Nigerian officials have warned that IS-aligned jihadists are training criminal gangs engaged in mass kidnappings in the country’s northwest, in a sign of deepening cooperation between armed factions.
The development could complicate threats facing Nigeria’s security forces who are mired in a 12-year conflict with Islamist militants in northeast Borno while battling criminals across northwestern states.
In a July 23 memo sent to his officers and seen by AFP, Nigeria’s immigration chief Muhammad Babandede warned of mass “movement of bandits from Zamfara in northwest to Borno for intensive Boko Haram training.”
According to AFP, Nigerian officials use Boko Haram as a general term for all jihadist groups and heavily armed criminal gangs are often referred to locally as bandits.
“In view of this information,… you should intensify monitoring and surveillance around your area of jurisdiction with the view to gathering information,” the memo said.
Since the conflict began in 2009, several factions emerged within Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadist group, with the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) now the dominant force after breaking away in 2016.
Since May, ISWAP has consolidated control in the northeast and security sources say militants forged a closer alliance with gangs in the northwest following the death of Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau in clashes with ISWAP fighters.
Northwest Nigeria has been long been terrorised by criminal gangs who raid villages, steal cattle, kidnap residents and burn homes after looting supplies.
Military deployments and peace deals have failed to end attacks by the bandits who hide in camps in Rugu forest, straddling Katsina, Kaduna, Zamfara and Niger states.
Recently the heavily armed gangs have turned to mass kidnappings of students from schools and colleges to squeeze out more ransom cash.
The bandits chase financial gain and have no known ideological leanings, but there has been growing concern among security experts and officials over their ties with jihadists.
The alliance assures mutual benefits: Jihadists make money by supplying arms to the bandits who use them in raids on villages and kidnapping for ransom.
“It is no surprise that the bandits are moving to the northeast for training with ISWAP,” said one security source in the region who has been involved in fighting criminal gangs.
“The more the bandits forge alliance with jihadists, the more they get radicalised, dimming the possibility of any peace deal with authorities.”
– Growing collaboration –
Jihadist cooperation with criminal gangs is not new in Nigeria.
Two years ago, Nigeria’s then defence minister warned about bandit ties with Boko Haram in Zamfara.
Awwalun Daudawa, a bandit chief behind the kidnapping of 300 students from Kankara in December, was a former Boko Haram gunrunner.
He was killed in May in clashes with a rival gang.
Another al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group, Ansaru, operates in Kogi and Kaduna states and near Abuja, often collaborating with bandits, according to another security source who took part in operations against the militants.
ISWAP kept links with bandits in Zamfara state since its formation and has camps in forests in the state, according to local sources with deep knowledge of bandit activities.
But the deepening ties between ISWAP and bandits appear to have emboldened the criminals, said the security source in the region.
The bandits may feel more morally justified for their crimes, now they are increasingly aligned with ISWAP which claims to be waging a holy war, said the security source.
Local officials have made several peace deals with bandits, only for the criminals to renege, sometimes at the instigation of the jihadist group, sources with knowledge of the amnesty deals said.
ISWAP was instrumental in the internal squabbles between Buharin Daji, a criminal kingpin in Zamfara, and his lieutenant Dogo Gide, said one local source with past contacts with jihadists.
In March 2018 Gide and his gang killed Daji and seven of his lieutenants in a meeting at the behest of ISWAP who saw him as an obstacle in their effort to strengthen alliance with criminals gangs.
Buharin Daji was opposed to ISWAP on the grounds that they wanted to spread their hardline Salafi interpretation of Islam among his people, said the source.
Gide later reneged on a peace deal with authorities in Zamfara on ISWAP orders before relocating to Niger state, from where he has coordinated kidnappings.
With Shekau out of the way, closer collaboration between ISWAP jihadists and bandits may increase, said another security source in the northeast.
“Shekau was, in a way, a stumbling block in ISWAP’s plan for closer cooperation,” the source said. “Now that Shekau is dead and Boko Haram subdued, the coast is clear.”