Are the Nigerian bandits a new cell of Boko Haram or rival “terrorists”? | Features

Anka, Nigeria – On December 11, 2020, more than 300 boys were abducted from a boarding school in Kankara, a small community in Katsina State, northwestern Nigeria, by gunmen on motorbikes.

The incident fitted Boko Haram’s modus operandi, and the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed responsibility for the attack in an audio message, before releasing a video of the kidnapped children.

This has further bolstered the assumption by Nigerian politicians and pundits that the group that has waged war in the northeast for more than a decade was the orchestrator of the brazen attack.

After a month, the victims were released.

But in March 2021, Auwalun Daudawa, a notorious kingpin of one of the gangs responsible for the kidnappings in the northwest, claimed responsibility for Kankara. “I did this in Katsina because the governor [Aminu Masari] came out to say he would no longer engage with our people,” he told the local Daily Trust newspaper.

According to local media, the kidnapping was a joint operation by seven different gangs who sent a video to Shekau asking him to claim responsibility. They knew the government “feared Boko Haram more than they did” and would be willing to respond quickly to requests.

The plan worked. According to studentsan unspecified amount was paid as a ransom within days, although the government repeatedly denied it.

Mislabeling and Understatement

Since 2010, gangs of bandits have run amok across large swaths of northwestern Nigeria, but it’s only in recent years that the crisis has taken on national significance in Africa’s most populous country.

Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) show that bandits were responsible for more than 2,600 civilian deaths in 2021 – far more than those attributed to Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the same year – and almost triple the number in 2020.

But debate has raged over many details about the bandits, including their ability to shock the state and whether they were petty criminals or more advanced gangsters. In January 2022, the government outlawed them as “terrorists”.

On March 28, an unknown number of heavily armed men attacked a moving train between the Nigerian capital Abuja and the neighboring state of Kaduna. They detonated an explosive device to stop the train before firing into the carriages, killing at least eight people and abducting an as-yet-unknown number of passengers.

This happened days after an attack on an international airport and preceded another attack on a military installation – all in Kaduna.

The train attack was one of the most publicized attacks to date in northern Nigeria and sparked debate. But on social networks and even in the corridors of power, the episode is widely attributed, once again, to Boko Haram.

Since the kidnapping of the Kankara school, Nigerian government officials and public commentators have been quick to blame “jihadists” for major bandit operations.

But experts say this consistent mislabeling represents a long-standing underestimation of the north-west’s armed bandits and the complex dynamics of the evolving conflict in the region.

Two bandits – one in military camouflage – sit in the shade of a tree on the outskirts of a controlled community in Zurmi, Zamfara, Nigeria [Credit: Yusuf Anka/Al Jazeera]

Deadlier than Boko Haram?

A careful examination of the activities of these groups suggests that they represent a unique and perhaps even more complex threat than Boko Haram and its factions, including ISWAP.

Key to their growing notoriety and proliferation is increasingly easy access to sophisticated military-grade weaponry, primarily across the many porous borders of West Africa and the wider Sahel.

But the high number of civilian casualties is also due to divergent modus operandi between armed bandits and so-called jihadists.

For example, ISWAP, which remains arguably the most influential armed group in Nigeria today, focuses on attacking government forces and installations. Its commanders are also taxing and governing rural communities rather than terrorizing them, said James Barnett, a researcher at the Institute of African and Diaspora Studies at the University of Lagos.

But the bandits include dozens of unaffiliated groups that often fight over territory or raiding loot and lack a unified chain of command or single goal, complicating state efforts to strike deals. of disarmament.

“There is no leader or group of leaders that the state can negotiate with who has real control over the thousands of armed bandits operating in northern Nigeria,” Barnett said.

Unlike the armed groups operating in northeast Nigeria, the bandits in the northwest who are also more numerous, are mainly motivated by economic opportunism and lack a clear political ideology, said Fola Aina, member from the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security. Studies (RUSI), in London.

But the possibility of them adopting one soon – or even a synergy between the two groups – cannot be ruled out.

Most of the bandits are ethnic Fulani and have grievances stemming from perceived marginalization in a predominantly Hausa state.

Therefore, they are “the main potential targets of manipulation and co-optation by jihadists operating in the region, who have more clearly defined political objectives and wish to increase the number of their infantry, after the death of many of them in the hands of Nigerian Security Forces,” Aina said.

A layered conflict

And now the government may also recognize the signs.

After the Abuja-Kaduna train attack, sources within the Nigerian government blamed Boko Haram for these attacks and suggested that the gunmen did not possess the coordination and power to plan such an attack.

But in a recent interview, Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna, one of the states most affected by the crisis, said the attack bore the mark of collaboration between armed bandits and elements of Boko Haram. .

This view was reinforced on April 13 by Information Minister Lai Mohammed who said there was “an unholy handshake” at stake.

Seven nights before the airport and train attacks, a mid-ranking bandit based in Aja in Zamfara Forest received a call from a criminal boss in another forest closer to Kaduna.

The former told Al Jazeera it was an invitation for a job in Kaduna, but he turned it down because he “just got a new wife” and wanted to spend time with her and enjoying Ramadan at home.

He hinted that the Kaduna attack was financially motivated and carried out by several gunmen from Zamfara, the epicenter of the crisis, alongside some members of Ansaru – another Boko Haram splinter group.

But it was also “because the army raided a settlement of the armed bandit leader who is Ansaru’s closest friend a few weeks ago, killing eight of his men, taking nearly 30 motorbikes and recovering 11 rifles,” he told Al Jazeera.

The bandit also said his comrades were ready to let Ansaru members “take credit for creating the impression of Boko Haram and scaring the government even more, but the Fulani there are only interested by money”.

Beyond retaliation for military operations and airstrikes leading to the arrest of some of their own, the bandits are also driven by revenge against the ethnic Hausa vigilantes they blame for killing their wives and children. This led to attacks on communities hosting the militiamen.

Al Jazeera also learned that Ansaru had made multiple efforts to convert the bandits – but a difference in ideologies thwarted those moves.

Since 2019 to 2020, Ansaru members held a series of preaching exercises in towns like Munhaye and Dandallah, both in Zamfara. During these sermons, they ordered the bandits to refrain from stealing, smoking, drinking, adultery, and embracing fasting and prayer.

The bandits ignored this, resulting in the deaths of five armed bandits and the planting of an explosive that detonated, resulting in the death of a high-level bandit leader.

This broke relations between several armed bandits and the Ansaru, the first even giving him an ultimatum at one point. This may jeopardize possible future collaborations, except for commercial purposes.

A study from January published by the United States Military Academy’s Journal of Terrorism Studies, based in part on interviews with gunmen and “jihadi” defectors, concluded that: “Nigeria’s gunmen have become so powerful that they don’t desperately need cooperation with jihadists, much less a need to convert to jihadism.

For the Nigerian government at all levels, understanding the dynamics at play could be useful for any counterinsurgency operation.

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