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Boko Haram’s expansionary project in northwestern Nigeria

Boko Haram’s expansionary project in northwestern Nigeria


  • GFATF - LLL - Abubakar Shekau Abubakar Shekau Abubakar Shekau (also known by his alias Darul Tawheed), thought to...[+]
  • LLL - GFATF - Ansaru Ansaru The Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa (better...[+]
  • LLL-GFATF-Boko-Haram Boko Haram Boko Haram, is jihadist group based in northeastern Nigeria, also active...[+]
  • LLL-GFATF-ISIS Islamic State ISIS is an Islamic extremist terrorist organization controlling territory in Iraq...[+]

 Affected Countries: nigeria; chad; mali; burkina-faso; niger;

On June 15, Boko Haram released a video featuring English, French (Cameroonian), Fulani, and Hausa-speaking fighters “greeting” fellow fighters in Zamfara and Niger states. Three weeks later, on July 7, Boko Haram released another video of fighters in Niger State returning “greetings” to Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau and “brothers” in Zamfara, which is one of Nigeria’s northwestern states; Lake Chad, which is the Boko Haram Bakura faction’s base; and Sambisa, Borno, which is Shekau’s base.

These back-to-back videos recall the process of the Bakura faction’s pledge to Shekau one year earlier. Bakura’s joining Boko Haram turned Nigerian jihadism’s tide in Shekau’s favor vis-à-vis his rivals in Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Ansarul Muslim Fi Biladis Sudan (Ansaru).

On September 23, 2019, Shekau had issued “greetings” to fighters on Lake Chad, which was reciprocated one day later in a video from an imam surrounded by two armed fighters near Lake Chad who claimed they were “commanded” by Bakura and “greeted” Shekau. These two videos followed a series of Boko Haram-claimed attacks around Lake Chad using styles copying Islamic State (IS), despite only ISWAP being formally part of IS.

These actions heralded Boko Haram’s resurgence in Lake Chad. Since Shekau’s August 2016 ejection from ISWAP, Lake Chad had been exclusively ISWAP’s area of operations, but by 2019 Boko Haram was also operating in the region. It was also only six months after those two videos that Boko Haram conducted the massive March 2020 raid in Bohoma, Chad that killed 92 Chadian soldiers stationed on Lake Chad. Shekau claimed responsibility for the raid.

Theses signaling videos are not exclusive to Boko Haram. In 2010, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), for example, released videos featuring Nigerian Hausa, Guinean, Malian Tuareg, and Fulani fighters to demonstrate AQIM’s expansion from Algeria to the Sahel (Al-Andalus, August 2010).

This coincided with AQIM training Boko Haram members and preceded AQIM controlling territory in Mali in 2012 through local affiliates (Al-Andalus, April 2017). Despite French-led counter-insurgency operations escalating from then onward, the Sahel has remained a jihadist hotbed.

Thus, the question remains whether Boko Haram’s June and July 2020 videos about northwestern Nigeria will, like the group’s September 2019 Lake Chad videos and AQIM’s 2010 sub-Saharan African-oriented videos, lead to Boko Haram opening a new front in northwestern Nigeria or whether it will falter there like it has before.

Neither ISWAP nor Boko Haram have attacked northwestern Nigeria with any consistency since ISWAP’s November 2015 attack on Nigerian Shias marching between Kaduna and Kano. However, Boko Haram’s efforts to expand to north-central and northwestern Nigeria from its northeastern Nigerian bases in Borno and its borderlands predate that 2015 attack.

After Shekau declared jihad in July 2010, AQIM-trained Boko Haram members—including future U.S.-designated terrorists Khalid al-Barnawi and Abubakar Kambar—led cells in Kaduna, Kano, Plateau, and Kogi, from where Boko Haram conducted over 20 suicide bombings from June 2011 to 2013. Shekau also commanded Boko Haram’s attacks on Kano government buildings in January 2012 that led to nearly 200 civilian deaths.

Al-Barnawi and Kambar’s formed Ansaru with AQIM’s approval as a separate faction from Boko Haram (Al-Andalus, April 27). Ansaru opposed Shekau’s killing of Muslim civilians. This combined with Boko Haram’s loss of civilian support, security forces’ dismantling Boko Haram and Ansaru cells in Kaduna and Kano, and the inability of Boko Haram’s predominantly Kanuri fighters to integrate into Hausa areas, meant Boko Haram’s jihad in north-central and northwestern Nigeria ceased in 2014.

Boko Haram, and ISWAP after its March 2015 formation, both concentrated only on Borno and neighboring Yobe and Adamawa states and borderland areas in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon after 2015. Meanwhile, Ansaru went into dormancy in 2015 following Shekau’s loyalists executing some of its leaders for betraying their loyalty to Shekau, while other members defected to ISWAP (Al-Haqaiq, June 2018).

Nevertheless, Ansaru retained sleeper cells in northwestern Nigeria from 2015 onward, where it quietly developed hideouts and recruited among Fulani bandits. Khalid al-Barnawi’s deputy, for example, was a Fulani from Zamfara, which would have helped Ansaru recruitment there, and al-Barnawi kept arms stockpiled in Kaduna before his April 2016 arrest in Kogi (The Cable, April 13, 2016).

Despite Boko Haram’s fraught foray into northwestern Nigeria from 2011-2014, Shekau attempted to expand there again. This was evidenced by an internal Boko Haram video Shekau called “Message to Fulanis,” specifically in Niger and Katsina states, in late 2014. However, the video was found in a Boko Haram camp and only released online by Nigerian media agencies in 2016.

Subsequent reports emerged that Boko Haram member Adam Bitri was arrested in Niger State in 2017 with two other Boko Haram members and that he had collaborated with Bakura to kidnap for ransom the elderly former minister Ali Monguno in Maiduguri, Borno as early as 2013 (Punch, May 26, 2017). Bitri had also been reported in Boko Haram-controlled territories in Borno in 2014 and was again reported in 2019 to have left Boko Haram, joined ISWAP, and worked to connect ISWAP with Ansaru in northwestern Nigeria (Vanguard, May 5, 2015).

However, Bitri became disillusioned by Ansaru’s excessively long-term approach and returned to Borno with no deal made (Premium Times, February 27). Bitri subsequently clashed with ISWAP leadership and allied with Bakura, who became loyal to Shekau again in 2019 after having been with ISWAP since August 2016. Bitri apparently disapproved of ISWAP’s comparatively moderate leadership. Shekau and ISWAP’s bids in northwestern Nigeria from late 2014, therefore, failed amid factional squabbles, but neither group ceased trying to gain a foothold there.

ISWAP, for its part, finally claimed it launched an attack on Nigerian police in Sokoto, northwestern Nigeria in October 2019 from a base across the border in Niger (Al-Naba #205, October 24, 2019). However, because ISWAP also encompasses the Mali, Burkina Faso, and northwestern Niger-based Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS), which the United Nations and Nigerian “insider” journalist Ahmed Salkida’s media agency, among other sources, reported as operating in northwestern Nigeria in 2019, it is possible ISGS was involved in launching that attack (UN Security Council, July 15, 2019; HumAngle, May 19, 2019).

Moreover, despite Bitri’s failed attempt to bridge ISWAP to Ansaru in northwestern Nigeria, the fact that some Ansaru members defected to, or collaborated with, ISWAP means it also cannot be discounted that jihadists operating in northwestern Nigeria and involved in the Sokoto attack had dual or overlapping affiliations to ISWAP and Ansaru, but not Boko Haram.

Shekau’s faction is despised by both ISWAP and Ansaru because of his declaring takfir (excommunication) on them. The United Nations notably asserted Ansaru “reactivated” in October 2019, which makes one question whether Ansaru was actually involved in the Sokoto attack that month (UN Security Council, July 23, 2020

Meanwhile, in February, villagers in Niger State also reported that bandits operating in their vicinity told them they were from ISWAP (Daily Trust, February 10). This indicates ISWAP remained around northwestern Nigeria after October 2019, albeit without publicizing its presence in videos or other media.

Like Ansaru, it was maintaining a low-profile in northwestern Nigeria to avoid attracting extra Nigerian military pressure, if not also foreign intelligence agencies’ reconnaissance. In July, the Nigerian Air Force announced it killed ISWAP members in a Zamfara airstrike, but, according to Ahmed Salkida’s colleague, Yusuf Anka, Ansaru members were killed in the airstrike (HumAngle, July 12). This nonetheless again indicates the ISWAP-Ansaru overlap in northwestern Nigeria and confusion about how distinct they actually are in northwestern Nigeria.

Ansaru also demonstrated its presence in north-central and northwestern Nigeria by carrying out its first claimed attack in five years on a Yobe emir’s convoy in Kaduna in January 2020 and then withstanding Nigerian security forces’ retaliation on its hideouts (The Cable, January 19; Punch, February 6). Although Ansaru stated on Telegram it was not “ripe” for publicity yet, the ambush was claimed by al-Qaeda’s semi-official media outlet, al-Thabat, in the name of “al-Qaeda in Biladis Sudan (Black Africa).”

The attack occurred after several Ansaru members had traveled to Libya to train with IS, which again indicated Ansaru’s ties to IS/ISWAP were not antagonistic. Meanwhile, other Ansaru members arrested before Khalid al-Barnawi’s own arrest had also intended to train in Sudan. At least one Ansaru member from Sudan was arrested in Niger State in June (Punch, March 5, 2016; HumAngle, June 30).

That member’s military fatigues and another slain “bandit’s” similar military fatigues in Zamfara in July resembled ISWAP’s uniforms. The uniforms suggested northwestern Nigeria’s “bandits” were professionalizing, whether or not they affiliated with Ansaru or ISWAP, or both (, July 16).

Source: James Town

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