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The Islamic State’s New Emirates in the Heart of Africa (2)

Think tanks and research centers are closely monitoring reports from Sahel countries following the murder of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, and the aftermath of the incident, the most significant of which was the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) being behind this transformative event.

While Shekau’s death was reported in May, repercussions of the accident are still reverberating to the present day. All through these months, deployments on the ground and the reshuffling of the political deck have been going 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 did not take action, IS’ expansion plans in the region may endanger the lives of millions of Africans.

Verily, this warning – which has yet to materialize – is hard to overstate. In the first article of this series, we shed light on the IS leadership’s resolution on expansion plans for ISWAP, a resolution that gave rise to ISWAP announcing the establishment of four states centered around areas surrounding Lake Chad, perceived to grant it leverage against riparian countries that 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 Syrian Raqqa as its capital. 

Dislodging Shekau from the scene reveals that IS had realized 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 wouldn’t have been able to stabilize around the lake.

ISS comes up with an important recommendation, calling on African states to speed up action in order to capitalize on this period of instability given the changes in leadership and splits within Boko Haram, which would allow forces of the Sahel countries –if mobilize– to temporarily paralyze IS’ agenda that is in race against the clock. In addition to Sambisa, IS is currently seeking geographic expansion into the Timbuktu, Tumbuma, and 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 hasn’t already taken place.

At present, ISWAP adopts some of IS’ strategies, perceived to be a fundamental cause of IS’ predominance. These strategies were primarily based on a number of reforms aimed at pleasing its fighters and retaining their allegiance, particularly given the defections that have been taking place since the conflict between Shekau’s and al-Barnawi’s fronts started along with the state of uncertainty that ensued since Shekau’s killing over ISWAP’s uncertain plans amid IS’ hectic desire for affiliation reshuffle in a way completely different from Boko Haram’s legacy. As such, ISWAP new states are oriented towards addressing mistakes of the past and causes of tension by ensuring field leaders’ fair treatment of the group members and introducing incentives through dividing war spoils with fighters, thought to serve as a significant driver of success in the Eastern Front that remained a vexed issue for years under Boko Haram’s rule, 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 legitimization of the group’s activity in protection and administration. To achieve these “cloned” 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 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 of northeastern Nigeria, which witnessed sagas of 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 caused it to be cut off from the capital, Lagos. Borno is now described as the worst affected area poised to complete secession.   

This is how IS plans to pursue a “scorched-earth” policy which the group can, later, capitalize on under its sway and according to its beliefs and targets in the region and beyond.

Khaled Okasha
General Manager

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