ISIS IN AFRICA – THE MOST BITTER SPLIT – WILL REGIONAL STATES STRIKE IN THE MIDST OF CHAOS. Part 1
By David Otto
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 alleged 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 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 of 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 – his last survival trick might be to use any remaining abducted Chibok girls in his custody to call for a ceasefire. This is an diversionary tactics and should never be considered.
Will Jihadists reconcile?
Sources say all internal and external mediation attempts to broker a truce between ISWAP and Boko Haram rival factions has 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.
Read Also: ISIS IN AFRICA – THE MOST BITTER SPLIT – WILL REGIONAL STATES STRIKE IN THE MIDST OF CHAOS. Part 2
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.
“To be continued.....”
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