CALABAR, Nigeria—In the middle of last month, the country’s spy agency, Department of State Services (DSS), reported that it had thwarted plans by five “ISIS-linked Boko Haram members” to attack the embassies of the United States and the United Kingdom in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
You might have missed those headlines: They’re the kind that show up for a few minutes on the crawl at the bottom of the screen on news networks, then just disappear. Thwarted plots and failed attacks don’t grab the world’s attention. But they can tell us a lot about groups that have the strategy and skills to carry out major attacks, and just need a little more luck to deliver an atrocity.
The five men named in the DSS statement—Isa Jibril, Jibril Jibril, Abu Omale Jibril, Halidu Sule, and Amhodu Salifu—had “perfected plans” to attack the embassies, according to the intelligence agency. The suspects were arrested during raids on March 25 and 26 in Abuja and central Benue state.
The area in which they operate and the information that led to their capture leaves no question about whom they work for: what might be called the new face of Boko Haram.
As the world was beginning to think last year that the infamous terror group might be defunct after losing much of the territory it once controlled and facing a leadership crisis, a man named Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a loyalist of the so-called Islamic State, announced that he had taken over the Nigerian organization.
Al-Barnawi’s emergence split the terror group into two factions, in fact. The other is controlled by long-time Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, best known for kidnapping the Chibok girls three years ago, and for using women and even children as suicide bombers. Shekau is no longer recognized by ISIS, and his militants do not normally operate beyond Nigeria’s northeast region and the Lake Chad Basin.
Importantly, al-Barnawi’s father Mohammed Yusuf founded Boko Haram back in 2002 with Shekau as his deputy. And now al-Barnawi’s group, with ISIS backing, is developing a reach far outside the arid northeast hinterland. It may want to carry out international operations. Certainly it wants to target foreigners, and the alleged plot against the U.S. and U.K. embassies fits into that picture.
Al-Barnawi’s first message as Boko Haram leader, delivered about eight months ago, was a clear warning to Western nations whose charities he accused of trying to win converts away from Islam in northeast Nigeria.
“They strongly seek to Christianize the society,” he said in an interview published last August on the Islamic State site al-Nabaa and translated by SITE Intelligence Group. “They exploit the condition of those who are displaced under the raging war, providing them with food and shelter and then Christianizing their children.”
Al-Barnawi also accused U.S. and French forces of targeting the group’s members in neighboring Niger, and promised to fight any Western influence in the region.
Abu Musab al-Barnawi is the wali or governor of what’s called the Islamic State West Africa Province or ISWAP, as his faction of Boko Haram wants to be known. (ISIS has recognized at least 10 “provinces” outside of Iraq and Syria: Libya has three, Egypt, Algeria, Russia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria have one, and one stretches across the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan.)
In Nigeria, whoever works in the name of ISIS answers to al-Barnawi.
The five men officials picked up have their base in Nigeria’s north-central region where there are also active militants from Ansaru, another terror group, which broke away from Boko Haram in 2012 and is best known for targeting foreigners. It is suspected of being behind the kidnapping of an American missionary in 2015. And its founders are accused by the government of being behind the 2011 bombing of a UN building in Abuja where at least 24 people were killed.
Like al-Barnawi and his loyalists, when Ansaru broke away from Boko Haram it claimed that Shekau and his fighters were “inhuman” for killing innocent Muslims as well as for targeting defectors. In fact, the emergence of al-Barnawi as ISWAP leader has been described by some insiders and experts as a coup by Ansaru against Shekau.
As recent events in northeastern Nigeria show, al-Barnawi and Ansaru’s leader, Mamman Nur, have formed tactical and possibly a strategic bond. Both men, operating under ISWAP, have reached out to villagers in the mainly Muslim region assuring them that civilians will not be harmed as long as they do not cooperate with the Nigerian military, according to a report published by AFP.
This sounds like al-Barnawi trying to assure fanatics that he’s a man that keeps his promises, following his inaugural statement last August not to target Muslims.
ISWAP has rather focused its attacks on Nigerian troops. In the last few months, nearly two dozen soldiers have been killed in the northeast including seven in February, four in March, and 11 last month. About 14 soldiers are reportedly missing, and their fate unknown. Like the promise he made not to attack Muslims, which he wants everyone to believe he’s keeping, these attacks are a fulfilment of the threat the leader of the group made in the same August address that he’ll target government troops.
The “Islamic State” as a whole is a terror organization that is known to carry out most of its threats. Before recent attacks in France and the U.K., there were warnings of potential strikes.
ISIS affiliates, too, try not to make empty threats. The terror organization’s troops in the Sinai Province, carried out their recent attacks on Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday after they released a video on Feb. 19 warning that they would bomb many churches.
ISWAP wants to be seen to be exactly the same as other affiliate groups, and an attack on the U.S. and U.K. embassies would be proof he keeps his word.
So, why did the alleged plot fail?
An official of the DSS tells The Daily Beast privately that it was uncovered after the agency arrested Nasiru Sani (popularly known among jihadists as Osama) on March 15 in Bauchi, 455 kilometers south of Maiduguri, the birth place of the jihadist group.
Sani, one of the first members of Boko Haram, escaped from Bauchi Central Prison in northeastern Nigeria in October 2010, months after he was arrested, and had been hiding in Maiduguri since then. He was picked up on his return to the city he fled from. The militant is believed to be among the jihadists who broke away from Shekau to join al-Barnawi, and information he gave played a part in the arrest of the five men.
“He had been on our radar for years,” the DSS official said. “He’s told us a lot about the group’s current operations.”
Sani’s capture, and the arrest of the five militants, may have halted a potential terrorist attack on foreigners, but the mode of operation of the group they work for makes it very difficult to completely stop their terror plots.
ISWAP is a completely different group under al-Barnawi than it was under Shekau. While Shekau focused his jihad on gaining territories, al-Barnawi and his Ansaru allies prefer to create cells across northern Nigeria that can be used to carry out attacks at any time.
The terror leader’s flexibility has proven to be ISWAP’s key strength. As African and Eurasian Affairs analyst Jacob Zenn notes in an article for The Jamestown Foundation, al-Barnawi sees that “relying too much on territory, such as Shekau’s bases in Sambisa, is a risk because the military can overrun and capture it.”
As Zenn observed, al-Barnawi’s men look to have “learned lessons from failed al-Qaeda affiliate attempts to hold territory in Yemen in 2010 and northern Mali in 2012, and the importance of adopting a gradual approach to winning hearts and minds before controlling territory.”
Attacks on foreigners, whether near or far away, are part of that strategy.