Conflict between the Nigerian government and the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation has entered its 11th year, with competition rising between Boko Haram and its splinter group, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), that is no less bloodthirsty than its mother organisation.
The organisation marked its 10th anniversary since it took up violence on 26 July 2009 by kidnapping six humanitarian aid workers in Borno state in the southeast corner of Africa’s most populous country (approximately 200 million people).
The six Nigerian aid workers belong to Action Against Hunger (AAH), a humanitarian movement providing food aid in the world’s poorest communities.
Hours after the kidnapping, ISWAP claimed responsibility for the operation on Site Website, publishing news by extremist groups, and released a video of the kidnapped pleading for their lives. The video was aired on Cable, a Nigerian television channel.
“We have families, some of us have children. Please do something to release us. I am begging on behalf of all of us here, Nigeria should not allow [us to be killed],” said the only woman among the abductees who identified herself as Grace, seen in the video in a blue head cover. She added they were kidnapped by the “caliphate” army and that they didn’t know where they were held.
During the kidnapping operation the AAH vehicle driver was killed, reported Reuters from an unnamed source.
In the past 10 months, ISWAP intensified its terrorist attacks in northeast Nigeria, although it was only in mid-2016 that the Islamic State (IS) branch broke ranks with Boko Haram.
“IS has been focusing on attracting the largest number of Boko Haram militants to inherit the group’s grounds and role after it was defeated in Syria and Iraq. Which explains why IS has intensified its attacks (in Nigeria),” said Khedr Abdel-Razek, a professor at the Nigerian Kano University.
ISWAP had recently launched several terrorist attacks against civilians and two attacks against military bases including the one in Damboa city. Nine months ago, it killed a humanitarian aid worker.
IS news agency Amaq said its militias fended off a Nigeria army attack in which 25 Nigerian soldiers were killed or injured, Reuters reported. However, the region’s military commander said the skirmishes didn’t result in injuries among the soldiers’ ranks.
But the Reuters report cited anonymous military sources and a source from the Joint Popular Defence Forces — a task force of residents of the northeast region formed by the Nigerian government — as saying that five soldiers were killed during the raid, 14 were injured, including two civilians, and one was missing.
In April, after an attack on a military base in Sabon Gari town, the Nigerian army said the operation was “fake”, implying the attack didn’t take place. A month later, ISWAP militants attacked a convoy transporting civilians between northeast towns. Local news reports said the operation claimed the lives of between five and 25 soldiers. Again, the Nigerian army dismissed the incident as “fake news” and claimed no such attack took place.
Despite controversy over whether such attacks happened or not, the situation in northeast Nigeria is classified as one of the world’s worst catastrophic humanitarian crises. In mid-2018, the UN said the region was prone to famine, much like Yemen and South Sudan.
Since they resorted to violence in 2009, Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks claimed the lives of 27,000 people, two million people were forced to flee their homes and hundreds of thousands of people became completely dependent on aid.
In mid-2016 Boko Haram split into two groups, one of which maintained the name of the organisation under the leadership of its long-time figurehead Abu Bakr Shekau, who announced in March 2015 his loyalty to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi — a self-proclaimed caliph of lands he took over in Syria and Iraq.
Al-Baghdadi, nonetheless, sided with a splinter group led by Abu Mosaab Al-Birnawi, who was later replaced by Abi Omar Al-Birnawi, according to an IS audio recording.
Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks became focused on Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. The four countries formed joint forces to fend off the attacks, successfully tightening the noose on Boko Haram. ISWAP, meanwhile, operated in the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where it launched attacks in 2017-18. The three countries depend on French and Western support, in addition to their own forces, to fight ISWAP.
The IS group is primarily active in Nigeria, Libya and Somalia, making less appearances in Niger, Mali and Cameroon, though fears are rising it may start functioning in north Mozambique, which is enduring battles between the government and Islamist extremists.
Corruption and poor development in Nigeria will not make it easy to beat Boko Haram, Abdel-Razek stated. “Despite the fact that Nigeria is courageously fighting against Boko Haram, particularly since President Muhammadu Buhari rose to the helm in 2015, the country is also fighting against the rebellion in the deep south of the oil-rich Niger Delta,” he added.
Buhari, now in his second and final tenure, won the presidential elections in 2015 and 2019. As a general, he had led a 20-month military coup in 1983.
Nigerians are living through the conflict between Muslim herdsmen and Christian farmers in the centre of the country, in addition to the graver threats posed by Boko Haram, ISWAP and Niger Delta tensions. The capital Abuja has for many years been witnessing conflicts between security forces and Muslim Shia minorities.
However, Nigeria has managed to destroy Boko Haram strongholds in Borno and Yore states, killing tens of militants and executing its founder, Mohamed Youssef. But it may take many more years to wipe the organisation off the world’s list of terrorist groups.
Stronger hopes are pinned on regional and international cooperation, as well as support from Sahel and Sahara countries and African developmental efforts to win the final battle, said Abdel-Razek.
However a report by the United Nations says otherwise. The report predicts that there will be a number of possible terrorist attacks by the end of this year. There are concerns that Islamist extremist movements would evolve even more especially after 30,000 foreigners travelled under the aim of fighting.
Although there are fewer attacks for the time being, the report warns that it will not stay calm for long.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Double trouble in Nigeria