In recent months, as Islamic State has seen its self-described caliphate in Iraq and Syria radically shrink, a Nigeria-born group calling itself the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, has taken control of hundreds of square miles of territory, according to Nigerian and Western officials, Wall Street Journal reported.
The group’s fast rise, largely away from public view, foreshadows the next chapter for Islamic State. Its local allies are expanding in a flurry of far-flung states, battling local armies and carving fundamentalist enclaves in Afghanistan, Mali, the Philippines and Somalia. Islamic State’s threat to regional governments and the West is likely to continue, U.S. intelligence chiefs said in a formal risk assessment last week, the Journal informs.
The ISWAP faction, established in 2016 after a violent split within Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency, is entrenching itself in the borderland communities around Lake Chad, forging state structures. It controls trade routes, taxes the local fish industry, regulates agriculture and imposes its extremist brand of Islamic justice.
Based on interviews with soldiers, refugees, intelligence officers, arms smugglers and diplomats in Nigeria and Niger, as well as to people who participated in talks with the faction – ISWAP is a well armed and motivated insurgent group that expects to establish a state out of strategic geography where the U.S. is dialing back its military presence, and there is no sign the group seeks to attack Western targets beyond its homeland.
In contrast to Boko Haram and its infliction of carnage on civilians, ISWAP’s estimated 5,000 men focus their attacks on security forces and nongovernmental organizations, following tactical advice sent from Syria to spare the war-weary population, the Journal adds.
Seasoned fighters from West Africa who once traveled to Libya and the Middle East have returned to augment ISWAP ranks. ISIS theologians have sent written instructions, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, to cease attacking schools and markets and stop preaching that the Earth is flat.
The group has overrun and looted a dozen military bases, leaving hundreds of soldiers dead and seizing huge stockpiles of weapons, weeks before Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, holds a presidential election. Nigerian security officials call it a far bigger threat than Boko Haram, given its sophistication and popular support.
“The weapons are being smuggled from Islamic State in Libya to their factions in Nigeria and Mali,” said an arms smuggler in Niger named Yusuf as he flicked through images of Dushka machine guns and other weapons he claimed to have ferried across the desert. “These groups want to create a big domain. They want their own country.”
Many Nigerian officials no longer talk about defeating the insurgency, merely containing it. “On security, the point must be made that we are not where we expected to be. We must admit that,” said Festus Keyamo, a spokesman for the re-election campaign of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “However, we have made some progress” since taking over in 2015, he noted.