Africa Defense Forum
ADF is a professional military magazine published quarterly by U.S. Africa Command to provide an international forum for African security professionals. ADF covers topics such as counter terrorism strategies, security and defense operations, transnational crime, and all other issues affecting peace, stability, and good governance on the African continent.

Desertions Weaken ISWAP, Boko Haram


As the bloody rivalry between two large terror groups continues to destroy countless lives in northeast Nigeria, both sides are experiencing another kind of loss — desertions.

In recent months, thousands of fighters from Boko Haram and its rival splinter group, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), have surrendered to local authorities, weakening the two groups.

A report released during an April 7 briefing by the United Nations Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee analyzed the deaths of terrorist leaders that preceded the current wave of defections.

“The relatively recent deaths of Abu Musab al-Barnawi of ISWAP, Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram, and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi of ISGS [Islamic State in the Greater Sahara], and the desertion of thousands of individuals from the groups’ ranks signaled a possible weakening of ISIS-affiliated groups in parts of Africa,” the report stated.

Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed by extremist groups, and hundreds of thousands have fled the Lake Chad region since ISWAP broke off from Boko Haram in 2016.

Rear Adm. Yaminu Musa, coordinator of Nigeria’s Counter-Terrorism Centre, gave credit to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which is composed of troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

“The MNJTF military response has greatly benefited by the flow of information from the regional intelligence units with the support of the United States, France and the United Kingdom,” Musa said during the briefing.

Nigerian forces found recent success after deploying 12 U.S.-made Super Tucano light strike aircraft, which patrol the northeast, gather intelligence and attack Boko Haram and ISWAP camps that previously were too remote to find.

“Now combatants alongside their families have been compelled to lay down their arms,” Musa said. “They are coming out of their enclaves.”

Officials anticipated a shift in power between the rival factions after Shekau’s death in May 2021. The longtime Boko Haram leader detonated his suicide vest to avoid being captured in ISWAP’s invasion of Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold in Borno State.

In October, Nigeria’s top military commander confirmed that Al-Barnawi had been killed. His death forced ISWAP to regroup as well.

“In recent months, there has been an endless mass surrender of terrorists and their sympathizers in the northeastern part of Nigeria,” Nigerian National Security Advisor Gen. Babagana Monguno said during the Paris Peace Forum in late 2021. “Currently, over 15,000 people have been received.

“This situation has prompted large-scale humanitarian activities to rehabilitate the returnees by expanding the already existing Operation Safe Corridor for deradicalization and subsequent reintegration into society.”

The Nigerian military reported that 51,114 rebels and families — 11,398 men, 15,381 women, and 24,335 children — had surrendered as of April 5.

In claiming territory from Boko Haram in the northeast, ISWAP has begun collecting taxes, providing government services and protection from bandits who routinely torment remote villages.

The Nigerian government is encouraging militants to consider reintegration programs as an alternative to violence.

That aligns with the U.N. study, which calls for “transitional justice approaches (including criminal justice) and prevention mechanisms to enhance states’ resilience, strengthened pathways out of conflict, and included robust steps towards preventing violent extremism conducive to terrorism.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pledged to support Nigeria’s reintegration efforts when he visited the Borno capital, Maiduguri, on May 3 and saw a camp that houses fighters who have surrendered.

“The governor has told me that you need to create new facilities to be able to have effective reintegration of these ex-terrorists, ex-combatants, and I promised that we would be fully supportive of that project,” Guterres later said during a news conference.

“The best thing we can do for peace is to reintegrate those who in the moment of despair became terrorists but now want to become citizens and to contribute to the well-being of their brothers and sisters.”

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