ANALYSIS: Make no mistake, ISWAP is ‘more dangerous’. Here is why



Prof. Babagana Umara Zulum, Governor of Borno, has previously made a remark about ISWAP—short for Islamic State of West African Province, a faction of the terrorist network operating in the Lake Chad Region—being more dangerous than Boko Haram.

‘I’ve said it before that the growing number of ISWAP in some parts of the state is a matter of great concern to everybody…

‘We shouldn’t allow ISWAP to grow. ISWAP is more funded, sophisticated and educated, and we shall do everything possible to defeat ISWAP otherwise, what Boko Haram did will be child’s play,’ the governor said.

The statement did not seem to have been understood by many, given that the latter has killed more and have had a deadlier modus operandi.

Of course, ISWAP itself splintered from the Boko Haram group in 2016—after over seven years of their sinister activities together—on account of conflicts on approach, ideology and leadership, if also other things. To many of the locals, they are not even any different.

Overview of the situation

Of the over 20, 000 people killed, the Boko Haram faction is responsible for the most.

They are also more aggressive and indiscriminate in their attacks.

Boko Haram overruns whole communities and carries out large-scale killings.

Between 2013 and 2015, the terrorists have sacked and occupied over 19 local governments in three states of the North East’s six.

From parts of Adamawa State in the north, to southern parts of Borno, way up to large swathes of the state’s central senatorial district, where Boko Haram used to effectively control from the Sambisa Forest, the terrorists have unleashed a reign of terror that has caused unprecedented destructions, killings and fear.

Places such as Bama, Gwoza, Konduga, Gomboru Ngala and Mafa, among other things, were entirely no-go areas for civilians.

The 2016-formed ISWAP faction, which predominantly operates in the north, down to the fringes of Lake Chad in the borders of Niger, Chad and Cameroon, however, is still believed to be more dangerous.

This may be wrong if only relative to level of destructions, killings and aggression.

Gov. Zulum is similarly not also making the claim because the founding faction is now weak and surrendering in large numbers.

Our security desks analyzes what it meant to say ISWAP is a more dangerous faction.

Their operational strategies

Boko Haram’s mode of operation is total destruction and indiscriminate killing. They are more extreme, aggressive and ruthless. But more than anything, this bespeaks of a lack of any program of work, objectives and ultimate goal. If there was one, it’s only to instill fear.

ISWAP tries to be not.

It is more deliberate in its actions. It has defined targets, which are mainly security operatives and military bases. Even at that, they appear to only target specific bases or operatives.

For instances, the military base in Damasak, the headquarters of Mobbar Local Government Area in northern Borno, was one of those bases ISWAP had repeatedly attempted to overrun last year.

They launched repeated attacks, with Nigerian troops holding down despite losing a lot in the encounters.

ISWAP appears to have a program of action relative to every location, largely with given timelines.

It for instance operates less violently along Biu – Damboa axis, for reasons that they prefer to assert control over the economic activities, or at least, generate revenue and keep their stock in constant supply.

Friendly, ‘collaborative’ approach

ISWAP similarly adopts a friendly approach in its relation with communities. They are obviously intent on winning the local populace to their side, which they eventually hope to exploit as informants, potential recruits and business partners.

Our security desk learnt, from speaking to various residents of such places as Gomboru, Damboa and other resettled places, that ISWAP has established channels through which locals lodge complaints against any of their members who tries to harm them.

Persons who are reported are being tried and punished by a judicial system they have established. They have cells and jails, where arrested or convicted persons are held.

‘They relate with people well and cordially. I was in Gamboru Ngala for about one month. I was there for farming. ISWAP were scattered around our farming areas but they did not hurt anyone.

‘There was a time someone stumbled on a bomb planted by the terrorists. After it exploded and killed him, the locals reported it to the leader of the group [ISWAP] that the bomb was planted on the road to their farms.

‘They promised to investigate the matter and punish those who were responsible.

‘In addition, they told them that they plant the bombs for their security and thus showed them locations which are safe for the local people’s passage,’ Ibrahim, whose second name we are withholding for safety, said.

‘In Gamboru Ngala, they have their own police station where they punish offenders,’ Ibrahim added.

This is part of the reason there are no incidents of attacks on resettled communities.

The terrorists understood that they can never grow, and only lose valuable sympathy from the community, by attacking them.

Having lived in the bushes and displaced areas alone, after they forced the people to flee, the terrorists know too well that it is impossible to operate in isolation.

There won’t be markets, which would thus affect their own supply.

Roads would be shut, which would also affect their movement, among other things.

It is simply pointless, they may have learnt, to govern areas already deserted, without people. As such, they adopt a more ‘collaborative’ approach for their own good—since authority can only be exercised over a given occupied territory.


ISWAP is also more sophisticated. It has some semblance of more organized leadership structure.

Of course, the Boko Haram faction, known to themselves as the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’awati wal Jihad, JAS, is not as effective in its organization.

The JAS leadership held sway even among its members, by a reign of terror, rather than any loyalty.

The group is overwriting its own superstructure, with great detail across many communities, living side by side with the larger populace.

For instance, they have their courts and judges. They have provincial governors. They have scribes, military commanders and heads of various sectors.

It pretends to be a ‘shariah’ system.

Network and international connection

In addition to their sophistication, their network and connection with other foreign organizations, puts them ahead of the other faction.

In fact, part of the major crisis that led to their split, was in courting the recognition of some of the international terrorist organization, the main one being Islamic States, ISIS.

ISWAP is one of Africa’s arm of the dreaded Middle Eastern terrorist conglomerate.

Such connections are important for terrorist organizations, as they draw inspiration and obtain intelligence from them.

It is also a source of funding, training and weaponry—all of which ISWAP seem to have been enjoying from the network.

On account of all these, ISWAP resorts to being subtler, pursuing its dangerous agenda over a long-term.

The danger

The danger is that, as its strategy, ISWAP focuses on endearing itself to the public and increasingly cultivating what appears like a collaborative relationship with the people.

They are engaging in a lot of economic activities with the people.

They buy from them, often with prices higher than their market value. These include their farm produces, which are to a local farmer, the most important sources of livelihood.

‘They buy from the local people. They sometimes give two to three times the original market price.

‘People now take sugar, salt, razor blades… and other essential goods to them, which the terrorists value so much,’ a resident of Gomboru, whose name we are withholding for safety, told YERWA EXPRESS NEWS.

The local population is now finding it normal to trade with ISWAP.

Since they get double or more of the prices of their goods, they are doing it willingly.

Our sources confirm that some of the locals buy goods from the markets and take them onwards for sale to the terrorists.

A source said ‘even soldiers know about it.’

Another danger is that young children in these communities will grow up to think that the ISWAP ideology is a good one, therefore easily join their ranks.

Their parents will not have the moral high ground to stop them, since they are also doing business with them.

The situation is worsened by the near-absence of local government authorities in some of these places.

As such, the influence of ISWAP is expanding without any effective challenge—and that is a great danger.

ISWAP, from their strongholds in the northern part of the state, is now making every effort to make its mark felt across the south.

Our recommendation

Gov. Zulum sees it as a military problem.

Much as it, it is more specifically socio-economic and political one.

Strengthening civil authorities

Among other things, the government must continue to strengthen civil authorities in the local governments. In most of the resettled areas, their presence are not adequately felt.

This is further dampened by the governor’s personal regular—rather than occasional—involvement in such things as distribution of relief materials.

That way, the influence, clout and charisma of the local government leadership will only continue to become irrelevant.

Discouraging trade between locals and terrorists

Similarly, the ongoing trade between the terrorists and the local people must be stopped forthwith.

There must be extensive surveillance on the roads and in the markets, looking out for suspicious trade deals and movements

Stop ISWAP from establishing dominance in southern Borno

In the same way, the terrorists must not be allowed to establish any dominance in the southern part of the state, previously controlled by the JAS.

Taking over the zone is no doubt ISWAP’s major preoccupation now.

Their existing hideouts in Damboa, Biu and Gwoza, among others, from where they coordinate and execute their plans to of establishing greater presence in the south, must be cleared.

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