes, which were launched at the beginning of this month at the request of the GNA. As of 29 August, the US has carried out 77 air strikes on the city, and while it has damaged the jihadists’ position in Sirte, it does not mean the end for their presence in the North African country.
Why is Losing Sirte Important?
IS took complete control of Sirte in June 2015 after being pushed out of its initial stronghold of Derna, which is located in Libya’s far east, by rival militias aligned with al-Qaeda. The loss of Sirte, which is IS’ stronghold in Libya, would effectively be a blow to the group’s image. In IS propaganda, the jihadist group has repeatedly portrayed the city, which is close to Western Europe, as a key position outside its main areas of operation in Iraq and Syria. As it has held control of the city, IS has transformed buildings in Sirte into its own institutions and prisons and has used the local radio station to air its propaganda. Control of the city also brought IS close to the country’s oil-rich area.
Does IS Have Any Other Strongholds in Libya?
No it does not, however IS remains present elsewhere in the country. In the second city of Benghazi, IS militants have long been fighting other forces and have recently launched a number of attacks on its western outskirts.
How Many IS militants are in Libya?
While there are no reliable figures about the number of IS militants currently in Libya, it has been estimated that the group has about 5,000 fighters in th country, man y of whom are thought to have been deployed in Sirte.
What Does IS Do Next?
IS has been caught on the back foot and the militant group may initially move into desert areas, revert to earlier tactics. Prior to losing its stronghold in Derna, the group made its presence felt elsewhere in Libya by carrying out repeated bombings in the key cities of Tripoli and Benghazi as well as targeting oil installations partly run by Western companies. As it puts up resistance, IS has again been employing suicide bombings as a means of attack.
Where Might IS Go Next?
Some analysts believe that IS fighters may flee to remote areas in the southern region of the country. If they choose this route, they could head for the Sahel-Sahara area, where other jihadists are present and operate relatively freely. However Libya’s importance to IS effectively means that the militant group may eventually regroup and emerge in another part of the country, seeking again to take control of land, which they can then showcase as a major gain. Analysts believe that the town of Bani Walid is one option for IS fighters, with local media recently reporting that air strikes hit a road in th city’s southeast, which reports disclosed was “often used” by is fighters.
The militants make seek to boost their forces in and around Benghazi, or they may head west towards Sabratha. While IS used to run a large training camp in that region, the site may no longer appeal the jihadist group as it was the target of a US air strike in February 2016. Yet another option is the town of Ajdabiya, which is located between Sirte and Benghazi. IS previously had a presence in the town, however it is believed that if they were to establish themselves there, the would have to confront al-Qaeda-linked rivals and the Libyan National Army of the Tobruk-based parliament.
What is evident is that IS is facing mounting pressure and US airstrikes in Libya, which may result in them struggling to create a new stronghold in the country.