Where Exactly is the Islamic State in West Africa?
Jacob Zenn is an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University and is a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation.
The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) claimed a May 16 attack near Tongo Tongo, Niger, killing more than twenty soldiers not far from the Malian border. In March it issued a photo of its members in Burkina Faso and in April it claimed an attack on a militia in Mali. But, it is not clear that the ISWA group based primarily in Nigeria is behind those attacks.
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
In March 2015, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leading to the rebranding of Boko Haram as ISWA. The group has since gone through two leadership transitions and is now split into at least two discernable factions. One is ISWA, which is still pledged to the Islamic State and whose third leader is Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al-Barnawi or “Ba Idrisa.” The other comprises members still loyal to Shekau who defected with him when the Islamic State rejected him as leader; it is referred to as Boko Haram, even though both are “Boko Haram factions.”
After an attack on a Shia procession in Kano in November 2015, which was claimed by ISWA, both factions have focused their attacks exclusively on northeastern Nigeria and the borderlands of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger around Lake Chad. Generally speaking, ISWA tends to focus on military targets and Shekau’s Boko Haram tends to pilfer from villages while also targeting the Nigerian military. ISWA has portrayed itself as a more “civilian-friendly” alternative to Boko Haram and, to an extent, it has lived up to this billing.
The recent claims of attacks by ISWA in the border regions of Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Mali, therefore seem out of character, geographically speaking. In fact, all indications suggest that those three attacks in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali were carried out by the group formerly known as Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), whose leader is Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. Recall that in 2017, ISGS was blamed for and claimed an ambush of U.S. and Nigerien soldiers in Tongo Tongo that killed four U.S. Special Forces, which is the same location as the attack on May 16. Although al-Sahrawi has since been recognized by the Islamic State, including by name in Abubakar al-Baghdadi’s April 2019 video appearance, al-Sahrawi’s ISGS has not apparently earned “province” status.
What this suggests is that ISGS has, at least in name, been subsumed under the banner of the Ba Idrisa-led ISWA. This means that ISWA as we have up to now understood it—based in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin—is not conducting attacks in Niger, Burkina Faso, or Mali, but is merely claiming attacks that are instead carried out by ISGS.
This is a new trend that is important for followers of ISWA and Boko Haram to recognize, especially those who keep track of attack data. They need to decide whether attacks claimed by ISWA were actually carried out by ISWA, or, in fact, carried out by ISGS, and whether this distinction is worth making at all. For now, this is fairly easy: almost any attack in Niger, Burkina Faso, or Mali can be said to be by ISGS, while those in and around the Lake Chad Basin can be said to be carried out by ISWA. What could complicate this clear geographical distinction, however, are reports of ISWA members, such as Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the ISWA leader who was deposed by Ba Idrisa, talking to jihadists in Mali and of ISWA relocating cells to northwestern Nigeria near where ISGS leader al-Sahrawi operates in Niger. Therefore, in the future the areas of operations between the “two ISWAs” could overlap.
Terrorism and Counterterrorism