Insurgent groups; Jama’atu Ahlul Sunnah lid Da’awatu wal Jihad (JAS, better known as Boko Haram), Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina fii Biladis Sudan (Vanguard for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa, also known as Ansaru) are competing with one another in a mass membership drive among the ranks of bandits terrorising most of the North West and part of North Central states, Daily Trust reliably gathered.
Locals, security sources and experts who spoke with our reporter said the push is already yielding fruits for the insurgent groups with some prominent bandits declaring allegiance to the terrorist groups or consenting to a close working relationship; sharing intelligence and logistics support among themselves.
States worst hit by the intractable rural banditry are; Niger, Kaduna, Zamfara, Katsina, Sokoto and Kebbi. The states share boundaries and are easily navigated through large swathes of unmanned forests.
The six states have 249,143 square kilometres of landmass, an area more than the size of the United Kingdom. Most of the landmass is ungoverned, with a significant part occupied by inaccessible forests and rural communities.
Investigation by Daily Trust revealed that there are at least three active Islamic insurgent groups operating in the banditry-ravaged states, and pushing for deeper roots.
An expert on the insurgency and researcher at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in London, Audu Bulama Bukarti, told Daily Trust at the weekend, that the “Boko Haram’s infiltration of the criminals in the North West is extremely dangerous on several levels”.
Department for States Services (DSS), the agency in charge of intelligence gathering and internal security did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
For a long time, security sources said, Boko Haram, ISWAP and Ansaru have been struggling for space within the expanse of land covering these states. The terrorist groups are in active moves with the aim of benefitting from the chaos created by bandits, especially in the worst-hit states.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) pointed out that since late 2019, ISWAP and Ansaru have started taking credit for attacks in the North West. In October last year, according to the report, ISWAP claimed responsibility for an attack on Nigerian troops in Sokoto.
“Many Nigerian security and other independent local sources interviewed by Crisis Group corroborate that amid the breakdown of stability in Zamfara and elsewhere, two Boko Haram offshoots are making inroads into the the region, where they are forging tighter relationships with aggrieved communities, herder-affiliated armed groups and criminal gangs,” the report released last month reads in part.
The recruitment drive
Informed sources confided in this newspaper that for a long time, the Abubakar Shekau-led Boko Haram and ISWAP have made a deliberate policy of setting up presence in the North West states and Niger to benefit from the confusion created by the unruly activities of bandits and divide the attention of security forces whose concentration was on the groups’ hotbed of Borno and Yobe states.
Ansaru, which had hitherto maintained sleeper cells following bursting of its main cell in Okene, Kogi State, is said to have pioneered this collaboration by co-habiting closely with bandits under the leadership of Dogo Gide, around Kwiambana Forest in Kaduna State.
A senior political leader from the zone had last year told our reporter that Dogo Gide had collaborated with Ansaru elements to hoist a telecommunication booster in one of the rocky formations in the Birnin Gwari Forest to aid communication with the outside world.
A source familiar with Gide, who craved anonymity for fear of being targeted, said the man, who commandeers huge followership among bandits has been working with Ansaru for some three years.
“Ansaru has been based in the North West since its formation in 2012, but they have recently been trying to make a comeback. Part of their plan is recruiting the criminal elements and residents in the North West. That is why they have been releasing preaching in Fulfulde and offering microeconomic loans to local farmers,” Bukarti told Daily Trust.
In a recent audio clip of a conversation between Gide and an unidentified man who called in relation to the abduction of students of Federal Government College, Birnin Yauri, the bandits’ leader could be heard alluding to his relationship with Islamic insurgents. In one video clip, he referred to himself as “Abu Abdallah”, in a naming pattern typical of Boko Haram and similar terror groups.
Though Daily Trust cannot independently verify the veracity of the audio, a source who had interfaced with Gide in the past confirmed the voice to be his.
But contrary to some of his claims in the audio clip, a security source said Gide has no established relationship with foreign insurgents.
Daily Trust gathered however that Gide’s claim to religion was based on his relationship with Ansaru, whose leaders respect him because of his vast network and control over most of the armed Fulani youths.
In its report, Crisis Group said ISWAP, which has been developing cells in much of northern Nigeria is also building the capacity of several smaller radical groups in the North West, particularly by offering livelihood support, including monthly stipends, to some of their members.
Sources on ground in Niger, Kaduna and Zamfara, said the insurgents infiltrated the ranks of the bandits through offers for logistics and intelligence support, as well as Islamic messaging.
At various times, the terror groups also sent out special emissaries to woo the bandits into their fold. They reportedly make use of preachers who emphasise fault lines of injustice and unfair treatment allegedly meted on herders.
A security operative in Zamfara said only recently, gunmen believed to be insurgents arrived Dunburum Forest in Zurmi Local Government of the state in seven Hilux vans. They were hosted by a bandits leader, known as Alhaji Shingi and have set up their own camps in the forest.
The hot spots
Boko Haram elements, Daily Trust authoritatively gathered, have taken camps in Wawa Forest in Niger State, converting a lot of wallowing bandits from nearby Zamfara into their own fold.
A Fulani man who has relatives living in the area said the insurgents set the rules among residents and hold court to hear disputes and pass judgments.
The insurgents in Wawa neighbouring areas are controlled by Gide, which extends into Dangulbi Forest in Zamfara and areas around Zuru in Kebbi State. Gide was the one who brokered the deal that led to the release of Kagara schoolboys and teachers abducted in February.
Ansaru’s presence, according to sources, is mostly around Kwiambana Forest in Birnin Gwari to other nearby forests in Igabi and Giwa Local Governments of Kaduna State, as well as Shiroro and Kagara areas of Niger State.
In Zamfara and Sokoto states, the insurgents are said to have wooed some of the bandits through the supply of arms and ammunitions from nearby Niger Republic, thereby endearing themselves to the bandits terrorising places like Sabon Birni and Isa in Sokoto and Zurmi in Zamfara, and parts of Katsina State.
However, some of the bandits were said to have rebuffed entreaties by Boko Haram emissaries to the area.
Bandits’ leaders applying ‘Shari’a’ law
Some of the bandits’ leaders who are said to have accepted the evangelical missions of the insurgents are said to have started enforcement of strict Islamic codes in their domains.
Some of them, Daily Trust gathered, have banned vices such as fornication, use of intoxicants and cattle rustling in their domains.
In his recorded telephone conversation, Gide repeatedly mentioned that he has a Qur’anic school in which he enrolled the abducted students.
He also threatened to convert them into fighters and marry off the girls to his men, in what was similar to Boko Haram and ISWAP modus operandi.
In the area between Zurmi in Zamfara State and Kagara, in Sokoto State, another renowned bandit, Turji, is said to be applying the same tactics as locals said rumours of him aligning with terrorist groups is ripe.
“He has fixed prayer times and has preachers preaching in the community. He has also chased out all those selling drugs and engaging in all forms of lascivious acts,” said a source in one of the neighbouring communities.
He said Turji may soon declare for Boko Haram fully even as men from his gang had recently moved in large numbers to join fighters belonging to Gide camp in a new camp springing up in Dangulbi Forest.
It is unclear what is the motive of the combined forces.
Alliance extremely dangerous – Expert
In his reaction Bukarti, who has studied the Islamic insurgency in the Sahel region closely, said the incursion of Boko Haram and similar groups to other states outside the North East is a dangerous move that should be halted by the authorities.
“Firstly, Boko Haram can give groups moral justification for their killings and criminality,” he said.
“If a criminal that has been massacring people and abducting them starts to believe that what he is doing is not a crime but a Jihad, he will get even more brutal and cruel. Secondly, enlisting in Boko Haram will allow criminal groups to recruit young people who might not have otherwise joined them.”
Bukarti also expressed fears that Boko Haram can transfer its skills of making weapons such as improvised explosive devices to the criminal gangs they are linked with and boost their weapon supply.
“On Boko Haram’s part, a link with the criminal elements in the North is a fulfilment of its expansionist ambitions. The relationship can also give Boko Haram access to the kidnapping industry in the North West as well the cattle rustling and mining ones. This will boost Boko Haram’s finances,” he said.
The researcher said the Nigerian government must take quick steps to stop the terrorist groups in their expansionist agenda.
“For Nigeria, this alliance is extremely dangerous. That is why government must work flat out to disrupt it. Continuing to deny in the face of clear evidence will only allow the criminals and terrorists time to consolidate their relationship.
“If that happens, the situation in the North West will get even worse and, in addition to the human cost, Northern Nigeria’s economy will take a serious hit,” he explained.
Spokesperson of the DSS, Peter Afunaya, did not respond to the request for comments on this story. He did not answer repeated calls and did not reply to two text messages sent to him by this reporter.