Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

The Jihadist Fight for West Africa

CEO of T.A.A.S Ltd. Consultant in counter-terrorism, cybersecurity and data protection
Nigerian refugee women at the growing Awaridi refugee settlement now home to 9,000 plus mostly northern Nigerians who fled Boko Haram violence over the past few years.
Nigerian refugee women at the growing Awaridi refugee settlement now home to 9,000 plus mostly northern Nigerians who fled Boko Haram violence over the past few years.

The jihadist ambition to establish a global Caliphate has suffered serious setbacks in the last two years. Daesh (Islamic State or IS) emerged as a more brutal and, with its territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, successful jihadist competitor to al-Qa’ida. Yet by October 2019, its self-declared Caliphate had crumbled and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, committed suicide under duress of an U.S. operation, leaving the global jihadist movement without a center of gravity. Both Daesh and al-Qa’ida (AQ) have been weakened and pushed underground; despite an increasingly widespread network, there is no central battleground on which jihadists can concentrate their aspirations and efforts, as they did Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan over the last two decades. West Africa, and particularly Nigeria, could likely fill this vacuum.

Afflicted with endemic and widespread corruption, absentee governments, high unemployment rates, mass poverty, and factionalized ethnic and religious groups, West Africa is vulnerable to jihadist radicalization and recruitment. The region’s porous borders, organized criminal networks engaged in smuggling and trafficking (of drugs, people, and weapons), and tactical geographic positioning create a permissive environment for jihadi operations. The Islamic State already maintains armed groups in seven African countries—Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria—as well as small sleeper cells in Mauritania, Morocco, and Sudan.1 Al-Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, has confirmed Daesh’s focus on West Africa, in addition to Europe.2
Similarly, al-Qa’ida has an established presence in the region as well, with branches in North Africa and throughout the Sahel.

Although they share similar caliphal ambitions and relatively fluid membership, the various AQ and IS-affiliated groups in West Africa are increasingly competitive, not cooperative. This is particularly true in Nigeria, whose northern border regions are becoming the main locus of African, and global, jihadist competition. The largest economy in Africa, Nigeria is also home to what was once the deadliest terror group in the world: Boko Haram.3
Various splinters of this group—including a still deadly but reduced Boko Haram (BH) led by the ruthless hardliner Abubakar Shekau, the Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP), the AQ-aligned Ansaru, and respective sympathizer factions—are now engaged in an escalating, and increasingly deadly, struggle for prominence, recruits, and resources. This fight for West Africa between terrorist groups could fuel a regional Islamist revival and shape the future leadership, ideology, and strategy of the global jihadist movement. Or, if approached strategically, it could be used to weaken the jihadist movement on the African continent.

Sahelian Terror Organizations

Daesh and al-Qa’ida affiliates span far and wide in Africa, on a quest for continental dominance and the demise of democracy (dar al-Harb), to replace it with rules based on their extremist belief system (dar al-Islam). In sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the Sahel, terrorist groups flourish in the ungoverned space left by runaway governments that allow them to hide and train with complicity from local bandits.4 In stateless areas with the least resistance, like Mali and Niger, jihadis create safe havens, using quasi-ethical claims to justify their actions.5 Daesh counts among its branches not just ISWAP, which operates in the Lake Chad basin region, but also the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the Islamic State in Central African Province (ISCAP, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique), and a minimal presence in Mauritania and Morocco. Meanwhile, AQ’s ranks include al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as well as AQ affiliates al-Shabaab in Somalia, Ansaru in Nigeria, and _Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin_ (JNIM) in the Maghreb and West Africa. Additionally, Boko Haram, and those that align with it, like the Bakura faction, are affiliated with neither Daesh nor AQ.

Many of these larger organizations consist of an amorphous complex of factions, cells, and groups that have shared ties of some kind, at some point, with one another. Some are splinter factions that have defected from a bigger group; others form strategic alliances or recruit local bandits for operations. They also have joined, and sometimes shifted, allegiances to the two central jihadist organizations: AQ and Daesh. This broader regional history of groups evolving, splitting, and realigning, shapes the dynamics at play in West Africa. Even as the center of gravity of African jihad shifts from the Sahel to West Africa, the ideas, disputes, and actors of the Sahelian jihad help drive the violent competition between AQ- and Daesh-aligned groups within West Africa. It is helpful, thus, to review the major Sahelian jihadi groups and their influence on their West African counterparts.

Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb

Arguably, the most influential terrorist organization in the Sahel is AQIM. It originated as an Algerian Salafist-jihadist group, and now operates in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, and Niger, with core strengths in Mali. Birthed in 1998 from the Algerian civil war, AQIM’s goal is to undo regional governments in a bid to implement Shar’ia law and anti-Western regimes.

AQIM rose to prominence under the leadership of Abdelmalek Droukdel, becoming one of the wealthiest terror organization’s in the world through its trafficking of drugs, arms, and humans as well as kidnapping foreigners for ransom in North Africa.6 Before French forces assassinated him in June 2020, Droukdel was a pioneer of Sahelian jihad, expanding AQIM activities across the region to concretize his dream of a North African Islamic Caliphate. This included ties to and support for other African terrorist groups, which helped expand the Sahelian jihadi brand.

Although AQIM originally backed Boko Haram in Nigeria, it was quick to switch support from BH to splinter group Jama’at Ansar al Muslimin fi Bilad al Sudan (“Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa”), also known as Ansaru, which emerged following BH’s indiscriminate killings of approximately 150 innocent Muslims in Kano, Nigeria. Ansaru announced its formation through flyers distributed in Kano shortly after the massacre, in January 2012.7 From its inception, Ansaru coordinated its Nigerian operations with Mali-based AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), another Malian jihadi organization with strong ties to AQIM. Elite AQIM-trained operatives joined Ansaru to train local members, import sophisticated systems, and, most importantly, spread AQIM’s pan-African jihadist ideology. Such was AQIM’s influence, that Ansaru adopted its goals, even when they extended outside their immediate area of operations, as when it announced it would continue attacking French targets until France ended its ban on the Islamic veil at home and its counterinsurgency in Mali (December 2012).8

During the Arab Spring, AQIM exhibited minimal operational activity as approximately 10,000 fighters from the Sahara and Sahel regions left to fight in Libya, Syria, and Iraq.9 However, as some of those conflicts have lessened and fighters have returned, the significant coffers of AQIM and MUJWA have allowed it to support regional and local allied groups in resuming operations and carrying out attacks on meaningful sites, like the Timbuktu libraries.10

Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin

In 2017, the Saharan branch of AQIM, under Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s leadership, merged with Al-Murabitun, Ansar al-Dine (AAD), and Katiba Macina to form JNIM, a hierarchical militant alliance, headed by AQIM.11

JNIM is now seen as the prominent terrorist group in the Sahel and one of AQ’s most successful affiliates, dedicated to driving foreign forces out of Mali and instating fundamentalist Islamic law. Despite the autonomy of JNIM groups, they reaffirm membership within the umbrella coalition, conducting complex attacks, assassinations, and IED attacks against United Nations (UN), Malian, and French forces and soft targets.12 However, such collaboration does not infer identical strategic priorities, with varied tactical approaches resulting from local, regional, and national socioeconomic and political peculiarities.13

Islamic State in the Greater Sahara

The origins of JNIM’s biggest competition in the Sahel, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, coincide with MUJWA’s fragmentation. MUJWA split from AQIM in late 2011, due to over-representation of Arabs, instead of locals, among its commanders and differences regarding jihadi methods.14 MUJWA focused exclusively on the Sahel, before splitting again in 2015. Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui—one of the founding members of MUJWA and current ISGS leader—pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi and subsequently formed ISGS while other MUJWA fighters stayed with al-Murabitun and went on to eventually join JNIM. Daesh recognized al-Sahraoui’s pledge seventeen months later, sparking a two-year transformation period during which he recruited followers, trained members, raised funds, and set up shop in the regional nexus of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. ISGS gained international notoriety following the deadly ambush in Niger in October 2017 that killed four U.S. Special Forces and five Nigerien troops.15 The growing notoriety of ISGS led to an inevitable absorption into ISWAP ranks and shared technical backing, in a bid to further dismantle West African governments through Islamization.

Like other Sahelian jihadist organizations, ISGS uses poachers, criminals, and traffickers familiar with the terrain as additional manpower to support the operations of its trained fighters. Despite its low number of fighters (over 300),16 the group remains lethal through sophisticated attacks against remote military bases, oftentimes disconnecting military communications’ channels before launching mortars and jihadists on motorbikes, who disappear before the military can regroup and respond. Such attacks saw 89 Nigerien security forces killed in January 2020, and another 300 deaths within two months, leading President Macron to shift security priorities in Africa from fighting AQ to ISGS. At the G5 summit gathering between France, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, President Macron stated, “the priority is the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara,”17 with Burkina President Kabore later echoing that the group “has emerged as our main enemy, against whom we should focus our struggle.”

Boko Haram and West African Jihadism

Despite the Sahel previously being the focus of jihadist activity in Africa, dominated by AQ- and Daesh-aligned groups in Mali, the most active terrorist groups now operate along the borders of northern Nigeria with Boko Haram, ISWAP, ISGS, re-emerging AQ affiliates such as Ansaru, and a multitude of violent communal bandits and ethnic militias wreaking the most havoc. Most of these groups have a common root in the original Boko Haram group and are the product of fragmentation and disagreement, particularly since BH leadership was taken over in 2009 by Abubakar Shekau.

In the past, these groups cooperated both horizontally (with each other as well as with other African jihadist groups) and vertically (pledging allegiance to global jihadist movements), providing them with resources and collaborative opportunities while reinforcing the agenda of attacking beyond their domestic borders. This can be seen in Ansaru and BH’s joint attacks along Nigeria’s borders with Niger and Cameroon from March to May 2013 in an attempt to deter local security forces from supporting the French-led intervention in Mali.18 Similarly, the diverse membership of Boko Haram’s Shura council—the highest decision-making body—once included not just senior BH commanders but also representatives of Ansaru, AQIM, and MUJWA.19 Meanwhile Daesh, in a bid to show public support and absorb existing cells under their umbrella, accepted pledges from BH (in March 2015) and ISGS (in October 2016),20 while praising terror attacks in remote areas like Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The seemingly invincible leader of the Boko Haram (also known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad or JAS) insurgency, Abubakar Shekau, portrays himself as a mobilizer and pioneer. He quickly took on an autocratic leadership role following his escape from prison in 2009 and the death of Boko Haram’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf. Of Kanuri descent, like Yusuf, Shekau evinces staunch ideological commitment to Islamic social reform, which he believes is best achieved through intense and ruthless jihad. He has openly identified with other theaters of jihad, including Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Mali,21 yet has no desire to internationalize the group’s activity, even accusing all Muslims living in ‘infidel lands’ of heresy. Unlike many other jihadist groups’ dreams of a transnational or global Caliphate, Shekau is focused solely on establishing an Islamic State in northern Nigeria.

Many high-ranking members of the Nigerian Army believe Shekau lacks the literary as well as Islamic and Western know-how to maintain leadership within the insurgency and is walking a tight rope of survival.22 Rather than set Boko Haram apart from other terror organizations by developing new means for waging jihad, Shekau relies on execution videos à la Daesh or pictures of slaughtered civilians and security agency camp boys, which BH then portrays as executed military men, to induce fear amongst the populace.23 Having allegedly attained the rank of mufti, Shekau claims to be able to issue fatwas on topics without any explicit law (ijtihād), however rival factions have claimed he distorts issues and misleads his followers.24 Shekau accuses anyone that is not a member of his group of heresy and adapts interpretations of Quranic texts to suit his needs, going as far as to issue fatwas against those that defected from BH to join other jihadist groups.

His dictatorial tendencies and thirst for power, demonstrated by forcible conscriptions and the inability of existing members to question his decisions for fear of death, have led multiple factions to depart from BH, leaving only dedicated grassroots followers tolerant of his unimaginative leadership style. In recent times, Shekau has noticeably displayed expansionary plans within northern Nigeria, releasing a video in June that featured English, French-Cameroonian, Fulani, and Hausa-speaking fighters acknowledging fellow fighters in Zamfara and Niger states.25 Less than a month later, BH fighters in Niger State returned the greetings to Shekau and their “brothers” in Zamfara. This signifies a key shift from Boko Haram’s primary base in Sambisa forest in north-eastern Nigeria to growing activity in Zamfara, and Niger states, in Nigeria’s northwest and Middle Belt, respectively.

Nonetheless, due to his firm takfiri belief, Shekau lacks any concrete links with jihadists outside of his enclave, with no direct support from international terror groups.26 Although Shekau has sought to secure international endorsement, claiming to support at various times either AQ or Daesh as discussed below, his unwillingness to execute an expansion strategy, volatile leadership skills, and lack of innovation minimizes the risk of any longstanding collaboration with other jihadi groups.

Boko Haram and al-Qa’ida

From as early as 2003, Saudi-born Nigerian Yusuf Ahmed, a prominent BH leader, sent 21 members to train in Niger with AQIM’s predecessor, the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). Ties between al-Qa’ida and BH can be traced back to BH’s founding, with evidence of meetings between BH and GSPC in Nigeria. AQ’s external operations unit in Pakistan even directed senior BH members on target locations in Nigeria.27 After the Boko Haram uprising of July 2009, which saw a violent clash between BH and Nigerian Security Forces and the extrajudicial killing of BH founder Mohammed Yusuf, Shekau and his foot soldiers fled to Sambisa Forest, an abandoned game reserve, to hide, regroup, and mobilize additional support. Other surviving sect members spread like wildfire to neighboring countries such as Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. The decentralized operating structure of the insurgency meant detached cells were able to function under the spiritual guidance of Shekau.28 By early August 2009, AQIM had provided 200,000 Euros and training in support of Boko Haram, referring to the group as its Nigerian mumathil (representative).29 So well-founded was the nature of the AQ-BH alliance that following Yusuf’s extrajudicial killing, an interim BH leader stated:

Boko Haram is just a version of al-Qa’ida, which we align with and respect. We support Osama bin Laden, we shall carry out his command in Nigeria until the country is totally Islamized, which is according to the wish of Allah.30

Three months later, in December 2009, a failed Christmas Day bombing of a North West Airlines flight to Detroit by a young Nigerian trained in Yemen by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula further evidenced the informal, yet heavy-duty, support AQ provided to strengthen Boko Haram’s capabilities as the group renewed itself underground. The following year, Droukdel publicly offered to train and arm the insurgency to wage attacks in Nigeria.

AQ’s tactical influence on Boko Haram became apparent through the introduction of suicide bombings, with the first successful attack in August 2011 using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) against the international target of UN Headquarters in Abuja, claiming twenty-three lives and injuring over a hundred civilians.31 A martyrdom video released shortly after, described the UN as the “Forum of all the global evil,” while praising Bin Laden.32 However, the concerning shift in BH’s tactics toward the use of women and children as suicide bombers (including girls as young as seven years old) combined with Shekau’s merciless killings of innocents, led Droukdel to shift AQIM’s support to the breakaway faction of Ansaru.33

Interestingly, Ansaru is comprised of Hausa and Fulani militants, unlike Shekau’s predominately Kanuri Boko Haram that uses Fulani members to commit suicide attacks. Based in Kaduna and Kano of north-western Nigeria, Ansaru presented itself as the humane alternative to BH, vowing to “restore the dignity of Muslims in Black Africa,”34 many of whom had been accused of treason by Shekau. Following a string of successful joint kidnappings that funded both groups, they severed their ties as Shekau shunned Ansaru’s negotiations with the Nigerian government and Ansaru favored AQIM’s continental focus over Shekau’s regional, takfiri narrative.

Al-Qa’ida continues to propagate ideology in the region, publishing booklets in April 2017 that recounted Boko Haram’s history with AQIM and showed its moderation compared to Daesh. This propaganda is designed to convince BH fighters operating in Nigeria to see the error of their ways and accept the purpose of AQIM as they did in the past.35 Shaykh Abu al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi authored the booklet and is coincidentally a former member of Boko Haram’s Shura Council, underlining AQ’s resolve to re-establish activity in Nigeria. Recent attacks in Kaduna36 point to AQ’s alignment with Ansaru as a means of securing a revival in Nigeria, most notably the February 2020 attempted kidnapping of Umaru Bubaram, Emir of Potiskum in Yobe State.37

Despite ideological and ethnic differences between Boko Haram and Ansaru, the lack of clarity regarding a seemingly fluid membership obscures any intra-group lines, indicating a transient connection. Following the 2016 arrest of its leader Khalid al-Barnawi in Nigeria, Ansaru remains without clear leadership. The recent death of AQIM leader Droukdel further complicates the group’s situation and might well catalyze further operations within north-western Nigeria to prove its viability in the fight for West African hearts and minds.

Boko Haram and Daesh

Shekau declared a Caliphate in Borno State in August 2014 and, in a move destined to be short-lived and problematic, shirked Boko Haram’s history of ties with al-Qa’ida to pledge allegiance to Daesh. In 2015, under President Buhari’s new administration, the Nigerian Armed Forces, in conjunction with the Multinational Joint Task Force’s 7,500-man counter-insurgency operation,38 made critical gains against the Boko Haram insurgency. In an attempt to save face, Shekau strategically made a second pledge of allegiance.

Subsequently, the eighth issue of the Islamic State’s online magazine Dabiq, published in March 2015 and entitled “Shari’a alone will rule Africa,” publicized the group’s loyalty.39 Acknowledgement of the symbolic allegiance from both groups soon turned into a cooperative endeavor, with former Daesh spokesman Shakyh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani stating in Dabiq:

We bring you the good news today of the Khilāfah’s expansion to West Africa, for the Khalīfa has accepted the pledge of allegiance made by our brothers…So whoever is stopped by the disbelieving rulers, and prevented from emigrating to Iraq, Shām, Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, or Khurasan, will not be prevented – by Allah’s permission – from emigrating to Africa. So come, O Muslims, to your state, for we call on you to mobilize for jihād and incite you and invite you to emigrate to your brothers in West Africa.40

This further extended the group’s psychological warfare as two of the world’s most brutal terror organizations41 had joined forces, confirming BH as a globally recognized threat. Shekau successfully boosted members’ morale and image, having regained international support and public backing. Still, Shekau’s union with Daesh was destined to be fleeting as he had overlooked a key element of such an alliance: shared leadership.

Abubakar Shekau is a leader accustomed to making executive decisions and managing the group’s finances, irrespective of the thirty-member Shura Council that commands the group’s regional cells.42 From as early as May 2011, Shekau refused to acknowledge shared leadership, even refuting northern Nigeria’s first terrorist kidnapping of foreigners by an AQIM guided Ansaru-BH cell as a BH success story, with rumours of his faction exposing this and similar “traitorous” cells to Nigerian Intelligence at the time.43 Unsurprisingly, Shekau clashed with al-Baghdadi almost instantly. He rejected al-Baghdadi’s authority as Caliph, sentenced apostate Muslims to death, and ruthlessly punished his internal critics. In August 2016, ISWAP emerged as a new splinter group, shunning, as Ansaru did previously, Shekau’s hardliner approach to diplomatic negotiations and his indiscriminate killing of Muslims, women, and children.

Baghdadi recognized Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi as head of ISWAP and the rightful leader of Boko Haram, most likely due to the symbolism of his father Muhammad Yusuf being the founding father of the insurgency. The threat to Shekau’s previously undisputed leadership was both symbolic and ideological, a dangerous combination for the narcissist. Meanwhile, ISWAP declared the Shekau sect Khawarij.44 In fact, so opposed is ISWAP to the takfiri ideology of Shekau that, in June 2018, the group released a 124-page book in Arabic, written by al-Barnawi and another of Yusuf’s sons. The book, Cutting out the Tumor of the Khawarij of Shekau by the Allegiance pledge of the People of Nobility,45 refutes the claims of “chain takfirism”46 that Shekau uses to justify murdering civilians, Muslims, and his own commanders. The second chapter of al-Barnawi’s book, “The Principles of Faith of the Khawarij,” details Shekau’s deviation from the path of Islam, with subsequent chapters explaining the implications of deviancy and justifications for fighting BH based on religious rulings.

The book was a clear attempt to establish al-Barnawi’s grip on ISWAP and galvanize international and regional support, while criminalizing Shekau and his supporters, thus converting new members and defectors to ISWAP’s ranks. It worked. Defectors from Shekau’s faction migrated to join ISWAP along the northern fringes of Lake Chad in the ungoverned border towns of Nigeria, Niger, and Chad.

Adopting the same economic prowess as Daesh exhibited in Iraq and Syria,47 ISWAP strategically took control over the fish and pepper trade in the Lake Chad region, together worth $48 million annually. Internally displaced peoples (IDPs) soon began farming, fishing, and trading under the careful supervision of ISWAP, a seemingly better alternative to the inhumane conditions of the IDP camps. In turn, the group capitalized on the opportunity to recruit new members by spreading the news that Allah blessed their war with improved marine life, a “symbolic manna from heaven,”48 a stark contrast to the logical conclusion that reduced population and human activity around the lake, due to the insurgency, resulted in more aquatic life. According to HumAngle, a local spoke of the difficulty in choosing between starvation and safety in the IDP camps, and the “abundance of food, where life can end any minute.”49

The group also collects levies from farmers, herders, and fishermen, taxing all produce cultivated by locals, and charging a substantial fee for the provision of security. ISWAP thereby receives a constant stream of revenue independent from other affiliates; it can make millions of naira on a daily basis during peak seasons for fish and red pepper, due to the payments for fishing rights, levies, and livestock taxes. These funds allow the group to lure in new members through livelihood support, monthly stipends, and transactional relationships with other armed groups in the region, thus building a network of smaller, radical cells in north-western Nigeria.

Meanwhile, the remnants of Shekau’s faction remain in southern Borno and northern Adamawa states in Nigeria and the north-western parts of Cameroon. Boko Haram continues to thrive across borders, surviving a deployment of 40,000 Nigerian troops and coordinated attacks from the Multi National Joint Task Force (MNJTF),50 comprised of Nigerian, Chadian, Nigerien, and Cameroonian armed forces.51 Shekau retains his legitimacy due to his nomination as deputy by Muhammad Yusuf and his steadfast loyalty to the grassroots disciples in Borno state,52 but his ambition and influence is not limited to that region.

Recently, a new “Bakura faction” pledging loyalty to Shekau, surfaced around the Lake Chad basin. Its attacks on fishermen and civilians suggest the BH-aligned faction is unwilling to let ISWAP control trade in the Lake Chad basin. As Bakura Doron himself originates from northern Lake Chad, it is not farfetched to assume his group will set up shop as Shekau’s reinforcement in the region.53 However, Shekau’s need to maintain absolute authority at all costs may affect this new partnership. Just as he earlier traded al-Qa’ida’s long-standing power, connections, and resources within Africa for Daesh’s infamy and public support only to abandon both groups, so, too, might Shekau leave his current partners in the Bakura faction when a better opportunity presents itself.

Indeed, in March 2020, according to Maj. Gen. MG Ali, Deputy Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole and Special Forces Commander, ISWAP allegedly initiated a reconciliation attempt with BH in a strategic bid to jointly ward off the military’s constant bombardments of its open and exposed locations in northern Borno.54 The gambit was swiftly declared dead on arrival, with negotiations condemned on both sides. However, the fact that Shekau never renounced his loyalty to the Islamic State means he might still view the two factions as connected, perhaps in a bid to keep strategic opportunities open.

The Fight for West Africa

West Africa is emerging as a frontline in the global jihad movement. Permissive local environments afford opportunities within the area for jihadism to spread and feed into the strength of the larger Islamist movement, from North to East Africa. The region’s jihadist landscape is comprised, in part, of splintered local jihadist groups, whose competing ideologies and ambitions are stoking a competition with a cocktail of issues no single government can control. This jihadist fight for West Africa has led to escalating levels of communal violence and increasing attacks on military and civilian targets as regional groups seek to one-up each other. Power plays between the likes of ISWAP and Boko Haram, or ISGS and JNIM, will further the groups’ resilience, bringing more violence in areas under their control, and suggest a future expansion of targets along the West African coast.

The coronavirus pandemic saw most African governments scrambling to bolster their national healthcare while inadvertently enabling the unmonitored migration of terrorist actors and bandits across West Africa. Governments have been left economically vulnerable, with the tactical resources needed to counter jihadist insurgencies stretched thin.55

On the operational front, ISWAP has been carrying out a repertoire of medium-scale attacks against the Nigerian Army since July 2019 and will most likely gain more ground and membership. BH publicly undermines the military, by denying Shekau’s alleged deaths while looting weapons and ammunition to further jihadist causes across Nigeria’s borders. ISWAP claimed the lives of twenty two Nigerian soldiers in a November 2019 attack near Damboa and successfully conducted a three-man suicide raid on the MNJTF Post in Monguno.56 In January, ISWAP reported at least seven separate attacks on the Nigerian military and police in addition to a video from AMAQ, the Daesh propaganda arm, showing a child executing a Nigerian Christian in ISWAP custody,57 a similar tactic used by Shekau to desensitize new recruits early on. More recently, the April 2020 gruesome murder of a Chadian soldier by a Chadian, Arabic-speaking ISWAP commander sent a chilling message to President Déby, following his claims that the group had been expelled from Chad.58 Given that the group’s commanders usually speak in classical Arabic or Hausa, the Chadian context proves ISWAP’s continued presence in spite of numerous counterinsurgency operations.59

Amid this increase in violence, the Nigerian Air Force and Air Task Force’s Operation Lafiya Dole conducted multiple airstrikes in Sambisa Forest, resulting in several gains neutralizing a BH logistics facility60 and claiming lives of several BH leaders in July.61 Yet, from April to June 2020, BH, ISWAP, and regional armed forces traded attacks back and forth: ISWAP claimed credit for an Improvised Explosive Device attack on a Nigerian Army vehicle and the mortar shelling of a Chadian Army base62; Boko Haram opened fire on the convoy of Nigerian Senator Ali Modu Sheriff, the former governor of Borno state, and his family, killing five.63 Even the Ansaru faction has joined the fray, claiming a January 2020 attack on Nigerian soldiers in Kaduna that caused over twenty-five casualties.64 This, alongside the attempted kidnapping of the Potiskum emir in Kaduna, was the faction’s first major action since the 2013 French military intervention in northern Mali that led Ansaru to temporarily withdraw operational support to AQIM and AQ in order to operate more effectively with local groups in Borno State and northern Cameroon.65 These attacks confirm the rebirth of Ansaru as a competing terror organization in West Africa.

In terms of civilian warfare, Boko Haram has been consistently terrorizing locals in North Cameroon, with a recent attack in the Kassa-Dara village (September 2020), claiming the lives of a catechist and old woman.66 The group also abducted and killed five aid workers in July 2020 as a caution to international aid groups.67 Since January, ISWAP has frequently targeted humanitarian workers, even distributing warning letters to residents about aligning with military or international aid groups.68 A total of twenty four aid workers have been killed in north-eastern Nigeria between August 2019 to 2020. The back and forth of attacks against the military and civilians from ISWAP, BH, and Ansaru shows a competitive fight to win the hearts and minds of West African jihadists, notably through frequent targeted killings against the kuffar, unbelievers that include the Christian population.

Clashes in the Sahel between ISGS and JNIM are also further evidence of a power struggle for the regional jihadi mindset. ISGS and JNIM battled intensely over five days along the Mali-Burkina Faso border in mid-April 2020, with ISGS killing sixty JNIM militants and capturing forty prisoners.69 The first May 2020 edition of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter Al-Naba, claimed al-Qa’ida to be treacherous, starting “a war against” and “participating in the war against the mujahideen,”70 by working with the Malian government to control the border with Algeria and Mauritania. In turn, JNIM attempted a parley via a series of booklets to detractors by appealing to Sahelian jihadis to join forces, including several audio messages focusing on doctrinal divergences between JNIM and ISGS, which fell on deaf ears71 An influx of new ISGS splinter groups may soon arise in West Africa, as seen in Mali and Burkina Faso (January 2020), which will further fragment the jihadist landscape.72 With ISGS shifting focus towards the inland Niger Delta, recruiting in villages through financial incentives and spoils of war, it is likely JNIM will upgrade its military strategies, fragment and follow ISGS along the Niger Delta into West African terrain.

In northwest Nigeria, Ansaru has been campaigning for rural support. It has steadily forged ties with smaller radical groups, particularly in Zamfara State, by selling them low-cost weapons donated by JNIM allies. It has also deployed clerics to undermine democratic rule and governmental peace efforts in Zamfara in a bid to win support through a “hearts and minds campaign.”73 However, Ansaru is not the only group active in the region, which has become another arena in the jihadists’ struggle for power. ISWAP, too, is carving out stronger relationships with aggrieved communities, radically inclined armed groups, and organized criminal entities. Meanwhile, in June 2020, Boko Haram released a video in four languages wooing armed groups in northwest and north-central Nigeria to its cause.74

Another factor that could shape this competition between groups is their leadership, especially the uncertainty surrounding control of ISWAP. However, ISWAP leadership is apparently more collective than competing groups, with a tactical focus on shared governance.75 Before his own death, Daesh’s leader, al-Baghdadi ordered the killing of a high-ranking ISWAP commander, Mamman Nur, in September 2018,76 for his seemingly weak leadership style in comparison to Shekau’s tyrannical stance, particularly following the release of around one hundred Dapchi school girls.77 This appears to have discredited the ISWAP leader, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, leading him to flee underground.78 Although there are indications that he has been replaced by the formerly unknown Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar Albarnawi, these claims are yet to be confirmed by Daesh itself.79

This changing of the guard presents an opportunity for other West African terrorist organizations. Ansaru, in particular, might try to leverage the confusion over ISWAP’s leadership to pry away its members. Shekau might seek to absorb some of the more extremist members of ISWAP into Boko Haram as part of his expansion across northern Nigeria, especially following the low turnout in recent Boko Haram Eid celebration photographs. Conversely, the emergence of Albarnawi as ISWAP’s new commander could pose problems for Boko Haram. As ‘al-Barnawi’ in Arabic means “the man from Borno,” the ISWAP leader could use his provenance to poach Boko Haram followers from Borno, followers on whom Shekau relies to maintain legitimacy and control of BH.

Alternatively, the lack of an official Daesh declaration of Albarnawi’s rise to ISWAP’s leadership might signal the group’s growing strength. This silence, like that which met Nur’s execution, marks a polarizing change from Daesh’s public announcement,80 through a number of official and affiliated media channels, when it originally instated Shaykh al-Barnawi at ISWAP’s helm. It strongly suggests that Daesh, unable to direct or even influence ISWAP’s decisions, is now the weaker of the two organizations, especially since ISGS joined the ISWAP ranks. An inside source spoke of ISWAP’s growing operational autonomy, “IS [Daesh] doesn’t have the kind of tight control on ISWAP as many are suggesting….” Another source¬ also anonymous for security reasons—explained, “they [Daesh] wouldn’t want to upset their hosts and will have to live with ISWAP’s infractions and different approach.”81 Following the loss of its self-declared Caliphate and Caliph, Daesh requires ISWAP’s strength, weaponry, ammunition, and numbers. The source claimed Daesh “are now looking to the Sahel for sanctuary,” confirming that “IS needs ISWAP more than ISWAP needs them because of the defeat it has suffered in Syria and Iraq.”82 Many counter-terror experts believe ISWAP has risen to become the deadliest terror organization within sub-Saharan Africa.83 Even as ISWAP grows more independent of Daesh, increasing its operational strength and assembling a greater arsenal from its weekly military raids, its strategy is expected to align more closely with global jihadist trends. This will likely include investing in the expansion of existing networks and the creation of wider, international networks to operate across the global theaters of jihad.

Meanwhile, Boko Haram will continue following a different approach. Shekau exhibits great reticence towards regional expansion; he would rather die in power à la Baghdadi than forge new alliances and align with less takfiri-centric ideologies.84 This could create leadership challenges within Boko Haram as well. It has proven the most lethal regional terrorist organization thus far, with 2,537 deaths counted in Nigeria between January 2019 and January 2020,85 rendering Nigeria the third most terrorized country in the world.86 However, Shekau’s tactical success and proven staying power, aided by a persecution narrative fueled by State violence, could be undone by his greed, lust for power, and despotic takfiri ideology. He might retain his core group of loyalists, since those who once opposed him have either already defected, or were killed by Boko Haram, leaving only the most indoctrinated and merciless behind. Or his supporters, realizing that Shekau’s chances of reclaiming leadership of a united Boko Haram (including defected and splinter factions) for the successful establishment of a Caliphate are extremely slim, might defect to ISWAP and AQ-backed Ansaru.

The ideological, strategic, and personality differences of West African jihadist organizations, coupled with the turbulent dynamics of membership and defectors within BH, Ansaru, Islamic State factions and sympathizers, further extends the ongoing presence of religious extremism within the region. In Nigeria, the State has failed to develop the capacity to resolve religious differences without generating violence, meanwhile the dividing lines between various religions are increasing and widening.87 With West Africa’s rising economic marginality, religious groups and preachers have become major sources of mobilization, particularly in the absence of stable political and religious climates. This paves the way for future outbreaks along sectarian lines and clashes between different Muslim sects and, by default, jihadist factions, as seen in the high levels of intolerance irrespective of religious lines.


The battle for the hearts and minds of West African jihadists is still very much alive between Boko Haram, al-Qa’ida, and Daesh. The result of this struggle will likely shape the future of terrorism all over the African continent. One outcome, however, is unlikely: unification. Despite the shared goal of attaining a Caliphate, fundamental differences in strategy, leadership, and, most importantly, ideology render this goal unattainable. Daesh views AQ as the “Base of Apostasy,” in a play on the group’s name, while AQ have commonly designated Daesh as Khawarij.

Both BH and ISWAP continue to lead increasingly violent attacks on each other as well as on Nigerian security forces and civilian aid workers. The Sahel is likely to become a front in this fight for West Africa as ISWAP subsumes ISGS and Ansaru re-establishes ties with AQIM. As a result, the West African battleground continues to out-terrorize the jihadist Sahelian front, with a strong possibility for an extremist Islamist revival in northern Nigeria and surrounding countries, assuming it is not already currently underway.

These conflict dynamics are also likely to further internationalize the fight against terrorism in Africa. President Macron already declared ISGS a priority for France and its five Sahel allies in January.88 Yet as ISGS merges with ISWAP and Ansaru expands into Francophone West Africa, France and other allies could be obliged to mobilize an intervention in a growing number of African countries. Such a boots-on-the-ground approach, however, would not only bring more devastation and civilian displacement, due to clashes between security forces and insurgent groups, but also misses the jihadists’ key strategic weaknesses.

Fighting as much among themselves as against the existing states of West Africa, the region’s jihadists are irreconcilably divided. A psychological war, waged through the fusion of security agents, quick adoption of and action on human and signals intelligence, and information and political operations, could pit the ideological differences between these insurgents against one another.

More political dialogue with sympathizers to groups like Boko Haram should be adopted to end the cyclical violence caused by military operations by both governments and armed militias. Creating a large-scale discourse with vulnerable communities could considerably lessen jihadists’ opportunities for recruitment. For instance, dialoging with children and repentant fighters to encourage and educate them will facilitate deradicalization efforts, particularly in the case of BH’s forcible conscription.89 By engaging religious leaders and spreading a counter-narrative by leveraging and improving upon existing defector programs, such as the Nigerian Government’s Operation Safe Corridor, those who still feel compelled to join the jihadist fight will be denied the opportunity. The reintegration of repentant Boko Haram combatants into war efforts can aid negotiation efforts with their former comrades. Ultimately, it is the primary responsibility of Sahelian governments to win the hearts and minds of their citizens in an asymmetrical warfare campaign, by creating opportunities to engage the populace, counter extremist preaching, and modifying cultural narratives to educate the masses, thereby better equipping them in the face of violent extremism.

Until then, the fight for West Africa will continue.