Lagos, Nigeria – Three years ago, Hussaini Abubakar feared the worst when armed men on motorbikes and in military camouflage stormed Damari, his village in Kaduna, northwest Nigeria.
Unlike the bandits who have been troubling the region over the last decade and whose terror routines Abubakar’s community knew too well, these attackers were different.
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“They were Ansaru jihadists, and some of them are Boko Haram terrorists who are previously terrorising northeastern states,” the 37-year-old farmer told Al Jazeera.
“We were honestly scared of how they were moving with sophisticated weapons, and their arrival led to clashes with bandits, which denied us [farmers] access to farms. That is why our farms remain bushy, and some farmers are migrating.”
Boko Harm, the sect officially known as Jama’at Ahl al-Sunna li-Da’wa wal-Jihad (JAS), was formed in 2002 in northeast Nigeria. Seven years later, its founder Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by security agencies, sparking an onslaught by the group that has killed thousands and displaced over 2.5 million people in a never-ending conflict.
And now splits in the group have compounded the dangers that regular people in northern Nigeria face.
In recent years, local authorities in northwest Nigeria have been raising the alarm about the operations of Ansaru, one of its former factions, alongside bandits in Kaduna, which sits as a connector between the region and central Nigeria.
“Ansaru is not different from Boko Haram,” Baban Abba, a Kaduna-based security analyst, told Al Jazeera. “They are doing what Boko Haram did in the northeast, only with different tactics.”
Formed in 2011, Ansaru was led initially by commanders who disagreed with the late Abubakar Shekarau’s ultra-takfir – an approach that justifies the killings of other Muslims deemed to be unbelievers.
The group reappeared in 2019 as an Al-Qaeda franchise in Nigeria after years underground, absorbing former JAS fighters who fled the northeast due to offensives in the Lake Chad area by a multinational force comprising Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
Ansaru offered to protect vulnerable Muslim-majority communities like Damari from marauding bandits, a strategy analysts say was meant to garner support in their fight against the government. It worked, and Ansaru gained the people’s trust but established a proto-state and instilled fear in residents.
“We can’t go to our farms until we pay for levy, and they also forced the total closure of our local markets,” Ayuba Aminu, a 32-year-old farmer, told Al Jazeera. “They enforced different rules, such as a ban on cigarette sales. They kill whoever disobeys.”
Last year, Ansaru lost the villages under its control – Damari and Kuyello – to local bandits, followed by heavy losses to the Nigerian military offensive that left the group spineless from protecting vulnerable Muslim communities. Consequently, the villages have become a crime-free-for-all zone – comprising former JAS members, Ansaru, and bandits, bringing Abubakar’s fears to reality.
The other Boko Haram factions have also found a sphere of influence outside their roots in the northeast. In 2016, the group split into two over doctrinal differences and the administrative style of its leader, Abubakar Shekau. One faction aligned more with the Islamic State – to which JAS previously pledged allegiance – and called itself the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).
An ISWAP-led attack on Sambisa forest, long known as JAS’s base, in 2021 culminated in the death of Shekau.
ISWAP became the dominant faction, using guerilla warfare to target the Nigerian army and collecting taxes while providing water, healthcare, and security in some communities in Borno.
According to a 2019 report by Crisis Group, ISWAP tactics contributed to a notable drop in civilian casualties in the northeast and a rise in military deaths between 2018 and 2019.
In addition, data from the Nigerian Security tracker, which has been monitoring monthly fatalities involving Boko Haram and state actors since 2011, showed an increase in the number of state actors deaths between 2018 and 2020.
Specifically, 140 state actors were killed in November 2018, as opposed to 49 civilian casualties, and 185 were killed in May 2020, compared to 13 civilian deaths.
Meanwhile, JAS, under the leadership of Bakura, has been evolving in tactics too.
“Interestingly, Bakura has been copying the taxation system [of ISWAP], Vincent Foucher, senior West Africa Analyst at Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera. “We’ve seen a development of more regulations with civilians in the last few months … but I still believe ISWAP has a more sustainable model because of its governance, taxation system and advice it receives from ISIS.”
In 2021, ISWAP sought a merger with JAS to consolidate its influence in the region. The request was rebuffed.
Instead, JAS launched two devastating attacks against ISWAP in 2022; the first killed 33 wives of ISWAP militants in Sambisa. The second was a surprise January 1 attack on its rival’s armoury base at three villages by the shores of Lake Chad. An unknown number of rebels were killed in the onslaught led by Doron Bakura, a self-appointed successor to Shekau.
Between February and March 2023, ISWAP launched reprisals that killed no fewer than 200 JAS fighters, women and children in parts of Borno, according to local media reports.
“This fight is not something new…both are struggling to have control of the regions in the north,” Murtala Ahmed Rufa’i, associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Usmanu Danfodiyo University Sokoto, told Al Jazeera.
An expanding operation
As the conflict rages on, these factions and other armed groups have expanded operations elsewhere in northern Nigeria by seeking new partners.
Yusuf’s death in 2009 caused a ripple effect in Niger state, next door to the capital, Abuja, as authorities expelled a conservative Islamic sect called Darul Salam. Some of its members headed to the northeast to join Boko Haram. Others joined local bandits in the northwest, raising funds through ransom kidnappings and cattle rustling.
In 2019, several JAS fighters returned to Niger State, disguised as Darul Salam. They conducted numerous attacks, prompting the military to raid their camps the following year.
“Establishing Daru Salam was more like a satellite camp [for Shekau and JAS],” said Rufa’i, who has extensively studied the group and visited its base.
After Shekau’s death, more JAS fighters joined this sect rather than defect to ISWAP or surrender to the army. This birthed a new threat in a thinly policed region already burdened by multiple militias.
Some groups are now collaborating, exchanging knowledge of the terrain or skills in building grenades and IEDs. Analysts say a March 2022 Abuja-Kaduna train attack, where over 62 passengers were abducted, was an example of this partnership.
“Virtually all the jihadist groups in Nigeria have their presence in Kaduna [and] we will [soon] start having a series of rivalry and clashes for territorial control,” Rufa’i told Al Jazeera. “And if you study the geography of the northwest, [these] states are interlinked. From Kaduna [northwest], they can easily move to Niger [north-central]; from Kaduna, they can move to Katsina and Zamfara [northwest].”
Unlike JAS, ISWAP has had less success collaborating with bandits in the northeast, partly due to the latter’s anti-ultra-takfir stance.
However, they have been reportedly working with cells of armed groups and launched attacks on churches in central and northwest Nigeria in 2022. That July, ISWAP claimed it had attacked medium-security prison Kuje in Abuja, releasing hundreds of criminals, including 69 inmates described by state authorities as “high-profile Boko Haram terrorists”.
Meanwhile, local media has reported cracks within ISWAP in Lake Chad due to its rift with Bakura’s JAS, leading to defections from the former to the latter.
In northern Borno, ISWAP expelled former JAS fighters in its camp over suspected sabotage and continued loyalty to JAS. Analysts say this development is evidence of mounting challenges for the ISIS franchise.
“There’s a paradox here,” said Foucher. “ISWAP hoped that killing Shekau would be such a big win, but the big win has … resulted in its weakening.”
As that rivalry continues, the al-Qaeda-backed Ansaru sect has started to partner with bandits in northwest Nigeria.
In August 2023, a Nigerian military aircraft crashed, killing at least two dozen security operatives in Niger state. Ansaru’s benefactor, the infamous banditry kingpin Dogo Gide, claimed responsibility for shooting it down, sparking alarm bells.
“The biggest implication is the possibility of Al Qaeda gaining a foothold in Nigeria’s largest state,” MacHarry Confidence, geopolitical security analyst at Lagos-based SBM Intelligence, told Al Jazeera. “And it would be a battle Nigeria’s security services will struggle to win given how stretched thin they are [and] the sheer size of territory they have lost in recent years.”