Confronting Jihadist Factions in Nigeria: An Antidote to Defeatism


This month, Nigeria enters its 10th year of war against the jihadists called “Boko Haram” (“Western education in sinful”). It was July 2009 when the group, which then had no formal name, lost its leader-cleric, Muhammed Yusuf, and at least 200 followers in a Nigerian government crackdown. After this, Yusuf’s supporters and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb held a meeting in the Sahel to plan a “guerilla war” in Nigeria. Yusuf’s deputy and successor, Abubakar Shekau, took over the reins locally. For the first time, he gave the group a name: Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah li-Dawah wal-Jihad (Sunni Muslim Group for Preaching and Jihad, hereafter “Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah”). However, Muslim clerics, media, and governments ascribed to Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah the reductionist moniker “Boko Haram” to delegitimize the group’s ideology despite Shekau and his followers condemning this appellation.

A decade later, the war drags on. Death tolls are significantly lower now than they were four years ago when Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah was the “most deadly terrorist organization” in the world. However, this is because Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah was then conquering territory and frequently battling the Nigerian army and anti-jihadist vigilantes. In the intervening years, the jihadists reorganized themselves several times.  In March 2015, Shekau pledged loyalty to the Islamic State leader Abubakar al-Baghdadi, and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah rebranded as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). ISWAP, however, ejected Shekau in August 2016 because of his ruthlessness, excessive use of takfir (excommunication) against Muslims, mistreatment of Muslim women and children, and megalomania. Muhammed Yusuf’s son, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, was named ISWAP leader. Shekau thereafter announced he was still loyal to al-Baghdadi but acknowledged the demotion and relaunched Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah. As a result, after August 2016 there were two main jihadist factions in Nigeria: ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah, although outsiders commonly refer to both as “Boko Haram.” A third faction aligned with al-Qaeda, Ansaru, has been effectively dormant in Nigeria since 2013.

ISWAP still holds some rural areas around Lake Chad and attacks military barracks in northeastern Nigeria as well as in Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. While ISWAP focuses mostly on military targets and avoids brutalizing civilians — which is another reason for the lower casualty rate today compared to years earlier — Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah lacks that discipline in areas where it operates around Sambisa Forest in southern Borno. ISWAP is the more professional and serious long-term threat to Nigeria and neighboring countries in no small part due to its ongoing training with the Islamic State in Libya. Shekau’s Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah fighters have fewer international connections but are still deadly.

The war is now a stalemate with both factions — Lake Chad-based ISWAP and southern Borno-based Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah — unable to capture and hold major towns, and the military unable to eradicate them or prevent ISWAP’s devastating barracks raids. As a result, Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Akinola Olojo called in early July for dialogue to be put back on the agenda. Similarly, according to the International Crisis Group, since weapons alone cannot defeat either ISWAP or Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah, the need for negotiation is clear. While details about exactly how, and with whom, to negotiate are still cursory, the Nigerian military remains confident it is degrading the jihadists’ ability to fight and can win on the battlefield. In addition to negotiations and military campaigns, government officials in coordination with civil society are also implementing “soft approach” initiatives to deal with the insurgency. These encourage fighters to either abandon the jihadist cause or not return to the battlefield once demobilized, and to preemptively discourage nonmembers from joining the jihadists.

It is time to assess these various approaches to countering the jihadist factions in Nigeria — negotiations, “soft” measures, and military operations — and why none of them have delivered victory for the Nigerian state. The military has been Nigeria’s preferred approach, and the government is determined to continue on that path. Yet, as I argue below, any major changes that could allow the military to win are absolutely unfeasible from a human rights perspective. As such, the military needs to give more room for those involved in negotiations and the “soft” approach to engage the jihadists under certain clear conditions. Only after this, and those negotiations and “soft” approach producing results, should the military finally step aside and let these other stakeholders take the lead, as other observers have advised.

Transactions vs. Negotiations: Risks of Dialogue

In 2017, Nile University of Nigeria professor Hakeem Onapajo argued it was time to talk to the jihadists because their “capacity has been substantially degraded.” Similarly, in 2018, Miami University professor Alexander Thurston suggested experimenting with negotiations, amnesties, reconciliation programs, and accountability measures to deal with the jihadists. Olojo and the International Crisis Group argued for negotiations at the least, because the military approach has been ineffective.

However, the record demonstrates that since 2017 ISWAP has been on the rebound and is hardly degraded. Moreover, experimentation with nonmilitary approaches has thus far benefited ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah. Three incidents show dialogue has consistently occurred with these jihadists over the last 10 years but has not succeeded for various reasons. First among these include factionalization, both among the jihadists and Nigeria’s own interlocutors. Second, jihadists have exploited humanitarian talks for their own financial benefit.

In 2011, for example, Muhammed Yusuf’s brother-in-law was negotiating compensation for Yusuf’s death with a team led by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. However, loyalists of the historically more moderate (than Shekau) Mamman Nur, who was Yusuf’s third-in-command before 2009, reportedly assassinated the brother-in-law. As one can imagine, this ended negotiations. One year later, President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration leaked details to the press about talks with Shekau regarding better treatment of prisoners in return for a short-term ceasefire. This was perhaps intended to undermine the talks in hopes that the Nigerian military could defeat Shekau in battle without any concessions, or because Jonathan’s administration felt the nongovernmental sharia council engaging Shekau had usurped him. In October 2016 and May 2017, the Nigerian government, with help from Red Cross and Swiss government intermediaries, struck deals with Shekau: Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah released, in two batches, over 100 of the more than 200 girls kidnapped from Chibok village in 2014; in exchange, the state returned at least five Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah prisoners and delivered a reported $3 million to Shekau.

This is one example of a transactional deal with humanitarian value that fell short of anything resembling “peace negotiations.” There have been several of these: ISWAP abducted and then released three professors captured north of Maiduguri in February 2018, and prior to Shekau’s 2015 pledge to the Islamic State, Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah released more than 22 foreigners abducted in Cameroon through talks facilitated by Cameroonian intermediaries. However, like in Chibok, the jihadists received released prisoners and, notably, millions of dollars, which contributed to ransom becoming the jihadists’ largest income source.

Beyond the fact that the jihadists benefited financially from most of these transactions, negotiating a “peace deal” is completely different from hostage exchanges. Even historically less-ideological group members who defected have argued that at a minimum the jihadists’ demands in any peace agreement would be for Nigeria’s 12 northern states that have already officially implemented sharia to do so “to the letter.” This would involve eliminating non-sharia courts, elections, and Western-style schools in favor of “Islamic” ones, and implementing harsh criminal penalties like the jihadists have done in their territories. Northern Nigeria’s legal system would therefore have to resemble that of the pre-9/11 Afghan Taliban, which was the group’s initial inspiration, including a co-founder who trained in Afghanistan.

Moreover, ISWAP’s deference to the Islamic State leadership on major decisions complicates negotiations and makes it even harder for ISWAP to accept any ceasefire with the Nigerian state. In fact, after ISWAP returned 100 schoolgirls to their home village in Dapchi, Yobe State on the Islamic State’s orders in March 2018 (because the girls had not actively opposed ISWAP and their abduction hurt ISWAP’s image), the Islamic State ordered ISWAP to execute Mamman Nur. This was not because Nur returned the girls home, but because ISWAP suspected he was engaging in other-side negotiations and reported him to the Islamic State. After his killing, the Islamic State also ordered ISWAP to kill two young Muslim female Red Cross workers because they had been abducted in a military zone and “supported” the government (unlike the Dapchi girls) despite negotiations taking place for their release.

Thus, negotiations also raise “do no harm” concerns as more moderate jihadists may be killed off internally for their openness to dialogue. At the same time there is a risk that, just as the Taliban lost members to the Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province” as a result of its negotiations with the United States, any negotiations between ISWAP and the Nigerian government may lead ISWAP members to defect to the more ruthless Shekau-led Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah. Therefore, even if the military approach is not working well, engaging in negotiations is not risk-free and may not improve the situation; it could even make the situation worse.

Nevertheless, one reason to advocate negotiations is simply to accept the risks involved and test the waters to better understand ISWAP’s and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah’s positions, and to see what happens, a negotiations “best practice.” It still may behoove advocates for negotiation to recognize that the potential lost opportunity of the 2012 talks between the sharia council and Shekau (which foundered after details of a potential ceasefire leaked to the press) can no longer be rekindled, not the least because Shekau has no sway over ISWAP and has promised multiple times since 2012 to never negotiate again. Moreover, it is also necessary to explore what Nigerians are willing to give up for peace. Are Nigerians willing to tolerate autonomous “Islamic states” for ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah in certain parts of Borno where they can implement their “own sharia,” as group members have demanded?

History demonstrates that if negotiations are to succeed in Nigeria, two requirements will be necessary. First, no party to the conflict should provide money to ISWAP or Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah because this will only empower the jihadists. Second, the jihadists themselves have to be willing to negotiate and make concessions despite Islamic State influence and their own ideological objections to recognizing the legitimacy of the Nigerian state. Shekau’s release in June of one of hundreds of his female captives through discussions facilitated by a Nigerian journalist offers a glimmer of hope that, first, Shekau can still be accessed, and second, he is capable of making humanitarian-style concessions however small and unrelated at the present time to a broader ceasefire. ISWAP’s release of the professors in February 2018, which appears not to have involved the Islamic State’s intervention, also indicates potential for something broader in the future even if the release involved money exchanged. However, negotiations need many more confidence-building measures facilitated by nonmilitary personnel with trusted relationships with the jihadists to produce the desired result: peace.

Otherwise, the drawbacks of negotiating are that they could end up doing more harm than good, including bolstering the jihadists’ finances and leading to the elimination or discrediting of relative moderates, which optimistic pro-negotiation academic literature and journalism rarely recognizes. Until further indications emerge that negotiations might lead ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah to put down their own arms or release more captives without receiving money in return, however, there will be little reason to expect the military to defer its leading role in counter-insurgency to nonmilitary negotiators.

“Soft” Approach Initiatives

Nigeria’s “soft” approach includes four components: deradicalization, civil society-led initiatives, strategic communications, and addressing economic “root causes” of terrorism. As these programs are relatively new — they were announced in 2014 but not implemented until 2015 or 2016 — metrics assessing their successes are limited. Central to each program, however, is countering jihadi ideology, whether by engaging members in prisons or holding focus groups with university students, Muslim youth groups, civil society, and vulnerable communities.

Notwithstanding individual success stories, if soft-approach advocates expect they can prove to ISWAP or Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah their versions of Islam are “wrong,” and as a result have members renounce waging jihad, the “soft” strategy will be an upward battle. Muhammed Yusuf tested his ideas in debates against the sharpest Nigerian Salafi clerics before his 2009 death. His followership, therefore, was composed of Nigerian Salafis who were most resolute in accepting his doctrine. Now, after having fought since 2009, the birth of hundreds of children into the jihadist factions who will soon be of fighting age, and the receipt of theological audios, books, and guidance from the Islamic State since 2015, the jihadists are certainly even more hardened than in 2009.

Furthermore, “soft” approach initiatives should also be understood as prophylactic. They are designed to “cure” those already demobilized. Even if programs work and ex-fighters do not return to battle, this cannot be a solution unto itself because it does not deal with the estimated 6,000 combatants who are now fighting and are virtually inaccessible. Theoretically, radio could reach ISWAP or Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah in their camps, but leaders would kill fighters who were becoming convinced by counter-messages and, in any event, research finds in-person interactions are usually required to deradicalize jihadists. This usually requires them to already be demobilized.

This is not to argue against the merits and potential of the “soft” approach. However, similar to arguments that combating combating corruption and climate change — root causes that may drive people to join the insurgency – are necessary to counter ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah, the “soft” approach’s limitation is also that it cannot compare  with the military approach in addressing the immediate challenge from active fighters. Moreover, there is still too little evidence of “soft” approach successes to make the military step aside and allow “soft” approach personnel to play a lead counter-insurgency role.

Similar to negotiations, the “soft” approach also entails risks. For example, ISWAP still communicates with imprisoned members, and those considered to have become informants may face assassination or threats to family members, as reportedly happened to Shekau’s spokesman’s father when the spokesman revealed information to his interrogators after his arrest. Therefore, again similar to negotiations, it is worth continuing “soft” approach initiatives, but until evaluators develop metrics to attest to the programs’ successes, these initiatives will not usurp the military’s lead counter-insurgency role against ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah.

The Dreaded Military Approach

In 2011, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell argued for the Nigerian army to put its guns down, and one year later Nigeria scholar Jean Herskovits argued the army was “more feared than Boko Haram.” Since then, Nigerian notables such as historian Max Siolun, among others, have also levied consistent opposition to the military-led approach to counter-insurgency in Nigeria. In contrast, virtually no one has argued against negotiations or the “soft” approach taking a leading role. The military approach thus is opposed in a way the other two approaches are not.

One reason for this is the belief that the military does more harm than good despite the fact that, as previously mentioned, negotiations and the “soft” approach also may produce harmful effects. Such effects, however, are less tangible than military-induced harm because only in the military’s case are its abuses visible in leaked videos that are then extensively documented by human rights groups. In contrast, for example, the way ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah have spent their ransom money and how much that money has benefited their fighters is virtually impossible to know. Similarly, how much ISWAP may have infiltrated “soft” approach programs in prisons or how much money these programs have cost compared to results gained has seemingly not been studied.

Nevertheless, the most convincing case against the military approach may be not that the Nigerian army is ineffective — as much as that may be true — but that all counter-insurgency does not work. This is Sean McFate’s finding in his recent book, The New Rules of War. McFate argues that virtually no amount of military “hearts and minds” efforts (assuming the Nigerian military had such) or military-led development programs can “buy” the loyalty of insurgents. In ISWAP’s case, this would be their loyalty to Islam and commitment to a state governed under sharia based on the interpretations of Muhammed Yusuf or Abubakar al-Baghdadi. Therefore, arguments that the military should improve its human rights record and acquire more effective weapons and equipment to defeat ISWAP, according to McFate, are overly optimistic.

Though a bitter pill to swallow, McFate’s hypothesis would explain why virtually all post-9/11 “counter-terror wars” have not succeeded, including against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its subgroups in the Sahel, al-Shabab in Somalia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the Islamic State and its antecedents in Iraq and Syria. Defeating insurgents, especially jihadists devoted to an ideology, according to McFate, requires creating a “humanitarian catastrophe” by either 1) importing new populations to insurgent-held regions, 2) exporting populations in insurgent-held regions from their homelands, or 3) “beating down” the insurgents through force violating international law, or a combination of all three. (McFate does not advise any of these options but rather argues for avoiding counter-insurgency in the first place). The third option is how Nigeria defeated Biafran rebels in the late 1960s, while governments employed various degrees of these three options to eliminate Xinjiang-based uprisings in China in recent years, pacify Chechen militants in Russia in the early 2000s, and suppress Native American rebellions in the United States in the 1800s.

Since most ISWAP members are northeastern Nigerian Kanuris, this would mean importing southern Nigerian Christians or northwestern Nigerian Hausa Muslims into Lake Chad areas, spreading tens of thousands of Kanuris around other parts of Nigeria in small groups to make them a minority wherever they exist, and bombing to oblivion any communities that resist. Obviously this will not happen because it tramples human rights. Even if Nigeria attempted to imitate the U.S.-led coalition’s approach against the Islamic State in early 2019, which may have resembled the “beating down” option, it may not even work. This is because the Islamic State was boxed in in eastern Syria and could not easily cross borders to find refuge in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey or Assad-held western Syria. The fluid borders of Nigeria, in contrast, allow ISWAP members to escape into Niger, Chad, or Cameroon.

In addition, the Islamic State so alienated eastern Syrian Arab tribes that they worked with a U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led force to defeat the Islamic State. In contrast, ISWAP has distanced itself from the massacres of civilians conducted by Shekau and has related well with civilians. As but one example, when several Dapchi girls escaped from an ISWAP camp after arriving there, a local nomadic family found them and returned them back to ISWAP. Moreover, when the girls (except for the lone Christian, Leah Sharibu, who was kept as a “slave”) were returned to Dapchi, residents enthusiastically cheered the uniformed ISWAP militants. Therefore, there may be no similar “popular uprising” to oust ISWAP like there was to oust the Islamic State in eastern Syria.

Lastly, if Western powers provide new arms to Nigeria like they did for the Syrian Kurdish-led militia, it could lead to ISWAP acquiring them, as the group’s recent video release depicts. This is because ISWAP has thousands of fighters and can pick battles at the time and place of its choosing. When it obtains a numerical advantage, it can swarm the Nigerian army (often in poorly built barracks) and pilfer weapons.

Therefore, both in practice and in theory, the military’s approach has not and may not ever work. Yet, negotiations and the “soft” approach also have not worked well. If nothing works, is there any path forward beyond defeatism?

May the Best Approach Win

The negativity about the military approach may be well-grounded. However, of negotiation, the “soft” approach, and the military option, the latter is the one needed to provide at least basic security in the short term. If the military were to literally put its guns down or abandon its bases in Borno, ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah would run roughshod throughout the region, and, at least in Shekau’s case, his fighters could massacre civilians as viciously as in 2015.

Nevertheless, the military should also not interfere in the “soft” approach, which it has done by joining up with various deradicalization programs with which, according to researcher Obi Anyadike, it does not share a common strategic vision. Soft-approach programs should be entrusted by the military to do their work independently and be green-lighted to enter, for example, prisons and other facilities to engage detained jihadists. Similarly, it should be the sole responsibility of “soft” approach programs to ensure their personnel are not only theologically trained but also fluent in ISWAP and Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah source material and jihadi ideology. Ideally, these theologians would also know Kanuri so they could speak with most ISWAP members in their native tongue and not have to work impersonally through interpreters or in many Nigerian jihadists’ second language, Hausa.

The military should also provide breathing room for negotiators to engage the jihadists and not harass, threaten, or target them. It is, however, unreasonable to expect the Nigerian military to simply oblige nongovernment negotiators’ demands whether they are journalists, barristers, or foreign diplomats who have earned ISWAP’s or Shekau’s trust. To address this issue, an independent coordinating body could be created to mediate between negotiators and the military. At the body’s recommendations, the military would make concessions, such as releasing prisoners or allowing medicine and food (but not money) into jihadist camps in exchange for jihadists’ ceasefires or captive releases.

It would also be the duty of those engaged in negotiation initiatives and the “soft” approach to produce results that would convince the military to finally allow them to take the lead. This would include providing metrics on how many jihadists have been “certified” as deradicalized and how many of those ex-jihadists have remained off the battlefield after reintegrating into society. Similarly, negotiators’ results could be measured by how long and faithfully jihadist ceasefires are respected or how many civilians, or even soldiers, can be released from camps. The lack of metrics for evaluation has long hampered nonmilitary interventions in jihadist insurgencies, and this is the case in Nigeria.

The recommendation here differs from current calls to end the military-led approach because it demands that the two main alternatives — negotiation and the “soft” approach — first deliver results before the military steps aside. It also requires the military to only respect and provide more breathing room for these two other approaches and not simply “put its guns down,” which risks its own soldiers’ lives. If it is true that these two other nonmilitary approaches offer a way out where the military-led approach does not, as academics and think tanks are arguing, it is up to the personnel implementing those initiatives to produce results and, only then, for the military to provide them the opportunity to take the lead.


Jacob Zenn is adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and Senior Fellow on African Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. He previously led the Strategic Communications component of an E.U.-funded countering violent extremism initiative in Nigeria and mapped Boko Haram’s organizational structure for the Swiss Embassy in Nigeria before negotiations commenced regarding the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls. He tweets at @BokoWatch.

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