November 07, 2022
A Global Terror Threat Rises in Nigeria
Every Salafi-jihadi group that has attacked transnationally since al Qaeda’s inception began with a local focus. The Islamic State’s branch in Nigeria is primed to join this list.
Local insurgencies sustain the global Salafi-jihadi movement and allow it to form and regenerate its terror attack cells. US counterterrorism policy has long prioritized a whack-a-mole approach targeting these cells over a more comprehensive strategy to degrade the Salafi-jihadi support base. The Biden administration is downsizing the counterterrorism portfolio further. The recently released National Security Strategy reiterates a commitment to a minimalist “over the horizon” and “partner-led, U.S.-enabled” approach. This approach does not match reality. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their Salafi-jihadi brethren have a global footprint, including local insurgencies that are strengthening and spreading. Local governments are ill-equipped to defeat them and are often responsible for the poor governance conditions that Salafi-jihadis exploit. Over-the-horizon operations may mitigate by notching tactical victories, like the killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Afghanistan in July—but they raise the risk of civilian harm and have little to no effect on the local groups that sustain the global Salafi-jihadi movement.
One such local group is transforming into a regional and potentially transnational threat. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) is likely responsible for an attack plot in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, in late October. The US embassy in Nigeria announced an increased threat of terror attacks in Abuja and ordered the departure of family members, indicating a credible and imminent threat. ISWAP previously plotted to attack the US and UK embassies in Abuja in 2017. It has since gained capabilities and geographic reach that likely pose a new and serious threat to Abuja and Nigeria’s economic hubs, which have largely been spared the violence that has long afflicted the country’s north.
ISWAP is more networked, more internationally-minded, and more capable than prior Nigerian Salafi-jihadi groups. ISWAP’s roots are in the Boko Haram movement of northeastern Nigeria, which rose to international prominence under its ruthless late leader Abubakr Shekau throughout the 2010s. Boko Haram’s most notorious attack was the 2014 kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. Shekau’s brutality and idiosyncratic ideology, which included targeting Muslim civilians, stunted his relationship with al Qaeda, keeping Boko Haram relatively isolated from the global Salafi-jihadi movement. The Islamic State proved a more sympathetic partner, however, and Shekau pledged allegiance to its leader in 2015, adopting the name ISWAP. Shekau’s leadership remained a liability and he was sidelined, and later killed, by militants more closely tied to Islamic State leadership.
ISWAP’s leaders have taken a more nuanced approach than Shekau—one that makes them more strategically effective and less likely to alienate local populations. The group has weathered military pressure in its core terrain and expanded its area of operations across northern Nigeria, accelerating in 2022, and has now claimed attacks in 10 states. It is likely also responsible for a major prison break near Nigeria’s capital this year. ISWAP has benefited from its ties to the Islamic State, which has provided millions of dollars and expert trainers to improve ISWAP’s tactical performance.
ISWAP also advances the Islamic State’s global objectives. Among the three “most vigorous and well-established” Islamic State networks, it features heavily in Islamic State propaganda. The Islamic State has increasingly promoted its African affiliates to counterbalance its losses in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years, and ISWAP is among its most active affiliates globally. Islamic State media declared* Africa a new front for hijra (migration) and global jihad in March.
ISWAP is one of several overlapping security threats in Nigeria. The Nigerian government also faces a banditry-and-warlord crisis in the northwest, a separatist insurgency in the southeast, and farmer-herder tensions across the country. Rising violence has facilitated limited cooperation between Salafi-jihadi factions and other armed groups, multiplying their capabilities and geographic reach.
An unstable Nigeria threatens the trajectory of West Africa and the entire continent. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and will overtake the US as the third most populous country in the world by 2050. It has the continent’s largest GDP. It plays a key role in regional peacekeeping efforts. A stable and democratic Nigeria could be a critical partner for the United States as the geostrategic competition with China and Russia plays out in Africa.
The US government should not ignore the warning signs from one of Africa’s most consequential states. The Biden administration has an opportunity to reframe the counterterrorism mission from one of suppressing immediate threats to one of contesting the influence of the Salafi-jihadi movement, as one of many illiberal actors that threatens the security of the US and its allies. At minimum, the administration should prepare for worst-case scenarios as Salafi-jihadi groups—including ISWAP—mature into a new level of lethality and ambition.