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Sophie Provins, Extremism Team

Week of Monday, July 5, 2021

Boko Haram Terrorists Abduct a Catholic Priest in Borno[1]

On June 27, 2021, a video surfaced revealing some Boko Haram members pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in West African Province (ISWAP).[2] Boko Haram has been fighting the Nigerian Government and military for 12 years in an insurgency as they seek to take control of the region, and ISWAP was deemed a rival group in the region. Around 350,000 people have died due to the insurgency in Nigeria, of which 90 percent are children, and a further 2 million have been displaced.[3] Boko Haram originated in Nigeria, although it now has a presence in Northern Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and Mali. ISWAP started as a splinter group to Boko Haram, and originated in Lake Chad, and has recently expanded efforts with gains in Nigeria, the Sahel, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The video is likely a direct result of the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau’s suicide on May 17, 2021 during a conflict with ISWAP; it was only recently that his death was confirmed, as Shekau has faked his own death on numerous occasions previously, including just one month before. However, although the groups follow similar ideologies and the video suggests they will come together, there will likely be an increase in internal conflict between current Boko Haram members and defectors to ISWAP due to preexisting tensions and the nature of Shekau’s death, which will cause increased disruptions to the northern Nigerian population.

Shekau has always been an influential member of Boko Haram, having started as the deputy of Muhammed Yusuf, the group’s founder. Shekau took over as the leader in 2009 when Yusuf was captured and shot in police custody and established himself as a brutal leader with effective terror tactics.[4] These included sending children and women on suicide missions, often targeting crowded markets and mosques, meaning that many attacks have a high civilian casualty rate. His most notorious tactic was kidnapping school children; in 2014, the group kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the northeastern town of Chibok of which over 100 are still missing today. Kidnapping schoolgirls is most likely a long-term strategy to breed the next generation of Boko Haram followers who would bear children and raise them under the group’s influence.[5] Therefore, Shekau’s death has almost certainly disrupted Boko Haram’s organization and operations as a new leader has not been identified, and Shekau played a significant role in the group’s origins.

Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIL in 2015, which led to the creation of ISWAP. In 2016, some members who were not comfortable with Shekau’s leadership style splintered and therefore continued under the name of ISWAP, while Shekau reassumed operations under the group’s original name Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, more widely known as Boko Haram. ISWAP now has more fighters than Boko Haram, with an estimated 3,500-5,000 fighters compared to Boko Haram’s 1,500-2,000.[6] Therefore, ISWAP poses a substantial security threat to the region and is highly likely to utilize Shekau’s death to further their own agenda and recruit from the disarray in Boko Haram.

There are numerous critical differences between ISWAP and Boko Haram that could lead to infighting and tensions should the groups join forces. The origins of ISWAP lay in members of the group not wishing to follow a leader as brutal as Shekau, demonstrating a fundamental difference in approach and tactics between the two groups. ISWAP is more likely to recruit using soft methods, such as a security tax, in which they protect populations in exchange for money that they can use to produce weapons. ISWAP is more likely to be trusted by civilian populations than Boko Haram, as their security is often more effective than Boko Haram’s or the Nigerian Governments. However, Boko Haram is more likely to conduct attacks that lead to civilian casualties; this tactic is likely to be unwanted and unpopular amongst ISWAP members as they seek a more collaborative and soft-power approach. Furthermore, Shekau died in a conflict with ISWAP, meaning that his loyal followers will be very unlikely to sympathize or seek to collaborate with the group.

It is likely that at least some Boko Haram members will defect and join ISWAP. In May 2021, ISWAP launched a series of attacks in Boko Haram’s area of control, the Sambisa Forest. ISWAP members executed at least ten Boko Haram members, while a further thirty other prominent members defected and joined ISWAP, demonstrating willingness amongst some members to leave the group rather than die for it, which can be unusual amongst extremist groups.[7] ISWAP has a long-term goal of targeting Nigeria’s military and taking control, as has Boko Haram. Boko Haram has launched several attacks with the Nigerian military as their primary target, starting in mid-2013 when they raided military barracks and towns throughout Borno and neighboring Yobe State. This was after they received training from Al Qaeda in the Islamic State Maghreb (AQIM), which led to the group being drastically underestimated by the Nigerian military.[8] If Boko Haram members decided to join forces with ISWAP, this makes this goal seem possible due to the growth in members, weapons, and territory, and would therefore be likely to happen. This would cause even more disruption to the Nigerian population. Additionally, it would be highly likely that the groups would launch simultaneous hearts and minds campaigns to attract some of the population to join their group and recruit, which likely would be successful in attracting some new members. This would likely be done by using various tactics, such as kidnapping and returning schoolchildren so they can obtain credit for being the ones to find them rather than the Nigerian Government, and investing in and providing protection for other neighborhoods that Nigerian law enforcement largely fails to protect.

Globally, there is a renewed focus on the Islamic State (IS) across Africa, having moved from the focus on Iraq and Syria. On June 28, 2021, in Rome, several nations including the United States (US), United Kingdom, and Italy decided they would contribute toward a US-backed coalition task force whose ultimate goal would be targeting the IS in Africa.[9] Few details have been announced thus far about the work of the task force, but it has been revealed they will use a holistic approach that will consider numerous factors as to why individuals follow extremist ideologies, such as climate change and poverty. This is highly likely to impact Nigeria, particularly in the northeast and northwest, where Boko Haram and ISWAP are most present, as they are the regions most vulnerable to climate change. This is due to large variations in waterfall and rising temperatures causing desertification, thus reducing crop yields and making it increasingly difficult to live.[10] A truly holistic approach that directly targets these issues and makes it easier for Nigerians to live there is likely to reduce the effectiveness of hearts and minds campaigns launched by Boko Haram and/or ISWAP.

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is continuing to monitor the situation in Nigeria and Africa as a whole with the use of 24/7 Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crimes, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H.) Officers. Threat Hunters and the Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) Team are also monitoring the situation to detect whether an attack is imminent in the region. CTG’s Extremism Team is working towards obtaining a greater understanding of extremist groups in the region, namely Boko Haram and ISWAP, in collaboration with the African Command (AFRICOM) Team. Both teams seek up-to-date and accurate information that is used to provide important reports as required when new activities and threats are detected.

__________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Boko Haram Terrorists Abduct Catholic Priest In Borno, Twitter, July 5, 2021,

[2] Boko Haram fighters pledge to Islamic State in video, worrying observers, Reuters, June 2021,

[3] Boko Haram war has led to 350,000 deaths - UN, BBC News, June 2021,

[4] Nigeria Islamist group leader killed in police custody, The Guardian, July 2009,

[5] Threat Assessment: Increase and Change in Boko Haram Tactic, March 2021, The Counterterrorism Group,

[6] What Abubakar Shekau’s reported death means for Nigeria security, Al Jazeera, May 2021,

[7] Rival jihadist groups Boko Haram and ISWAP fight for territory, Africa News, June 2021,

[8] “ISWAP Launches Hearts and Minds Strategy to Counter Nigerian Army Offensive”, The Jamestown Foundation, 2021,

[9] Italy calls for African task force to tackle Islamic State threat, Reuters, June 2021,

[10] Climate change in Nigeria: impacts and responses, UK Department for International Development, October 2019,


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