On November 24-25, the “Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWA)” faction of Boko Haram attacked the town of Kangarwa in Nigeria’s Borno State, near Lake Chad, and claimed control there on the 25th (see a brief video here). The attack on Kangarwa followed a November 18 assault by ISWA on Metele, also in northern Borno.
Neither Kangarwa nor Metele appears on Google Maps. For context, then, here is a useful map of Borno’s Local Government Areas (LGAs). Kangarwa is in Kukawa LGA and Metele is in Guzamala LGA.
What exactly happened in Metele is unclear, given disputes over how many Nigerian soldiers were killed there, but some kind of major attack or even massacre occurred. The Nigerian Army says that 23 soldiers were killed, but Premium Times (same link) puts the figure at 118 killed and 153 missing in action. As you will see below in the translation of an Islamic State account of what happened at Kangarwa, the Islamic State is claiming that the killings at Metele so frightened the soldiers in Kangarwa that they left without a fight, even though they had previously been determined to hold the town. We should add that soldiers in Metele themselves have complained that their weapons are obsolete and broken down: in the video below, the narrator repeatedly asserts that their equipment dates to the regime of Shehu Shagari (1979-1983):
There are now a lot of moving parts to the equation in northern Borno State.
First, there is the question of what ISWA wants – or even what it is – in the wake of the reported death of Mamman Nur, a longtime senior Boko Haram operative and by some accounts the power behind the throne in ISWA since it broke with Abubakar Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram circa August 2016.
The emerging conventional wisdom (well articulated here, and quite possibly correct) is that ISWA is growing more militarily aggressive and more ideologically hardline, and that Nur’s death was both a result of and a further catalyst for that trend. It is worth noting, however, that some informed observers (notably the Nigerian Colonel Timothy Antigha, whose analysis of Nur’s death I discussed here) present things in a somewhat different light, highlighting ideological changes within Boko Haram but seeming to say that the lines between Shekau’s faction and ISWA are less clear that many think, and that Shekau-like voices are ascendant in ISWA.
Second, the attacks are causing political turmoil for President Muhammadu Buhari – according to one outlet, even the Shehu of Borno recently told Buhari to his face that the government and the military needed to “review the strategies in nipping this lingering crisis in the bud.” Amid growing criticisms of Buhari’s handling of Boko Haram, the media narratives are growing extremely contentious and murky. Take this report, for example, where an anonymous officer in Maiduguri is quoted as saying the following about Nigeria’s military command:
The distrust [among senior officers] arises from the fact that no one knows who among them is giving Boko Haram information because they all know that the terror group has infiltrated the Nigerian Army. Everyone is edgy and suspicious of one another. The situation is really bad. Everybody present in that barracks in Melete was wiped out. Another important point to note here is the massive corruption in the hierarchy. A lot of people are feeding fat from this war.
Some of this is certainly true, above all the “feeding fat” part (why are there Shagari-era vehicles in Metele, after all?). But it is also election season and a moment of mounting frustration, where it becomes even harder than normal to sort out what information is true from the information that is planted or spun to advance certain narratives. Is it true that Boko Haram has infiltrated the Nigerian Army (news that would make the army and the president look bad)? Is it true, as the military now asserts, that Boko Haram/ISWA has a rising number of foreign fighters (news that could absolve the president and the military of some responsibility for the rising violence)? Is it true, as Chief of Army Staff Tukur Buratai recently said (the quote is a paraphrase), that “the troops should be mindful of what they see and read on the social media as most of the stories are either doctored or fake”? There are now serious calls for various heads – Buratai’s, for one – and so everyone, pro or con, will be trying to shape how the media covers these latest attacks.
A lot of this, moreover, feels like a replay of how Boko Haram was discussed by official sources and journalistic outlets circa 2014, as the Goodluck Jonathan administration was facing heavy criticism over its handling of Boko Haram. The same accusations of double agents and massive international backing were very prominent during Jonathan’s time, including in statements by Jonathan himself. Now, this is not to say that Buhari will lose, but it is to say that Boko Haram’s tenacity has now twice posed significant political problems for incumbents – and that affects how politicians and political actors discuss the issue.
To close this post out, let’s look at the brief description of the Kangarwa attack included in the latest issue of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic newsletter al-Naba’ (p. 7; h/t “Edward“). Here is my translation:
The Islamic State’s Soldiers Control the Town of Kangarwa and Target the Apostates in the Town of Arge
On Sunday, the 17th of Rabi al-Awwal, the soldiers of the Islamic State in West Africa took control, by the grace of God alone, of the town of Kangarwa near Lake Chad following an attack they carried out on the apostates in the town. They also targeted elements of the apostate Nigerian army in the town of Arge with machine guns, which led to hitting many of them.
According to the media office, the soldiers of the Islamic State launched a vast attack on the town of Kangarwa located near Lake Chad, where God cast terror into the hearts of the apostates such that they turned their backs and ran. God protected the muwahhidin [monotheists] in the fighting, and they returned to their positions safely.
The media office added that previously, six battles had broken out between the soldiers of the Islamic State and the apostates for control over this village, but the apostates were defending it desperately due to its importance to them. But they left it and fled from it this time without fighting, due to their fear of the caliphate’s soldiers after they saw what was done to their apostate brothers in the nearby town of Metele and other towns.
[The last paragraph repeats nearly verbatim the above-translated paragraph about Arge, except that it adds “and to God is the praise and the benefit.”]
On the one hand, this is scary stuff. On the other hand, I find it revealing that the so-called master propagandists of the Islamic State chose to write a brief and highly repetitive statement that is, if one looks closely, quite thin on content. What do official proclamations of control (as opposed to unofficial influence or sway) really mean? These statements give little clue, ultimately.