MS Risk Blog

Islamic State on its West Africa Province

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Videos featuring the Islamic State’s ‘West Africa Province’ (ISWAP) are released infrequently making each one a notable occurrence. What was particularly noteworthy about the video released on 11 July 2018, titled “Tribulations and Blessings”, was the fact it represented the first official confirmation by the group of armed conflict with the break-away faction Jamaa’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad (JASDJ) led by former leader Abubakar Shekau. Of additional interest was the fact that the video also featured the first evidence of the group using an up-armoured suicide car bomb (SVBIED). Nevertheless, despite being interesting revelations the release of this video was quickly overshadowed by news of a series of deadly attacks by jihadist insurgents targeting military convoys and bases in Nigeria’s Borno and Yobe states.

Perhaps the video was overlooked because neither revelation adds materially to what is known about the group. The rivalry between ISWAP and JASDJ has been well documented since their split in August 2016 after the Islamic State moved to remove Abubakar Shekau as leader for his use of violence, including suicide-bombings and kidnapping, against Muslim civilians. After Shekau refused to accept this decision reports soon began to emerge of clashes between the factions. While hundreds of fighters are believed to have been killed during this in-fighting the situation did not erupt into open warfare as both forces concentrated on consolidating their forces in differgent regions of Nigeria. For ISWAP this was around Lake Chad and the region along the Nigeria-Niger border while for JASDJ this was the centred on the Sambisa forest from which then extended its influence across the central and southern regions of Borno State as well as across the border into Cameroon. Likewise, the up-armoured SVBIED demonstrates either the transfer of technical expertise from Syria and Iraq – which would not be a surprise – or else it indicates an ability to adopt and adapt tactics that are well documented in Islamic State propaganda.

But to allow this video to be shelved alongside all the other propaganda churned out by the Islamic State’s media department is to miss its actual message and purpose. That is, to lay out a justification for the beginning of open warfare, a type of jus ad bellum, against Abubakar Shekau and his faction should there be no reconciliation between them. This is evident in the general order and content of each major ‘theme’ addressed in the video namely: governance, military operations, remaining and expanding; and martyrdom.

The first major theme of the video is governance. This is depicted through scenes of crops, market activity, the catching and smoking of fish as well as the testimonies of a farmer and herdsman regarding life under the rule of ISWAP . Each of these represent the primary economic activities engaged in by communities in areas under the influence or control of the group. This demonstrates ISWAP efforts to develop an effective system of administration in areas under its influence and control. It also underscores the ongoing attempts to differentiate itself from its JASDJ rival, which maintains a reputation for extreme violence in its search for food and other supplies.

The second major theme concerns military operations and can be seen in footage of attacks targeting forces belonging to the Nigerian military and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). The use of an up-armoured jeep as an SVBIED is indicative of the group learning from and adopting tactics employed in Syria and Iraq. However, it is the use of suicide-bombers against military targets that serves as a contrast to JASDJ, which uses them to target civilians; often Muslims themselves. This serves to emphasize the point that ISWAP is targeting the ‘correct’ enemy and in doing so has enjoyed success on the battlefield.

The third theme regards ‘remaining and expanding’ (baqiya wa-tatamaddad). This is seen in the decision to emphasize attacks on the Nigerian military encampment in Buni Yadi (Yobe State) and Faruk – located south of Goniri and east of Buni Yadi in Yobe State. This demonstrates the continued expansion by ISWAP into the region south of the cities of Damaturu and Maiduguri. As recently as April, the presence of ISWAP in this area was believed to be weak or else absent. In contrast, the strength of JASDJ in adjoining region which lies south of Maiduguri and runs eastwards from Chibok towards Buni Yadi was assessed as moderate to strong. This will lead to a further reduction in the geographical separation between the operational areas of both factions and is likely to result in an increase in violence between them.

But it is in the fourth and final theme, martyrdom, that the Islamic State offers the clearest indication that it has run out of patience with Abubakar Shekau, and may be prepared to declare open war on him and his faction. This can be found in the eulogy for the ISWAP commander Abu Fatima al-Lagosi, who was reportedly killed in a battle with JASDJ . As part of a description of the exploits of this jihadi the narrator, speaking in Hausa, states: ‘He made the khawaarij of Shekau and the apostates of Africa drink from a bitter cup’. This comparison between JASDJ and the historic Kharijite movement may have some legitimacy due to the extreme position both have adopted on the matter of ‘excommunication’ (takfir) as it applies to fellow Muslims. However, by making this association the Islamic State is not only attempting to undermine the religious legitimacy of Abubakar Shekau and his supporters, but also establish a legitimate basis for attacking them should they not ‘repent’ and seek a reconciliation (tawba).

Observers of the jihadist insurgency in Nigeria may disagree on the meaning behind this video, and it is possible some will view it as a typical example of the propaganda churned out by the Islamic State’s media team. However, this video was released only weeks after the publication online of the book “Taking Out the Tumor of Shekau’s Khawarij Through Pledging Alliance to the People of Benevolence”. This book (which has fortunately received been translated for those interested) was allegedly written by the sons of Muhammed Yusuf, the founder of the Boko Haram movement, and presents a version of the two factions shared history and seeks to undermine reputation of Shekau leader as well as the religious legitimacy of his ideology, strategy and tactics.

Taken together it would appear that the Islamic State has finally grown tired of the game Abubakar Shekau has attempted to play by not revoking his oath of allegiance but still defying the orders of its central leadership.  This raises a number of important questions: In an open conflict would ISWAP or JASDJ be more likely to prevail? What impact could an increase in inter-jihadi violence have on other conflicts eg herdsmen v farmers? Could an expanded conflict force one or both factions to try and expand into new regions? Are the Nigerian and other regional military forces capable of successfully exploiting any opportunities presented by inter-jihadi conflict?  Could an expanded conflict actually encourage or force a reconciliation between the factions?  … These are questions that will not only present a challenge for both local and foreign policy-makers as well as military planners but also intergovernmental organizations, government aid agencies, multi-national companies and non-government organizations that are active in Nigeria, neighbouring countries and the wider region. It will remain important for each of these actors to continue to monitor the state of the ‘Boko Haram’ insurgency, as the campaigns of both factions continue to be populalry refered to as, in order to ensure their activities, operations and interests are not threatened or negatively impacted.