Jacob Zenn is author of “Unmasking Boko Haram: Exploring Global Jihad in Nigeria,” which was published in April 2020 by Lynne Rienner in association with the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews.
The Sahel and Nigeria were previously distinct areas of operations for jihadist groups. However, the lines between these areas of operations are now blurring. It may, therefore, become harder in the future to determine which of Islamic State West Africa (ISWA)’s branches carried out an attack when such an attack occurs between Niamey, Niger and northwestern Nigeria.
On August 9, the Islamic State’s ‘province’ in the Sahel, known as Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), was suspected of killing six French NGO workers, their Nigerien guide, and one other Nigerien citizen. The victims were on safari near Niamey, Niger in a village where many expats take day trips to see the Sahel’s only remaining wild giraffes. Not only did these victims lose their lives, but any hopes for Niger’s tourism industry to revive after COVID-19 were also dashed.
Al-Qaeda’s Sahelian affiliate, Group for Supporters of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), immediately disclaimed the attack. JNIM has generally avoided targeting Westerners since its 2017 formation and seeks an eventual negotiation with Mali’s government for a French and UN military withdrawal from Mali and some form of power-sharing deal involving sharia law. This would follow the negotiation model of the Taliban, to which JNIM is loyal. It would not have been in JNIM’s interest or consistent with its modus operandi to conduct this attack.
Islamic State acknowledged the attack in the “news” section of its weekly magazine, al-Naba. It did not explicitly claim the attack, however. This was perhaps because Islamic State avoids claiming brutal killings of women–and one of the French NGO workers was a woman. ISWA, which is historically based in Nigeria’s Borno State and operates around Lake Chad, including in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, has executed Nigerian female NGO workers. However, ISWA never officially claimed such executions through Islamic State media channels. Islamic State also never formally claimed the beheadings of European female tourists in Morocco, despite Islamic State supporters conducting those attacks.
Adding to confusion surrounding the attack in Niger is that there are at least two factions of Boko Haram. One is headed by Abubakar Shekau and has no practical as opposed to theoretical affiliation with Islamic State, and the other, ISWA, is headed by a shura (consultative council), presents no individual leader, and claims affiliation with Islamic State. The relationship between Shekau’s faction and ISWA is mostly hostile but is also obscure, much like ambiguity surrounding ISWA’s precise relationship with the Islamic State. Confusion for outsiders is deepened by the fact that no faction will call itself “Boko Haram.”
Shekau’s faction tends to focus on Borno, Nigeria and its neighbors, especially Chad. ISWA’s narratives take on a more regional and global perspective, However, as Shekau’s faction has undertaken operations beyond its traditional area of focus and near where ISWA operates in Borno and its borderlands, it sometimes becomes difficult to attribute specific incidents to one faction or the other.
Before Islamic State announced that ISWA incorporated not only the Borno, Nigeria-based group, but also ISGS into one ‘province’ in March 2019, the latter entity had existed from 2015 informally as an Islamic State ‘brigade.’ This includes when it conducted the 2017 ambush that killed four U.S. special forces members and four Nigerien soldiers in Tongo Tongo, Niger. As late as March 2019, therefore, ISWA comprised two separate entities: one Borno branch and another Sahel branch in the Niger-Burkina Faso-Mali border axis. Both are distinct from the Shekau faction.
The attack on the French NGO workers, which would be the ISWA Sahel branch’s southernmost attack, occurred 150 miles from northwestern Nigeria’s Sokoto State. It was also in Sokoto that ISWA’s Borno branch claimed an attack that was organized from across the border in Niger in 2019. Such attacks near the Sokoto, Nigeria-Niger border represent the expansion of both ISWA branches' traditional areas of operations and indicate the two branches are converging.
In recent months there have been other signs of the Shekau faction establishing bases in northwestern Nigeria, particularly Niger State. Meanwhile, the smaller and lone al-Qaeda-loyal faction in Nigeria, Ansaru, has claimed several attacks since January in Kaduna State, which is located roughly between Niger State and Sokoto State. These trend lines suggest the area between Niamey, Niger and Niger State, Nigeria will not be spared from jihadist groups’ attacks any longer and ISWA’s two branches, Shekau’s faction, and Ansaru will all be competing for recruits in the same areas.