Thu, May 03, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Islamic State ally stakes out territory around Lake Chad

An Islamic State group in West Africa has all the trappings of a proper state and is much milder than its brutal Middle Eastern namesake, but it still rules with an iron fist

By Paul Carsten and Ahmed Kingimi  /  Reuters, ABUJA and MAIDUGURI, Nigeria

Illustration: Mountain People

From the shores of Lake Chad, the Islamic State group’s West African ally is on a mission: Winning over the local people.

Digging wells, giving out seeds and fertilizer and providing safe pasture for herders are among the inducements offered by the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) group, which split from Nigeria’s Boko Haram in 2016.

“If you are a herder, driver or trader, they won’t touch you — just follow their rules and regulations governing the territory,” said a herder, who moves cattle in and out of ISWA territory and whose identity is being withheld for his safety. “They don’t touch civilians, just security personnel.”

The campaign, which has created an economy for ISWA to tax, is part of the armed insurgent group’s push to control territory in northeastern Nigeria and in Niger.

ISWA stretches farther and is more entrenched than officials have acknowledged, said witnesses, people familiar with the insurgency, researchers and Western diplomats who have for the first time provided details of the group’s growing efforts to establish a form of administration in the Lake Chad area.

A map produced in February by the US Agency for International Development and seen by Reuters shows how ISWA territory extends more than 160km into the northeastern Nigerian states of Borno and Yobe, where the Nigerian government has in many areas all but vanished after a decade of conflict.

The militants have not been defeated, as Nigeria says, and researchers say that ISWA, less extreme than Boko Haram, has evolved into the dominant group.

The US map paints a similar picture, with ISWA operating in much of Borno.

“Islamic State has a terrible reputation for being so brutal around the world, and people can’t imagine an Islamic State faction could be more moderate [than Boko Haram],” said Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.

The Lake Chad countries — Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon — have long neglected the region, allowing ISWA to create a stronghold from which to launch attacks. Its gains contrast with setbacks for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

It makes sense for ISWA to organize the local economy and raise taxes, said Vincent Foucher, who studies Boko Haram at the French National Center for Science Research.

“It opens the longer game of trying to create a connection to people,” he said, adding that if ISWA succeeds it might become a greater threat than Boko Haram.

In 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to finish off Boko Haram. Officials maintain this has been achieved, although the conflict continues into its 10th year.

A presidency spokesman declined to comment for this story.

Analysts estimate that ISWA has 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, about double Boko Haram’s strength.

However, ISWA’s territory is not completely secure. The Nigerian air force often bombs it, and troops from Lake Chad countries attack the insurgents’ domain around its shores and islands.

Nigeria’s armed forces “just see them as Boko Haram,” Nigerian military spokesman Brigadier General John Agim said at a briefing. “We are not interested in the faction, what has that got to do with it?”

“They are not a government, they kidnap girls from schools,” Agim said in a separate interview.

The military has announced an operation “to totally destroy Boko Haram locations in the Lake Chad Basin” — ISWA’s domain — and end the insurgency within four months.

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