ISWAP’s Escalation: Increased Jihadist Activity and Propaganda following Ba’a Shuwa’s Death

The logo of the Islamic State West Africa Wilayah – ISWAP (Credits: Islamic State, Public domain, via Wikimedia Comm)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 39 Issue 1
Author: Christian Tratzi

Nigerian military airstrikes on January 2nd, 2024, successfully eliminated Ba’a Shuwa, the leader of the Islamic State of West Africa Wilayat (ISWAP), and scores of his fighters in the Northeast of Borno during a major offensive. In response, ISWAP has intensified its activity in the region, launching multiple attacks against the Nigerian army and Christian civilians, showing the action in its media agencies.

At the same time, violent clashes erupted between Boko Haram and ISWAP on the shores of Lake Chad, underscoring the complex and volatile security landscape in Nigeria and in the surrounding area.

This report aims to describe recent events surrounding ISWAP and the security situation in Western Africa and assess regional geopolitical risk considering Islamic State fighters’ growing violent attacks and jihadist propaganda.

ISWAP’s Activity in January 2024:
Background Information

The activities of jihadi groups deeply characterised the Western African’s geopolitical condition, in particular ISWAP and Boko Haram, whose activity affects the security of the entire area.

The emergence of Boko Haram in the early 2000s marked a turning point for regional scenario; the group, initially focused on opposing Western education and governance structures, became a jihadist movement with global affiliations.

The internal strife within Boko Haram itself, marked by leadership changes and ideological divisions, contributed to internal separations and led to the formation of ISWAP in 2015, which emerged as a splinter group from Boko Haram.

Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram at the time, in 2015, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, leading to the formation of the Central African Wilayat and further divisions within the jihadist groups in West Africa. Shekay aligned the activity of the group with the global jihadist agenda of the Islamic State (IS), seeking to establish an Islamic Caliphate in West Africa.

The Lake Chad area, which includes parts of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, has become a playground for extremist activities. The proposed creation of four caliphates within Borno, northeastern Nigeria, by ISWAP in 2021 exemplifies the group’s ambitions to establish regional dominance over different groups and rivalries (from an ethnic and religious point of view).

Ba’a Shuwa, leader since 2021, played a key role in leading terrorist activities after the death of Abubakar Shekau; under his command, ISWAP operated in various camps within the Timbuktu and Alagarno axis in the South of Borno, including Chiralia, Markas Kauwa, Abirma, Buk, Abulam, Dusula, Abbagajiri, Gorgore, and others.

Shuwa’s group handled a series of attacks, ambushes, and IED/mine incidents targeting key routes in Borno and Yobe State. His leadership and strategic influence posed a significant threat to regional security.

The airstrikes conducted at the beginning of 2024, at Kwatan Dilla, in Abadam LGA of Borno State, had the goal of eliminating Ba’a Shuwa and scores of his fighters. Post-strike footage showing the destruction of enemy elements and equipment evidenced the success of this operation.

In response to the Nigerian military operation, ISWAP began an escalation of violence, undertaking a wide range of terrorist and military actions. These actions targeted not only the Nigerian army but also Christian civilians, and members of the rival group Boko Haram, underscoring the intensification of rivalry between the factions.

The main New Year clashes with Boko Haram occurred in mid-January in the northeastern area of Nigeria and extended to the border with Cameroon, off the shores of Lake Chad in Kukawa. Following the attack by Boko Haram in the ISWAP camp in Tumbun Jaki, ISWAP retaliated by targeting the Boko Haram fighters camping in Tumbun Rago and launching an assault on them.

The ISWAP terrorists concentrated their operations in the Borno region in January 2024, targeting the Nigerian army and Christians. They appealed to the religious element, citing Quran 2:191, and posed a severe challenge to Nigeria’s internal security.

The Islamic State’s official media agencies have strategically spread their attacks across different locations, indicating a deliberate attempt to destabilise the region.

ISWAP was able to conduct coordinated attacks on Christians and military in multiple locations, using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and conventional weapons, and resulting in deaths, injuries, and property destruction showcasing the group’s capability for asymmetric warfare.

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Geopolitical Analysis

The elimination of Ba’a Shuwa has had relevant implications for the geopolitical security in the region. ISWAP, under Shuwa’s leadership, had established a stronghold in proximity of the Lake Chad region, posing a threat to neighbouring countries and its internal security forces.

The Northeast of Nigeria, particularly Borno State, has been a focal point of insurgent activities, affecting regional stability; regional dynamics, including the involvement of neighbouring countries or external actors – such affiliate or rival terrorist groups, or external geopolitical actors – might play a crucial role in mitigating the potential power vacuum left by Shuwa’s elimination and the future ISWAP control of the area.

Against the backdrop of complex geopolitical dynamics in Western Africa, a chain of events has unfolded following the recent military airstrikes conducted by the Nigerian armed forces on January 2nd, 2024, resulting in the elimination of Ba’a Shuwa.

The attacks conducted by ISWAP demonstrate a substantial display of the organization’s capabilities. In the wake of Ba’a Shuwa’s death, the Islamic State’s official media channels have detailed over 50 attacks and a significant number of military and civilian casualties.

These attacks show that the strength and effective possibilities of ISWAP have remained intact. Despite the fall of the leader, control over territories still appears to be in their hands; the attention given to propaganda efforts further stresses an intention to maintain or increase influence, adding religious dimension and political implications to the conflict.

Risk Assessment

The recent the events that have characterised the beginning of the 2024 pose significant risks to both the internal security of Nigeria and regional stability in Western Africa. The successful elimination of Ba’a Shuwa disrupts ISWAP’s command structure, potentially affecting its operational capabilities.

However, the counter-offensive perpetrated by ISWAP and the successful number of terrorist attacks launched in the region in the following weeks, targeting the Nigerian army, Christian civilians, and engaging in clashes with Boko Haram, indicates that the group has not lost its military strength nor the ability to conduct terrorist attacks.

Additionally, the group’s focus on detailing the events demonstrates a clear desire to enhance their propaganda campaign and maintain or expand their power.

The power struggle within extremist factions, exemplified by the fights between Boko Haram and ISWAP, introduces an additional layer of risk in the area. The intensified rivalry between these groups, along with reprisal attacks, contributes to a turbulent security environment. The Lake Chad area, already a hotspot for extremist activities, faces increased risks of violence and instability.

The geographical spread of ISWAP’s attacks, communicated through official channels, highlights a strategic effort to destabilise the region. The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and conventional weapons in coordinated attacks poses a severe challenge to Nigeria’s and African internal security. The region must address the complex interplay of extremist ideologies, ethnic tensions, and geopolitical dynamics to mitigate these risks effectively.

Scenario Analysis

  1. Escalation of Extremist-Jihadi Violence. The power vacuum created by Shuwa’s death leads to internal power struggles within ISWAP, resulting in a more radical and aggressive leadership to strengthen its internal position and send a message to the outside. The group intensifies its terrorist activities, launching coordinated attacks on military, rivalry, and civilian targets across the region. Simultaneously, other extremist factions, taking advantage of the leadership vacuum and increased tensions, also escalate their operations.
  2. Fragmentation of Extremist-Jihadi Groups. The clashes between ISWAP and Boko Haram, united to the combined with the change of control, may lead to internal divisions within these groups. The systems of alliances that have characterised African countries have often been precarious and may lead to the beginning of a new system of alliance, creating a fragmentation. This could cause the emergence of new factions with varying agendas, further complicating the geopolitical security in the region.
  3. External Intervention. The instability in the region and the absence of central leadership may attract external actors seeking geopolitical control of the area. The presence of other terrorist groups – such as AQIM and JNIM, or the potential expansion of other Wilayat of the Islamic State – combined with the foreign powers’ geopolitical interests, could attract them into the conflict, leading to a possible further escalation in both military actions and terrorist attacks by ISWAP and Boko Haram.

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The death of ISWAP leader has not diminished the operational capabilities of the group, as evidenced by the intensification of terrorist activity and propaganda, that underscores the need for a nuanced and intelligence-driven approach to mitigate the heightened security risks in the region.

The spike in terrorist incidents following Shuwa’s elimination demands an acute focus on threat assessment and predictive analysis; it’s fundamental to harness advanced analytics and gather real-time data to decipher patterns, identify emerging trends, and anticipate potential targets, ensuring structural and personal security.

Furthermore, collaboration among intelligence agencies regionally and globally is paramount to avoid he enlargement of the threat in a globalised world, as shared insights can provide a comprehensive understanding of the growing threat landscape.

The increased reliance on propaganda by ISWAP emphasises the importance of counter-narrative strategies, inside and outside Africa; security and intelligence force must monitor and analyse extremist communication channels but also actively engage in strategic counter-messaging, disrupting the dissemination of radical ideologies and eroding their influence over susceptible persons. This involves leveraging psychological operations and media strategies to counteract the narrative that seeks to recruit and radicalise individuals.

For those with an interest in acquiring comprehensive insights into the geopolitical dynamics of Western Africa and the terrorist threat coming from ISWAP and Boko Haram, we encourage you to reach out to our team by sending an email to We are poised to facilitate an assessment of the opportunity for you to obtain a meticulously crafted and specialised report tailored to your intelligence needs.

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