The Islamic State – West Africa Province has been trying to seriously develop its operations over the past year and has escalated operations in traditional areas of influence in northeastern Nigeria, and along the border with Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. This expansion has occurred despite the joint operations that Nigeria has led around Lake Chad to curtail ISIS influence there. However, what is most important about the branch’s recent operations within Nigeria is that they have extended outside ISIS’s traditional spheres of influence in the states of Borno and Yobe since the beginning of 2022. Operations outside these two states have ramped up particularly since April. It is worth considering why operations outside of these traditional areas of influence are increasing.
Understanding the Threat
The threat posed by the Islamic State – West Africa Province’s operations can be better understood by analyzing trends in its activity outside traditional areas of influence. Data collected by ISIS’s Amaq News Agency can also shed light on the nature of these operations. These trends include the following:
1. Focus on the Middle Belt: Throughout the past year, the Islamic State – West Africa Province has maintained a strategy of targeting a particular geographic area for its operations. This involved bolstering its presence in traditional areas of influence, which were previously controlled by the Boko Haram. The Boko Haram was aligned with ISIS and later became the Islamic State – West Africa Province. This was followed by internal conflicts that prompted the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, to split off from the main group; he was killed in clashes between the two sides in mid-2021. As a result of disputes over areas of influence between the two groups, it became on necessary for the Islamic State branch to focus on solidifying its position and getting rid of the remnants of the Boko Haram. At the beginning of this year, during a new phase for ISIS in Africa, the Islamic State – West Africa Province began to expand its scope and extend its operations beyond its traditional spheres of influence in the states of Borno and Yobe.
It is worth noting that Borno has experienced the highest number of operations from this branch, either at the country level within Nigeria or compared to neighboring countries. The West Africa Province undertook operations in three other states: Kogi, Taraba, and Adamawa, according to data from ISIS’s Amaq News Agency. These states are part of what is known as the "Middle Belt" in Nigeria, which separates the north and south of the country, and encompasses several different states. It is a Christian-majority region with significant ethnic diversity, which has sometimes led to violent clashes between groups.
2. Increasing activity in April and May: Data from the Amaq News Agency suggest that the branch began to carry out operations outside Borno and Yobe in January (two operations), following by only a single operation in February. The highest number ofoperations occurred in April, with seven operations total, while May saw a slight decrease to six. There were no operations recorded in March and only one operation in June thus far. With regard to the geographical distribution among the three states, the operations in January and February occurred in Adamawa, while operations in Taraba and Kogi began in April, although operations still continued in Adamawa.
3. Targeting of civilians, armed forces, and the police: The Islamic State – West Africa Province has focused its operations in these three states on targeting civilians (in eleven of a total seventeen operations carried out since January). The second most targeted group was the armed forces and police (three operations). There were also two operations involving sabotage as well as the targeting of what ISIS described as "government-aligned militias" (one operation).
In analyzing the operations carried out in the states of Borno and Yobe, as per data from the Amaq News Agency as well as independent sources, ISIS has been expanding operations targeting the army since the fourth quarter of last year. The group has targeted military installations such as camps, barracks, and roadblocks in particular. At the same time, it has also broadened its sectarian operations targeting civilians, particularly Christians. This is of particular importance since the Middle Belt states are majority Christian.
4. Pursuing different kinds of operations: There are three specific types of operations that the Islamic State – West Africa Province has adopted in the states of Adamawa, Kogi, and Taraba: direct attacks, bombings, and sabotage. There are some correlations between the type of operation, the state in which the operation occurred, and the operation’s target. First, of the ten operations carried out by direct attack, six occurred in Adamawa, while the others were split evenly between Kogi and Taraba (two operations each). Secondly, of the five bombings, Kogi experienced the highest number (three operations), followed by Taraba (two operations), while no operations of this kind were carried out in Adamawa. The two sabotage operations were split between Kogi and Taraba (one each), while no operations of this kind were carried out in Adamawa.
Given the location of these states within Nigeria, it is clear that the operations carried out closer to ISIS’s main spheres of influence in northeastern Nigeria tended to be direct attacks. Such operations require relatively greater numbers of forces. Most of these operations were attacks on villages and towns. The direct attacks were limited to operations against police forces (not the army), since police forces tended to be less armed and trained in dealing with armed attacks. The bombings and acts of sabotage did not require as many people to carry them out, since an explosive device can be planted and later detonated by a single individual. These two types of operations were the most common in Kogi and Taraba.
5. Organized attacks through small cells: By examining the various kinds of targets and operations as well as the geographic distribution of operations across the three states, we can better understand the presence and spread of Islamic State – West Africa Province in this area. It is likely that ISIS controls armed groups in Adamawa that it can mobilize to carry out coordinated attacks on villages and towns. At the very least, it controls groups in Borno that are able to go to neighboring states and carry out operations there. Given the distance between Kogi and Taraba and its traditional spheres of influence in Borno and Yobe, ISIS might be relying upon small cells that were formed with these particular conditions in mind. These cells would be able to work undercover to make explosives without being tracked by security forces due to the environment in which they are working. Groups involved in direct attacks in the desert and forest require different kinds of training.
In order to understand the nature of the threats posed by the Islamic State – West Africa Province beyond Borno and Yobe, its strategy for expanding its influence, and the demographic composition of the aforementioned three states, we might consider the following characteristics of ISIS activity:
1. Limited expansion of operations: It seems that the Islamic State – West Africa Province wants to expand its operations outside its traditional spheres of influence in northeastern Nigeria. This vision is consistent with the decision of ISIS subgroups inthe Sahel area in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso to split off from the main regional branch. The operations in these three states can be considered typical in that they employed either direct attack or bombing tactics. We also can also compare the activity in these states with the number of operations in Borno in particular. This indicates a vision focused on strengthening control over areas of traditional influence while also pursuing a strategy of expanding operations at the border between countries. This was the case with the operations near Lake Chad, which falls on the border between Nigeria and other neighboring countries. On 1 May 2022, this branch of ISIS published a photo with a caption indicating that it had elements operating in central and southern Nigeria, and that it was expanding operations despite its limited scope.
2. Efforts to exert pressure on the state: The expansion of the Islamic State – West Africa Province’s activities to target civilians rather than army or police forces can be understood in the context of ongoing efforts to exert pressure on the state and its various agencies. The operations in these three states have centered around several objectives for the group. First, it has tried to build its capacity to carry out operations outside its areas of influence, despite the joint operations led by Nigeria around Lake Chad. Second, targeting civilians in areas experiencing security unrest due to the threat of terrorism has undermining social trust, which could in turn lead to internal unrest and discontent. Third, even though Nigeria set up an operations command to deal with terrorism in the northeastern part of the country, terrorist activity has still expanded in various areas. This poses a security challenge with regard to uncovering the cells carrying out operations since terrorist activity is not limited to a single area that could then be controlled.
3. Exploiting ethnic and sectarian tensions: The Islamic State – West Africa Province has made efforts to exploit sectarianism as part of its strategy to undermine internal stability and security. It considers this chaos to be a fertile environment for its growth and expansion. ISIS has chosen to work in these three states partly because they are located in the Middle Belt, which has a Christian majority. This is related to two main points. First, ISIS wants to incite ethnic and sectarian tensions in these states, which have previously witnessed sectarian clashes, including the ethnic clashes in Taraba between the Fula people and Kuteb farmers in May. This long-standing ethnic conflict has now taken on new sectarian dimensions. The Fula are majority Muslim while the Kuteb are primarily Christian, and ISIS exploited these divisions to stir up ethnic tensions. After expanding its targeting of Christians, Muslims were then targeted in response. Second, the ethnic and sectarian clashes in some states have helped ISIS attract Muslims youth from these areas to join and form cells and armed groups to increase levels of terrorist activity.
4. ISIS takes control of former Boko Haram areas: With regard to previous terrorist activity in some of these states, Boko Haramhad also targeted Christians. TheIslamic State – West Africa Province’s operations in these states have continued in the same vein, and moreover, ISIS has taken on the mantle from Boko Haram. Some reports have drawn attention to a speech by Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, who was killed in clashes with the Islamic State – West Africa Province in 2018. Shekau had discussed attacks that the Boko Haram had carried out in multiple regions of Nigeria, including an attack that killed more than 50 people in Taraba at the end of 2017. The ISIS branch’s operations have demonstrated a desire to gain control over Boko Haram’s traditional spheres of influence. The former seems to have succeeded in winning over elements previously aligned with the Boko Haram in these states, following a clash between the two sides, and the erosion of the Boko Haram’s influence after Shekau was killed last year.
5. Fallout from attacks to avenge two ISIS leaders: The Islamic State – West Africa Province’s operations outside Borno and Yobe began in January near Adamawa, which borders Borno in eastern Nigeria. The group later expanded its operations to the three aforementioned states after ISIS spokesman Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir launched a wave of retributive violence following the two killings of the group’s former leader and spokesperson.
To understand the group’s objectives in this regard, it is worth noting that the West Africa branch was very responsive to directives from ISIS’s central command. Expanding operations into the three Nigerian states achieved two main goals under these directives. First, it significantly ramped up operations (an objective for all of ISIS’s branches). The Islamic State – West Africa Province tried to expand its targeting of civilians during this wave in order to amplify its impact. Secondly, it targeted Christians, through attacks on Christian villages, raiding the house of a leading Christian religious figure, and bombing Christian gatherings, especially in these Middle Belt states that had a Christian majority.
The Islamic State – West Africa Province’s operations in these three states have not placed significant pressure on Nigeria because they are on a smaller scale than its operations in Borno. However, given the branch’s objectives and strategies, and the ethnic and sectarian tensions in the Middle Belt, failure to address these threats early runs the risk that the Islamic State – West Africa Province will continue to exploit local conditions to attract followers. This could lead to the escalation of operations in these states and further expansion into other states. The solidification of this branch and its capacity to deal with military operations in northeastern Nigeria has become a central priority for ISIS.