ISWAP blamed for church massacre in Nigeria

Security experts say the armed group ISWAP might not be behind the Owo church killings despite the government’s accusation.

Officials from Ondo state view the bloodstained floor after the attack by gunmen at St Francis Catholic Church in Owo town on June 5 [AFP]

Lagos, Nigeria – The Nigerian government has blamed an ISIL-affiliated armed group in the country for carrying out an attack that killed dozens of worshippers at a church.

Security experts, however, expressed scepticism about the allegation.

The responsibility for Sunday’s deadly bomb and gun assault in Owo town, Ondo state, which killed at least 40 churchgoers, belonged to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), according to Nigerian officials.

The accusation was made to the press by Interior Minister Rauf Aregbesola after a National Security Council meeting on Thursday in the capital Abuja. The minister added that the armed forces are on the hunt for the perpetrators.

However, the armed group has yet to claim responsibility for the Sunday morning attack, and analysts noted this is unusual because ISWAP is known to quickly take credit for past violence.

“I think we should be prudent,” Vincent Foucher, a research fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research, told Al Jazeera. “It is better not to pin it on them too quickly because they usually claim and they usually claim quite fast.”

‘A bit strange’

ISWAP is credited for several deadly incidents in Nigeria’s northeast, its major sphere of operations. But recently, the armed group has expanded its attacks elsewhere.

Last month, it claimed responsibility for an assault on a cultural event in Kogi state, and also a bombing in Taraba state that caused 30 casualties.

Data about the number of causalities Nigeria has suffered from ISWAP’s attacks is hard to come by, but there has been an increase in its operations.

Security analysts have noted the possibility of its expansion to the southern part of the country. However, some are saying the Owo massacre might have been carried out by another group.

“There is a lapse because ISWAP [readily] claims responsibility for their attacks,” Idayat Hassan, the director of Abuja’s Centre for Democracy and Development, a research think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“It rises their profile within the Islamic State hierarchy. They love publicity,” she said.

Foucher pointed to discrepancies between the Owo attack and others the group has taken credit for.

“I find [it] a bit strange because it is not just the same style of attack – they use several attackers and it was not just about throwing some explosives,” Foucher said.

“Their network is not strong in the south and I don’t think they would expose a group of about five or six attackers just for an attack. They would make more economic use of their staff.”

Expansion of armed groups?

While religiously motivated attacks are rare in southern Nigeria, ISWAP would not be the first group to want to expand its area of operations.

The armed group Boko Haram has attacked areas in Niger, Abuja, Kano and other states. In 2015, the Department of State Services, the nation’s intelligence agency, said it arrested members in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.

But analysts say the expansion of armed groups in the south is unlikely to materialise because of a lack of local support and inadequate logistics.

“It is really going to be a challenge, [however], it does not mean they cannot get away with doing some attacks like [Owo],” Foucher said.

Observers say religion could be a reason for the Owo attack, noting religious differences between Nigeria’s north and south. But Aregbesola, the interior minister, said the massacre had no origins in religion.

While Hassan is sceptical about the government’s finger-pointing at ISWAP for being behind the church attack, she said officials may be trying to douse the flames of reprisal attacks, which have been reported following Sunday’s bloodshed.

“I think the government might be calming nerves because there have been reports of reprisal attacks in some parts of the state,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera