Security sources and residents in northeast Nigeria have reported deadly clashes between the country's two main Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs), Boko Haram and the Islamic State of the West African Province (ISWAP), since around the middle of February 2023. The fighting reportedly centers around control of each group's strongholds in the northeast area of the country. Both groups have engaged in sporadic reprisal attacks since late last year. However, the violence has escalated in recent weeks, particularly at Gerere and Jumaa Toro villages on the border of Lake Chad in the Abadam district near the border with Niger Republic, an area where both groups assert influence.
The intensity of the recent fighting began when militants of Boko Haram raided ISWAP camps in Tumbun Gini and Kayowa. The raid was reportedly led by a senior Boko Haram commander called Abubakar Kannai, who was accompanied by two senior lieutenants of the group, Bako Falgore, and the notorious Abu Umamah. Boko Haram ransacked the two ISWAP strongholds, which happened to be small islands in the Lake Chad area on the Nigerian side. The group broke into a prison and freed inmates and hostages who were erring militants from their own group. The fleeing ISWAP militants headed in the direction of Kukawa, Tumbun Kare, and Barangu, also in the Lake Chad area. Additionally, the group killed 33 wives of ISWAP fighters to further increase their body count. The Boko Haram attack was in retaliation for one of the major attacks in December 2022, in which the group lost 56 fighters, including the notorious commander Malam Aboubakar (AKA Munzir).
Boko Haram now occupies Tumbun Ali and Kaduna Ruwa islands that were previously under ISWAP's control. The group has vowed to reclaim all the islands in the area, which they claim belonged to them before ISWAP took them over. Later on, in an apparent reprisal attack, ISWAP militants launched attacks on Boko Haram camps in Bama, Konduga, and Mafa districts on the fringes of the Sambisa forest.
ISWAP and Boko Haram: Ideological Feud and Recent Clashes
Since 2016, there has been an ongoing ideological conflict between Boko Haram and ISWAP. ISWAP emerged from a schism in Boko Haram, objecting to the latter's indiscriminate killings of Muslims and civilians. After pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, it became the dominant VEO and a major threat to the Nigerian military and security forces. The two groups have been long-standing rivals and have engaged in a feud driven by ideological differences.
In May 2021, ISWAP militants engaged in fierce fighting with a Boko Haram unit led by the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau. According to ISWAP propaganda, Shekau was hunted down and was offered the chance to repent and join ISWAP, but he decided to detonate himself to avoid humiliation. Following Shekau's death, some Boko Haram fighters joined ISWAP to avoid execution, while others surrendered to the Nigerian military. The rest fled northwest to Kaduna and central Niger Republic. A number of militants also joined their comrades on Lake Chad islands controlled by the well-known Boko Haram leader known as ‘Bakura,’ whose faction is widely known as the ‘Bakura faction’.
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A Nigerian security source who was reached by mobile told Militant Wire that “ISWAP has made a deadly mistake by accepting the Boko Haram militants in its ranks.” He explained that “following the death of Shekau, the Boko Haram members who joined ISWAP have started using ISWAP weapons, learning their fighting techniques, and discovering their hideouts. This has put them in an advantageous position to work as spies for the highest bidder, such as the Bakura faction fighting against ISWAP or the Nigerian military.”
The security source added that the reason behind the recent clashes is the presence of the Bakura faction in the Lake Chad region, where ISWAP thrives. The group remained loyal to Shekau even after his death, and they were very resentful about ISWAP killing Shekau. Therefore, they organized themselves and started to launch attacks on ISWAP, while the latter fought back.
However, the source noted that “ISWAP has the upper hand in these clashes as they run a tighter, better-equipped fighting force.” To him, “ISWAP has always had the upper hand because of having a clear hierarchy within the group and a command in control.” Nevertheless, he added that recent Nigerian counterterrorism operations have set back all VEOs, mainly in the northeastern part. “All VEOs have been cut off from civilian support, giving them no access to food, medicine, or looting from NGOs, or military arsenal.”
Surrendering: The Lesser of Two Evils for Boko Haram
On the evening of Nigeria's presidential election, February 24th, 2023, Boko Haram militants abandoned their Gazuwa camp in Konduga district in eastern Nigeria, following days of ISWAP attacks that left several dead, including women and children. The exodus resulted in the surrender of hundreds of Boko Haram fighters and their families to the Nigerian military, including four jihadi commanders.
A few days later, Nigerian media outlets reported that ISWAP had killed over 200 Boko Haram militants in a clash around Gudumbali, Borno state. Reports indicated that ISWAP had intercepted fleeing Boko Haram militants and their families at Choliye and killed them, while the rest escaped to Gwoza, Konduga, Mafa, Dikwa, Gajiram, and Lake Chad shores.
According to a Nigerian security source, the average Boko Haram militant has limited options and is forced to surrender to the Nigerian military or fight and die in battles with ISWAP. He describes their situation as being stuck between a “rock and a hard place,” with limited choices for themselves and their families.
As the relentless attacks persist, numerous members of Boko Haram and their relatives have surrendered to one of the major military operations in Nigeria, Operation ‘Hadin Kai’ in areas like Mafa and Konduga in the Theatre, while others have fled to places such as Dikwa, Abadam, and even the Niger Republic.
In the Niger Republic, on 15 March 2023, the army announced the arrest of 960 followers of Boko Haram. The security source noted that most of the arrestees were women and children who are family members of the group who had fled Nigeria. He added that the average fighter has three or four women with children from these women. Therefore, the number of arrestees does not necessarily indicate an immense loss in the number of militants.
Nigerian CT Operations Deplete ISWAP Militants' Weapon Stockpiles
In a more detailed comment on the Nigerian army's counter-terrorism operations, the source stated, “The Nigerian army has come a long way from the days when ISWAP militants overran military locations and looted hundreds of small arms, including GPMGs and RPGs.” He added that the military operations have been so effective that recent arrests of ISWAP militants have revealed they are only equipped with basic weapons. He stated, “we are now witnessing instances of insurgents being apprehended with knives or local weapons, instead of the usual AK-type rifles or GPMGs. Additionally, their ammunition is being refilled or repurposed, indicating that their weapons stockpile has been depleted.”
According to the source, former President Muhammadu Buhari made a significant effort to equip the military, and the Nigerian army has not seen such a high level of equipment since the 1980s.
The source noted that Buhari was a military officer, while the current president is a civilian who has never led military operations. The current president's policy regarding insecurity in the country is to recruit en masse. However, the source believes that this recruitment policy may not be effective. He added that numbers are not important in this fight and that “five lions are better than five thousand sheep.”
In some cases, he said, “bad guys or inexperienced young men” end up being recruited. These recruits lack professional training, which can lead to inadequate experiences when they join the forces. The source concludes that what the Nigerian forces need is to strategize recruitment and the acquisition of weapons.
It is evident that the incumbent president, Bola Tinubu, is determined to combat terrorism, banditry, and kidnapping in the country. His topmost priority is national security, and he has outlined an action plan that involves a “proactive and intelligence-led security approach to effectively tackle security threats”. Despite over 20 years of insurgency, Nigeria and other countries in the Chad Lake basin continue to experience jihadist activities. Although the military is assuring victory, the situation on the ground remains unsatisfactory.