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Militants from the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) overran a Nigerian military base in the northeastern town of Gubio on Sept. 28, killing soldiers and seizing materiel. While the attack itself was notable, given the manpower it takes to storm a base, the aftermath was even more telling of the current state of security in Nigeria's northeast. The militants reportedly roamed around the town for several hours and faced no opposition from security forces. Days later, the army charged 22 soldiers with desertion for abandoning their posts during the attack. This assault was part of the latest surge in the decadelong insurgency waged by ISWAP, which was previously known as Boko Haram.
As Stratfor forecast in its Tracking Jihadist Movements in 2019, ISWAP has continued to create more security headaches for Nigeria and neighboring countries. Internal strife and low morale (including reported mutinies) in Nigeria's armed forces continue to facilitate this development.
The Two Camps
ISWAP is not a monolithic group. It split into two factions — one loyal to Abu Musab al-Barnawi and the other to Abubakar Shekau — after the Islamic State core appointed al-Barnawi as leader in August 2016 and Shekau refused to recognize the decision. Both continue to claim the mantle of ISWAP, but they are not unified, do not coordinate attacks and have ideological differences. But both are fiercely opposed to the Nigerian government, carry out persistent attacks and are intent on carving out a separate state within Nigeria. Unlike rival jihadist militants in other arenas, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State in Yemen, the Shekau and al-Barnawi factions don't attack each other.
The al-Barnawi faction primarily operates throughout Borno state, particularly around the Lake Chad area, and it uses it to launch attacks into neighboring provinces in northeastern Nigeria, as well as into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. According to a 2019 U.N. report, the group commands up to 3,000 fighters, has improved its financial outlook and has developed a drone capability. It focuses on attacking military targets and, in an attempt to cultivate local support, largely avoids suicide bombings and attacks on local residents and houses of worship. However, the group actively targets foreigners and groups such as nongovernmental and aid organizations, especially those from Western countries. Its militants ambushed a convoy of aid workers in July 2019, killed one, kidnapped several others and then executed one of the aid workers in September.
The Shekau faction operates primarily in southern and eastern Borno state, which it also uses to launch attacks into neighboring areas. The group doesn't command the manpower and resources of al-Barnawi faction. It has attacked security forces and aid organizations, but it has relied more on suicide bombings against soft targets to inflict high casualty counts, which distinguishes it from al-Barnawi branch. Because of this, it attacks more frequently and poses a greater threat to civilians. The extremists killed dozens at a sports broadcasting hall in June and a funeral procession in July.
Both factions of ISWAP have proved resilient in the face of pressure from the Nigerian military, and recent developments may allow them to become greater threats. The army recently announced it was pulling back into "supercamps" in an attempt to fortify its positions and reduce casualties. This move may help stem the loss of men, weapons and equipment when smaller bases are overrun, but it will only strengthen ISWAP in the long run. Militants will have more room to maneuver, and those outside the camps, including in villages and convoys, will be more vulnerable to attacks, kidnappings and extortion. Likewise, the failure of the military to protect them will diminish the trust of civilians in the government and further undermine the counterinsurgency.
Deteriorating morale has been a persistent concern for the army. In August 2018, hundreds of soldiers mutinied, and morale has only gotten worse since then. Soldiers have to fight with poorly maintained and outdated equipment, spotty or nonexistent support from the air force and field artillery, and inadequate logistical networks. Steady attacks by both ISWAP factions and the associated casualties undoubtedly hurt morale. Finally, many of the soldiers were either conscripted or forced to stay on their deployments longer than promised by the government.