The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) is a Salafi-Jihadist insurgent group that has acted as a subsidiary of the Islamic State (IS) within the Sahel since 2015. The ISWAP distinctly split from Boko Haram in 2016 and has become a rival for resources and territory, though it has since surpassed it in size and capabilities. The group operates primarily within Nigeria (in the forests of the Borno and Yobe states and on the Nigeria-Cameroon border), although it has also occasionally appeared within Cameroon, and around Lake Chad. The group is estimated to have between 3000-5000 fighters (1). The ISWAP has distinguished itself from Boko Haram by limiting its attacks to Christians and state targets, all while avoiding indiscriminate violence against Muslim civilians and by providing basic state-like services to the communities within its control.
History & Foundations
In 2015, the Islamic State’s successes in the Middle East and internal tensions within Boko Haram put pressure on Abubakar Shekau, the successor to the founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, to publicly pledge allegiance and formalize ties with the group (2). Shekau faced internal criticism, which turned into a challenge for leadership in late 2015, for his heavy-handed and autocratic leadership, particularly from Mamman Nur (one of the highest-ranked lieutenants of Yusuf, and from Yusuf's son Abu Musab al-Barnawi) (3). Nur and Barnawi asked IS’ leadership to mediate the leadership dispute, resulting in Barnawi being declared the group’s leader in August of 2016. After Shekau refused to accept this change in leadership, the group split and two distinct insurgencies were formed – ISWAP and Boko Haram, with Shekau continuing to lead the latter (4).
The groups clashed following the split in 2016 but the fighting subsided quickly (5). Most clashes since have been verbal, with ISWAP continuing to criticize Shekau’s leadership. Essentially, both have continuously attempted to undermine each other's credibility and build up their own by releasing publications that draw on Islamic theology and jurisprudence (6). ISWAP has continuously attacked Nigerian troops and military bases, focusing primarily on military targets in the area. The ISWAP absorbed the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in 2019, the same year that Ba Idrisa became the ISWAP leader and was named governor of the province by IS central, though he would be purged and executed in 2020, and al-Barnawi was demoted to the shura council (7). Al-Barnawi was the wali of the province as recently as March 2019, but was replaced by Abu Abdullah ibn Umar al-Barnawi by IS leadership . However, a quick succession of leaders occurred in 2021 and 2022, and this has made it unclear who the current leader of the group is. This is because of the successful targeting and killing of the most recent known leaders of the ISWAP, Bako Gorgore and Abu Ibrahim, by the Nigerian Air Force in 2022.
Objectives & Ideology
The objective of the ISWAP is to establish a province as part of a broader Islamic caliphate, governed based on a literal interpretation of Shari’a, and rooted in Wahhabism and Salafism. Their immediate goals, though, appear to be to consolidate their power, gather resources and extend existing networks (9). Many of the leaders of the ISWAP are former senior members of Boko Haram and so share a similar desire to remove Western influence and to promote monotheism within their territory. They and IS Central found Shekau to be too extreme and henceforth disagree with him on several doctrinal matters. This is part of what has distinguished the ISWAP from Boko Haram, as a result of the influence that these views have had on each group's respective tactics (10).
The leadership is composed primarily of ethnic Kanuri, who historically have been Muslim, although the group has recruited heavily from the ethnic Buduma. This recruitment strategy has led to complications within the group’s internal dynamics, as the various ethnic groups compete for resources locally (11).
Approach to Resistance
ISWAP is divided between the shura, which is a consultative assembly made up of senior members, the leader of whom manages the group’s governorates, and Amir al-Jaeesh who is in charge of military operations. Contemporarily, it is unclear whether there is a wali who has overall command (12). The ISWAP has distinguished itself by attempting to establish a parallel government within the territory it controls, collecting taxes, providing health services, providing a school curriculum, facilitating trade, buying goods from local farmers and merchants, providing loans, resolving disputes, fighting crime and meting out justice in a way which is seen as preferable to the local government, and which didn’t exist as public services prior to their arrival (13). This, combined with their restrictive targeting, has allowed them to build relationships with the local communities that give them access to resources, recruits, and safe haven (14).
Initially targeting small military camps and bases, notably after failed raids on larger targets in 2016 and 2017, the group obtained access to weapons and supplies and garnered experience and spoils for its fighters (15). It conducted raids throughout 2018 on significant military bases, sometimes with as many as several hundreds of fighters, which showed the group had gained the capability to gather intelligence, coordinate troop movements and actions, and to conduct sophisticated operations with a variety of types of weaponry and vehicles, which recently have included tanks and armored vehicles (16). These were limited guerrilla actions, though, and the group exfiltrated after looting the camps. Nonetheless, they were able to take and hold the towns of Baga and Doro Gowon in late 2018, forcing the Nigerian army to withdraw and regroup (17). The group has also attacked churches and infrastructure in order to weaken the legitimacy of the federal government, while using propaganda, similar to IS central, rather than just coercion, to sway the local community’s opinion by showing the quality of life of the people they govern (18). The group still primarily relies on raiding, assassinations, and guerrilla style attacks, though it is growing in strength and has gained new members through Boko Haram defections. These defections have primarily occurred since the death of Shekau in an attack launched by the ISWAP, based on intelligence received from within Boko Haram in 2021 (19). It has recently expanded operations to central and southern (primarily Christian) Nigeria, evidence of its growing capabilities.
Alliances & International Connections
IS Central has featured the ISWAP in most recent propaganda messages and the ISWAP’s leadership has been recently elevated to the global shura council of the IS, while the group is also the most active affiliate, behind only IS central in number of attacks (20). The ISWAP has also attracted former Boko Haram fighters who had fled to Libya, but who are returning now to join the ISWAP, while the IS central has facilitated networks and routes to move fighters through the Sahel from Libya to the ISWAP’s territory, and the group has fighters from Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Libya and elsewhere (21). The IS sees the ISWAP as an alternative group to direct foreign, African-based fighters, especially as it faces increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria. A transfer of tactics from the IS central to the ISWAP may be occurring, as the ISWAP began using up-armored SVBIED’s 2018, which is a common tactic used by the IS, and the sophistication of some of their raids resembles tactics and techniques used by the IS (22).
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - “Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province,” Crisis Group, May 23, 2019, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/nigeria/273-facing-challenge-islamic-state-west-africa-province.
(2) - “Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) | United Nations Security Council,” n.d., https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/content/islamic-state-west-africa-province-iswap-0.
(3) - “Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province,” Crisis Group, 4-5.
(4) - “ISWAP”, UNSC.
(5) - “Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province,” Crisis Group, 7.
(6) - Ibid.
(7) - Jacob Zenn, “Boko Haram Factions’ Balance of Power: Will the ISWAP Leadership Purge Benefit Abubakar Shekau?,” The Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 18, no. 6 (March 20, 2020). 6-7.
(8) - “Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province,” Crisis Group, 21.
(9) - Ibid., 13.
(10) - Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, “The Islamic State West Africa Province vs. Abu Bakr Shekau: Full Text, Translation and Analysis,” Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, n.d., https://www.aymennjawad.org/21467/the-islamic-state-west-africa-province-vs-abu.
(11) - “Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province,” Crisis Group, 21.
(12) - Malik Samuel, “Islamic State Fortifies Its Position in the Lake Chad Basin,” ISS Africa, July 13, 2021, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/islamic-state-fortifies-its-position-in-the-lake-chad-basin.
(13) - “Facing the Challenge of the Islamic State in West Africa Province,” Crisis Group, 16-18.
(14) - Ibid., 11-12.
(15) - Ibid.
(16) - Ibid.
(17) - Ibid.
(18) - Aliyu Dahiru, “ISWAP Rebrands, Expands Scope Of Operations,” HumAngle Media, October 1, 2022, https://humanglemedia.com/iswap-rebrands-expands-scope-of-operations/.
(19) - Ibid.
(20) - Ibid.
(21) - Malik Samuel, “Islamic State Fortifies Its Position in the Lake Chad Basin,” ISS Africa.
(22) - Guest Blogger For John Campbell, “Up-Armored SVBIEDs Make Their Way to Nigeria,” Council on Foreign Relations, July 26, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/blog/armored-svbieds-make-their-way-nigeria.