Islamic State fortifies its position in the Lake Chad Basin

Abubakar Shekau’s death could deepen and expand the violent extremist group’s roots and dominance in the region and beyond.

The death of Abubakar Shekau, long-time leader of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah lid-Da’wati wa’l-Jihad (JAS), has opened the space for a reconfiguration of forces in the Lake Chad Basin. It could allow Islamic State (IS) to consolidate its position in the region through its local affiliate, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

According to ongoing Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research, IS proposes to set up four caliphates in Borno State, north-east Nigeria, to oversee its activities in the Lake Chad Basin area and beyond. The proposal to ISWAP was reportedly made in June, with plans for new caliphates (states) in Lake Chad, Sambisa, Timbuktu and Tumbuma. Each will have its own wali (governor) and ‘governing’ structure. 

Borno state, Nigeria

Borno state, Nigeria
(click on the map for the full size image)

However all four caliphates will be under the control of the Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi-led IS core, suggesting a closer control of franchising rights by IS central. Some positions will therefore remain central in the Lake Chad Basin and not be replicated in each caliphate.

These include the Shura Council (consultative assembly) and Amirul Jaish (military leader) positions. Each caliphate will have at least two representatives at the Shura Council and military commanders of its own. They will report to the Amirul Jaish, who will oversee all the region’s military activities.

Presently there is reportedly one new appointed wali – Ba Lawan, who is in charge of Tumbuma. ISWAP leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who’s been in Sambisa since Shekau’s death, will be elevated to head the new Shura Council. All four walis will also report to him. Sa’ad, the current Amirul Jaish, oversees the Lake Chad islands pending the appointment of a wali there. Appointments are done by ISWAP leaders, with inputs, recognition and acceptance from IS.

As part of the consolidation, former Boko Haram fighters who left for Libya over the years for different reasons are returning to the Lake Chad Basin to rejoin ISWAP. Interviews with individuals familiar with these movements revealed that about 80 fighters in two batches arrived in Nigeria from Libya in April. Among other reasons, some fled after the 2016 Boko Haram split, having been disillusioned by what they saw as the selfishness of leaders in both factions, JAS and ISWAP. 

With support from IS, ISWAP relies on an elaborate network of contacts and routes cutting across West and North Africa (Libya-Algeria-Mali-Niger-Nigeria) to facilitate the movements of fighters. About 120 more, including Arabs who will be permanently based in the region as part of the leadership, are now expected from Libya. 

Key informants told the ISS that some of the returned fighters – Nigeriens, Nigerians and Malians – were part of the ISWAP team that attacked Sambisa in May, resulting in Shekau’s death.

After their return from Libya, the first set was based in Shuwaram in Kukawa Local Government Area of Borno State, Nigeria, for verification. They were then deployed to Timbuktu (Alagarno Forest) in Damboa Local Government Area, where fighters from the Lake Chad islands later joined them. 

ISWAP has over the years proved to be one of the biggest and most successful IS affiliates, with prominent acknowledgements from the central leadership. Shekau’s death has given ISWAP access to more territory, fighters and weapons.

Abubakar Shekau’s death has given ISWAP access to more territory, fighters and weapons

Former fighters’ return and the increased role IS is seeking to play present problems for stabilisation efforts and plans to address violent extremism in the region and beyond. The group persistently attacks humanitarian and government initiatives, killing and abducting humanitarian workers, looting and burning their offices. This has resulted in increased numbers of displaced people, 54% of whom are female, particularly in north-east Nigeria.

In Borno State, the worst-hit state in the Lake Chad Basin region, 19% of the territory remains either totally or mainly inaccessible to both state and humanitarian actors because of insecurity. 

IS is also championing reforms within ISWAP to satisfy its fighters and secure their loyalty. This includes taking steps to ensure they are treated fairly by commanders. Fighters can now also choose what to do with their share in the spoils of war, increasing the economic incentive to fight for the group. 

Reforms also include protecting and supporting livelihoods for civilians in areas it controls. These are seen as strategic, as better local livelihoods translate to more revenue through taxes. They also lend more legitimacy to the group and its activities. 

Islamic State is championing reforms within ISWAP to satisfy its fighters and secure their loyalty

The group may also view humanitarian and stabilisation efforts as a direct threat to its goal of presenting itself as the only credible government to civilians. Such initiatives cannot take place or succeed where there are continued attacks and insecurity.

More practical collaborations between states in and outside the Lake Chad Basin are needed. Intelligence gathering and sharing, joint investigations and research are becoming increasingly crucial – states cannot deal with these problems individually

Better border management and security can also help. Extremist groups are known to take advantage of porous and unsupervised borders for movement and sanctuary. Because it is practically impossible to oversee these long borders physically, technology like drones, sensors and artificial intelligence can play vital roles. However they must be deployed as a complement to human intelligence and improved state-society relations.

Equally important is investing in prevention efforts that thwart ISWAP’s recruitment drive, both ideologically and non-ideologically, and its ongoing efforts to create a parallel state in the region. Governments must realise that the threats posed by ISWAP won’t go away until there’s no more space for it to operate. Thus there must be credible and better alternatives to what the group is offering to win the hearts and minds of civilians.

States should take a hard look at their social contracts with the people. Strengthening these is critical to preventing more people from joining extremist groups. This requires increased government presence in remote areas, which should translate into more security, provision of alternative livelihoods, respect for human rights and access to basic and quality services like healthcare, education and potable water.

Malik Samuel, Researcher, Lake Chad Basin Programme, ISS Dakar

This article was produced with support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme.

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