The Islamic State’s New Emirates in the Heart of Africa

Khaled Okasha
Saturday 4 Sep 2021

Think tanks and research centres are closely monitoring reports of developments from Sahel countries following the death of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, the most significant of which was the reorganization of the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).

While Shekau’s death was reported in May, repercussions of the incident are still reverberating to the present day. All through these months, deployments on the ground and the reshuffling of ISWAP's political deck have been in full swing. Given these developments, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) urged African countries to act quickly to stop ISWAP’s restructuring of the Lake Chad Basin. According to ISS’ analyses and field monitoring, if the concerned African states do not take action, IS’ expansion plans in the region may endanger the lives of millions of Africans.

This warning is hard to overstate. In the first article of this series, we shed light on the IS leadership’s plan to expand ISWAP, which gave rise to the announced establishment of four states centred around areas surrounding Lake Chad. This decision is perceived to grant it leverage against surrounding countries and will likely serve as a focal point for IS’ upcoming terrorist activity. IS’ expansionist agenda was initiated before the fall of IS in Syria and Iraq where the agenda was supported by IS’ predominance and stability in what resembled a “state” with Syria's Raqqa as its capital.

Dislodging Shekau from the scene reveals that IS had realised the need to control Sambisa Forest that remained for decades Boko Haram’s hideout and safe haven. Without controlling this forest, IS’ agenda would not have come into being and the group would not have been able to stabilise around the lake.

ISS provided an important recommendation, calling on African states to speed up action in order to capitalise on this period of instability generated by changes in leadership and splits within Boko Haram, which would allow forces of the Sahel countries – if mobilised – to temporarily paralyze IS’ agenda. However, these countries are in a race against the clock. In addition to Sambisa, IS is currently seeking to expand into the Timbuktu and Tumbuma regions as well as a number of Lake Chad islands. These areas are now showing contours of states that ISWAP plans to establish. While all of these states are located in Borno (the stronghold of ISWAP leader Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, nicknamed after the city Borno), each has semi-autonomous leadership. Tactically, this autonomous leadership would allow for creating operational bases that would enable ISWAP to expand its activities to regions of northeastern Nigeria and enable IS’ infiltration into Chad, Niger, and Cameroon – if this has not already taken place.

At present, ISWAP has adopted some of IS’ strategies that are perceived to be a fundamental cause of IS’ predominance. These strategies are based on a number of reforms aimed at pleasing its fighters and retaining their allegiance amid defections that have been taking place due to the conflict between Shekau’s and Al-Barnawi’s fronts. These strategies are also driven by uncertainty following Shekau’s death over ISWAP’s plans and the desire for a reshuffling of affiliations in a way at odds with Boko Haram’s legacy. As such, ISWAP's new states are oriented towards addressing mistakes of the past and causes of tension by ensuring group members are fairly treated by field leaders and the introduction of incentives through the division of war spoils with fighters. These are thought to have been a significant driver of success on the eastern front, especially amid a poor community lacking resources.

Concomitantly, ISWAP works to ensure the support of the population in regions it controls by bringing about corrections that include providing protection to civilians and introducing a model of promoting mutual investment activities between the group and communities, focusing on supporting local livelihoods and ensuring stable access to services in isolated areas, which would, at a later stage, allow for tax collection and legitimisation of the group’s activity in protection and administration. To achieve these goals, ISWAP continues to attack humanitarian initiatives and governmental and international relief activities, killing and kidnapping humanitarian workers and looting and burning their offices. This has led to an increase in the number of displaced people by almost 50 percent, the majority of whom were women with their children. This has been particularly true of regions in northeastern Nigeria, which witnessed fighting and struggles for dominance between Boko Haram and ISWAP. A recent international report on Borno, Boko Haram’s first stable stronghold, has highlighted the grave humanitarian situation in the state, with 25 percent of its lands considered inaccessible due to the insecurity that cut it off from the capital, Lagos. Borno is now described as the worst affected area, as risk of complete secession

This is how IS plans to pursue a “scorched-earth” policy which the group can later capitalise on in the region and beyond.

* The writer is the General Director of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (ECSS)

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