Jacob Zenn, an adjunct associate professor on African Armed Movements and Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics at the Georgetown University Security Studies Program (SSP) and an editor and fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC.
In 2023, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) rarely garners international headlines like the group’s offshoots and predecessors have in previous years. The group, which originated in 1994-1995 but launched an insurgency in 2009 and is popularly known as “Boko Haram,” was featured among the world’s top news stories when in 2011 it conducted the first suicide bombing in Nigeria’s history at the UN headquarters.
Then, in 2013 and 2014 the group captured sizeable territory in the country’s northeast and kidnapped around 250 schoolgirls and, according to the group’s then leader Abubakar Shekau, “enslaved” them.
Now nearly 10 years later ISWAP has consolidated control over the territories that its predecessors captured in 2013 in northeastern Nigeria and in high-quality media releases shares images of sharia enforcement, taxation of civilians, military training, including of children, and observing Islamic holidays in those areas.
Working in ISWAP’s favor against the Nigerian military is that in 2016 its fighters broke from Shekau, who among jihadists, and certainly civilians in Nigeria and abroad, was widely seen as excessively brutal and mercurial to the extent that, finally, in 2021 Islamic State (IS) ordered IS to kill Shekau.
When ISWAP’s fighters reached Shekau’s hideout, however, Shekau detonated a suicide bomb to end his own life. Relieved from facing the risk of Shekau’s wrath and with ISWAP generally not harming civilians unless they actively opposed the group, many of Shekau’s fighters then joined ISWAP and civilians tolerated ISWAP’s more moderate rule. This only strengthened the group in Nigeria’s northeast.
Nigeria is now at a turning point. The country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, is set to leave office when the next elections take place on February 25, 2023 after serving eight years in the presidency. Despite Buhari’s decades-long military experience before assuming the presidency and, like his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, having claimed that “Boko Haram is technically defeated” early in his presidency, Nigeria can claim little progress against Boko Haram during Buhari’s tenure.
The military has certainly killed several of the group’s commanders and the country’s de-radicalization program has seen fighters surrender and abandon the insurgency. However, ISWAP still denies Nigeria sovereignty over large swathes of the country’s northeast, and especially Borno State, while occasionally conducting attacks across the border into Niger, Chad, and Cameroon and, more recently, into central and southern Nigeria.
Nigeria seems to have three options moving forward: 1) go for the “win” by militarily routing ISWAP and forcing it out of the territories it holds; 2) accept the current “stalemate” as a “least worst” outcome; or 3) or de-facto surrender the territories ISWAP now controls to the group more permanently. This article contends option #2 is most likely—and most practical—and forecasts how the insurgency will play out if this is the case.
Why the Sustained Stalemate?
While the Nigerian army has roughly 225,000 soldiers and it is unclear exactly how many are based in the conflict epicenter in Borno State, what is more certain is that number of troops in the epicenter are only sufficient to defend the main population centers. Borno State governor, Babagana Zulum, stated last year that at least 100,000 more troops would be needed to “crush Boko Haram.” Partly due to this troop deficit, the Nigerian counter-insurgency strategy has revolved around the army since 2019 creating fortified towns, known as “supercamps.”
In these “supercamps,” the army has built trenches around virtually all of the main towns in Borno State, which have become home to military bases as well as internally displaced persons (IDPs), international and Nigerian humanitarian organizations, and the towns’ original inhabitants, who are often under-privileged and have not been able or willing to flee the violence to go to other parts of the country or abroad.
Whereas ISWAP and, to a lesser extent, the late Shekau’s faction, constantly overran military barracks, bases, and checkpoints after 2013, this has become rare since 2019. In other words, the “supercamps” have been successful in achieving their main objective — preventing ISWAP from entering major population centers.
Weakness of the Supercamps Strategy
However, the “supercamps strategy” has resulted in the military leaving large swathes of Borno State and its borderlands undefended. As a result, ISWAP has a high level of maneuverability in rural areas, including to set up checkpoints for taxation, oversee sharia court and hisba patrols, train fighters, and de-facto establish ISWAP-governed communities.
In recent years, the military has attempted to deploy convoys from “supercamps” into the rural areas where ISWAP holds sway, but ISWAP’s spy network, deep knowledge of the local terrain, and heavy weaponry allowed the group to conduct ambushes to devastating effect. This has largely prevented the army from continuing these convoys into the bush. In one ambush, in Goniri, Borno State in May 2020, more than 70 soldiers were killed.
Thus, unless Nigeria is willing to deploy significantly more soldiers to combat ISWAP in northeastern Nigeria, which is not only logistically difficult, but also challenging due to soldiers’ low morale and their risk of defections, then for the near future the northeastern Nigerian hinterlands will remain largely under ISWAP’s sway.
This resembles al-Shabaab in Somalia, which for years has consolidated control over large swathes of southern and central Somalia, while still continuing to conduct asymmetric terrorist attacks in Mogadishu. It was only regional forces under the auspices of African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM)—now known as African Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS)—and, more recently, Turkish-trained and US-trained elite Somalia special forces along the national army that has caused al-Shabaab to retreat.
However, the deteriorating security situation in West Africa on top of the West’s focus on the Russian war in Ukraine, if not also Nigeria’s historic autonomy in international affairs, makes it highly unlikely the Nigerian army will receive sufficient, if any, international or regional support to turn the tide against Boko Haram.
It would also be politically untenable and impossible for the Nigerian government to formally or informally cede those hinterlands to ISWAP, including because ISWAP refuses to negotiate with the “infidel” Nigerian government. Nigeria, in other words, lacks the capability to retake the northeast hinterlands from ISWAP and “win,” but also is unwilling to “lose” and abandon those territories to ISWAP. This leaves the “stalemate” in place, with the government and army in control of the northeastern Nigerian urban areas and ISWAP de-facto in control of much of the countryside.
Why the Stalemate Advantages ISWAP and What to Do About it
The problem with maintaining the status quo with ISWAP is that, over the long-term, ISWAP will continuously recruit from among the population in the Borno State’s rural areas and expand its fighter numbers, including from children of fighters and other youths born in their territory.
This means that, over time, the balance of forces will shift in favor of ISWAP—assuming Nigeria does not increase army recruitment—even if the Nigerian army will still have significantly more than fighters than ISWAP in total. In addition, the longer that ISWAP controls territory, the more indoctrinated youths and other civilians will become in their territories and the more difficult it will become to ever reintegrate them into Nigerian society if those territories are ever retaken.
Further, when ISWAP’s predecessors began fighting in 2009, they could not craft sophisticated bombs, let alone suicide vests, execute complex ambushes or barracks raids, or employ sophisticated weapons, many of which have since been pilfered by Nigerian armories and others of which have been replicated from IS “core.”
However, the combat learning curve has been steeper for ISWAP than for the Nigerian army. With more time in “safe havens” in northeastern Nigeria, ISWAP can only be expected to continue to improve its tactics and training, which will make any future confrontations with ISWAP only more difficult over time. Further, ISWAP can take advantage of the “safe havens” to plot its own expansion, including to central and southern Nigeria, where ISWAP attacked this year for the first time since 2015.
Even if the current “stalemate” is the “least-worst” option for Nigeria, there are still some proactive steps the army can take to turn the tide in its favor. For example, clashes between ISWAP and the late Shekau faction have demoralized fighters from both factions and led to fighters defecting from both groups and surrendering to the army and entering the country’s de-radicalization program. In addition, the overall difficult conditions of living and fighting in the bush have caused fighters to surrender themselves to the military. It would, therefore, behoove the military to continue to support the “Safe Corridor” program within which the de-radicalization program is located.
The army could also use this period of stalemate to reconceive the broader, longer-term counter-insurgency strategy against ISWAP. Nigeria’s military is generally designed for inter-state confrontations, which are somewhat obsolete in the current West African context, or peacekeeping operations like those Nigeria led in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.
However, the military is not necessarily designed for countering mobile insurgents in the desert and forested areas in Borno State and the marshlands around Lake Chad. In contrast, for example, the Chadian army was designed to combat mobile, desert-based rebels.
Nigeria might, therefore, redesign its army more in the model of Chad’s so as to combat a group like ISWAP, which has been the main threat to the country for nearly 15 years now.
Optimists may envision the Nigerian military somehow achieving victory over ISWAP during the term of Buhari’s successor. However, evidence and trendlines do not indicate this will happen anytime soon and, if anything, the deteriorating security situation elsewhere in West Africa, such as in Mali and Burkina Faso, will only embolden ISWAP and make it difficult for other countries in the region to support Nigeria.
The “stalemate” seems to offer advantages to ISWAP, but, as this article, indicated, there are steps that Nigeria can take to mitigate the expansion of ISWAP and give Nigeria the best chance to see some success against the group.
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