Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

A “Sahelian” or a “Littoral” Crisis? Examining the Widening of Nigeria’s Boko Haram Conflict

Research Fellow
Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto
A man walking past shops burnt down by suspected members of the Islamic State West Africa Province during an attack in Auno on February 9, 2020. (Audu Marte/AFP via Getty Images)

On June 9, 2020, a park ranger and a staff member of W National Park in northern Benin were conducting routine ecology checks in the park when they unexpectedly encountered a dozen armed men on motorbikes traveling along one of the dirt roads. The bike-mounted men wore turbans, spoke a mixture of Arabic and French, and carried AK-47 rifles and walkie-talkies, giving them the characteristic appearance of jihadist militants from neighboring Burkina Faso. The appearance of these men could not have surprised the park staff too much, as Beninois had long feared that the north of their country could succumb to jihadist violence from its neighbors. Yet the militants did not attack the park staff in that chance encounter that day. Rather, one of the men approached the staff and explained that they “had no problem with Benin but would just be looking for the way” before leaving on the road east towards the Republic of Niger and, beyond that, Nigeria.1

The June 2020 incident, detailed in an internal report by African Parks Network in possession of the authors, appears at first glance to presage the upsurge in jihadist violence that has rocked northern Benin since 2020. Benin only experienced its first jihadist attack in 2019 yet in 2022, more than 40 incidents were recorded in the country’s north.2 Understandably, Benin, along with its Western neighbor Togo, is increasingly seen by Western and West African governments alike as a new frontline against jihadist expansion, with a flurry of diplomatic engagements and new security assistance and development programs following suit.3

However, the June 2020 incident in W Park has additional significance that has not been fully appreciated by most observers. The armed men—suspected to be members of al-Qaeda’s Sahelian affiliate, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)—were not looking for a fight with the park ranger that day because they seemed to have another objective in mind: Reaching northwestern Nigeria. Given the timing and direction of their travel, it is likely that they were passing through Benin in order to reach Nigeria and link up with the small militant group known as Ansaru that was to pledge bay’ah (an Islamic oath of loyalty) to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the paramount affiliate within al-Qaeda’s West African organizational hierarchy, around that same time.4

Since the late 2010s, Western and West African policymakers alike have sounded the alarm over jihadist encroachment into the so-called coastal or “littoral” states along the Gulf of Guinea. In the United States, the Biden administration has designated five coastal West African states as a priority region for new strategies and funding schemes to prevent violent conflict under the auspices of the Global Fragility Act (GFA), which was passed by Congress with bipartisan support and signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2019. Those littoral states—Benin, Togo, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, and Guinea—are all experiencing varying degrees of internal conflict or governance crises that experts fear make them attractive targets for an expansionist JNIM and its local rival, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which have established strongholds in the landlocked Sahelian states of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso since the mid-2010s.5

Yet Africa’s most populous state has been largely absent from these discussions of “littoral expansion” and violent “spillover” from the Sahel. Despite having the largest population and economy in not only West Africa but the continent as a whole, Nigeria is not among those countries singled out in the Global Fragility Act for preventative programming, and it has similarly been siloed from certain EU initiatives in West Africa. Advocates of the GFA note that Nigeria is in less of a “preventative” stage than the other five littoral states given that it has been battling the “Boko Haram”6 insurgency in one form or another for over a decade. Whatever the merits of this logic from a programmatic perspective, analytically, it is a liability.

The expansion of jihadist violence from the Sahel to the aforementioned littoral countries has been mirrored since 2020 by the movements of jihadists within Nigeria closer to the borders of southwestern Niger and northern Benin. This has put Nigerian and Sahelian jihadists into the closest geographic proximity they have enjoyed in years, opening avenues for potential movement and coordination between fellow al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates. Despite this growing cause for concern, the literature on the multi-border region where Sahelian jihadists are converging and pushing southward has mostly focused on Francophone countries and Ghana to date, overlooking critical dynamics in northwestern Nigeria.7

This study aims to begin addressing this blind spot by examining in detail the overlooked and ongoing movement of jihadist groups from their historical strongholds in northeastern Nigeria to the country’s northwestern and North-Central states.8 The authors do not argue that there is a perfectly synchronous or coordinated march of Sahelian and Nigerian jihadists southward with a clear and uniform objective in mind; nor do the authors delve in detail into the operations of JNIM and ISGS. Rather, the study, based on the authors’ extensive fieldwork across northern Nigeria as well as consultations with experts on jihadist expansion in the Sahel, reflects on the ways in which the landscape of Nigerian jihadism is changing after many years in which violence was largely contained to the country’s remote northeast. In doing so, the authors consider some of the implications for the broader West Africa region amid the concurrent expansion(s) of JNIM and ISGS. It is the hope of the authors that this study can stimulate greater discussion and collaboration between specialists in Francophone West Africa and those researching Nigerian security, as the two communities have often been needlessly siloed.

The authors begin by explaining the territorial scope of jihadist violence in Nigeria as well as providing context regarding “Boko Haram’s” three principal factions. The study then assesses the efforts of each of these factions to expand into northwestern and North-Central Nigeria in recent years, paying particular attention to developments since the start of 2022. These developments point to serious expansionist ambitions on the part of Nigeria’s jihadists—albeit ambitions that have not always been realized. The authors conclude by analyzing the ways in which Nigeria’s jihadists alternatively cooperate and compete with one another as they move into new parts of the country and navigate existing conflicts in those areas. These complex and evolving relationships between Nigeria’s jihadists, all of whom have a degree of shared history despite their present-day rivalries, remain largely shrouded in mystery—to the detriment of counterterrorism efforts, as these relationships have the potential to significantly influence the overall trajectory of jihadism in West Africa.

The study builds on the previous collaborative work of the authors examining the links (and frequent disputes) between Nigeria’s jihadists and the powerful bandit warlords that dominate the northwestern part of the country.9 It also includes new details regarding some of the high-profile terror plots that have roiled Nigeria since early 2022, which are drawn from the authors’ extensive fieldwork in northern Nigeria, including interviews with non-state actors. A caveat to this study is that conflict dynamics in northwestern Nigeria are quite fluid and the identities and organizational affinities of individual figures are often disputed among even the most well-placed sources. This is particularly the case for jihadists, for various reasons that the authors will explain. In this study, the authors do their best to only draw on reports that have been corroborated by multiple sources, although this is, unfortunately, not always possible amid the fog of war.

The Geography of Jihadism in Nigeria

In October 2018, jihadists who likely belonged to ISGS crossed the border from Niger (henceforth referred to as Niger Republic to avoid confusion with the Nigerian north-central state of Niger) into the communities of Tangaza and Gudu in Sokoto state in northwestern Nigeria. The militants were known locally as Lakurawa, a Hausa-ization of the French for “the recruits,” and were well-received—at first.10 Though initially embraced by local residents, who were seeking any support they could find in fighting off a wave of marauding bandits from neighboring Zamfara state, Lakurawa quickly overstayed its welcome by imposing harsh penalties on any Muslim found guilty of supposed religious infractions such as dancing. The jihadists also excessively taxed Fulani pastoralists, the community most closely associated with banditry in northern Nigeria (fairly or unfairly), which only led to an aggravation of bandit attacks in the region. Within several months, the militants were pushed back across the border by a joint Nigerian-Nigerien military operation to the relief of many in the aforementioned Sokoto communities.11

This incursion by Lakurawa marked the first and to date only time that Sahelian jihadists have attempted to establish a serious base of operations within Nigeria.12 But within two years, each of Nigeria’s homegrown jihadist outfits would be attempting a similarly worrying feat: Establishing a base of operations in the far northwest along the borders of Niger Republic and Benin.

Understanding jihadist expansion within Nigeria requires two important pieces of context. First, the “Boko Haram” insurgency has undergone significant infighting and fracturing since the jihad first began in 2009 under the leadership of the movement’s late founder, Mohammed Yusuf. At present, the three principal offshoots of Boko Haram are: 

  • The direct successor to Yusuf’s movement, which formally refers to itself as Jama‘at Ahl al-Sunna li-Da‘wa wal-Jihad (JAS); this ultra-takfiri group (i.e., its belief that any Muslim who does not proactively support the group is an infidel and thus a valid target) was led by Yusuf’s one-time lieutenant Abubakar Shekau until his death in May 2021 and now seems to be divided into multiple sub-factions, the largest and most coherent being the Bakura faction based around Lake Chad;
  • The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), the strongest jihadist group in Nigeria and a provincial affiliate of the Islamic State known for being somewhat more discriminate in its violence than JAS (i.e., it prioritizes attacking the Nigerian military over civilians);
  • Jama’at Ansar al-Muslimin fi Bilad al-Sudan (“Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa”), better known as Ansaru, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that was active in the early 2010s and has resurfaced in northwestern Nigeria in recent years, albeit with a very different modus operandi than before.

These groups are themselves comprised of different sub-units, some of which are highly autonomous. Jihadists in the northwestern states in particular seem to enjoy a degree of “free agent” status in which they can move from one faction to another or provide support to ostensibly rival jihadists on an ad hoc basis, as detailed throughout this study. Certain members of the historical JAS network in northwestern Nigeria collaborate closely with both ISWAP and Ansaru, while in other instances, those same individuals may clash with those factions for fear of losing influence. It is perhaps not without reason that many of the individuals that the authors have interviewed in Nigeria’s northwest, ranging from government officials to bandits, refer only to the presence of “Boko Haram” in their region rather than attempt to discern which faction a given jihadist purports to represent. 

The second piece of crucial context is geographic. The traditional base of the Boko Haram insurgency has been Borno state in northeastern Nigeria as well as parts of neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger Republic, a region collectively referred to as the Lake Chad Basin.13 In the past few years, Nigeria’s jihadists have begun expanding from their traditional bases in the northeast into the country’s northwest, which is the focus of this study. However, jihadists do not presently constitute the primary security challenge in that theater. Rather, the northwestern states14 are experiencing a complex and evolving conflict characterized by criminal insurgency, warlordism, and intercommunal violence—all of which is colloquially lumped together under the label of “banditry” or “banditry terrorism.”15 Jihadists from each of the three principal factions—JAS, ISWAP, and Ansaru—have made repeated attempts over the years to expand into the northwest and recruit the region’s numerous bandit gangs to their cause. Notably, these gangs are primarily comprised of ethnic Fulani herdsmen, an oft-aggrieved demographic that JNIM and ISGS have recruited from heavily in Sahelian countries. Yet Nigeria’s jihadist conflict has unfolded differently. As the authors have shown in their previous study, jihadists’ efforts to recruit bandits in northwestern Nigeria have largely been unsuccessful for several reasons. These include a lack of ideological and political-economic alignment between the two sets of militants; the bandits’ reluctance to surrender their autonomy to jihadists (most of whom are non-Fulani and from a different region of Nigeria); and the loose organization and frequent fracturing of bandit gangs. These factors have, in aggregate, made it difficult for jihadists to durably coopt bandits of significant influence.16

Nonetheless, jihadists have succeeded in establishing enclaves in several parts of northwestern Nigeria in recent years. More significantly, they have enjoyed ad hoc, transactional cooperation with certain bandits that has allowed them to orchestrate or participate in high-profile attacks in the region on several occasions. In 2022, these included the abduction of dozens of passengers from a train in March, an assault on a major prison in a suburb of the federal capital, Abuja, in July, and several attacks on military forces throughout the year—all of which will be discussed in this study. As such, even though jihadists remain secondary conflict actors in northwestern Nigeria who frequently struggle to gain the support or even acceptance of the more numerous bandits, the growing capacity of jihadists to conduct significant attacks in the northwest—and thereby exacerbate the region’s underlying insecurity—should not be ignored. Moreover, the potential for Nigerian jihadists to establish a degree of geographic contiguity and attendant cooperation with their Sahelian counterparts via emerging bases in northwestern Nigeria, while not guaranteed, is higher than it has ever been before—hence the impetus for this study.

FIF Quetta
Source: Author

“Darul Salam”: Examining JAS Networks in Northwestern Nigeria

Of Nigeria’s three principal jihadist factions, JAS has historically enjoyed the most success in relocating to the northwest and partnering with the region’s bandits. This is due to several factors. Those JAS commanders who have relocated to the northwest have had significant operational autonomy that has allowed them to integrate into loosely organized bandit gangs.17 Additionally, JAS has not preached particularly actively against the activities of the bandits—which primarily consist of attacking and looting rural communities in the Muslim-majority northwest—because the group’s ultra-takfiri approach can easily justify violence against Muslims. This stands in contrast to ISWAP and Ansaru, which generally seek to discourage predation on (non-combatant) Muslim civilians as part of their approach to win hearts and minds, albeit not as consistently as they would claim.18

JAS has been in an uncertain state ever since its longtime leader, Abubakar Shekau, was killed by ISWAP in his Sambisa Forest stronghold in Borno in May 2021, which marked the culmination of a long-brewing rivalry between the once-unified jihadists. Following Shekau’s death, the JAS faction led by Bakura Doron, Shekau’s self-appointed successor, rebuffed ISWAP’s entreaties for a merger in 2021 and appeared to be struggling throughout much of 2022 as a result. Surprisingly, the group managed to amass enough strength to launch an offensive against ISWAP around Lake Chad by the start of 2023 that has, as of this writing, caused setbacks for ISWAP, if not permanently crippled the group (unfortunately).19 For the purposes of this study, however, it is significant that in the first 18 months after Shekau’s death, Bakura’s future—and by extension that of the once-relatively unified JAS networks as a whole—seemed uncertain.

In this period of turbulence in 2021–2022, a number of JAS fighters opted to travel to northwestern Nigeria rather than surrender to the military in Borno or join the dominant ISWAP (where, as a recent defector from JAS, one could expect to be demoted and face suspicion from ISWAP commanders). As many as 2,00020 JAS fighters have consequently relocated to northwestern states, primarily Zamfara, Niger, and Kaduna, since Shekau’s death, although any estimates are quite imprecise. With its weak state presence and booming kidnapping-for-ransom economy, northwestern Nigeria is a logical destination for battle-hardened militants seeking autonomy and war spoils. However, in the case of JAS, the movement of fighters to the northwest has additionally been facilitated by an existing network of JAS—or, at minimum, JAS-aligned—militants with a long-standing presence in the region.

ct 1
JAS-aligned jihadists known as “Darul Salam” worked alongside bandits to abduct 62 passengers from a Kaduna-bound train in March 2022. In this video, released a week after the attack, the abductors explain that they are releasing a hostage in the spirit of Ramadan, though they had in fact received a ransom from the hostage’s family.

JAS appears to have gradually expanded around different parts of the northwestern and North-Central states throughout the 2010s under the guise of a defunct Islamic sect known as Darul Salam. This reclusive sect had been based in Niger state in North-Central Nigeria from its founding in the 1990s until 2009, during which period it established a commune in Niger’s Mokwa Local Government Area (LGA). The group eventually grew to around 4,000 members drawn from different parts of the country (and possibly further afield) who engaged in livestock trading and farming while building schools for their children to receive an idiosyncratic mix of Islamic and Western education.21The second author briefly visited one of the group’s compounds in the mid-2000s and noted that the society was very conservative, self-sustaining, and self-isolating. There is no evidence, however, that the sect was ever violent or had a meaningful relationship in that period with Boko Haram, which was based in the other side of the country in Borno state and was similarly establishing some communes in its pre-jihad years.22 Nevertheless, in the wake of Boko Haram’s violent July 2009 uprising, the then-governor of Niger state preemptively expelled Darul Salam from Mokwa out of concern that the sect would take inspiration from the Borno-based jihadists and turn violent. At this point, a number of the more radical Darul Salam youths reportedly traveled from Niger to the northeast to join the emerging Boko Haram insurgency.23 Others seem to have stayed in the North-Central region, particularly Nasarawa state, where they may have had ongoing contact and exchanges with their colleagues who had joined Boko Haram.24


One of those former Darul Salam youths, a Fulani man from the northwest25 known by his nom de guerre—“Sadiku”—appeared on the radar of bandits and local residents in parts of the northwest around 2015 or 2016. While some details of his trajectory as a militant are unclear, various sources report that Sadiku had strong ties with Shekau by 2015–2016 and was tasked at that time with helping relocate JAS fighters to the northwest (since the jihadists were facing major setbacks in the northeast as a result of a freshly launched offensive by regional militaries).26 It is unlikely that Sadiku would have developed such ties with Shekau purely through remote communications, suggesting that he had joined JAS in the northeast for a time in the period between Darul Salam’s expulsion from Niger state in 2009 and his resurfacing in the northwest in the mid-2010s.

Over the subsequent years, Sadiku succeeded in bringing JAS fighters into the northwest, where they worked with local bandits to raise funds through kidnapping for ransom and cattle rustling.27 By late 2019, the network had established a sizable enclave of fighters in Shiroro LGA in Niger state28 that even released a video affirming allegiance to Shekau.29 At the same time, Sadiku was also discretely guiding the operations of his former Darul Salam associates and recently relocated JAS fighters (there was likely some overlap) in Toto LGA of Nasarawa state south of Abuja. Operating locally under the guise of “Darul Salam” rather than JAS, these militants conducted numerous kidnappings and attacks in the late 2010s, which eventually prompted the military to launch operations against their camps in August 2020.30 During this military intervention, which resulted in the arrest of many “Darul Salam” members and their families, Nigerian media reported on “Darul Salam” as if it were a violent resurgence of the original cult and a movement distinct from Nigeria’s more infamous Boko Haram terrorists. While this was understandable given the limited information available about the group at that time, it seems much more likely that “Darul Salam” was a name that Sadiku and his lieutenants—some of whom had indeed once been members of the original Niger-based sect of that name—used as a cover for their activities in North-Central Nigeria and that the group had significant overlap with, or was indeed a direct cover for, JAS. 

After the military operations in Toto LGA in 2020, elements of Sadiku’s “Darul Salam” network moved to other parts of Nasarawa as well as Niger and Kaduna states, continuously welcoming JAS fighters who were relocating from the northeast all the while. The group alternatively collaborated and clashed with bandits in different parts of North-Central and northwestern Nigeria, with economic logic driving the instances of cooperation and ideological disagreements producing the rifts.31 By 2021, Sadiku’s network, whether known locally as “Boko Haram” or “Darul Salam,” was active in an axis stretching around the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) from Kaduna state in the north, to Niger state in the west, to Nasarawa state in the south and east. The group also began preaching to recruit more Gbagyi,32 the indigenous people of the FCT who have been displaced in large numbers as a result of the expansion of the Abuja metropolis.

By early 2022, Sadiku’s network had sufficient manpower and presence across the North-Central states to plot a bold operation: On March 28, 2022, it attacked a train traveling from Abuja to the northern metropolis and state capital Kaduna. At the time of the attack, the Abuja-Kaduna rail line had become the preferred means of transportation for many of the northern Nigerian elite given the frequency of bandits’ attacks along the adjacent highway. Although most stretches of the track were not regularly patrolled by security forces, and although the train had been briefly shot at and derailed on one occasion in October 202133 (which we know in retrospect was a trial run), the March 28 attack, in which eight passengers were killed and 62 abducted, came as a shock to the Nigerian public: Mass kidnappings, long a problem in the northern hinterlands, were now affecting the nation’s urban elite.

The train attack was never formally claimed, but details can be pieced together through interviews with the released hostages and other key actors whom the second author engaged with in the process of hostage negotiations. The authors can report that the attack was a joint operation by Sadiku’s “Darul Salam” fighters and members of the gang of Ali Kawaje, also known as Ali Kachalla. Ali Kawaje’s stature among bandits had increased in mid-2021 after some of his boys gained notoriety for shooting down a low-flying Nigerian Air Force jet with only small arms.34 He was also known by that time to have been exchanging weapons and undergoing training with some “Boko Haram” fighters in Kaduna, as the authors noted in their previous study (though at the time, such reports were difficult to corroborate in detail).35 By all accounts, Ali Kawaje never converted seriously to a jihadist worldview and never shared the broader JAS/Darul Salam objectives. The joint operation against the train was an example instead of mutually beneficial cooperation between bandits and jihadists. But, crucially, it demonstrated how devastating one-off cooperation can be even in the absence of a more enduring ideological convergence between the militants.

Sadiku’s men had been planning the attack for months prior and had recruited members of Kawaje’s gang to provide additional manpower and intimate knowledge of the local terrain that the jihadists mostly lacked. (Kawaje himself did not directly take part in the attack but allowed his boys to join in the operation.) While Kawaje’s boys were enticed by promises of ransom payments, Sadiku and his lieutenants sought a hostage swap to secure the release of several of their children who had been detained in the military operations in Nasarawa in 2020, which they eventually secured.36 In the course of the negotiations, the jihadists also demanded the release of several former JAS associates who were held in Kuje prison outside Abuja. Those individuals were not released by the government, contrary to some speculation in Nigerian media at the time, although some escaped during a July 2022 attack on the prison discussed below.37

The Abuja-Kaduna train attack emboldened militants in other parts of Nigeria to attempt similar abductions in the subsequent months.38 It also helped convince various Nigerian jihadists that the country’s critical infrastructure was sufficiently vulnerable to finally attempt the mass prison breaks that they had been considering for some time.39 As for Sadiku’s network, a number of his fighters relocated to various locations around the North-Central region as far east as Taraba state following the completion of negotiations over the fate of the train passengers in November 2022.40

Based on the authors’ knowledge of the train attack and subsequent operations, it seems that Sadiku’s lieutenants constitute a network of freelancers and collaborators more than an organized group. Several fighters work closely with Ansaru, as discussed in a subsequent section, which is not surprising in light of claims that Sadiku was the one who first welcomed the current leader of Ansaru to northwestern Nigeria in the mid-2010s.41 Sadiku himself has entertained entreaties from Ansaru, ISWAP, and Bakura of late,42 and he has reportedly assisted in the movement of both Bakura and ISWAP insurgents from the northeast to the northwest, although his own physical condition is also uncertain owing to a serious injury he sustained in 2022.43 His dalliances with different factions have not reduced the level of suspicion and mistrust that permeates Nigeria’s jihadist community, however. In October or November 2022, Sadiku abruptly executed a number of veteran jihadists who had joined his cell in Kaduna after escaping from Kuje prison for fear that these recent escapees were acting as ISWAP spies, ISWAP having claimed credit for the prison break.44

At this point, it seems safe to assume that sufficient JAS fighters—perhaps better understood as ex-JAS fighters, depending on how one understands the coherence of JAS following Shekau’s death—have relocated from the northeast to the northwest in recent months such that even if Sadiku were to be neutralized, the northwest will continue to have a major “Boko Haram” presence for some time to come. The question is whether the bulk of these militants are interested in carrying on their jihad—either under their own independent banner or by rallying to another group such as ISWAP, Bakura, or Ansaru—or whether they are content to roam about as soldiers of fortune alongside bandits in the lawless northwest. These two scenarios may not be mutually exclusive, as conflict dynamics in the northwest can rarely be reduced to a binary.

The aftermath of the July 5, 2022 assault by jihadists on Kuje prison on the outskirts of Abuja. (Photo credit: Reuters)

ISWAP: Opportunistic Cooptation, or Strategic Expansion?

ISWAP formed as a splinter of Boko Haram in 2016 and soon became the dominant jihadist faction in Nigeria. The group has established control over several rural sanctuaries in the Lake Chad Basin in which it exercises a degree of proto-statal authority.45 In the northwest, however, the group has historically had less success, particularly in its attempts to rally bandits to its cause. This owes in part to the relatively strict code of conduct that it expects its fighters to adhere to, namely the prohibition on the wanton raiding and killing of Muslim civilians unaffiliated with the Nigerian government (though there are exceptions to this).46 The group nonetheless managed to expand operations in 2022 into central Nigeria.

ISWAP first announced attacks outside its core northeastern territories in April 2022 amid a global upsurge in attacks claimed by IS’s various affiliates that was framed as a “revenge” campaign launched during Ramadan in response to the killing of the IS leader by U.S. forces in Syria in November 2021.47 The global framing and synchronization of that propaganda belies the degree to which ISWAP had been laying the groundwork for such a campaign outside northeastern Nigeria for months if not years before the death of the IS leader, particularly by exploiting hyper-local jihadist networks in the country’s North-Central states.48 In fact, ISWAP conducted its first attacks outside the northeast—IED attacks on churches in the central states of Kaduna and Taraba—at the start of 202249 and only claimed them belatedly when the Ramadan campaign kicked off in April.

Thus, while many observers have feared for some time that the northwest, with its lawlessness and conflict, would be the logical expansion point for ISWAP,50 2022 saw the group having more success operating in the North-Central region. The reasons for this lie in the oft-overlooked historical dynamics of jihadism in central Nigeria, particularly Kogi state.

ISWAP in Kogi 

ISWAP appears to have multiple cells in central Nigeria, including one in the Abuja suburb of Suleja, but the majority of attacks it has claimed outside the northeast since the start of 2022 have been the work of a cell (or, more likely, several interconnected cells) in the central state of Kogi, located just south of Abuja. Rather than dispatching its “core” fighters from the northeast into Kogi to stage attacks, ISWAP has coopted an indigenous jihadist movement within the state that was historically aligned with Ansaru in order to establish a new front for its intra-Nigerian expansion. Many details of ISWAP’s network in Kogi remain murky, but it is worth reflecting on the history of jihadist violence in the state to better assess the nature of ISWAP’s relationship with its cell(s) there.

Kogi has historically had a distinct jihadist milieu, particularly an ultra-takfiri subset of youths within the Ebira ethnic group in the western part of the state that split from Kogi’s more mainstream Salafis in the late 2000s around the same time as the “Boko Haram” conflict took off in the northeast. Given their ultra-takfiri approach and hyper-local focus on waging jihad around the Okene-Adavi axis within Ebiraland, these jihadists never cemented a formal relationship with JAS that would have subordinated their operations to Shekau’s command. Instead, the Ebira jihadists, who were clustered around two seemingly rival commander-clerics known as “Mallam Baba” and “Mallam Mustapha,” conducted a number of gruesome but largely overlooked attacks around the Okene axis in western Kogi in the early and mid-2010s.51 As Jacob Zenn has noted, these Ebira jihadists, as well as a smaller subset of jihadists from Kogi’s Igala ethnic group, came under the sway of Ansaru in the mid-2010s as the latter looked to establish a base south of Abuja after its cells in Kano and Kaduna had come under pressure from security forces.52 The cooperation between Ansaru and the Kogi jihadists came about despite Ansaru’s generally “moderate” approach to takfir, which stood in sharp contrast to the Kogi jihadists. Nonetheless, Kogi proved to be a useful base for Ansaru from 2013 onwards, and founding Ansaru commander Khalid al-Barnawi was arrested in the state’s capital, Lokoja, in 2016.53

It seems quite clear that ISWAP has recruited within the same jihadist communities in Kogi as Ansaru previously did. The locations within Kogi where ISWAP has claimed attacks in 2022 map closely onto the areas where Ebira jihadists conducted attacks throughout the 2010s, and some of the attacks match the unique modus operandi of those jihadists, e.g., attacks on traditional Ebira masquerades.54 It is therefore likely that ISWAP began wooing the Kogi jihadists that had previously been in the Ansaru fold starting sometime after Khalid al-Barnawi’s arrest in 2016 and effectively brought them into its orbit no later than early 2022.55

While the cooptation of Kogi jihadists has benefited ISWAP to date, it is less certain if ISWAP can retain significant influence over those militants moving forward. There have been a number of attacks in Kogi and adjacent regions that have a broadly jihadist modus operandi but were never claimed by ISWAP, which could indicate that while there continues to be a sizable jihadist community in Kogi, ISWAP has only coopted parts of it. Similarly, the few profiles we have of Kogi jihadists suggest that a number of them have criminal backgrounds and are prone to collaborate with bandits in a non-ideological manner,56 such that they may be involved in various criminal operations that do not advance ISWAP’s narrative interests and therefore go unclaimed.57 Additionally, the lag between attacks in Kogi and ISWAP’s claims thereof (in the instances in which such claims are forthcoming) has increased in recent months, which some Nigerian officials attribute to the Kogi jihadists, now under more surveillance from security agencies than they were at the start of 2022, reverting to less direct and thus slower forms of electronic communication with ISWAP’s leadership.58 All of this to say, ISWAP’s Kogi network seems to already operate quite autonomously, and if earlier iterations of Kogi jihadism are anything to go by, it may prove to be a difficult subordinate for ISWAP in the long term. 

The uncertainty over the future of ISWAP’s influence in Kogi, coupled with the setbacks that ISWAP has faced in the northeast of late at the hands of the rival Bakura faction as well as the Nigerian military, raise hopes that ISWAP’s expansion might run out of steam, allowing for a concerted focus from the Nigerian government on attacking the group’s center of gravity by clearing its remote territorial strongholds in the northeast. Unfortunately, declarations of victory over the insurgents in the northeast have repeatedly proven premature over the years, and ISWAP’s expansionist agenda should therefore not be ignored.59

Motivations for expansion

It may seem self-evident that jihadists would seek to expand their operations—the post-Baghuz motto of IS is “remaining and expanding” (baqiyya wa tatamaddad), after all. It is nonetheless important to consider the specific context in which ISWAP’s 2022 campaign of “external” operations (i.e., those conducted outside the Lake Chad Basin) came about to better discern the specific push and pull factors of ISWAP’s expansionary efforts.

There are several likely explanations behind ISWAP’s decision to expand operations into central Nigeria in 2022, none of them mutually exclusive. First, there are strategic benefits to further destabilizing different parts of the country. The logic may be that the more attacks ISWAP can stage across the country, the further Nigeria’s already overstretched security forces will spread themselves thin, potentially granting reprieve to the core insurgency in the northeast. Such a strategy no doubt became all the more appealing to ISWAP by late 2021, when the group started to experience greater attrition and stalled operations in the northeast after enjoying several years in which it could regularly overpower battalion-sized outposts.

This leads to the second possible motivation for expansion: there is likely an emotional element to the 2022 campaign. As the Nigerian military has improved its capabilities in the northeast, and particularly its air power,60 it has begun striking ISWAP’s camps more frequently, killing a number of senior commanders—as well as their wives and children in some instances.61 ISWAP’s decision to bomb venues such as bars and churches in central Nigeria—including, notably, one failed IED attack on a military barracks in Taraba state—might reflect a degree of revenge-seeking, a mentality along the lines of “If the military strikes our homes, we will strike theirs.” 

Thirdly, ever-present internal divisions within ISWAP may be driving the expansion. ISWAP’s commanders have never been in complete agreement about which targets to prioritize, the pace at which to expand operations, or the relative degree of brutality to employ. ISWAP has excelled through a bureaucratic yet decentralized and depersonalized leadership model62 (indeed, ISWAP has not even announced who its current leader is) but differing strategic visions and egotistical disputes among commanders have persisted. These disagreements even reached such levels in mid-2022 that the Islamic State reportedly dispatched officials from Libya to the Lake Chad region to mediate.63 With this in mind, it is not unreasonable to speculate that the decision to expand operations earlier in 2022 was at least partially a compromise between factions within ISWAP holding differing views about the group’s priorities—some more focused on consolidating ISWAP’s territorial hold in the northeast, others bent on bringing the violence to the heart of the Nigerian state. Notably, ISWAP was plotting to stage a spectacular attack in Abuja in late 2022 before Western governments picked up intelligence of such plots,64 pushing the group to instead opt for a lower-risk operation in the stronghold of its Kogi cell: a December 29, 2022 bombing in Okene that ISWAP somewhat implausibly framed as an assassination attempt against President Muhammadu Buhari, who was briefly visiting a different part of town that same day.65 That is to say, the decision to stage a higher-profile (and by definition higher-risk) operation may have been a way to satisfy those within the ranks holding a more aggressive attitude.

Fourthly, if ISWAP’s expansion were to extend into parts of northwestern Nigeria closer to Niger Republic, it could serve to strengthen the group’s ties with ISGS. ISWAP is a prized affiliate within the IS ecosystem—the frequent trumpeting of ISWAP exploits (real or exaggerated) in IS propaganda makes this clear. Members of ISWAP, reportedly including former wali (“governor” or provincial leader) Abu Musab al-Barnawi, even lead IS’s regional al-Furqan office that advises ISGS on political and military strategy.66 Achieving territorial contiguity or proximity would help further increase coordination between branches and is therefore no doubt an objective of IS leadership. There was indeed chatter in late 2022 of Nigerians traveling to Mali to support ISGS’s offensives against JNIM and government forces,67 although the number of ISWAP fighters in that cohort is unclear: Notably, Lakurawa was again active in northern Sokoto in 2022 around the same time as this chatter,68 which could suggest that Lakurawa militants recruited some of their kinsmen to the cause, i.e., Tolobe pastoralists residing in northwestern Nigeria who may or may not have connections to ISWAP. In any case, the further that ISWAP spreads its cells across northern Nigeria, the greater opportunity there is to connect with ISGS at some point down the line.

This ties into a final and perhaps most significant rationale for ISWAP’s expansion, which is the question of which of West Africa’s myriad jihadist factions will achieve preeminence. Coming less than a year after the group killed Abubakar Shekau and subsequently attempted to rally his men, the decision to activate cells in central Nigeria in early 2022 seemed to be part of a broader, overarching effort on ISWAP’s part to position itself as the paramount jihadist group within Nigeria and (re-)absorb the different factions that have split from “Boko Haram” over the years. Signaling the capacity and intention to strike outside of traditional hotpots in the northeast would be a logical way, after all, to attempt to rally Nigeria’s geographically dispersed jihadists.

Indeed, the most notable operation that ISWAP claimed in 2022 was part of this campaign of “external” attacks outside the northeast: On July 5, jihadists attacked the medium-security Kuje prison outside Abuja near the city’s international airport, freeing hundreds of prisoners, including 69 individuals described by authorities as high-profile “Boko Haram” terrorists.69 In conducting this attack, ISWAP cooperated with fighters from several different outfits, including the JAS/“Darul Salam” network as well as Ansaru. Some bandits also served as local guides and auxiliaries for the jihadists and were remunerated as such.70 Striking just outside Abuja (a city which ISWAP subsequently attempted to attack in conjunction with other jihadists and/or bandits71) and freeing dozens of veteran jihadists, nearly all of whom had been in prison since before ISWAP split from Boko Haram in 2015-16, suggested an effort to both earn the goodwill of various non-ISWAP jihadists while also signaling to those jihadists that the group has the capacity to pull off a coordinated, complex assault in the heart of Nigeria. A number of the Kuje escapees reportedly traveled to the northeast and joined ISWAP—grateful, it seems, for their liberation and eager to work with the seemingly dominant jihadist faction—rather than join with the existing Ansaru or “Darul Salam” networks in the northwest.72

The Kuje operation was followed by an even bolder plot targeting the Nigeran Army cantonment in Wawa in Niger state. In addition to housing over 1,000 detained terrorists, including senior jihadist figures, the Wawa cantonment is located in a highly strategic region as it helps protect the Kainji reservoir that provides power to much of northern Nigeria. On October 29, 2022, militants using a vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) and other heavy explosives attempted to storm the cantonment in an effort to free the jihadist prisoners. The military fortunately repelled the assault and killed or captured a number of insurgents in the process,73 a success that military sources attribute to intelligence operations over the preceding months that had allowed them to catch wind of the plot.74 Because the attack failed, it was never claimed, unlike the Kuje operation. 

The exact composition of the insurgents who attacked the Wawa detention facility remains unclear. Nigerian military sources have both publicly and privately attributed the attack to ISWAP,75 and particularly ISWAP fighters from Kogi,76 while several other sources report that it was a collaborative effort between jihadists in which Ansaru was likely involved. Two sources separately stated that foreign jihadists participated in the attack and may have even played a leading role in planning the operation, although they did not provide substantive evidence of this claim.77 The theory of foreign involvement is supported to some extent by reports the authors have received from communities around the Kainji forest area dating back to mid-2021: Local sources have repeatedly reported the movement of Francophone militants, suspected to be Fulani pastoralists, crossing the border from the Beninois towns of Kalalè and Ségbana into sectors of the forest in Kebbi, Niger, and Kwara states. These militants have preached anti-government rhetoric, assuring the local (Muslim) civilians that they would not attack them, while attempting, with only limited success to date, to recruit some local bandits as well as Fulani community leaders to their cause.78

Whether these foreign jihadists around Kainji belong to JNIM or ISGS is unclear, though JNIM seems more likely given that it has penetrated much further into Benin than ISGS. It is equally unclear in that case what role these jihadists might have played in the foiled October assault on the Wawa detention facility as it would seem counterintuitive for JNIM to cooperate with ISWAP. It is conceivable that Ansaru and ISWAP agreed to pool resources to jointly conduct the attack like they did for the Kuje operation and that, in such a scenario, Ansaru managed to convince JNIM to lend additional manpower to the assault by pointing to the benefits that Ansaru (and by extension JNIM) would accrue from freeing hundreds of detained jihadists. Another theory the authors have heard is that the foreign jihadists were the ones to initiate the jailbreak in the hopes of gaining manpower for their own operations by freeing prisoners. Such speculation is admittedly weak, and the authors cannot conclude at this time the extent to which foreign jihadists participated in the Wawa attack.

Nonetheless, the incident in Wawa points at minimum to the potential for tactical cooperation between Nigerian and Sahelian jihadists on Nigerian soil. This raises the question of whether the rivalry between al-Qaeda- and IS-affiliated groups—so violent in the Sahel—will look different in the Nigerian context moving forward, a subject which is discussed at the end of this study.

Southwestern Nigeria: Avoiding Complacency

The jihadist presence in Niger state and the emerging connections between Nigerian and Sahelian militants via Benin are additionally concerning given the potential for militant violence to spill into Nigeria’s southwest. As is the case across the Sahel, militants are not carving out new transit corridors so much as they are exploiting existing routes for nefarious purposes. The town of Kalalè in northeastern Benin, where many foreign jihadists have reportedly passed on their way into Nigeria, has long been an area of cross-border trade and transit for pastoralists. Similarly, the Kainji/Borgu area on the Nigerian side of the border holds a number of grazing routes that some bandits (including the occasional JAS/“Darul Salam” collaborator Alhaji Leyi) have begun using to dispatch fighters into southwestern Nigeria.79

Those bandits who have reached the southwest have mostly operated around the forests of Oyo state, where they conduct kidnappings in partnership with local criminals, but some have operated as far south Ogun state, which lies just to the north of the commercial hub of Lagos.80 Among other things, commuters on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway were twice attacked in a manner characteristic of bandits (or jihadists) in late 2022.81 While there is more evidence of bandits’ presence in the southwestern forests than there is of jihadists at present, there have historically been small jihadist recruitment networks in Lagos, and ISWAP uses the city as a logistics hub.82 Beyond Lagos, as far back as December 2020, the governor of Oyo state warned that unidentified “bandits” from Mali were attempting to enter Oyo through the town of Shaki near the border with Kwara state,83 while in mid-2022, Nigerian security agents arrested a suspected “Boko Haram” (most likely ISWAP) operative in Abeokuta in Ogun state who had allegedly been gathering intelligence for an attack.84

These datapoints do not amount to proof of a major campaign of jihadist expansion into southwestern Nigeria, but they should not be ignored either. The ease with which non-state actors can not only move across the Nigeria-Benin border longitudinally but also traverse the forests on each side of the border latitudinally means that southwestern Nigeria could see a growing nexus of bandits and jihadists, with the latter following into areas of lawlessness carved out by the former, if likely on a smaller scale than in the northwest. While the South-West Geopolitical Zone of Nigeria has generally been more secure than the other five zones in recent years, relations between Fulani pastoralists and indigenous Yorùbá communities have deteriorated significantly of late. The southwestern governors established a network of anti-pastoralist militias of dubious legality in late 2020, while 2021 saw farmer-herder clashes in the Ibarapa region of Oyo state that left dozens dead.85 There are already indications that bandits from the northwest have exploited some of these tensions between traditionally southwest-based pastoralists and the local Yorùbá by recruiting aggrieved members of the former. There is an attendant risk that jihadists—be they from the Sahel via Benin or from northern Nigeria (e.g., Kogi)—could also capitalize on any disorder in Nigeria’s southwest and integrate into the region’s kidnapping syndicates to raise funds and expand recruitment efforts. Unoriginal as such recommendations may sound, it bears repeating in light of this context that it is very much in the interest of the Nigerian government and communities in the southwest to seek a peaceful means of resolving disputes between pastoralists and farmers so as to avoid exacerbating the social cleavages that extremists eagerly exploit.

Ansaru’s (De)volution: From Anti-Bandit Militia to Pragmatic Partner

Ansaru formed as a splinter of Boko Haram as early as 2011. It was led by several transnationally oriented Boko Haram commanders who had disapproved of Abubakar Shekau’s parochial focus on attacking Muslim non-combatants in northern Nigeria as well as his perceived favoritism towards Kanuri commanders (Kanuri being the major ethnic group in Borno but a minority in the rest of the north).86 With the support of AQIM, the exact nature and degree of which is debated, Ansaru conducted a string of attacks across Nigeria’s northwestern and North-Central states between 2011 and 2013, including multiple kidnappings of Western nationals.87 In contrast to JAS’s rural insurgency, Ansaru operated largely through a network of urban cells that proved vulnerable to counterterrorism pressure. Nigerian security forces arrested many of Ansaru’s cells in 2014, and the group appeared effectively defunct by 2016, when the military captured founding member Khalid al-Barnawi in the capital of Kogi state.

It was therefore notable when Ansaru “reactivated” in northwestern Nigeria in October 2019, according to United Nations experts.88 Except it is more likely that the group known as Ansaru that operates in northwestern Nigeria today is distinct from the original faction, as the authors have previously argued.89 Today’s Ansaru is, according to various sources who interact with the group, composed of and led by later defectors from JAS who relocated to the northwest around 2015–2016, a time when JAS was facing significant pressure from the multinational military offensive in the Lake Chad region and was consequently dispatching fighters to different parts of Nigeria. Ansaru could therefore be better understood as a “hybrid” group or “Ansaru 2.0,” i.e., it is markedly different in its leadership, composition, and modus operandi than the original group that was active in the early 2010s and may in fact borrow little more than the name of the original group.90

Ansaru may have said this much in an official video released in June 2022 in which a spokesman, among other things, denies responsibility for the Abuja-Kaduna train attack.91 As part of this denial, the Ansaru official also refutes rumors that one “Abul Barra” is the leader of the group, stating instead that Ansaru may choose to reveal its true leadership before long. (Mallam Abba, the nom de guerre of Ansaru’s presumed leader known to most sources who interact with the group, is never mentioned in the video.) There are two ways to interpret this disavowal of “Abul Barra.” The first and perhaps simplest explanation is that Abul Barra is the nom de guerre of a figure in Sadiku’s network who took part in the train attack, which Ansaru was, of course, attempting to distance itself from. However, this interpretation is complicated by the fact that that individual actually collaborates quite closely with Ansaru, making it difficult for the group to effectively disavow him (see below). An alternative explanation may be found in the fact that Abul Barra is, according to Nigerian security sources, the name of a leader of “al-Qaeda” in Kogi state,92 where the original Ansaru was active as late as 2016 when Khalid al-Barnawi was arrested there. Abul Barra may therefore be the successor to whatever network al-Barnawi left behind in Kogi at the time of his arrest, a network that now seems to be largely aligned with ISWAP if also quite autonomous. In this interpretation, the June 2022 video could be understood as a disavowal by “Ansaru 2.0” of any subordinance to the jihadist networks in Kogi and, by extension, the remnants of the original al-Qaeda-aligned group.

Nevertheless, the group appears to have meaningful communication with JNIM,93 which suggests that Ansaru 2.0 may have absorbed some of the original, transnationally oriented Ansaru figures that remained in the northwest after 2014, with those original Ansaru figures likely serving as a link to JNIM and AQIM. 

CT 3
Screengrab from Ansaru video released in June 2022.

After spending several years operating clandestinely in the bush around Birnin Gwari (an LGA in Kaduna state that shares borders with Zamfara, Katsina, and Niger states), the group decided to assume a public profile in 2020, marking the second iteration of an Ansaru-branded insurgency. The group made two concurrent efforts, one online and one offline. First, the group began publishing media and claiming attacks through al-Qaeda-linked Telegram channels beginning in January 2020, with such activity increasing in 2021.94 The group’s propaganda underscored its affinities for al-Qaeda and the Taliban, congratulating the latter, for example, on its successful capture of Kabul in 2021. With regards to its operations, Ansaru principally claimed attacks against Nigerian security forces and “apostate gunmen” (al-musalahin al-murtadin), i.e., bandits.95

This leads to the second and more substantial element of Ansaru’s “reactivation.” While the original Ansaru had aligned itself closely with aggrieved Fulani pastoralist communities in northwestern and North-Central Nigeria—if perhaps in rhetoric more than in action—Ansaru 2.0 opted for a different approach. Seeing how rural Muslim communities in Birnin Gwari had no succor in the face of relentless assaults from bandits, Ansaru opted to position itself as the defender of vulnerable Muslims from the predations of these “apostate gunmen.” In doing so, it effectively took sides in an escalating intercommunal conflict, aligning itself with predominantly Hausa farmers against predominantly Fulani bandits.

This approach takes a page from AQIM’s “playbook,” which JNIM has effectively implemented at various stages in its march through the Sahel.96 By inserting themselves into intercommunal conflicts and offering protection to certain Muslim communities that are at best neglected if not actively persecuted by the central state, jihadists aim to build a durable support base from which they can recruit fighters, fundraise, establish logistics corridors, and implement a degree of proto-governance to demonstrate proof of concept for a future Islamist state. In other words, whereas the original Ansaru had primarily engaged in terrorism and kidnappings through a network of urban cells, Ansaru 2.0 sought to wage a more conventional insurgency aimed at turning the hearts and minds of Nigerian Muslims against the federal government.

The starting points for the application of this AQIM-JNIM “playbook” in Nigeria were the large villages of Damari and Kuyello in Birnin Gwari, where Ansaru began preaching actively in 2020. Initially, Ansaru tried to rally both the Hausa residents as well as the local bandits in these areas by preaching pan-ethnic Islamic solidarity. Ansaru offered to educate the bandits in proper Islamic practices and help them turn their guns against their “true” enemy, i.e., the Nigerian state and its Western backers,97 if the bandits would agree to cease their un-Islamic predations on local villages. The bandits largely rebuffed Ansaru, however, preferring instead to continue preying on villagers along the Damari-Kuyello axis.98 Ansaru then began to fight these bandits, thereby positioning itself as an anti-bandit, pro-Hausa militia within Birnin Gwari.

Ansaru’s approach appeared to be paying dividends for a time. Sources in and around Damari and Kuyello reported that after initial hesitation, residents had come to embrace Ansaru by early 2022, viewing the jihadists as their best source of protection from rapacious criminals. Ansaru’s fighters intermarried with families in Damari and provided consistent protection against bandits, allowing farmers to access their fields with more consistency than they had in previous years.99 During Sallah celebrations at the end of Ramadan in May 2022, Ansaru fighters put on a wild show in Damari, Kuyello, and other villages in Birnin Gwari, distributing foodstuffs and entertaining residents with motorcycle tricks in a popular open-air festival.100 By June 2022, activists and civil servants in Birnin Gwari were warning that Nigeria’s 2023 elections might not hold in the LGA after Ansaru had effectively put a halt to political campaigning.101

Ansaru’s fortunes quickly went south in July 2022, however. After months of antagonizing the local bandits in Birnin Gwari—principally the smaller gangs of Kachalla Nakutama, Kachalla Mai Malfa, and Kachalla Mudi102—the bandits teamed up and attacked Ansaru in Damari in late July, pushing Ansaru and most residents out of the town.103 These clashes underscored the limitations of the population-centric AQIM-JNIM model in the context of northwestern Nigeria. Even as Ansaru had increasingly forged ties with local communities between 2020 and 2022, it still lacked the manpower and intimate knowledge of local power dynamics needed to confront the bandits around Birnin Gwari in toto. This was evidenced by the fact that Ansaru had relied on the protection of the powerful bandit-warlord Dogo Gide even as it clashed with the smaller gangs around the Damari-Kuyello axis.104 The authors noted in their previous study that this contradictory arrangement—quietly cooperating with a warlord in return for protection while simultaneously boasting of operations against smaller gangs—might not prove sustainable in the long run. And indeed, Ansaru’s exit form Damari in July 2022 came just a month or so after Dogo Gide had been seriously injured,105 which seems to have created an opportunity for Ansaru’s rivals to strike while the group’s protector and benefactor lay in convalescence. After losing Damari, Ansaru would suffer further losses at the hands of the Nigerian military along the Birnin Gwari axis in subsequent weeks, rendering the group weakened and disorganized, though not yet a spent force.

Pivoting to pragmatism

Since losing Damari, Ansaru has relocated, assumed a lower profile, and largely reverted to a more pragmatic and predatory modus operandi. On July 19, 2022, several days before the major clashes in Damari, a small team of Ansaru commanders traveled up to Rafi and Adja forests in Zamfara and met with several bandit warlords before returning to Birnin Gwari.106 Immediately after losing Damari, over 100 Ansaru fighters left Birnin Gwari for the aforementioned areas in Zamfara,107 suggesting that Ansaru had negotiated an arrangement with the bandits to allow them to establish camps there in the event that Birnin Gwari were to become inhospitable.

In the months since its relocation, Ansaru’s modus operandi has changed significantly. Rather than antagonizing bandits, Ansaru now seeks to earn their cooperation through collaborations in cattle rustling and kidnappings and by transferring IED-making skills to the gangs.108 And rather than assume a high profile by producing propaganda and claiming attacks against bandits and security forces, the group has been completely silent for nearly a year, opting for anonymity within the complex and ever-evolving conflict in Nigeria’s northwest. The group has not published any media since it circulated a propaganda magazine on June 30, 2022.109 It has gone an even longer period without claiming any attacks, the last being an April 9, 2022 operation against bandits, this coming nearly four months before the group was forced out of Damari. 

The one exception to Ansaru’s now bandit-friendly approach occurred on September 29, 2022, when Ansaru laid an ambush against the bandits who had kicked it out of Damari. Ansaru’s fighters succeeded in killing a number of the bandits and mingled in the town after the fact.110 The group did not claim the attack and did not stay in Damari, however, preferring instead to retreat into the bush.111 Whether the ambush was intended to lay the groundwork for a strategic reentry into Damari or was simply executed as an act of revenge is unclear.

Ansaru presently operates through a cell system. In addition to retaining a small presence in Birnin Gwari in the forests around the Kuyello axis, different groups of Ansaru fighters are located in Zamfara (particularly in Rafi Forest around Gusau as well as the eastern LGAs of Birnin Magaji and Zurmi), western Katsina (particularly Batsari, Dan Musa, Funtua, and Kankara LGAs), and as far east as the Falgore forest in Kano state.

There is limited consensus among sources interviewed by the authors as to who belongs to Ansaru. This is a result of the loose and fluid nature of organizational affiliations among jihadists (and indeed bandits) in northwestern Nigeria. It is not unreasonable to speculate that a number of Ansaru’s fighters have abandoned the group in favor of ISWAP amid the setbacks that the group began to face in mid-2022. Yet Ansaru may also be absorbing jihadists itself, as various sources point to elements of Sadiku’s network collaborating closely with Ansaru. The most perplexing example of this is seen in the June 2022 video released by Ansaru in which the group, among other things, denies responsibility for the Abuja-Kaduna train attack. One of the masked fighters in that video is very similar in appearance to Baba Adamu a.k.a. “Abul Barra,” a leading member of Sadiku’s network who played an instrumental role in the train attack (since he is masked, this cannot be fully confirmed, however).112 In other words, the individual participated in that attack as part of Sadiku’s network, only to seemingly appear several months later in the video of a separate organization that had disavowed any role in the incident. Such a scenario, illogical as it may seem, is not implausible given the nature of militancy in northwestern Nigeria.

To summarize the trajectory of “Ansaru 2.0,” it has been one of ambitious expansion cut short by the complex realities of conflict in northwestern Nigeria. Ansaru abandoned its original, JNIM-like plan of building a popular base by inserting itself into intercommunal conflict after local conditions proved unfavorable to this plan. Ansaru was too weak and the inter-warlord dynamics of Birnin Gwari were too unpredictable for the group to seize the moment and establish an enduring support base. Instead, the group has been pushed to take a more practical approach of building ties with the most powerful militant actors in its area of operations, i.e., the bandits, even though these militants are precisely the ones that Ansaru had so recently purported to be fighting on behalf of vulnerable Muslims (hence Ansaru’s reluctance to publicize its activities of late). Considered alongside the reports of cooperation between Ansaru and ISWAP in the Kuje prison break (and possibly in the failed assault on the Wawa detention facility in Niger state), this would suggest that Ansaru has put its more ambitious plans for a JNIM-like insurgency on hold and is presently focused on survival and growth through whatever means necessary, even at the risk of diluting its ideological credentials.

It is difficult to assess how much success the group will have in this current phase of (re)growth, but there are two reasons to be concerned. First, Ansaru has relatively sophisticated means of generating revenue through cattle rustling and kidnapping—although in some instances this has harmed Ansaru’s relations with bandits, as Ansaru fighters have been known to rustle cattle from certain bandits or their families.113 An additional point of concern is that while Ansaru’s approach failed in Damari, sources from there report that the group was genuinely popular so long as it was providing a consistent defense against banditry. Thus, the population-centric approach of jihadism should not be written off as irrelevant, even if it is fraught with challenges. Even members of Sadiku’s network who have long collaborated with bandits have found that by offering security guarantees to certain villages vulnerable to bandit attacks, they can earn a degree of trust from those communities in a way that helps facilitate operations.114 Ultimately, the takeaway for the Nigerian government and its partners is that a failure to solve the banditry crisis and its underlying intercommunal tensions will continue to offer openings to jihadists attempting to win the “hearts and minds” of vulnerable Nigerian Muslims.

Jihadists in Northwestern Nigeria: Bridge to the Sahel, or Impediment to Unification?

This study has made the case that the factors pushing Nigeria’s jihadists to extend operations within the country are varied. JAS’s expansion into northwestern Nigeria, originally a strategic effort to offset losses suffered from military offensives in the mid-2010s, has become a decentralized and spontaneous affair, with many individual jihadists or small sub-groups seemingly heading to the region on their own initiative amid deteriorating personal fortunes in the northeast. By contrast, ISWAP’s expansion, while presently concentrated more in central Nigeria than the northwest, seems to be part of a longer-term strategic effort to simultaneously extend and escalate its jihad against the Nigerian state. Ansaru’s “reactivation” in northwestern Nigeria, meanwhile, seems to have similarly been based on a strategic calculation—though in this instance, it was more of a miscalculation.

The cases of ISWAP and Ansaru suggest that inter-jihadist competition has been a significant driver of jihadist expansion within Nigeria. One could reasonably speculate that Ansaru’s reactivation, premature as it was given the conditions in northwestern Nigeria and Ansaru’s relative lack of manpower or meaningful allies in the region, was motivated by a need to offer an alternative, AQIM/JNIM-aligned model to Nigeria’s jihadists at a time when ISWAP was ascendant in the northeast. With regards to ISWAP, there were undoubtedly several factors behind its decision to initiate terror campaigns in central Nigeria in 2022, but chief among them seems to have been an ambition to reunify Nigeria’s dispersed jihadists, this time under the banner of ISWAP rather than JAS. Given that IS leadership has elevated ISWAP’s status within its global network and sees the group as a model for other affiliates in Africa, the stakes of the ISWAP-Ansaru competition within Nigeria—a competition that ISWAP is presently winning—are potentially far-reaching.

Relatedly, the JNIM-ISGS rivalry may be a driver of Sahelian jihadists’ efforts to push into Nigeria. JNIM and ISGS may not have a clear idea of what they hope to ultimately achieve in Nigeria, but the very fact that JNIM is developing a strong presence near the Nigerian border in northern Benin would presumably factor into ISGS’s strategic planning, just as the fact that ISGS’s partner, ISWAP, is dominating the jihadist landscape in Nigeria while Ansaru is struggling would be a cause of concern for JNIM.

The notion that jihadist expansion within Nigeria and West Africa broadly is driven by an escalating competition between al-Qaeda and Islamic State franchises is admittedly complicated by the degree of cooperation between ISWAP, JAS, and Ansaru in northwestern Nigeria. Beyond the reports of cooperation in the Kuje and Wawa prison breaks (the latter foiled), the movement of jihadists from northeastern to northwestern Nigeria seems to be a relatively indiscriminate affair, with “Darul Salam” and Ansaru networks in the northwest supporting the movement of JAS and ISWAP fighters alike. 

The authors assess this is because Nigeria’s jihadists, whatever their faction, are still too weak a force in the northwest to have the luxury of bringing their ideological and personal rivalries with them. They need to prioritize their own survival and sustain logistics corridors and revenue-generating efforts in a region where alliances with the most powerful local militants—bandit warlords—can be quite unpredictable. In such a scenario, it would be easy for a jihadist to justify ad hoc, mutually beneficial cooperation with a set of relatively ideologically aligned actors (compared to the ideological divide between jihadists and bandits, the latter having shown limited appetite for any theocratic project), even if they are institutional rivals. As the award-winning Zamfaran journalist Yusuf Anka once succinctly remarked to one of the authors, “In the northwest, it is about business more than ideology.”115 That is to say, at this stage, the jihadists do not expect to establish as strong a presence in the northwest as they have enjoyed in the northeast. They seem content to have some northwestern sanctuaries in which they can generate revenues through criminal activities, expand their recruiting pools, and establish cells and logistics corridors to be utilized for conducting occasional spectacular attacks—all of this being obfuscated by the prevailing insecurity of the region. Even Ansaru, which positioned itself as the anti-bandit force par excellence from mid-2021 to mid-2022, has adopted this pragmatic approach of late. All to say, the northwest appears to be experiencing something along the lines of a banditization of jihad in which commanders develop significant autonomy and organizational affiliations lose some of the relevance that they hold in the northeast.116

This does not mean, however, that rivalries among jihadists are entirely trivial or that they will not play a role in shaping the future of jihadist expansion in Nigeria. Indeed, for all the inter-jihadi cooperation in the northwest, there are also signs of violent conflict, such as the aforementioned case of Sadiku’s execution of some Kuje prison escapees whom he feared were ISWAP spies. Setting aside ideological and doctrinal differences, clashes of ego and pervasive mistrust can go a long way in explaining some of the fracturing that the “Boko Haram” movement has experienced over the years. Such fissures among jihadists will likely become more apparent in the northwest if the jihadist presence there continues to grow.

A final point to consider is that Nigerian and Sahelian jihadists may ultimately link up less by strategic design than as a result of circumstance if Nigeria ends up suffering collateral damage from counterterrorism efforts underway outside its borders. Western counterterrorism pressure helped push jihadist activity out of Mali into Burkina Faso in the late 2010s—although Burkina Faso was already battling a homegrown insurgency known as Ansaroul Islam at the time117—and a similar dynamic could now play out in Niger Republic. The landlocked country with which Nigeria shares its northern border is becoming the hub of Western-backed counterterrorism efforts in the region following the termination of France’s Barkhane mission and the unceremonious departures of European forces from coup-plagued Mali and Burkina Faso. Niger’s success in counterterrorism could prove Nigeria’s misfortune in the long run if Niger-based terrorists are forced to relocate across the 1,000-mile border into Nigeria’s under-secured northwest. As counterterrorism operations are only just now ramping up in Niger, it is certainly too early to predict this scenario with any certainty. Nigerian officials and their partners should nonetheless be prepared for such a possibility and plan appropriately.

In light of the above, the crucial question moving forward—one that could affect both the Sahel and other “littoral states” as much as Nigeria—is how JNIM and ISGS will engage with their respective counterparts—Ansaru and ISWAP—as their respective areas of operation grow closer. The borders of Nigeria’s northwest are woefully under-patrolled and offer Sahelian jihadists multiple entry points into the country: from Niger Republic in the north into Sokoto, as seen in the case of Lakurawa; or from Benin in the west into Kebbi, Niger, and Kwara states, as seen in case of the foreign terrorists that have settled around Kainji forest and may have been involved in the October 2022 attack on the detention facility in Wawa. 

It therefore seems likely that greater cooperation between Nigerian and Sahelian jihadists lies on the horizon, even if the exact contours of this cooperation remain unclear. Rather than wait and see how these jihadists interact when their bases eventually abut one another, West African governments and their international partners would do well to enhance information sharing, coordination, and cooperation to first halt and then work towards rolling back militant expansion. Absent such a proactive and multinational approach, West Africa’s littoral states will struggle to achieve their full socioeconomic potential, while the landlocked Sahelian nations will continue to face a bleak future.