The recent intensified Boko Haram/ISWAP terrorists modus operandi of recruiting child soldiers and using them for violent engagement such as ambushing vulnerable communities in Northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin indicates that ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates –Boko Haram JAS faction and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) — are in serious decline.
This battlefield weakness presents an ideal opportunity for the local population; local and international non-governmental Organisations (INGOs) and the international community to enhance support, coordination and needed assistance to Lake Chad regional states displaying genuine commitment and efforts towards restoring stability in the region. A global war on terror approach mirroring the resourced US-Western backed coalition against the collapsed ISIS self-declared Caliphate in Mosul and Raqqa could finish off ISIS most active affiliates in Africa.
In recent months, ISIS and Al-Qaida affiliates in Africa have deployed child soldiers after substantial loss and losing one of the most powerful “3 star General.” It is believed that they lost thousands of experienced homegrown/foreign fighters and top commanders in the battlefield in the recent waves of attacks by the Nigerian Army led offensive against them. This Counter-Insurgency (COIN) gains preceded an ongoing coordinated Nigerian Army, Air Force and regional Multi-national joint task force (MNJTF) ground and aerial offensives on Boko Haram and ISWAP strongholds in Northern Nigeria and the fringes of the Lake Chad shores.
ISIS most active jihadists
Boko Haram JAS and ISWAP factions remain the most powerful and active affiliates of ISIS and Al-Qaida wiyalats globally. These groups initially operated predominantly in North East Nigerian states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe (BAY States). But over the years, coordinated and intelligence-led ground and aerial military offensives from the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Air-Force and local Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), pushed the jihadist to seek sanctuary in the deeply forested Lake Chad region. The jihadists have continued to launch a hugely guerrilla tactic operations using the porous and complex terrain along the fringes of the Lake Chad Basin countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger Republic. This regional spill over by jihadists and criminal elements linked to all regional states led to the establishment of the regional Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) with Headquarters in N’Djamena – Chad.
Exploiting the massive ungoverned terrain; complex waterways; tunnels; Hills; thousands of Islands; deep forest and wastelands, Boko Haram and ISWAP maintain an extensive operational network with local organised crime groups and other Al-Qaida and ISIS groups (JNIM and ISGS) in the triangle of Liptako Gourma (Sahel), Libya (AZWAJ) and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.
Since the killing of Boko Haram founding leader Mohammed Yusuf in July 2009, the JAS faction has maintained its erratic and veteran leader Abubakar Shekau. But the much unstable splinter faction – ISWAP has had 3 leaders under 4 years. The current leader is a less known Amir Abba Gana. Abba Gana replaced Abu Abdullahi Ibn Umar Al Barnawi (Ba’a Iddrissa – a son of Mohammed Yusuf) after he was accused of insubordination and killed by his close commanders in February 2019.
Ba’a Idrissa had replaced his blood brother, Amir Abu Musab Al Barnawi (Habib). Young Al-Barnawi and Mamman Nur (Founding leader of the Ansaru) became the key architects of the first major split of an ISIS wiyalat in Africa after the duo alongside 10 loyal commanders accused Abubakar Shekau of disregarding ISIS religious and operational doctrines amongst other ideological crimes in a bitter letter titled ’Expose”.
The Nigerian Army offensive that killed Notorious ISWAP commander
A fierce land and aerial offensive campaign by the Nigerian Army, Nigerian Airforce and MNJTF sector 3 under the leadership of Chief of Army Staff Lt-Gen Tukur Yusufu Buratai and Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar degraded the battlefield capabilities of Boko Haram ISWAP factions. One of the offensives in Marte LGA led to the killing of ISWAP most powerful commander – Amir Abu Imrana.
Amir Abu Imrana is known as ISWAP “3 star General” was a native of Marte LGA and was known to personally command a group of 300 special forces. He is believed to have died of gun-shot wounds in Sabon Tumbuns.
These successful battlefield offensives on Boko Haram leadership and strongholds by the Nigerian Army and Air Force in the Sambisa forest and Tumbuns of Lake Chad was preceded by a Chadian Army-led ‘Operation Boma Wrath’ targeting a number of Boko Haram ISWAP occupied Islands in the Lac Province. Pressured on all fronts, rival Boko Haram and ISWAP factions agreed to a tactical alliance against troops of the Nigerian Army and MNJTF.
Boko Haram – ISWAP ‘Unholy Alliance’
In April 2020 Boko Haram and ISWAP agreed to a tactical merger. All key unit commanders were represented in the meeting chaired by the newly appointed ISWAP Chief Judge – Imam Goni Umar and foreign representatives from the Malian and Libyan linked group AZWAJ. Both factions agreed to suspend fasting for all frontline fighters during the Holy Month of Ramadan and adopt an active military-style collaborative strategy aimed at launching joint attacks targeting civilians and positions of security and armed forces of the Nigerian Army and regional MNJTF.
The ‘unholy alliance’ is said to have attracted the presence of senior ISWAP field commanders including Baba-kaka, Mallam Ibrahim, Malam Sa’ad, Abu Abdullahi and Bako Fulgori. Amir Abu Imrana, the ISWAP “3-star General” killed by the Nigerian Army after a fierce battle in Marte LGA Northern Nigeria was among other top Boko Haram ISWAP local and regional warlords present.
Boko Haram Commanders and Cabinet Reshuffled
The Nigerian Armed Forces and MNJTF offensives forced surviving Boko Haram/ISWAP factions to escape and establish new hideouts. With proactive ‘See something–Say something’ local community campaign, the Military Intelligence units of the Nigerian Army and MNJTF have been tracking fleeing jihadists. The local intelligence-led efforts targeted around Kumowan, Nganzai LGA and Bidda/Kulli in Marte LGA, Borno State, continues to yield tremendous success. Many collaborators, sleeper cells commanders, fighters and suppliers were arrested. Others have gone into hiding and actively seeking to surrender to the Nigerian government and regional states.
After heavy personnel loses, the AZWAJ leadership called for swift reform of Boko Haram/ISWAP operational structure. The jihadist leaders forced out about 1,000 local fishermen suspected of acting as spies from the axis of Arinna Soro; Kirta, Sabon Tumbu; Tundun Wulgo; Kusuma others.
More than 100 new unit commanders were appointed including one Mohammed Njidda – a notorious Boko Haram member who is known to operate along the river banks of Marte LGA.
Unit commanders found guilty of disloyalty; showing signs of entertaining negotiations with the Nigerian state authorities or not taken orders from the leadership received a range of punishments. Some were slaughtered; others ostracised from the group; demoted to ordinary fighters and imprisoned in makeshift prisons.
ISWAP Child Soldiers U-turn
The ISIS and Al-Qaida linked jihadists, adopted a policy to recruit and deploy vulnerable children as frontline soldiers, spies and suicide bombers. Boko Haram JAS faction have been notorious for grooming very young boys and girls, some as young as 7 years old to act as spies and suicide bombers. An operational policy that ISIS core previously condemned as un-Islamic.
As of May 2020, over 500 child soldiers have been recruited, trained and graduated at a location in the Lake Chad Axis known only as Tudun Kurna. ISWAP Chief Imam Goni Maina is said to have graduated the new recruits. The jihadists child soldiers were given basic military-style combat operation skills in preparation for real live offensives.
While briefing the militants, The Chief Imam is said to have further radicalised the young jihadist recruits to show absolute loyalty and discipline to their unit commanders and prepare to revenge on the recent onslaught by the regional MNJTF. About 200 of the young jihadist graduates were ‘rewarded’ to take part in specialised training on how to assemble Improvised Explosive Device (IED’s) and be part of a suicide mission squad.
Current Threat of Child Soldiers Exposed
Sources with knowledge of the jihadists’ operations have confirmed that about 400 out of the 500 newly graduated child soldiers have been given arms and uniforms and recently distributed to various Boko Haram ISWAP camps along with Marte LGA. Some of these camps include Kirta Woulgo; Sigir; Bulama Gafe; Kusuma; Yerwa Kura; Arina Chili; Kwalaram; Bukar Mariam; Tudun Woulgo; Jiblaram.
The deployment of child soldiers to various camps along Marte LGA is significant for Boko Haram and ISWAP for one key reason. The jihadists so called “3 star General” Abu Imrana (a native of Marte LGA) was killed by the Nigerian Army after a fierce battle in Marte LGA. Thus, indicating revenge as the primary motive in memory of the slain Jihadist Commander.
Extreme vigilance and alertness is required along with villages in Marte LGA by all civil and military stakeholders. ISWAP has abandoned its no child soldier policy to recruiting, brainwashing, training and deploying innocent-looking children either as spies, frontline soldiers or suicide bombers to target hard military and soft civilian positions in Northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad axis states.
Change of Tactics
Boko Haram and ISWAP have been forced to adapt three key battlefield tactics after the Nigerian Army introduced the super-camps fortifications and engaged jihadist strongholds under coordinated ground troops and Air Force aerial offensives. These include ambushing troops, attack on vulnerable civilian targets and communities and cattle rustling which will be discussed subsequently.
Boko Haram ISWAP Jihadist units rely heavily on guerrilla-style ambush attacks on small military and civilian convoys. They mostly target security and military convoys deployed for the protection of civilians and INGOs delivering relief materials to refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) across the region. The aftermath of these (mostly early morning and late night) surprise attacks are used by Boko Haram/ISWAP as propaganda to national and international sponsors; kidnap for ransom; to capture INGO staff and security personnel for ISIS-style execution; steal essential food and medical supply; steal small arms and ammunitions.
Armed organised criminal groups usurping jihadist style of operation have taken advantage of the insurgency situation to launch copy-cat raids in the name of Boko Haram ISWAP along the 160km Maiduguri – Damboa road and Maiduguri-Damaturu Road.
Attack Civilian Communities
ISWAP has drifted from its initial attempts to win local ‘Hearts and minds’ of the hapless civilian population by promising not to attack innocent communities. Recent ambush and attacks on innocent communities in Goni Usmanti; Goni Sherrifti; Minamari village; Mariram village-Felo ward along with Gubio LGA; Monguno town along Monguno Marte Road and other communities in the North East indicates that Boko Haram and ISWAP no longer enjoy support from the local population.
They accuse these communities of spying and providing information on their planned activities to state and local military and security services. The distribution of leaflets in Monguno Road cautioning against any civilian support to the military and security services demonstrates that the jihadists are losing influence and resorting to more coercive tactics to win back support by any means.
Cattle rustling from local farmers especially from communities that are known to be averse to Boko Haram and ISWAP activities is another recent tactic of survival. Local communities are attacked and their cattle are rustled; cattle owners are massacred and the loot is sold in local and international markets while some are reserved as meat to feed jihadists fighters and their families.
In a recent attack in villages in Gubio LGA, Boko Haram ISWAP fighters are reported to have rustled more than 1000 cattle. Local vigilantes and cattle owners who attempted to mount a fierce resistance to protect their cattle were massacred before troops from the Nigerian Army and Air-Force were deployed to the locations. Besides Fish, cattle rustling from local farmers has become a regular source of income for Boko Haram and ISWAP. It is equally a coercive tactic used to force local farmers to support jihadist activities or lose their only source of livelihood.
This analytic report recommends a pro-active state and regional intelligence, security and military engagement; absolute local vigilance and a sustained regional collaborative effort as part of a joint COIN strategy.
The bitter splits and power struggle that divided JAS Boko Haram ISWAP camps has been plastered temporarily. But like the reunion after the 2012 Ansaru-Boko Haram fallout, the jihadist coalition will not last.
Ongoing battlefield regional COIN efforts need to be comprehensively coordinated and sustained through operations ‘LAFIYA DOLE’; ‘Boma Wrath’ and the MNJTF ‘Operation Yancin Tafkir’. Boko Haram ISWAP jihadist factions will continue to use guerrilla tactics and network with organised criminal networks to survive in the vast and complex terrain of Northern Nigeria and the axis of Lake Chad.
In horizontal warfare, all hands must be proactively unified towards a common positive goal. The local communities; the national police Force, the Intelligence community; the international community; INGOs; the security and armed forces of the MNJTF countries MUST engage beyond inter-agency and regional rivalry and coordinate a bottom-top strategic civil-military approach. One that will effectively put an end to jihadist violent activities in the region. For now, if you “See Something – Say Something”!!
David Otto is a Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Expert. He is a Certified Anti Terrorism Specialist (CAS), a Certified Master Anti Terrorism Specialist (CMAS) and a programme trainer with the Anti Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB). Twitter @ottotgs