The recent intensified Boko Haram/ISWAP terrorists’ modus operandi of recruiting child soldiers and using them for violent engagement such as ambushing vulnerable communities in Northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin indicates that ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates --Boko Haram JAS faction and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) -- are in serious decline. This battlefield weakness presents an ideal opportunity for the local population; local and international non-governmental Organisations (INGOs) and the international community to enhance support, coordination and needed assistance to Lake Chad regional states displaying genuine commitment and efforts towards restoring stability in the region. A global war on terror approach mirroring the resourced US-Western backed coalition against the collapsed ISIS self-declared Caliphate in Mosul and Raqqa could finish off ISIS most active affiliates in Africa.

In recent months, ISIS and Al-Qaida affiliates in Africa have deployed child soldiers after substantial loss and losing one of the most powerful “3 star General.” It is believed that they lost thousands of experienced homegrown/foreign fighters and top commanders in the battlefield in the recent waves of attacks by the Nigerian Army led offensive against them. These Counter Insurgency (COIN) gains preceded an ongoing coordinated Nigerian Army, Air Force and regional Multi-national joint task force (MNJTF) ground and aerial offensives on Boko Haram and ISWAP strongholds in Northern Nigeria and the fringes of the Lake Chad shores.

ISIS most active jihadists

Boko Haram JAS and ISWAP factions remain the most powerful and active affiliates of ISIS and Al-Qaida wiyalats globally. These groups initially operated predominantly in North East Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (BAY States). But over the years, coordinated and intelligence led ground and aerial military offensives from the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Air-Force and local Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), pushed the jihadist to seek sanctuary in the deeply forested Lake Chad region. The jihadists have continued to launch a hugely guerrilla tactic operations using the porous and complex terrain along the fringes of the Lake Chad Basin countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic. This regional spill over by jihadists and criminal elements linked to all regional states led to the establishment of the regional Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) with Headquarters in N’Djamena - Chad.

Ungoverned space

Exploiting the massive ungoverned terrain; complex waterways; tunnels; Hills; thousands of Islands; deep forest and waste lands, Boko Haram and ISWAP maintain an extensive operational network with local organised crime groups and other Al-Qaida and ISIS groups (JNIM and ISGS) in the triangle of Liptako Gourma (Sahel), Libya (AZWAJ) and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Leadership dynamics

Since the killing of Boko Haram founding leader Mohammed Yusuf in July 2009, the JAS faction has maintained its erratic and veteran leader Abubakar Shekau. But the much unstable splinter faction – ISWAP has had 3 leaders under 4 years. The current leader is a less known Amir Abba Gana. Abba Gana replaced Abu Abdullahi Ibn Umar Al Barnawi (Ba’a Iddrissa - a son of Mohammed Yusuf) after he was accused of insubordination and killed by his close commanders in February 2019. Ba’a Idrissa had replaced his blood brother, Amir Abu Musab Al Barnawi (Habib). Young Al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur (Founding leader of the Ansaru) became the key architects of the first major split of an ISIS wiyalat in Africa after the duo alongside 10 loyal commanders accused Abubakar Shekau of disregarding ISIS religious and operational doctrines amongst other ideological crimes in a bitter letter titled ’Expose”.

Baa Idrissa

The Nigerian Army offensive that killed Notorious ISWAP commander

A fierce land and aerial offensive campaign by the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Airforce and MNJTF sector 3 under the leaderships of Chief of Army Staff Lt-Gen Tukur Yusufu Buratai and Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar degraded the battlefield capabilities of Boko Haram ISWAP factions. One of the offensives in Marte LGA led to the killing of ISWAP most powerful commander – Amir Abu Imrana.

Amir Abu Imrana known as ISWAP “3 star General” was a native of Marte LGA and was known to personally command a group of 300 special forces. He is believed to have died of gun-shot wounds in Sabon Tumbuns. 

These successful battlefield offensives on Boko Haram leadership and strongholds by the Nigerian Army and Air Force in the Sambisa forest and Tumbuns of Lake Chad was preceded by a Chadian Army led ‘Operation Boma Wrath’ targeting a number of Boko Haram ISWAP occupied Islands in the Lac Province. Pressured on all fronts, rival Boko Haram and ISWAP factions agreed to a tactical alliance against troops of the Nigerian Army and MNJTF. 

Boko Haram – ISWAP ‘Unholy Alliance’

In April 2020 Boko Haram and ISWAP agreed to a tactical merger. All key unit commanders were represented in the meeting chaired by the newly appointed ISWAP Chief Judge - Imam Goni Umar and foreign representatives from the Malian and Libyan linked group AZWAJ. Both factions agreed to suspend fasting for all frontline fighters during the Holy Month of Ramadan and adopt an active military style collaborative strategy aimed at launching joint attacks targeting civilians and positions of security and armed forces of the Nigerian Army and regional MNJTF.

The ‘unholy alliance’ is said to have attracted the presence of senior ISWAP field commanders including Baba-kaka, Mallam Ibrahim, Malam Sa'ad, Abu Abdullahi and Bako Fulgori. Amir Abu Imrana, the ISWAP “3-star General” killed by the Nigerian Army after a fierce battle in Marte LGA Northern Nigeria was among other top Boko Haram ISWAP local and regional war lords present.

Boko Haram Commanders and Cabinet Reshuffled

The Nigerian Armed Forces and MNJTF offensives forced surviving Boko Haram/ISWAP factions to escape and establish new hideouts. With proactive ‘See something–Say something’ local community campaign, the Military Intelligence units of the Nigerian Army and MNJTF have been tracking fleeing jihadists. The local intelligence led efforts targeted around Kumowan, Nganzai LGA and Bidda/Kulli in Marte LGA, Borno State, continues to yield tremendous success. Many collaborators, sleeper cells commanders, fighters and suppliers were arrested. Others have gone into hiding and actively seeking to surrender to the Nigerian government and regional states.


After heavy personnel loses, the AZWAJ leadership called for a swift reform of Boko Haram/ISWAP operational structure. The jihadist leaders forced out about 1,000 local fishermen suspected of acting as spies from the axis of Arinna Soro; Kirta, Sabon Tumbu; Tundun Wulgo; Kusuma others.

More than 100 new unit commanders were appointed including one Mohammed Njidda – a notorious Boko Haram member who is known to operate along the river banks of Marte LGA.

Unit commanders found guilty of disloyalty; showing signs of entertaining negotiations with the Nigerian state authorities or not taken orders from the leadership received a range of punishments. Some were slaughtered; others ostracised from the group; demoted to ordinary fighters and imprisoned in makeshift prisons.  

About The Author

David Otto is a Counter Terrorism and Organised Crime Expert. He is a Certified Anti Terrorism Specialist (CAS), a Certified Master Anti Terrorism Specialist (CMAS) and a programme trainer with the Anti Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB). Twitter @ottotgs


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