President Trump says Islamic State is defeated, but in northern Nigeria, a group calling itself Islamic State West Africa Province is on a tear; overrunning the most fortified military bases, building nascent state structures & winning the propaganda war.
In the past six months, ISWAP has launched a blitzkrieg across Northeastern Nigeria, attacking the army some 40 times, capturing more than a dozen of the most heavily defended bases and looting what the UN calls a “massive” trove of heavy weaponry.
The battle began with two small drones buzzing over a base where more than 500 Nigerian troops guarded the shores of Lake Chad. Then came the clatter of gunfire from a column of armored cars, artillery units and tanks that also blasted jihadist battle songs from mounted speakers.
Within hours, elite forces from one of Africa’s most powerful militaries had abandoned their base and its cache of heavy weapons, routed by an insurgent army fighting under the familiar black and white flag of Islamic State.
“We were sitting ducks,” said Bitrus Madu, a Nigerian sergeant who fled the base in the town of Baga in December and walked through forests for three days to reach safety. “The terrorists control the whole region now.”
In recent months, as Islamic State has seen its self-described caliphate in Iraq and Syria radically shrink, a Nigeria-born group calling itself the Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP, has taken control of hundreds of square miles of territory, according to Nigerian and Western officials.
The group’s rapid rise, largely away from public view, foreshadows the next chapter for Islamic State. Its local allies are expanding in a flurry of far-flung states, battling local armies and carving fundamentalist enclaves in Afghanistan, Mali, the Philippines and Somalia. Islamic State’s threat to regional governments and the West is likely to continue, U.S. intelligence chiefs said in a formal risk assessment last week.
ISWAP’s rapid rise could foreshadow a next chapter for Islamic State. Yes it’s getting beaten in the Levant but local affiliates are expanding in a flurry of far-flung states, battling local armies and carving fundamentalist enclaves in Afghanistan, Mali, the Philippines, Somalia.
Northern Nigeria is where Islamic State’s allies have gone furthest. ISWAP now controls trade routes, taxes the local fish industry, regulates agriculture & imposes its extremist brand of Islamic justice. Its entrenching itself in local communities weary from a decade of conflict.
“They became much stronger, with much more firepower. We have to break contact and retreat when they engage us,” said one soldier from 157 battalion that was ejected from its base in the town of Metele in November where some 100 soldiers died.
ISWAP also has much more sophisticated propaganda. Its internal Telegram channels are like a jihadi Instagram: fighters share photos of sunsets over Lake Chad or dressed for battle. News items announce sumptuous harvests from farms run by displaced people invited back to the area.
New videos show ISWAP using lethal weaponry such as armor-plated, vehicle-borne bombs made in weapons factories that seem to evidence technology transfer. We were told that a small group of foreign fighters from North Africa and the Caucasus came to Lake Chad to train recruits.
Much about ISWAP remains a mystery. Analysts are split on whether it is centralized around Mr. Barnawi or scattered across autonomous brigades. ISWAP hasn’t declared a caliphate, making its hard to assess its territorial control over vast areas where fighters blend with villagers.
But the success of ISWAP’s military offensive speaks volumes. In public,Nigerian officials say the insurgency is defeated. Privately, many now talk only of containing it. This is an important & undercovered story.
Source: Joe Parkinson for Wall Street Journal