After the cat has reached its ninth life, what is next for the Boko Haram insurgency?

24th May 2021

For the seventh time since the start of the insurgency in the North-East, the longstanding leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, has been declared dead. The major difference this time, however, is that the death did not come at the hands of the Nigerian military but after a clash with its splinter faction the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Authoritative sources say that ISWAP fighters had attacked Shekau’s base, overpowered his bodyguards and were trying to force him to relinquish power in a meeting when he detonated a suicide vest he had on, killing himself and the ISWAP leadership at the meeting. Both factions have increasingly clashed over territory as a result of sustained aerial bombardment of the Lake Chad Islands by the Nigerian Airforce, which has forced ISWAP to seek cover in the Mandara Mountains in Southern Borno, home to the JAS faction.

The fact that ISWAP took out Shekau rather than the Nigerian Military raises its status, a position which is not free of problems, however. ISWAP has had a series of leadership crises since its inception, which means this newfound status could lead to more internal squabbles about leadership, which in itself raises the possibility of more splinter factions.

Another immediate implication of Shekau’s death is that it calls into question the capacities of state actors. With various reports over the years of failed attempts to kill Shekau by the Nigerian military and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), his death in the hands of a “technically defeated” non-state actor is embarrassing for the country’s intelligence and military institutions, and could deal a blow to morale, as well as to the prestige of the institution.
Considering ISWAP’s more clinical approach compared to Boko Haram and its focus on military targets and aid workers, its control of the Sambisa Forest means more problems for the military and the civilian populations in places where they are able to have control over and impose their Islamist rule. Additionally, successful conscription of Boko Haram members would mean that the ISWAP group would be better able to traverse the Sambisa area.

For these reasons, it is important for the military to begin preparations for an escalation in hostilities in the area, and adopt new strategies that will not just sufficiently defend against attacks, but will also take the fight to the terrorists. It is vital that the military finds and targets the leadership of ISWAP as this will have more of an impact than killing off its foot soldiers.
Another clear concern with the ISWAP takeover is that it is a well-connected terror group with access to military-grade equipment, training and financing from across the world. This is likely to be a challenge for the Nigerian government. Tracing and tracking down terror financiers has not proven to be the forte of Nigeria and the country will clearly need more technical support and multinational partnerships to successfully track funds that go to the group.

The objectives of Boko Haram and ISWAP are also likely to be different as well, due to the respective sources of funding. It is accepted by this stage that funding for Boko Haram is local. The Nigerian government claims to be prosecuting what it reported to be hundreds of people in connection with sponsoring terrorism in the country. In ISWAP’s case, their funding is not local, so the growth and operations of the group will be harder to stop. Such a scenario presents a greater problem for the government as they cannot lean on local actors to get results in the fight against terrorism.

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