Brief Overview of the Expansion of ISIS in West Africa (ISWA)

The Lake Chad Basin, which provides over 30 million people with running water and runs along the boundaries of four major African nations: Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria, has become home to a deadly Islamist terror group. Known as Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), this IS offshoot has been conducting savage attacks on numerous Nigerian military bases and local towns in recent months, and with the body count piling up, the terrorists are making a notorious name for themselves. Although ISWA and Boko Haram operate in the same region, share similar tactics, and are frequently confused with one another, ISWA is an entirely different creature all together.

History and Rivalry With Boko Haram

Originally ISWA and Boko Haram were one group working under the same banner. In March of 2015 then leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to ISIS and within days this pledge was accepted by the IS spokesperson. For approximately a year Boko Haram operated as the IS West Africa affiliate. However, by August of 2016 the cracks had begun to show as ISIS central became increasingly frustrated with Shekau after his continued attacks against muslims in Nigeria. An attempt was made by IS to remove him as head of the group and replace him with Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of Boko Haram’s original founder, Muhammed Yusuf. This coup-like attempt was prevented by Shekau leading to a major split between the groups; Shekau led a smaller faction of terrorists under the original name of Boko Haram, while the larger group established IS West Africa province, led by al-Barnawi.

Strength and Capabilities

Analysts have estimated ISWA has somewhere in the region of 3,000-5,000 fighters, which is approximately double the strength of Boko Haram. It is the largest ISIS ‘Wilayat’ (province) outside of Iraq and Syria but is in such a remote location that it is very troublesome for foreign fighters to make their way there. This is why the organisation is said to be more a Nigerian-based jihadist collective rather then a place for fighters of any and all ethnic backgrounds to converge in (unlike ISKP, for example). Therefore it is evident the overall appeal of the group as a centre for global jihad is just not there, at least as of yet.

That said, although ISWA lacks the possible benefits of expertise from foreign IS commanders, the group continues to thrive and expand its region of attack month-by-month. The terror group now boasts a wide-ranging arsenal including dozens of heavy machine-gun-mounted technicals, an unknown number of armoured vehicles and even the occasional appearance of artillery pieces and tank(s). With every attack Amaq News Agency, ISIS’ official news outlet, releases images showing the vast amounts of weapons, ammunition, equipment and sometimes vehicles that have been taken from the Nigerian military after their bases were overrun by the insurgents.

A Reuters article detailing the growing threat posed by the group shows a history of large-scale attacks against Nigerian military and civilian targets. In June of this year, at least 45 soldiers were killed in Gajiram, while in July at least 100 soldiers died during a major attack at their base and in the same month an ambush of a security convoy left scores dead and missing. More recently, security sources had informed Reuters that 32 people were killed in an ISWA assault on the town of Gundumbali and separately at least 48 soldiers were dead after an attack on yet another military base.

Images posted online by Amaq showed dozens of IS militants attacking the base in this latest assault, with the bodies of some of the 48 dead Nigerian soldiers littering the battlefield. Interestingly, propaganda images of the attack purported to show that a British-made Vickers Main Battle Tank was used by ISWA after it had been previously stolen from the Nigerian military. A number of other technicals and armoured vehicles could also be seen moving towards the bases outer defences, illustrating the strength the group can muster when required to carry out larger-scale operations.

Territorial Control and Administration 

ISWA is now said to have imposed its rule across 100 miles of land, it is particularly entrenched in the Lake Chad Basin and down into the Nigeria states of Yobe and Borno. After the original breakup, Boko Haram moved operations southwards towards the Sambisa Forest. For the most part, the land surrounding Lake Chad consists of predominantly ungoverned forest and farmland. The area is a source of life for many in an otherwise decidedly inhospitable region and this means control of the land gives insurgents a relatively secure, resource-rich base with which to project power from.

There is a campaign by this IS affiliate aimed at winning over the support of the local population (much like was done in the initial months after Baghdadi declared a so-called ‘Caliphate’ across Iraq and Syria). Areas of arable farmland are allocated, wells dug, resources provided and protection is given to locals from Boko Haram attacks. These are all part of the wider goal to gain the trust and increase the groups standing in local communities. Of course other elements of the so-called ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria have also been implemented here. Radical preachers speak at local gatherings in an attempt to brainwash locals and strict versions of religious law must be adhered to, for example, prayer time is compulsory for everyone and men must be seen to grow long beards. For those who break such rules there are harsh sentences, such as receiving dozens of lashes.

Many of the local people work as cattle herders, farmers and fishermen, passing in and out of ISWA territory, these trades comprise the majority of funding for local incomes. One major benefit for ISWA is their ability to tax the local population, providing them with a much-needed source of finance in such a remote and unforgiving environment. Additionally, cuts are taken from the sales of meat from animals raised on allocated land and produce grown there. This enables the administration of the local economy in a way which maximises the benefits for the terrorists in the long run.

If ISWA succeeds at establishing a mini-state here, its threat may begin to dramatically increase in the coming months and years as it is able to recruit more young men from the local area to join its ranks and continues to source equipment from the remains of overrun military bases. This threat can already be seen developing in recent months with the groups increasing number of deadly terror attacks, as well as its growing military strength and territorial domination.




Storm Clouds Linger Over Gaza Despite Talks of a Truce

The ceasefire between Israel and Hamas brokered by Egypt and the UN seems to be holding, as both sides refrain from wide-scale airstrikes and rocket attacks respectively. This has been illustrated by the fact that red alarm rocket sirens, at a rate of around 20 per hour, have not been sounding throughout the regional councils along the Gaza border recently. My phone has also not dropped off the table due to vibrating notifications from the handy ‘Red Alert’ rocket app over the past 21 days either (if you want to use that as a guide). However, there are still a large number of issues surrounding this ceasefire and any future peace deals, and more importantly the question still remains- for how long will this relative peace hold? 

Over the past week, intermittent raids carried out by Palestinian youths on empty IDF outposts along the border have continued, and the Great March of Return, as well as the incessant incendiary kite/balloon attacks don’t seem to be going anywhere soon either – causing over 30 fires in southern Israel in the past 48 hours alone. These incidents, although now much the norm, have the potential to break-apart the already fragile ceasefire (particularly the threat from incendiary balloons). If by chance one of these balloons happens to land on a school or college- as one nearly did recently at the Sapir Academic College, and it starts a fire that leads to injury (or god forbid worse) among vulnerable students, then an escalation on the border will undoubtedly occur. The IDF strikes that may follow and Hamas’ response via its shiny new ‘strike-for-strike’ policy have all the ingredients to make a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip almost inevitable.

The recent news of Israel banning all imports of fuel and gas through the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza (from August 2nd onwards) due to ongoing incendiary attacks, will only further fuel tensions with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. It is also worthy to note that many of these other militant groups: Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), act under the orders of IRGC command and control, meaning the influence of Hamas over these groups decisions is rather limited. The threat of a rocket barrage from one of these smaller factions is currently higher than the risk of a strike from Hamas itself and this threat may persist for the foreseeable future unless something significant occurs within the next few weeks.

Last week, Hamas leaders living abroad travelled to the Gaza Strip and held meetings with other militant factions to discuss a possible long-term humanitarian ceasefire with Israel, brokered by the UN and Egypt. This has been condemned by other Palestinian factions, with the PLO stating that this truce would be seen in the context of US President Trump’s upcoming peace plan for the Middle East, a plan which Hamas vehemently rejects. This conflict within the ranks of militant groups may lead to heightened tensions within the strip and may end up impacting the long-term success of any deal with Israel.

On Sunday the Israeli Security Cabinet convened to discuss the UN humanitarian ceasefire deal and how to go about further negotiations on this deal with Hamas, but came to no definitive decision, with the deal being presented but not fully analysed. The IDF reportedly told the cabinet that the military was ready for every scenario in Gaza. Conflicting information emerged from the meeting, with some officials purportedly stating the success of a ceasefire would be slim, while others stated that Israel was moving closer to a ceasefire deal with Hamas. On Monday sources in Gaza informed local media that the Hamas political wing had held meeting with the armed wing (Al-Qassam Brigades) to check the readiness of its fighters in the event of any upcoming conflict with Israel. Furthermore, yesterdays images from Netivot of mobile bomb shelters moving into position do not stoke enthusiasm as to the success of these talks, but  could also be taken simply as a precautionary measure. That said, after todays strike that killed at least 2 Hamas members on a border outpost in Gaza, precaution is now even more of a necessity in southern Israel.

Additionally, the ongoing reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah seem to have repeatedly met numerous brick walls, only to overcome these and then just days later find themselves at another political impasse blocking any possible deal between the two factions. The latest issue surrounded Hamas accusing Fatah of trying to foil any truce with Israel. Hamas charged Fatah with wanting the siege on Gaza continue and no deal to be reached. Despite this, talks between the two sides (with the help of Egyptian mediation) seem to continue on in Cairo for now.

The past 2 months has been a rocky period for Gaza to say the least. As we delve deeper into talks between the two opposing sides it seems the margin for error increases relative to the complexity of demands. It will be important in these days, weeks, and even months ahead to keep an eye not only on local military movements, but also on the participation at the Great March of Return each Friday, as well as the incendiary attacks, the frequency of which may point us to what the future may hold. One of Isreal’s main demands was the cessation of both of these activities for any truce to work effectively.

In the end it comes down two choices- war or peace. The lines between these two options have often blurred together in Gaza, leaving the the element of surprise always open. I wouldn’t place my bets on anything yet, the unpredictable nature of the Middle East seems forever present.