Against the background of increased banditry in the Northwest of Nigeria, the International Crisis Group has raised alarm over the infiltration of Jihadi elements, including Ansaru, Islamic West Africa Province (ISWAP) and others in the area.
The group made the information known in a detailed report published on Monday and obtained by HumAngle.
According to the report, many Nigerian security and other independent local sources interviewed reveal that amid the instability in Zamfara State and elsewhere, two Boko Haram offshoots are making inroads into the region.
It explained that the groups were forging tighter relationships with aggrieved communities, herder-affiliated armed groups and criminal gangs.
The first is Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (or the Group of Partisans for Muslims in Black Africa), better known as Ansaru, an al-Qaeda linked group that declared itself independent from Boko Haram in 2012, the report stated.
Ansaru was operating in the Northwest until it was largely dismantled by security forces in 2016, it noted and added, “Now it seems to be making a comeback.”
“Secondly, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – another splinter of Boko Haram in Nigeria’s Northeast zone – has forged links to communities in the Northwestern region on the border with Niger, which is separately in the throes of fighting its own local Islamic State insurgency.
“Ansaru, which has a long history of operating in the Northwest (where it engaged in the high profile kidnapping of expatriate engineers between 2012 and 2013, is forging new relationships with other smaller radical groups in Zamfara State, particularly in the areas around Munhaye, Tsafe, Zurmi, Shinkafi and Kaura Namoda,” it added.
According to the report, the group has also deployed clerics to discredit democratic rule and the state government’s peace efforts, a “hearts and minds” campaign aimed at winning support from rural communities.
It is also wooing some of the armed groups to its ranks, including by offering or selling them AK-47 rifles supplied by its allies in the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), at lower than the prevailing market price, it further stated.
The report credited security officials as saying that JNIM had been recruiting members, and that it previously sent some recruits to Libya for combat training.
ISWAP, which has been developing cells in much of northern Nigeria, is now also building the capacity of several smaller radical groups in the Northwest, particularly by offering livelihood support, including monthly stipends, to some of their members.
A local civil society representative told Crisis Group, “ISWAP is now the model for these smaller groups,” the report stated.
It said that some of these smaller groups were based in Magaba on the border with Niger Republic, and others around Dankwo and Derin-Deji, in the Zuru area of Kebbi State.
In keeping with the methods used in the Northeast prior to Boko Haram’s emergence a decade ago, ISWAP is also encouraging clerics who are particularly critical of corruption and democracy, a message that resonates strongly in impoverished communities.
Some military and government sources in Abuja point to evidence of transactional relationships between ISWAP and other armed groups in the Northwest.
In 2019, a senior government source in Abuja told Crisis Group that security forces had intercepted communications showing delivery of ammunition from Boko Haram or ISWAP to a “bandit” group, the report revealed.
Military sources also disclosed that some of the rifles captured in encounters with some herder-allied armed groups either bore inscriptions from, or were the same models used by Cameroon’s Rapid Intervention Battalion, it added.
It said that this suggested the rifles might have been confiscated from Cameroonian soldiers by jihadist groups operating in the Lake Chad area, where Nigerian and Cameroonian forces were collaborating to combat the offshoots of Boko Haram.
Government officials and residents also point to a number of attacks in the Northwest since 2019 in which perpetrators used religious slogans that jihadists in northern Nigeria had embraced previously, the report stated.
Security sources report that some of the arms captured from bandits were inscribed with the phrase Allahu akbar (“God is Great” in Arabic), the report further revealed.
It said that people who suffered attacks by the Halilu Mairakumi-led armed group also reported that the assailants sometimes bore Arabic inscriptions on their arm and headbands.
During an attack in Kawaye village in the Anka area of Zamfara State, the ringleader paused to issue a prayer call, it said.
In a January 2020 attack in Zamfara State, the gunmen told residents that they were on “jihad”; likewise in a February 8, 2020, attack on three communities – Gurmana, Old Gurmana and Ashirika – in Shiroro Local Government Area of Niger State.
According to the report, the attackers, dressed in black, were shouting “Allahu akbar”.
It continued, “Though many of these symbols and behaviours could just be marks of religiosity, the fact that these militants have adopted them has locals worried about jihadist penetration of the area.
“Moreover, since late 2019, ISWAP and Ansaru have themselves started taking credit for attacks in the region.
“In October, ISWAP claimed responsibility for an attack on Nigerian troops in Sokoto State.”
On January 14 2020, when gunmen attacked the motorcade of the Emir of Potiskum, Alhaji Umaru Bubaram, on the Kaduna-Zaria highway, killing at least six people and abducting several others, Ansaru claimed responsibility, making this ambush its first claimed operation since 2013, the report noted.
It said that further confirmation of Ansaru’s return to the region came on February 5, 2020, when the Nigeria Police Force reported that its special units had stormed a camp that was being used by Ansaru and “bandits” in Kuduru forest in the Birnin Gwari area of Kaduna State, and killed “over 250 members” of jihadist and “bandit” groups.
Ansaru also reported the event but claimed that it killed or wounded 34 policemen in the encounter, the report pointed out, but said that it was unclear whether either side’s claims were credible.
Nigerian security officials express concern that the group could be planning more attacks in the region – and possibly elsewhere in the country, the report concluded.
Recently the Governor of Katsina State Aminu Bello Masari expressed frustration over the activities of bandits in communities in the state and said he was confused about the situation.
The governor said the government was losing confidence among the populace because of its inability to protect them.