Tackling Lake Chad’s growing crime and terror threat

The African Union must support regional efforts as criminals and violent extremist groups join forces.

Continued targeting and elimination of leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and al-Qaeda internationally has spurred the groups’ interest in expanding and consolidating their African operations. According to Jihad Analytics, half the attacks claimed by ISIS since the beginning of 2022 were in Africa, with an impact on 10 countries. These included Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – the four Boko Haram-affected countries of the Lake Chad Basin (LCB).

Boko Haram factions are also expanding operations beyond the LCB. For a long time, the eight primary targets of violent extremism in the LCB were North and Far North (Cameroon), Lac and Hadjer Lamis (Chad), Diffa (Niger), and Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (Nigeria). However, in 2022, the scope expanded, particularly with the establishment of Ansaru and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) cells in other parts of Nigeria.

This has complicated counterinsurgency operations, especially where national militaries are already overstretched. Expansion outside LCB also means the operations of these groups are beyond the reach of the Multinational Joint Task Force, limiting its ability to downgrade them.

Deeper alliances

There is the growing possibility of mergers or alliances of convenience involving the three prominent violent extremist groups in Nigeria and the LCB – ISWAP, Ansaru and Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS). This move to expand and consolidate operations appears to be creating some unlikely ties between different groups on one hand, and between violent extremist actors and organised criminals on the other.

Two incidents illustrate this – the kidnapping of train passengers in Kaduna, Nigeria, in March and the jailbreak leading to the escape of prisoners affiliated to Boko Haram in Abuja, Nigeria, in July. The former involved a collaboration between JAS and criminal gangs referred to as ‘bandits’. The latter brought together two Boko Haram factions, Ansaru and ISWAP. Growing links are also being observed between factions of violent extremist groups outside their usual operational zones.

Unlikely ties are forming among violent extremist groups and between them and organised criminals

A merger of the three breakaway factions of Boko Haram may lead to a spillover of violent extremism in Nigeria and the wider Sahel. Ansaru is affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and ISWAP owes allegiance to the ISIS core. JAS has reportedly reached out to ISIS, leading the global terror organisation to nudge its most successful affiliate, ISWAP, towards an alliance with JAS. A merger may also mean a consolidation of fighters and resources.

Furthermore, there may be greater control of economic activities in the communities in which these groups operate, improving access to financial resources. These trends may expand recruitment in the region. Attacks such as the Abuja jailbreak raise concerns about the ability of perpetrators to target capital cities of affected countries. N’Djamena and Abuja were hit by Boko Haram in the past.

Collaborations and intersections hold additional implications for the prospects of counterinsurgency measures and careful analysis is needed to stay ahead of the conflict dynamics. This is the only way to ensure that LCB countries and other African states are not more deeply entrapped by these groups and that proactivity is highlighted in global efforts against violent extremism.

Growing crime-terror links

The rise of banditry and abductions signals worsening insecurity in the LCB, with Nigeria the epicentre and the phenomena rising in northern Cameroon. Train attacks, hostage taking for ransom and flow of arms have increasingly characterised the already vulnerable LCB landscape. The northwest and northcentral zones of Nigeria are particularly affected. Lucrative banditry has implications for the country’s forthcoming presidential elections and the security of citizens, with trends suggesting transnational expansion.

Train attacks and hostage-taking for ransom are increasingly characterising the already vulnerable region

In the 16 June 2022 edition of its Al Naba publication, ISIS declared Africa the land of Hijra and Jihad and called on its members to relocate to African countries. For a while, analysts have observed the growing interest and involvement of parent violent extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda in the affairs of their African affiliates. The belief prevails that the continent is the next stronghold for an ‘Islamic caliphate’.

Between January and June 2022, Nigeria had the second highest number of ISIS-claimed attacks, 305, just behind Iraq and ahead of Syria at 337 and 142 respectively. The actualisation of ISIS’s desire to ‘remain and expand’ in Africa may eventually internationalise a conflict that has hitherto been primarily local.

If more violent extremist attacks are launched on western African countries from locations such as the LCB, these countries may be further isolated from the rest of the world through profiling and travel restrictions.

What the African Union needs to do

The African Union (AU) has in the past shown a willingness to support a regional organisation such as the Lake Chad Basin Commission in the fight against violent extremism. Expression of support was emphasised at the 1 107th meeting of the AU’s Peace and Security Council on 23 September 2022.

The AU should not only focus on the military but also on the socio-political sources of violent extremism

The event focused on ‘Strengthening regional organisations for the maintenance of peace and security in Africa: Preventing and combating terrorism and violent extremism on the continent’. Given the increasing complexity of the situation and a clear trend towards the expansion of terrorist groups on the continent to regions previously spared, the role of the AU is crucial.

The continental security architecture, based on the organisation’s experience of engagement in places such as Somalia and the LCB, should appreciate the current threats and upgrade its instruments accordingly. This implies a consolidated continental approach that builds on the stabilisation of affected regions, focusing not only on the military but on the socio-political sources of violent extremism.

Greater AU support is needed for the Regional Strategy for the Stabilisation, Recovery and Resilience of Boko Haram-affected Areas of the LCB region. Similarly, bolder AU engagement is required given efforts by the Global Coalition against Daesh, particularly as the outlines of the violent extremism challenge expand, with ISIS at the forefront.

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