The Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) is now rid of the leader of its rival organization, Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram, following the death in May of Abubakar Shekau,. As the accompanying excerpted article from the South African security think tank the Institute for Security Studies notes, ISWAP is capitalizing on Boko Haram’s loss, beginning with the consolidation of its power around Lake Chad. The Far North administrative region of Cameroon has been particularly impacted by these changing dynamics.
When Shekau was alive, insurgents (mostly from Boko Haram) frequently launched attacks on civilians in Cameroon, including
16 recorded each month from March to May of this year. However, following Shekau’s death, in June there were only two attacks, both against military bases. ISWAP claimed responsibility for one of these, and it is unclear whether ISWAP or Boko Haram attacked in the other. According to the article, the following month ISWAP sharply increased the number of its attacks against military bases, possibly to as high as eight.
There are two possible reasons behind the targeting shift from civilians to military bases. First, Shekau was in favor of attacking
civilians, a stance that put him at odds with ISWAP leaders before Boko Haram and ISWAP splintered into different groups. ISWAP can now more readily pursue its policy of attacking military targets while trying to curry local civilian support, basically by presenting itself as an alternative to the state that has failed to deliver development projects to its poorest region. The second reason for the change in targeting is that ISWAP, according to the article, has possibly co-opted commanders in zones dominated by Boko Haram to choose military and not civilian objectives. Whatever the reasons for the targeting change, Cameroon’s civilians appear to be appreciative. Meanwhile, the country’s armed forces are struggling to win militarily against ISWAP, and the government, which is often described as corrupt and inefficient, is struggling to win the hearts and minds of the civilian populace.
A reduction in attacks on civilians, together with a ramping up of assaults against military forces and inflated claims of success, are all key features of ISWAP attacks in Cameroon’s Far North since Shekau’s death.
Source: Agha-Nwi Fru and Teniola Tayo, “ISWAP Takes Aim at the State in Cameroon,” Institute for Security Studies (a South African security think tank), 22 July 2021. https://issafrica.org/iss-today/iswap-takes-aim-at-the-state-in-cameroon
A reduction in attacks on civilians, together with a ramping up of assaults against military forces and inflated claims of success, are all key features of ISWAP attacks in Cameroon’s Far North since Shekau’s death. But these are early days.
ISWAP uses propaganda to inflate its threat and successes. After the attack on the MNJTF camp in Sandawadjiri in June, ISWAP announced it had killed 26 soldiers. The MNJTF refuted this, reporting no casualties and only one wounded. ISWAP also claimed to have seized a large quantity of arms and ammunition, again contradicting the MNJTF’s assertion that only two machine guns and a few packs of ammunition were taken.
There are reports that ISWAP is establishing an elaborate governance structure for the Lake Chad Basin. It also appears that one of the group’s new commanders will be tasked with covering Cameroon’s North and Far North regions. These appointments are recent, and the details of ISWAP’s strategy for the region and its consequences on the ground remain unclear.
One apparent trend is the lower threat to civilians, especially Muslims. Allowing civilians to pursue their livelihood activities and then taxing these activities is a pillar of the Islamic State’s strategy.