February 04, 2019
The U.S. Cannot Ignore the Islamic State’s Largest African Affiliate
President Trump’s declaration of “victory” over the Islamic State last month not only denied the reality in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS continues to wage its deadly insurgency. The President’s statement also ignored the growing terrorist threat in Africa, where Islamic State affiliates are strengthening.[i] The U.S. national security strategy promises to pursue terrorist threats to their source and the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy lists combatting terrorism as one of three top priorities.[ii] Yet the U.S. is planning to wind down its counterterrorism footprint in Africa and is turning a blind eye to the Islamic State’s largest African affiliate just as this group becomes deadlier.[iii]
The United States is relying on an incapable and distracted partner to combat this affiliate, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWA), in West Africa’s Lake Chad Basin. ISWA threatens regional stability and U.S. interests and is strengthening. The group primarily threatens Nigeria, one of the world’s most populous countries and Africa’s largest economy.[iv] Nigeria’s security forces—the primary U.S. partner against ISWA—are overstretched. They are unable to prevent ISWA’s expansion, much less defeat the group. Upcoming national elections, other ongoing conflicts, and waning international focus on the Lake Chad region disincentivize the Nigerian government from prioritizing and properly resourcing this fight.
ISWA poses a greater threat to U.S. interests than Boko Haram, on which U.S. policymakers had been focused. Boko Haram came to international attention when it kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls, most of whom were forced to marry Boko Haram fighters, from the town of Chibok in 2014.[v] Boko Haram’s leader Abubakr Shekau received recognition from the Islamic State in 2015 and rebranded as ISWA, but the Islamic State disavowed him a year later. Boko Haram’s methods were more brutal and alienating than even the butchers in Raqqa could stomach. A Boko Haram faction lead by Abu Musab al Barnawi split from Shekau’s group in 2016 with the Islamic State’s blessing, keeping the ISWA title.[vi] Barnawi’s group, which the Islamic State recognizes, differentiates itself from Boko Haram with practices more in line with the Islamic State, including a greater commitment to global jihad and targeting Western interests in Africa.[vii] ISWA already poses a terrorist threat to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, where ISWA has plotted to attack the U.S. and UK embassies, and possibly to Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, where airport security increased last June due to potential threats against commercial airliners.[viii] Foreign fighters could help ISWA mobilize additional Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in parts of West Africa where the Islamic State has not operated previously, making West Africa a greater source of transnational terrorism than it has ever been.[ix]
ISWA’s split with Boko Haram has made the Salafi-jihadi threat in northeastern Nigeria far more dangerous. Shekau’s leadership was ultimately a liability for Boko Haram. His targeting of Muslim civilians alienated local populations and was a major factor in the Islamic State’s disavowal of his leadership. Boko Haram never provided governance, giving local communities no incentive to cooperate. Shekau also reportedly favored fighters from his ethnic group, creating internal friction and limiting Boko Haram’s regional appeal.[x] ISWA has learned from Shekau’s mistakes. The group generally avoids killing Muslim civilians and makes modest efforts to protect commerce and free movement in its territories.[xi] ISWA also indirectly benefits from its competition with Boko Haram. Shekau, who normally prioritizes softer targets, has been directing more attacks against the overstretched Nigerian military in order to remain relevant.[xii] These attacks distract the military from focusing on ISWA.
ISWA is on track to expand its rural sanctuary and recapture territory that Boko Haram once held . ISWA is weakening security forces in northeastern Nigeria. The group has overrun more than a dozen bases since July 2018 and seized equipment, vehicles, and hostages.[xiii] These attacks led hundreds of Nigerian soldiers to desert in the northeast, where they face extended deployments, insufficient equipment, and pilfered salaries.[xiv] ISWA briefly captured several towns in northeastern Nigeria in late 2018, and it will soon be strong enough to hold towns of similar size.[xv] This scenario is hardly shocking: Boko Haram controlled an area the size of Belgium, including Borno State’s second largest city, in 2014.[xvi] The Lake Chad region communities are exhausted from conflict and many would likely acquiesce to ISWA occupation in exchange for an end to fighting. An expanded sanctuary in northeastern Nigeria would bolster ISWA’s legitimacy and allow it to resource attacks across Nigeria and against Western interests in the region (Boko Haram bombed the UN headquarters in Abuja in 2011 before it achieved its territorial maximum).[xvii] Nigerian officials have warned that ISWA is plotting nationwide attacks ahead of February’s elections.[xviii] Attacks on Nigerian population centers, coupled with a tense political atmosphere, could create a more destabilizing election environment than Nigeria has experienced in recent decades.[xix]
The Nigerian government is unlikely to sufficiently reinforce security forces in northeastern Nigeria. Moreover, the military lumps Boko Haram and ISWA as a single threat, which limits the operational effects against the separate factions.[xx] To reduce ISWA’s sanctuary, Nigeria would need to conduct a targeted offensive similar to the one it launched with its neighbors in 2015. Many of the Nigerian units currently facing ISWA’s onslaught were initially deployed as part of that Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) offensive.[xxi]
Nigeria is unlikely to conduct such an offensive because internal security dynamics and domestic politics have changed since 2015. Nigerian security forces are stretched thinner than they were four years ago.[xxii] The military is more focused on southeastern Nigeria due to militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta and an emerging civil war in neighboring Cameroon.[xxiii] The government is also unlikely to draw security resources away from the Middle Belt states, where it adopted a militarized response to farmer-herder violence in 2018.[xxiv] Election politics helped compel then-President Goodluck Jonathan to launch the MNJTF offensive in 2015, but they have had the opposite effect this year for President Muhammadu Buhari.[xxv] Middle Belt violence is deadlier, more geographically dispersed, and politically salient than ISWA due to its ethnic and regional dimensions.[xxvi]
The international community is not focusing on Nigeria’s Salafi-jihadi threat as it did in 2015. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign that followed the Chibok kidnappings in 2014 increased domestic and international pressure on President Jonathan. Western countries offered security assistance to Nigeria immediately following the kidnappings.[xxvii] The U.S. was simultaneously building up its military footprint in neighboring Niger, signaling broader interest in counterterrorism in the region.[xxviii] Boko Haram’s oath of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 also likely helped sustain international focus on the region: The U.S. deployed 300 soldiers to Cameroon shortly after the announcement.[xxix] In contrast, the U.S. is reportedly looking to reduce its military footprint in West Africa in 2019.[xxx]
Chad and Cameroon, two countries that were instrumental in the 2015 MNTJF offensive, also do not prioritize ISWA. The emerging civil war in Cameroon is limiting the government’s ability to address the Salafi-jihadi threat. Chad is preoccupied with rebel activity in its north and is not conducting offensive operations in Lake Chad.[xxxi] Chad and Cameroon will not reprioritize the fight against ISWA so long as the group’s main effort remains in Nigeria.
The U.S. cannot ignore ISWA if it is to pursue its professed strategic objectives, both in Africa and in the counterterrorism realm. America’s reliance on local partners to combat ISWA and Boko Haram incorrectly assumes that counterterrorism is the Nigerian government’s top priority. Even should the Nigerian government change course and prioritize ISWA, the group has proven capable of contesting the Nigerian military’s presence and sustaining its insurgency. Local grievances have fueled ISWA’s growth. If left unaddressed, these grievances will limit the success of any military victories against the group. A successful counterterrorism strategy for the Lake Chad Basin must account for both the weaknesses of U.S. partners and the role of popular grievances in fueling Salafi-jihadi insurgencies. All these factors should cause the U.S. to reconsider the wisdom of withdrawing its limited counter-terrorism footprint from West Africa. The potential consequences of a waning U.S. commitment to the region, including terrorist attacks on U.S. interests, the further destabilization of Nigeria, and the spread of the Islamic State in Africa, cannot be taken lightly.
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[i]Tom Vanden Brook and David Jackson, “Trump orders US troops out of Syria, declares victory over ISIS; senators slam action as mistake,” USA Today, December 19, 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/12/19/syria-troop-withdrawal/2361385002/; and Jennifer Cafarella, “The Islamic State is not defeated. Trump must reverse his decision to withdraw from Syria,” The Washington Post, December 20, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2018/12/20/islamic-state-is-not-defeated-trump-must-reverse-his-decision-withdraw-syria/.
[ii]“National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, December 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf; and “Remarks by National Security Advisor Ambassador John R. Bolton on the Trump Administration’s New Africa Strategy,” The White House, December 13, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-national-security-advisor-ambassador-john-r-bolton-trump-administrations-new-africa-strategy/.
[iii]Ryan Browne, “US to reduce number of troops in Africa,” CNN, November 15, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/15/politics/us-reduce-troops-africa/index.html; and Jason Warner and Charlotte Hulme, “The Islamic State in Africa: Estimating Fighter Numbers in Cells Across the Continent,” CTC Sentinel, August 2018, Volume 11, Issue 7, https://ctc.usma.edu/islamic-state-africa-estimating-fighter-numbers-cells-across-continent/.
[iv]“Total Population by Country 2019,” World Population Review, http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/; and “The biggest economies in Africa,” Business Tech, July 10, 2018, https://businesstech.co.za/news/finance/257337/the-biggest-economies-in-africa/.
[v]“A timeline of Nigeria’s abducted Chibok schoolgirls,” Agence France Presse, February 27, 2018, https://www.news24.com/Africa/News/a-timeline-of-nigerias-abducted-chibok-schoolgirls-20180227.
[vi]Tom Peters, “Backgrounder: Boko Haram in Nigeria,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 16, 2017, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/backgrounder-boko-haram-in-nigeria; and “Boko Haram’s Shekau, group’s new leader, al-Barnawi, in war of words,” Premium Times, August 5, 2016, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/208113-boko-harams-shekau-groups-new-leader-al-barnawi-war-words.html.
[vii]Several Boko Haram commanders who had regional outlooks formed a splinter group, Ansaru, in 2012 that developed ties with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Some of these Ansaru commanders, including co-founder Mamman Nur, rejoined Boko Haram and sided with ISWA leader al Barnawi in the 2016 split. ISWA utilizes tactics common of other ISIS affiliates, including the use of suicide vehicle-borne IEDs against hard targets, that ISWA members likely had external help in developing. “IS’ West Africa Province promotes perseverance of its fighters, displays suicide bombings and attacks on MNJTM and Nigerian Forces,” SITE Intelligence Group, July 11, 2018, English translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com; Jacob Zenn, “Cooperation or competition: Boko Haram and Ansaru after the Mali intervention,” CTC Sentinel, March 2013, Volume 6, Issue 3, https://ctc.usma.edu/cooperation-or-competition-boko-haram-and-ansaru-after-the-mali-intervention/; “The fight against Islamic State is moving to Africa,” The Economist, July 14, 2018, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/07/14/the-fight-against-islamic-state-is-moving-to-africa; and “17 Boko Haram members get jail terms in Niger,” Agence France Presse, July 9, 2018, https://www.news24.com/Africa/News/17-boko-haram-members-get-jail-terms-in-niger-20180709.
[viii]“SSS arrests two suspected IS commanders in Abuja,” Premium Times, June 21, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/regional/north-central/273249-sss-arrests-two-suspected-is-commanders-in-abuja.html; “How DSS foiled ISIS-linked Boko Haram attack on U.S., UK embassies,” Vanguard, April 12, 2017, https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/04/dss-foiled-isis-linked-boko-haram-attack-u-s-uk-embassies/; and “Gov’t tightens security at airports, borders over Islamic State threat,” This Day, June 20, 2018, https://allafrica.com/stories/201806200024.html.
[ix]Foreign fighters may return to their respective countries to begin ISWA-inspired insurgencies. Senegalese authorities broke up a cell of ex-Boko Haram fighters in 2015 who had attempted to initiate such an insurgency. ISWA’s official media arm and another ISIS-affiliated media outlet attempted to mobilize support in West African countries where al Qaeda has conducted previous outreach, including Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea, in October 2018. “Senegal convicts 13 suspected Boko Haram fighters,” Al Jazeera, July 19, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/07/senegal-convicts-13-suspected-boko-haram-fighters-180719181459309.html; and “Threat Update Situation Report: October 24, 2018,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, October 24, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/threat-update/russia-and-iran-are-engaging-in-the-yemen-peace-process-to-reduce-u-s-influence-in-the-region.
[x]Jacob Zenn, “Cooperation or competition: Boko Haram and Ansaru after the Mali intervention,” CTC Sentinel, March 2013, Volume 6, Issue 3, https://ctc.usma.edu/cooperation-or-competition-boko-haram-and-ansaru-after-the-mali-intervention/.
[xi]Omar Mahmood, “The potentially more sinister threat in Boko Haram’s split,” Institute for Security Studies, July 12, 2018, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/the-potentially-more-sinister-threat-in-boko-harams-split.
[xii]“Boko Haram releases video on Molai village clash,” SITE Intelligence Group, December 19, 2018, English translation available at www.siteintelgroup.com; and “Boko Haram releases video of nighttime attack in Borno killing 5 Nigerian soldiers,” SITE Intelligence Group, November 29, 2018, English translation available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.
[xiii]“Boko Haram attacks military base in Nigeria,” Agence France Presse, January 15, 2019, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/boko-haram-attacks-military-base-in-nigeria/articleshow/67538015.cms; “Threat Update Situation Report: September 26, 2018,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, September 26, 2018, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/threat-update/iran-will-retaliate-militarily-against-isis-or-the-iranian-separatist-group-al-ahvaziyeh; Abdulkareem Haruna, “Boko Haram attacks Jakana,” Premium Times, July 26, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/277912-breaking-boko-haram-attacks-jakana-borno.html; “Hundreds of Nigerian troops missing after Boko Haram overruns base,” Agence France Presse, July 15, 2018, https://www.news24.com/Africa/News/hundreds-of-nigerian-troops-missing-after-boko-haram-overruns-base-20180715; “Nigeria troops repel Boko Haram attack on base in Arege, Borno State,” Defense Post, October 13, 2018, https://thedefensepost.com/2018/10/13/nigeria-boko-haram-attack-base-arege-borno/; “16 soldiers missing after Boko Haram attack,” Agence France Presse, November 6, 2018, https://punchng.com/16-soldiers-missing-after-boko-haram-attack/; Shehu Osman, “Boko Haram: Insurgents burn two military formations in Yobe,” Daily Post, November 8, 2018, http://dailypost.ng/2018/11/08/boko-haram-insurgents-burn-two-military-formations-yobe/; and Samuel Ogundipe, “UPDATED: Metele attack: Casualty rises after Boko Haram opened fire on rescue team,” November 25, 2018, Premium Times, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/297509-metele-attack-casualty-rises-after-boko-haram-opened-fire-on-rescue-team.html.
[xiv]“Nigerian soldiers fighting Boko Haram protest, seize airport: Army reacts,” Premium Times, August 13, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/279947-nigerian-soldiers-fighting-boko-haram-protest-seize-airport-army-reacts.html; Paul Carsten, “Nigerian military struggles against Islamic State West Africa-sources,” Reuters, September 19, 2018, https://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFKCN1LZ1JU-OZATP; and Courtney Kube and Alexander Smith, “Hundreds of Nigerian soldiers unaccounted for after ISIS attack, officials say,” NBC News, July 18, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/hundreds-nigerian-soldiers-unaccounted-after-isis-attack-say-officials-n892106.
[xv]Ruth Maclean, “Boko Haram launches series of attacks in north-east Nigeria,” The Guardian, December 28, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/28/boko-haram-launches-series-of-attacks-in-north-east-nigeria.
[xvi]“Nigeria: Boko Haram claims control of Bama, others,” Premium Times, September 9, 2014, https://allafrica.com/stories/201409090597.html; Ruth Maclean and Ismail Alfa, “Nigerians forced out by Boko Haram return to ruins and continuing risk,” The Guardian, July 27, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jul/27/nigerians-forced-out-by-boko-haram-return-to-ruins-and-continuing-risk; andTom Peters, “Backgrounder: Boko Haram in Nigeria,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, November 16, 2017, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/backgrounder-boko-haram-in-nigeria.
[xvii]“Abuja attack: Car bomb hits Nigeria UN building,” BBC, August 26, 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-14686780/abuja-attack-car-bomb-hits-nigeria-un-building.
[xviii]Elisha Bala-Gbogbo and Tope Alake, “Insurgents Plan “Massive Attacks” in Nigeria, Minister Says,” January 21, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-21/nigeria-says-it-has-evidence-insurgents-plan-massive-attacks.
[xix]Fidelis Mbah, “Nigeria leader says President Buhari ‘can’t hold fair election’,” Al Jazeera, January 21, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/01/nigeria-buhari-accused-planning-rig-upcoming-election-190121084546044.html.
[xx]Colonel Timothy Antigha, “Counter-insurgency: the broader implications of recent execution of Boko Haram commanders,” Sahara Reporters, October 8, 2018, http://saharareporters.com/2018/10/08/counter-%E2%80%93-insurgency-broader-implications-recent-execution-boko-haram-commanders-colonel.
[xxi]Paul Carsten, “Nigerian military struggles against Islamic State West Africa-sources,” Reuters, September 19, 2018, https://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFKCN1LZ1JU-OZATP.
[xxii]“Threat Update Situation Report: July 31, 2018,” Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/threat-update/irans-hardliners-may-call-for-the-parliamentary-questioning-of-increasingly-senior-members-of-the-rouhani-administration; and “Nigeria to send air force and 1,000 personnel to tackle banditry,” Reuters, July 29, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nigeria-security/nigeria-to-send-air-force-and-1000-security-personnel-to-tackle-banditry-idUSKBN1KJ0O0.
[xxiii]“May/June 2018 conflict trackers,” February 15, 2018, Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta, July 18, 2018, https://pindfoundation.org/may-june-2018-conflict-trackers/; “Buratai orders formation of five new Army bases—official,” Premium Times, July 29, 2018, https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/top-news/278173-buratai-orders-formation-of-five-new-nigerian-army-bases-official.html; and “Southern Cameroons war: Anxiety as Ambazonian refugees flood Taraba communities in Nigeria,” August 27, 2018, http://www.cameroonconcordnews.com/southern-cameroons-war-anxiety-as-ambazonian-refugees-flood-taraba-communities-in-nigeria/.
[xxiv]“Benue crisis: Air Force deploys 2 fighter jets, 300 special forces,” Vanguard, June 25, 2018,https://www.vanguardngr.com/2018/06/benue-crisis-air-force-deploys-2-fighter-jets-300-special-forces/.
[xxv]Michelle Faul, “Nigeria postpones elections, focuses on major offensive against Boko Haram,” Associated Press, February 7, 2015, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Latest-News-Wires/2015/0207/Nigeria-postpones-elections-focuses-on-major-offensive-against-Boko-Haram.
[xxvi]“Stopping Nigeria’s spiraling farmer-herder violence,” International Crisis Group, July 26, 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/nigeria/262-stopping-nigerias-spiralling-farmer-herder-violence.
[xxvii]Hilary Matfess, “Three years later, a look back at the #BringBackOurGirls catch-22,” The Daily Beast, April 14, 2017, https://www.thedailybeast.com/three-years-later-a-look-at-the-bringbackourgirls-catch-22; and Cheryl Pellerin, “DOD sends UAV, 80 airmen to help Nigerian search,” American Forces Press Service, May 22, 2014, https://www.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/485009/dod-sends-uav-80-airmen-to-help-nigerian-search/source/GovD/.
[xxviii]Faith Karimi, “US has hundreds of troops in Niger. Here’s why,” CNN, May 10l 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/10/politics/niger-american-troops-presence/index.html.
[xxix]“Obama to deploy 300 US troops to Cameroon to fight Boko Haram,” The Guardian, October 14, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/14/obama-deployment-us-troops-cameroon-boko-haram.
[xxx]Ryan Browne, “US to reduce number of troops in Africa,” CNN, November 15, 2018,
https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/15/politics/us-reduce-troops-africa/index.html; and John Vandiver, “Pentagon to cut scores of US troops in Africa as mission changes,” Stars and Stripes, November 16, 2018, https://www.stripes.com/news/pentagon-to-cut-scores-of-us-troops-in-africa-as-mission-changes-1.556858.
[xxxi]“Fighters from new rebel group attack Chad soldiers at Libya border,” Reuters, August 24, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chad-security/fighters-from-new-rebel-group-attack-chad-soldiers-at-libya-border-idUSKCN1L91UC.