By Abdulhaleem Ishaq Ringim
The Abuja-Kaduna train attack has finally halted the speculations regarding Boko-Haram’s expansionism into North-West territories of Nigeria. Although warnings sounded as far back as 2-3 years ago were suggestive of the existence and operationalization of such an active expansionist agenda, it wasn’t until January 2022 that I saw what I consider the first official acknowledgement of the expansionist efforts of BH. This acknowledgement was contained in Kaduna State Ministry of Internal Security and Home Affairs’ annual security report wherein lies observations of escalating relationships between Boko-Haram groups and bandits.
It should be recalled that Boko-Haram ceased to exist as a single entity since 2014/2015 when factionalism befell the central entity. This factionalism yielded 3 different groups distinguishable by certain ideological and tactical contrarieties. They are; The Shekau Led Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (JASLWJ), The Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) supported Jama’atu Ansaril Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan (Ansaru) and The Islamic State (IS) supported Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). And they have been fighting one another for influence and jurisdiction ever since.
Interestingly, establishing an influential presence in North-central and North-west Nigeria has always constituted a major aspect of these groups’ grand agenda. But for years, it had proven hard for this objective to be achieved by any of the groups even after staging several operations in the 2 subregions as none of them was able to establish that desirable level of hegemonic presence and influence.
However, among the three groups, Ansaru remains the most influential in the North-west even though it is thought to have hibernated after the face-off that ensued from the factionalism. Terror watch reports suggest that while in hibernation, Ansaru embarked on a strategic recruitment exercise targeting NW’s most dominant non-ideological criminal groups – the bandits – through infiltration, training, tactical assimilation and arms supply. Apart from Ansaru, Shekau-led JAS through some commanders(like Adamu Bitri before he defected to ISWAP and eventually died) also established and maintained contact and relationship with leaders of some bandit groups.
Last year, Nigeria’s terror network experienced heightened volatility due to the escalation of the conflagration between the two major terrorist organizations —the Shekau-led Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (JAS) and Al-Barnawi-led Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) — operating in the North-east and Lake-chad basin. This resulted in the death of Abubakar Shekau by suicide which sparked serious disarray within the network and rendered the JAS somewhat defenceless.
Consequently, ISWAP issued an ultimatum to all JAS commanders and fighters to either defect to ISWAP and pledge allegiance to Al-Barnawi or vacate all former JAS territories which now fell under their control. Some commanders and fighters complied and defected while many others surrendered to the Nigerian Army with the aim of becoming beneficiaries of the Nigerian government’s amnesty program(Operation Safe Corridor). The third group of JAS commanders and fighters who neither defected nor surrendered to the Nigerian army were thought to have migrated to NW to forge alliances with bandit groups.
By implication, the above-stated events suggest that while Ansaru continues to remain the closest to NW bandits, ISWAP and former JAS fighters might have also re-ignited links with bandit groups in the NW. While ISWAP might have taken over control of the vast network of bandit groups that were formerly affiliated to Shekau-led JAS due to the carpet-crossing of JAS commanders (some of whom are the keepers of the link between JAS and the bandit gangs in the North-West just as Adamu Bitri) to the ISWAP side, JAS fighters that refused to surrender to both ISWAP and the Nigerian Army might, however, have also migrated to NW to forge alliances with bandits and escape ISWAP’s wrath.
Now, the changing dynamics, improved weaponry and renewed offensive tactics seen in recent attacks thought to be staged by bandits are testimonials to an improved alliance between Bandits and members of BH groups. These attacks carry BH signatures all over from attacks on public infrastructure (as in the case of the two train attacks) to attacks on military formations (e.g NDA and the Birnin Gwari Army Forward Operational Base) and the efficient use of IEDs for offensive have increased in frequency in NW states. The recent videotape that was released in the aftermath of the release of the Bank of Agriculture’s MD also signals this unholy alliance.
At this pace, North-west Nigeria is on the verge of becoming a deadlier terror zone than the North-East ever was. This is because we are dealing with two groups with complementary terror/criminal expertise synergy which holds the potential for the establishment of the most sophisticated terror network Nigeria has ever seen. The bandits indubitably boast of an unmatched knowledge of the local terrain and geography of North-west’s forests and other ungoverned spaces while BH groups, be it Ansaru or ISWAP, boast of a very deadly extremist-ideological core with a sophisticated array of terror-based expertise and affiliation to global terror networks through Islamic State(IS) African subsidiaries(for ISWAP) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (for Ansaru) that allows them access to global terror resources and funding.
The bandits also have numbers sourced from a rich population of child soldiers. Their numerical preponderance, nonideological-cum-uneducated nature and relatively young base makes them extremely vulnerable to indoctrination and a suitable source for terror manpower. Sadly, the use of child soldiers for terror activities is attributed to both ISWAP and Ansaru, but ISWAP has gone further to institutionalize child recruitment and indoctrination using international terror recruitment standards. Hence, ISWAP might leverage this rich child-soldier manpower source opportunity more effectively.
As I write this piece, I must confess to experiencing the oscillation of an overwhelming shockwave of fear that has been travelling through the deepest core of my body since I discovered ISWAP’s new recruitment and indoctrination strategy through open-source terror watch networks. And here is why:
The largest bandit-manpower source is predominantly the forsaken, uncivilized and uneducated population of forest-based Fulani. Several testimonies from victims of kidnapping further affirm that the bandits are mostly young boys aged 14-18. They have been adjudged to be tremendous in terms of population and now BH groups (ISWAP, ANSARU, fmr JAS) have infiltrated the vast bandit network due to the government’s avoidable mismanagement of the entire situation which metamorphosed from the farmer-herder crisis. Unfortunately, the continued mismanagement of this crisis now holds the potential of further transfiguring into an implosive generation-long extremist insurgency.
ISWAP has instituted a new recruitment and indoctrination initiative. This initiative aimed at recruiting an army they term “The Empowerment Generation” focuses on training and indoctrinating children aged 8-16 as seen in a propaganda video released by the group. The implementation of this training and indoctrination exercise is done through the instrumentality of a well structured educational institution named “Khilafah Cadet School”. Cadets, otherwise called “Cubs of the Caliphate” are drilled in extremist Islamic education; tactical military, arms and infantry training; and Jihad and enemy execution techniques.
This school boasts of having a well-structured curriculum consistent with global terror standards and a strict entry requirement as students have to pass entrance exams before getting admitted. The school is well-funded and resourced. The scariest aspect of the video is the scene that shows the cadets practising special force warfare tactics. In the scene, the cadets are shown entering a building in special forces style to extract enemies. The enemies used for this drill were Nigerian soldiers captured by ISWAP. After the extraction, the 3 soldiers were made to kneel and they were all shot in the head by three different child soldiers barely aged 15. The precision, the tact and the efficiency in execution are consistent with that which is usually seen in war movies.
The “Cubs of the Caliphate” are a product of a long-term strategy envisioned by ISWAP to continue the ideologically-driven war for another generation, serving as a formidable and inexhaustible manpower source for the terrorist army. As I watched that video, I reflected with fear on the young bandit population in the NW and the possibility that most of them might end up getting admitted into such kinds of indoctrination programs as a result of the strategic alliance between bandits and these terror groups. I could not help but weep at this gruesome picture of the future, asking what if Boko-Haram groups succeed in assimilating a major section of the young bandit population operating in this part of the country?
The catastrophe that would result from this scenario is indescribable. Nigeria has managed to mismanage every security situation that it had ever faced. But we cannot afford to continue mismanaging this crisis for the future looks gruesome unless a de-escalation happens. But how do we tame this menace?
The only security situations in Nigeria that the government had been able to manage to an extent are those that benefitted from robust dialogue and amnesty programs. And the closest we got to destroying insurgency through the use of brute force was when mercenaries were hired to fight Boko-Haram in 2015. But just like dialogue, the implementation of completely annihilating military offensives is as well another efficient option in countering terrorism and insurgency. But in Nigeria’s context, this method carries the smell of impossibility all over it. In fact, brute force clearly constitutes precedential failures in the fight against terror and insurgency in Nigeria.
The highest level of brute force(since the completely annihilating one has so far been simply unachievable) we have been able to exert could not tame Niger-Delta Militancy, it hasn’t been able to crush Boko-Haram for almost two decades now. And it is yet again proving inefficient in the fight against bandit-terrorists even before the infiltration of the very tactical and well-resourced Boko-Haram groups.
We are left with two options; the Gumi option of dialogue and strategic engagement with stakeholders in the affairs of these bandits with the aim of securing a ceasefire and ultimately, surrendering of arms in exchange for amnesty and redress(before they completely get assimilated into the ideological war BH groups are fighting) or the Elrufai solution of engaging the services of mercenaries to perform a sweeping operation targeting all forests and hamlets harbouring these bandit-terrorists and their BH affiliates since the implementation of such method by our military seems impossible.
Principally, the fundamental responsibility of every government is to safeguard the lives and properties of its citizens. Nigeria’s government under President Buhari has failed in that responsibility but we can no longer tolerate this failure for it holds the potential of consuming us and the country at large. Nigerians must rise up and demand an end to this barbarism NOW!
Abdulhaleem Ishaq Ringim is a political/public affairs analyst. He writes from Zaria and can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.