Nigeria 2023: ISIS make inroads in Nigeria ahead of elections, says report

By Ben Ezeamalu
Posted on Friday, 23 December 2022 16:37

In this photograph taken in Auno on February 10, 2020, a man walking past shops burnt down by suspected members of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) during an attack on February 9, 2020, is seen. (Photo by AUDU MARTE / AFP)

The ISIS-backed Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) had a "successful year" in Nigeria in 2022, carrying out attacks in the capital, Abuja; Kano; Kaduna; and setting up bases in and around Niger State, according to a report by SBM Intelligence, a Nigerian-based intelligence research consultancy.

The group also continued its expansion in the country making inroads into the southern part of Nigeria, stated the report which would be released early next year, and reportedly responsible for an attack in Ondo, southwest Nigeria, which killed about 40 people.

“The Western focus is no longer on ISIS, given that it has been defeated and chased out of Syria,” says Confidence Isaiah-MacHarry, a Senior Analyst at SBM Intelligence.

“But in Africa, it is expanding and nowhere is that expansion more prominent than in the Sahel.”

Nigeria’s terrorist group, Boko Haram, began a campaign to create an Islamic state in 2009, killing thousands of people and abducting hundreds of schoolgirls.

In 2015, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) when the latter was in control of a huge amount of territory in Nigeria’s north east. One year later, the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) emerged as a splinter group of Boko Haram.

But the terrorists’ campaign of killings continued, killing at least 35,000 people in the north east between 2009 and 2019.

The expansion

After over a decade in north eastern Nigeria, the terrorist group has begun to march southwards, moving into the north west, north central, and south western parts of the country.

According to SBM Intelligence, the group now has a remarkable presence in the north central states of Niger and Kogi.

“Kogi is a very strategic state,” says Isaiah-MacHarry. “It shares boundaries with about nine states from different geopolitical zones – north west, north central, south west, south south, and south east. So any major security breach will have severe repercussions on other states.”

One of the states that share a boundary with Kogi is Ondo, a cocoa-rich state in the south west. On 5 June, gunmen attacked a Catholic church in the state, killing 40 and injuring more than 120 others.

The Islamic State, wherever they expand, they don’t just bring their own men, they try to recruit local guys on the ground.

Although no group claimed responsibility for the attack, Nigeria’s Interior Minister, Rauf Aregbesola, said it was likely carried out by ISWAP.

“The [National Security] Council is quite concerned about the violent attack in Owo, Ondo State,” Aregbesola told journalists in June. “We have been able to locate the imprints of the perpetrators of that attack and from all indications, we are zeroing in on the Islamic State of West Africa Province.”

Isaiah-MacHarry also agreed that ISWAP was behind the Ondo attack. He said the attack was not surprising because of the protracted unrest in and around Kogi State. He maintained that ISIS are “expanding and definitely moving south.”

“The Islamic State, wherever they expand, they don’t just bring their own men, they try to recruit local guys on the ground,” he says.

‘Military’s inaction’

Hassan Stan-Labo, a retired colonel and security consultant, says the gradual incursion of ISIS into southern Nigeria is not a failure of intelligence but inaction by the country’s military.

“This inaction emanates from what I perceive as the complicit stance of this administration on terrorism in Nigeria,” he says.

“I am not comfortable with the gradual build-up in manpower and the ease with which terrorists’ incursion into the southern part of the country is taking place. It gives me the impression of a change in strategy by the terrorists.”

Between December 2021 and July 2022, ISWAP claimed responsibility for, at least, five attacks in northern Nigeria. These attacks included the firing of rockets into the north eastern city of Maiduguri, killing one person, and the bombing of a prison in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

Stan-Labo said the terrorists have made such successful incursion that it would require extra effort by the military to dislodge them.

“These terrorists are presently occupying ungoverned spaces and forest locations well known to the military already. Air bombardments followed by aggressive infantry action would curtail further incursions,” he says.

In 2015, Nigeria’s electoral body postponed the presidential and parliamentary elections by six weeks citing security concerns. At the time, the Boko Haram terrorists were at the peak of their expansion, controlling about 20 local governments areas – a territory the size of Belgium.

Stan-Labo said the security situation in the country two months before the election remains “fluid.”

“As to whether there would be significant incidents ahead and during the polls is neither here nor there,” he says.

“The level of deterrent action on the part of the security agencies could be a determinant factor.”


‘Whose benefit?’

Nigeria’s defence spokesperson, Jimmy Akpor, initially said inquiries should be directed to the Department of State Security (DSS), the country’s secret police.

He then said the organisation which uncovered such intelligence ought to have informed law enforcement agents.

“There are security agencies everywhere, you have the DSS, you have the police. If such information is published in the papers, of what benefit will it be? By publishing it, you are warning the terrorists to be careful,” says Akpor, a Major General.

Phone calls to the DSS did not go through.

In 2020, the US government had alerted Nigeria about the plans by ISIS to make incursions into southern Nigeria.

Dagvin Anderson, the Commander of US Special Operations Command Africa, told journalists that they had engaged with Nigeria and “will continue to engage with them in intel sharing and in understanding what these violent extremists are doing.”

Stan-Labo said the Nigeria military has not significantly decimated the terrorists, adding that the current respite in the country is either of two things:

“It is either that the military is doing a fantastic job out there keeping the enemy’s head down, or the enemy is putting together a fresh strategy that sees it go quiet.”

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