The fragile future of the Islamic State in West Africa

Africa was supposed to be the success story of the Islamic State. Observers saw the group’s growing attacks there as proof that the continent had become the new center of global jihad. In August 2021, the United Nations even declared that “the most alarming development of recent months is [the Islamic State’s] relentless across the African continent.

In reality, the Islamic State faces many problems in Africa, largely on its own initiative. The main one is factionalism. Three prominent African jihadists have died in recent months, two at the hands of other jihadists. Where ISIS has attempted to exploit local grievances, it has now been drawn into local conflicts. Much to the disappointment of the leaders of the Islamic State, the group is now complicit in fighting between different Fulani clans, and between nomads and farmers.

The deaths of three legendary jihadists – Abubakar Shekau, Abu Musab al Barnawi, and Adnan Abu Whalid al Sahrawi – reveal the limits of Islamic State in the region, as well as how local conflicts fuel organizational rivalries. Internal disputes plague the Islamic State in West Africa, and the central Islamic State has had little success in solving the problems.


Simply summarizing the evolution of the Islamic State in West Africa shows how deeply fractured it is. The organization often referred to as Boko Haram (it called itself Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna lil Da’wa Wal Jihad, meaning “People Engaged in the Teachings of the Prophet for Spread and Jihad”), pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015. Then, in 2016, it split in two. One faction, led by the son of the group’s founder, remained loyal to the central leadership of ISIS and became known as ISIS’s West Africa Province. The other faction, led by Abubakar Shekau, retained the name of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna.

In 2019, the Islamic State’s West Africa province gained control from the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, which operated in the tri-border zone between Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. After integrating the Islamic State into the Greater Sahara, the West African province of the Islamic State significantly increased its activity in the border areas between Niger and Mali and its power appeared to increase.

But even as it expanded and incorporated other groups, ISIS’s West African province was unable to escape its own past divisions. His split in 2016 with Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna paved the way for two of the three most significant jihadist deaths in 2021. After 2016, Shekau, the leader of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna, had concentrated his forces around the forest of Sambisa in northeastern Nigeria. at the Cameroonian border. But his Islamic State rivals were close to him. In May 2021, they were powerful enough to lead an attack deep into the Sambisa that killed Abubakar Shekau.

In the summer of 2021, ISIS’s West African province attempted to capitalize on this victory by issuing Hausa-language speeches accusing Shekau of targeting Muslim civilians, enforcing forced marriages and supporting Muslim civilians. Taliban and al-Qaeda. The purpose of this propaganda was to convince the remaining members of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna to abandon the group, and it seemed to work. In the summer of 2021, a large number of fighters – some sources say 2,000, others as many as 6,000 – surrendered. Some did so because they did not want to join the province of the Islamic States of West Africa after killing their former leader. Others surrendered because they were eventually allowed to leave after being forced by Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna to stay in Sambisa against their own will. Surrender rates suggested that Shekau’s “Boko Haram”, estimated at between 1,500 and 3,000 at its peak, was dying.

As a result, many expected Shekau’s death to allow ISIS’s West African province to rule a more unified jihadist movement in northeast Nigeria. But instead, Jamatu Ahli al-Sunnah was able to benefit from his own decentralization to fight back. Since 2016, a smaller Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna group had remained active around Lake Chad, recruiting from among the local Budumas, an ethnic group that largely made their living from fishing and had difficult relations with the Chadian state. Two notable leaders emerged in this group: Bakura Shalaba Modu and Bakura Doro. The Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna subgroup around Lake Chad became known as the Bakura group. Above all, he was located far from Sambisa, and therefore well placed to continue the fight against ISIS after Shekau’s death.

In August, it appears that the Bakura group retaliated by killing ISIS’s West African province leader Abu Musab al Barnawi. When reports of Barnawi’s death began to surface, some local sources suggested that he had been killed by Nigerian forces. However, the Nigerian military, which has often claimed responsibility for killings it did not commit and even declared living jihadist leaders dead, did not take credit for Barnawi’s death. Our local sources close to the organization’s defectors spoke of an attack by the Bakura group, which has been actively targeting ISIS since Shekau’s murder in May.

The success of the Bakura group will change the dynamic of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunnah as a whole. Bakura Shalaba announced Shekau’s death on behalf of the entire organization, indicating increased importance to him and the Bakura group. Indeed, several reports suggest that Bakura Shalaba was the new leader of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna. This will give the group a new center of gravity in the Lake Chad region. It will also change the ethnic makeup of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna’s rulers by adding several people of Nigerian and Chadian descent. Local sources also report that several of Jamatu Ahli al-Sunnah’s former commanders who swore allegiance to the Islamic State returned to the group after Barnawi’s death. In short, Jamatu Ahli al-Sunnah seems to be rebounding, albeit weakened.

Yet we cannot completely rule out another possible explanation for Barnawi’s death: infighting within ISIS’s West African province. There have been signs of such splits in the past (for example, when the group executed its veteran commander, Mamman Nur, in 2018). In 2019, Abu Mus’ab al Barnawi apparently resigned or was dismissed from his post, to be replaced by Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar al Barnawi. Confusingly, this was only reported by media affiliated with ISIS’s West Africa Province, not ISIS’s central channels. Then, in 2021, Abu Musab al Barnawi announced that he had been reinstated at the head of the group. In short, whatever the correct explanation for Barnawai’s death, the factionalism within the West African jihadist movement is clearly taking its toll.

Worse still for ISIS’s West African province, the group’s Malian branch faced a host of other challenges. Initially, he had successfully taken advantage of Fulani politics and Fulani grievances against the central state in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. The group’s deep roots in Fulani disputes strengthened its presence in the tri-border area by facilitating local recruitment and winning over the group’s local allies. But it also came at a cost. To maintain the support of these local allies, the Islamic State also had to fight in their local conflicts.

Take an example described by academics Tor A. Benjaminsen and Boubacar Ba. The local al-Qaida affiliate Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin, specifically the Katiba Macina subgroup, had joined with several traditional Fulani chiefs to restore grazing rights for certain types of pasture. As a result, many pastoralists in Mali’s Inner Niger Delta have joined with Islamic State in resisting this new financial burden. As the conflict over grazing fees escalated, Fulani subgroups that sided with ISIS lost many clashes. This, combined with resistance to some of the group’s other policies, had already weakened the Islamic State when its leader, Adnan Abou Walid al Sahrawi, was killed by French forces in August 2021.


So where does that leave the West African jihadist movement as a whole? The deaths of Shekau, Barnawi and Sahrawi are a setback for jihadists in West Africa, but not a long-term defeat.

Jamatu Ahli al-Sunnah reappeared as a phoenix from his ashes. The rise of the Bakura group cannot fully compensate for the loss of strength following the death of Shekaus, but it will allow Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna to remain powerful away from the Sambisa Forest.

The Islamic State’s West Africa province is no longer on the rise. He was held back by his own factionalism and his involvement in local conflicts, notably the Fulani fighting in the Tri-Borders area, and ethnic conflicts around Lake Chad. But the Islamic State will almost certainly rebuild itself, especially as residents continue to seek sources of protection in the absence of state security.

As ISIS’s West African province reappears, clashes with Jamatu Ahli al-Sunna are likely to resume, along with internal strife. As long as local states fail to address rural security concerns for local ethnic groups, these factional battles will remain the most significant control over the spread of jihadism in West Africa.

Stig Jarle Hansen is Professor of International Relations at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and a recognized expert on Islamist movements in Africa.

Image: US Army National Guard (Photo by Master Sgt Jeremiah Runser)

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