President Trump’s declaration of “victory” over the Islamic State last month not only denied the reality in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS continues to wage its deadly insurgency. recommended readThe Islamic State is not defeated in Syria. Or anywhere else. Look at Africa.The President’s statement also ignored the growing terrorist threat in Africa, where Islamic State affiliates are strengthening.[i] The U.S. national security strategy promises to pursue terrorist threats to their source and the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy lists combatting terrorism as one of three top priorities.[ii] Yet the U.S. is planning to wind down its counterterrorism footprint in Africa and is turning a blind eye to the Islamic State’s largest African affiliate just as this group becomes deadlier.[iii]
The United States is relying on an incapable and distracted partner to combat this affiliateThe United States is relying on an incapable and distracted partner to combat this affiliate, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWA), in West Africa’s Lake Chad Basin. ISWA threatens regional stability and U.S. interests and is strengthening. The group primarily threatens Nigeria, one of the world’s most populous countries and Africa’s largest economy.[iv] Nigeria’s security forces—the primary U.S. partner against ISWA—are overstretched. They are unable to prevent ISWA’s expansion, much less defeat the group. Upcoming national elections, other ongoing conflicts, and waning international focus on the Lake Chad region disincentivize the Nigerian government from prioritizing and properly resourcing this fight.
ISWA poses a greater threat to U.S. interests than Boko Haram, on which U.S. policymakers had been focused. Boko Haram came to international attention when it kidnapped 276 Nigerian schoolgirls, most of whom were forced to marry Boko Haram fighters, from the town of Chibok in 2014.[v] Boko Haram’s leader Abubakr Shekau received recognition from the Islamic State in 2015 and rebranded as ISWA, but the Islamic State disavowed him a year later. Boko Haram’s methods were more brutal and alienating than even the butchers in Raqqa could stomach. A Boko Haram faction lead by Abu Musab al Barnawi split from Shekau’s group in 2016 with the Islamic State’s blessing, keeping the ISWA title.[vi] Barnawi’s group, which the Islamic State recognizes, differentiates itself from Boko Haram with practices more in line with the Islamic State, including a greater commitment to global jihad and targeting Western interests in Africa.[vii] ISWA already poses a terrorist threat to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, where ISWA has plotted to attack the U.S. and UK embassies, and possibly to Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, where airport security increased last June due to potential threats against commercial airliners.[viii] Foreign fighters could help ISWA mobilize additional Salafi-jihadi insurgencies in parts of West Africa where the Islamic State has not operated previously, making West Africa a greater source of transnational terrorism than it has ever been.[ix]
ISWA’s split with Boko Haram has made the Salafi-jihadi threat in northeastern Nigeria far more dangerous. Shekau’s leadership was ultimately a liability for Boko Haram. His targeting of Muslim civilians alienated local populations and was a major factor in the Islamic State’s disavowal of his leadership. Boko Haram never provided governance, giving local communities no incentive to cooperate. Shekau also reportedly favored fighters from his ethnic group, creating internal friction and limiting Boko Haram’s regional appeal.[x] ISWA has learned from Shekau’s mistakes. The group generally avoids killing Muslim civilians and makes modest efforts to protect commerce and free movement in its territories.[xi] ISWA also indirectly benefits from its competition with Boko Haram. Shekau, who normally prioritizes softer targets, has been directing more attacks against the overstretched Nigerian military in order to remain relevant.[xii] These attacks distract the military from focusing on ISWA.
ISWA is on track to expand its rural sanctuary and recapture territory that Boko Haram once held recommended readBackgrounder: Boko Haram in Nigeria. ISWA is weakening security forces in northeastern Nigeria. The group has overrun more than a dozen bases since July 2018 and seized equipment, vehicles, and hostages.[xiii] These attacks led hundreds of Nigerian soldiers to desert in the northeast, where they face extended deployments, insufficient equipment, and pilfered salaries.[xiv] ISWA briefly captured several towns in northeastern Nigeria in late 2018, and it will soon be strong enough to hold towns of similar size.[xv] This scenario is hardly shocking: Boko Haram controlled an area the size of Belgium, including Borno State’s second largest city, in 2014.[xvi] The Lake Chad region communities are exhausted from conflict and many would likely acquiesce to ISWA occupation in exchange for an end to fighting. An expanded sanctuary in northeastern Nigeria would bolster ISWA’s legitimacy and allow it to resource attacks across Nigeria and against Western interests in the region (Boko Haram bombed the UN headquarters in Abuja in 2011 before it achieved its territorial maximum).[xvii] Nigerian officials have warned that ISWA is plotting nationwide attacks ahead of February’s elections.[xviii] Attacks on Nigerian population centers, coupled with a tense political atmosphere, could create a more destabilizing election environment than Nigeria has experienced in recent decades.[xix]
The Nigerian government is unlikely to sufficiently reinforce security forces in northeastern Nigeria. Moreover, the military lumps Boko Haram and ISWA as a single threat, which limits the operational effects against the separate factions.[xx] To reduce ISWA’s sanctuary, Nigeria would need to conduct a targeted offensive similar to the one it launched with its neighbors in 2015. Many of the Nigerian units currently facing ISWA’s onslaught were initially deployed as part of that Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) offensive.[xxi]
Nigeria is unlikely to conduct such an offensive because internal security dynamics and domestic politics have changed since 2015. Nigerian security forces are stretched thinner than they were four years ago.[xxii] The military is more focused on southeastern Nigeria due to militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta and an emerging civil war in neighboring Cameroon.[xxiii] The government is also unlikely to draw security resources away from the Middle Belt states, where it adopted a militarized response to farmer-herder violence in 2018.[xxiv] Election politics helped compel then-President Goodluck Jonathan to launch the MNJTF offensive in 2015, but they have had the opposite effect this year for President Muhammadu Buhari.[xxv] Middle Belt violence is deadlier, more geographically dispersed, and politically salient than ISWA due to its ethnic and regional dimensions.[xxvi]
The international community is not focusing on Nigeria’s Salafi-jihadi threat as it did in 2015. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign that followed the Chibok kidnappings in 2014 increased domestic and international pressure on President Jonathan. Western countries offered security assistance to Nigeria immediately following the kidnappings.[xxvii] The U.S. was simultaneously building up its military footprint in neighboring Niger, signaling broader interest in counterterrorism in the region.[xxviii] Boko Haram’s oath of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 also likely helped sustain international focus on the region: The U.S. deployed 300 soldiers to Cameroon shortly after the announcement.[xxix] In contrast, the U.S. is reportedly looking to reduce its military footprint in West Africa in 2019.[xxx]
Chad and Cameroon, two countries that were instrumental in the 2015 MNTJF offensive, also do not prioritize ISWA. The emerging civil war in Cameroon is limiting the government’s ability to address the Salafi-jihadi threat. Chad is preoccupied with rebel activity in its north and is not conducting offensive operations in Lake Chad.[xxxi] Chad and Cameroon will not reprioritize the fight against ISWA so long as the group’s main effort remains in Nigeria.
The U.S. cannot ignore ISWA if it is to pursue its professed strategic objectives, both in Africa and in the counterterrorism realm. America’s reliance on local partners to combat ISWA and Boko Haram incorrectly assumes that counterterrorism is the Nigerian government’s top priority. Even should the Nigerian government change course and prioritize ISWA, the group has proven capable of contesting the Nigerian military’s presence and sustaining its insurgency. Local grievances have fueled ISWA’s growth. If left unaddressed, these grievances will limit the success of any military victories against the group. A successful counterterrorism strategy for the Lake Chad Basin must account for both the weaknesses of U.S. partners and the role of popular grievances in fueling Salafi-jihadi insurgencies. All these factors should cause the U.S. to reconsider the wisdom of withdrawing its limited counter-terrorism footprint from West Africa. The potential consequences of a waning U.S. commitment to the region, including terrorist attacks on U.S. interests, the further destabilization of Nigeria, and the spread of the Islamic State in Africa, cannot be taken lightly.